How To Photograph Aurorae

Subscriber D.H. asks, “How can I take pictures of aurora borealis with a digital camera?” It’s a timely question, since the Sun finally seems to be waking up from a period of inactivity. There were two solar storms over the past week that caused amazing aurora in many parts of the world, and there’s likely more to come. So here are a few tips to snap a great image with minimal effort and equipment…

First, you need a camera. Nearly any digital camera will work. A SLR (single-lens reflex) give you more flexibility and lets you switch to faster lenses, but even a point-and-shoot will work if you have control over the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO speed. You might need the camera manual for this!

And you need a tripod. It’s just as important as the camera, since there’s no way to hold the camera steady for the relatively long exposures need to image aurorae. You don’t need a $300 tripod for this… a simple one will do. Even those little backpack-friendly Gorilla-Pods can work well.

A DSLR on a tripod (credit: Jerry Lodriguss)

Now here’s what to do when you’re graced with a good display of aurorae overhead…

• Put the camera on a tripod.

• Set the lens’ aperture to its fastest setting (if you have a DSLR, select a wide-field lens, not a telephoto); you want a setting of f/2.8, f/3.5, or f/4… even f/5.6 works well enough.

• Set the focal length to its widest setting if you have a zoom lens. If you have an 18mm-55mm zoom, for example, choose something closer to 18mm.

• Focus on infinity (it may help to pre-focus on a distant object when there’s still some light)

• Aim the camera to frame what you want to shoot: the aurorae.  Don’t just shoot the sky… make sure there’s something interesting in the foreground… trees, houses, mountains, whatever… it makes for a more dramatic image.

• Set the ISO to 1600 (or as high as your camera allows)

• Open the shutter for 10 seconds to 1 minute. Use a remote shutter release or the built-in timer to avoid shaking the camera. Any longer than 1 minute, and you may see some star trailing, and the aurora themselves may start to blur because of their apparent motion.

• Close the shutter (which will likely happen automatically, depending on your camera)

That’s it!

Now take a look at your image (don’t move the camera yet). Is the aurora bright enough? If not, set the shutter to open longer. If the aurora is too bright, set a shorter shutter time. Experiment will many shutter settings… digital images are free. You can always pick the best one later.

If you get a really good image, send it to me and I’ll share it with your fellow readers!!

Note: If you want to learn how to image all aspects of the night sky with a digital camera, why not learn from the best? Master astrophotographer Jerry Lodriguss shares all his secret with you, and you can learn more from him right here…

(Image at top of page credit: Jan Curtis)