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Photographing the Aurora Borealis

che_3202 We like to time our tours to correspond with space events, things like meteor showers, or peak nights for the Northern Lights. We always welcome cameras on our hikes and are happy to offer some astrophotography tips.

For this post, we are going to focus on how to photograph the aurora borealis, aka the northern lights. I am an aurora chaser, so almost every night of the winter I am outside, bundled up, and set up with my camera to photograph the aurora borealis over Kananaskis. I love the opportunity to help people take amazing photos of the night sky and have compiled some tips on taking photos of the aurora:

It’s not as hard as you may think to photograph the aurora, but there are a couple of things that you definitely need:
stargaze1• Camera with manual settings
• Spare camera batteries (long exposures drain batteries. So                   does the cold)
• Wide angle lens. No zoom lens, although kit lenses will work.
• Tripod
• A clear view to the North/North-East
• Dark skies
• An Aurora forecasting app/website
• Lots of patience

Before going out, check the aurora forecast. A simple Google search will bring up lots of options for aurora forecasts and all will give you the same basic data: forecasted levels of geomagnetic activity and what the aurora is doing right now.

The best time to catch the aurora is when the sun is on the opposite side of the planet. This is why it’s easier to catch the aurora in the winter, there are more hours of true darkness. It’s still possible to catch the aurora in the summer, there is just a much smaller window for viewing. It also helps if there is no moon. A full moon cast so much light, that it will interfere with your ability to see the lights.

So now that you are set up in a dark area with a clear view of the skies, what do you do with your camera? Cleary shooting on auto isn’t going to cut.

There are so many ways to set your camera to catch the lights, and no one way is right or wrong, however, there are some basics to keep in mind.

  1.  Focus your camera to infinity. Some lenses’ have an infinity symbol, but if yours doesn’t, zoom in on a distant light (like as far away as possible, I will use stars or planets) and manually adjust the focus of your lens until that distant point is clear. Remember to switch your camera to manual focus or as soon as you hit the shutter button, you will need to re-focus your camera.
  2. Use a tripod. It takes a long exposure to catch the northern lights, longer than you can standstill. A tripod will guarantee a crisp, in-focus shot (if you followed the first step correctly 😉 ). It’s also a good idea to use a remote, or the self-timer function to fire off the shutter so as to eliminate handshake from pressing the shutter.
  3. Turn your ISO up. ISO adjusts the light sensitivity of the sensor in your camera. The higher the ISO, the more light-sensitive it is. Some cameras handle higher ISOs better than others. The higher the ISO, the grainier the photo will get. You need to find the balance between aperture, shutter speed, and ISO to get a well-lit photo that retains high quality.
  4. Shutter speed: If the aurora is bright, you can get away with a shorter shutter speed. Short in night photography terms being <10 seconds. If the aurora is faint, or not really dancing, I like to do a ~20-second exposure. If your exposure is too long, all the lights will blur together and you will lose the definition of the movement. If you do an exposure of longer than 30 seconds, you will actually start to see the stars move in the shot. More on star trails another time…
  5.  Aperture: this is the f/ value on your camera. It adjusts how much light is let into the lens. The lower the number, the more you can adjust your plane of focus. The higher the number, the more of your shot will be in focus. At f/22, everything will be in good focus, whereas at f/2.8 you will have a very shallow depth of field. When shooting the night sky, you obviously want as much of everything in focus as possible, so aim for a higher f/.
  6.  Play with your settings! Remember, there is no right or wrong, there is just creative freedom 😉 Start out at something like f/11, ISO 1600 for 10 seconds and see what it looks like. If it’s too dark or too light, adjust. Keep playing until you get it right.

Keep in mind composition: I like to make sure I have some earthly aspect in my photos of the night sky: a mountain or a tree line gives perspective. Once you have it down pat, start throwing in new challenges, like posing people, etc.

Good luck and be sure to tag all your Kananaskis adventure photos with #KOmtnLife for a chance to be featured on our social media! 


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