How To: Photograph the Aurora

After yesterday's post about our first Aurora sighting, I got questions via Facebook and email asking how to take the shot. In this case, the mechanics of the camera are much easier than the execution!

First, let's discuss the challenges:

  • It's -20*F outside. To get the shots I posted yesterday involved 2 hours of sitting on an frozen lake where I was exposed to the wind.
  • It's -20*F outside, so I'm dressed like the Michelin Man! I am wearing a base layer, a mid layer, fleece vests, ski pants, down jackets, scarves, multiple hats, a balaclava and most importantly, two pairs of gloves. The gloves consist of a finger base glove liner with a thick mitten on top. Why bring this up? Go put some oven mitts on your hands and try and work your camera.
  • It's -20*F outside, so anytime you get near the camera, you create ice. Just getting the camera into position, my breath from a few feet away as I worked with the camera was enough to create a sheet of ice on the back of the camera. Looking through the viewfinder means you must hold your breath - and don't you dare go near the front of the lens!
  • It's pitch black outside, so the camera cannot focus. Try as it might, when it's total darkness, you have to think for the camera. Everything is manual - the aperture, shutter, and focus. I set the lens to focus at infinity and hope to get lucky. Several times I did not, and the photo was a total blur.
  • It's -20*F outside, and the batteries are pissed. I knew keeping the camera batteries warm was going to be a full time charge, but you really don't appreciate how much the cold kills a battery until you are here. In the walk from our room down to the lake and into the shooting position, which took less than 10 minutes and in which I never used the camera, the battery went from fully charged do down one bar. I actually took the battery out of the camera for most of the waiting and only popped it in once the aurora was out. Where did I put it? The batteries for the D800 and GoPro were safely stored in the "titty pocket" inside the jacket.

Scene should be set for you now..... it's cold, you can't go near the camera without creating ice from your breath, the camera has to focus and be set manually and you're wearing oven mitts.

Actually taking the photo, once you get past all those things, is fairly easy! I obviously used a tripod that I pushed several feet down into the snow for stability. The camera is my trusty Nikon D800 + 14-24mm wide angle f/2.8 lens. I wanted the widest field of view possible, so set the lens at 14mm for all the shots. Aperture was f/2.8 and ISO 200. Shutter speed ranges from 15-30 seconds.

Since I'm pretty clumsy once I have my oven mitts on, I used a cable shutter release to trigger the camera. Thankfully I was smart enough to realize I couldn't use my wireless releases due to the batteries, so I purchased a cheap cable release a few days before we left.

I didn't bother to carry any fancy accessories or extra lenses. It's too cold to change the lens anyway! The dryness also creates so much static charge that my sensor could immediately become a dust magnet if I exposed it to the open air.

Like everything I shoot, I took the aurora photographs in RAW and edited them in Adobe Photoshop. 

That's not the sun in the corner - its the moon!