How to find and photograph the aurora borealis

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An incredible sensation that cannot be compared to anything else. A phenomenon that cannot be explained.

These are the words breaking through my mind when I think about the elusive aurora borealis.

The first night in Norway (March 19, 2012), while we were on the ferry, brought us the aurora all over the night sky and it was a breathtaking experience to see it dancing from one horizon to the other.

The second time was in the night of March 22, 2012 when the aurora appeared over Tind, the tiny village we stayed in and it was so intense that simply broke through the clouds. This time it appeared for very short periods of time in one part of the sky, to disappear after 20 seconds, then reappear somewhere else.

All this time, I tried to guess where the next aurora will appear, moving or rotating my camera all the time, to get into a better position. I just set a delay time for my shutter at 15 or 20 seconds praying for those magic lights not to disappear too soon.

One of the most powerful moments was marked by a 30 seconds aurora that was so incredibly intense that we forgot about taking pictures.
It appeared above the little red cabins in Tind and it was like someone was drawing on the night sky with a magic pen those giant green waves of light. It was obvious that luck was upon us and we were already thinking that someone was trying to send us a message.

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How to find and photograph the aurora borealis

1. Can we tell when those solar bursts will occur?

If you read these lines, I assume you know about the connection between the aurora and the Sun. So, can we predict the eruptions that intensify the solar wind? Yes and no. There are websites where you can see these predictions, but nothing is sure. The predictions must be followed while being there, which is a good idea if you have Internet access.

One of the best websites is: http://www.spaceweather.com

For us, the Internet roaming was very expensive and we didn’t use those websites.

2. Where exactly should I be to see the aurora?

The aurora can be seen in many places, but there is this zone, between 65 and 72 degrees latitude, where you have a good chance to see it in the right period of time.

The Lofoten Islands are located between 68 and 69 degrees latitude.

3. What are the best months of the year for the aurora?

Well, it seems the best months of the year are September, October and March. At the same time, the aurora can be seen also between November and February. So, I chose to be in Lofoten in March, more exactly at the end of March, between 19 and 27.

4. Why the end of March?

One of the important elements when hunting for the aurora is to be in a dark area, outside any city or other areas that might generate light.

Even more, to increase the chances, the moon should not be present on the sky during those nights. On March 22, 2012 there was a new moon. That means the moon could not be seen, it was „invisible” and because of this, it is also called „dark moon”.

The time and place we selected allowed us to see the aurora. And indeed, the night the aurora was most intense was the night of March 22, 2012.

5. What are the best hours for the aurora appearances?

The best hours are between 22:00 and 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. In the nights we saw the aurora, it appeared somewhere around midnight.

6. What camera should I bring for the aurora?

I believe you need a DSLR. I used a Canon 1000D, which from what I know is one of the cheapest DSLR cameras. The camera lens was the standard one, 18-55 mm.
Now, I know I should have brought a better camera and a better lens, but I didn’t have the necessary money at that moment.
That’s why I recommend you to invest some money in a better camera and lens than what I had. It’s important, because this type of night photography requires a camera that can treat the high ISO values in a decent way and a camera lens that is as sharp as possible.

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7. How should I set my camera to photograph the aurora?

There are some things to be said here and though I am not an expert, I will try to approach each important aspect in a few words:

a. Focus

Don’t forget that you will have to stay in darkness or in a place with not so much light, so try to focus manually or focus on „infinity” (focus on something in the distance) during the day and then try to keep that focus setting during the night, just let it set on Manual. This way, there are big chances the aurora will appear in your photo.
If it happens to change the focus by mistake, try to regain the initial setting by focusing on a distant light, such as the moon or a light from a house in the distance.

b. RAW

Because it is a DSLR, try to shoot in RAW and not JPEG. Why? Well, if the photos are in the RAW format, you can work easier on them in the post-processing process. It will be easier to remove the noise and increase the contrast and colors. And because we are talking about the aurora, you will have to make these little improvements.

For post-processing you may use the following programs:

Google Picasa
Adobe Lightroom
Photoshop

c. ISO

Where should I set my ISO value? This is where the camera you use is important. My Canon 1000D couldn’t go over 800 without providing a lot of noise. But if you have a better camera, placing the ISO at about 1600 or more should be fine. To make sure everything is OK, just go out a few nights and take pictures of the sky, just to see how your camera works at a high ISO setting. In any case, there are some programs that you can use to reduce the noise, just shoot in raw for a better post-processing.

d. Camera lens

The camera lens should be as wide as possible and it should allow you to set the diaphragm (the f stop) at about f1.8 or f2.8, to capture as much light as possible. The camera lens is maybe the most important element and the bottom line is that you should purchase a good one.

e. Exposure time

The exposure time depends on the intensity of the aurora and it can be set from 10 seconds to 30 seconds. It also depends on the camera and your training. Again, go outside a few nights with your camera and your tripod to catch the moon or the stars. This way you will know your gear and you’ll get some practice working in the dark.

f. The tripod

Using a tripod is mandatory. In this case I had both good luck and bad luck. The tripod I had for a few years broke just before we left for Norway. I bought a better one, but when I arrived in Lofoten, I noticed it was broken, maybe because of the 3 flights we had. My mistake was that I placed the tripod at the edge of the luggage case instead of placing it in the middle where it would have had a better protection.

My luck changed when I discovered my friend Alin had a similar tripod with the one I had.

g. Spare batteries

Working in the cold winter night and setting the camera for long exposures affects the battery life. And because it may be a long night, you don’t want to run out of battery when the aurora decides to make an appearance. Therefore, make sure you have spare batteries or a rechargeable battery in an interior pocket, protected from cold.

h. Flashlight

Take with you one or two flashlights. A typical one and one that can be placed on the head, as miners have.

The one which is placed on the head, use it to see what you do in the dark.

The typical one can be used for artistic purposes, so to speak. It is a good idea to use a familiar object and light it, this way offering the sky and the aurora a human dimension. For example, the best picture of the aurora I took is the one with the boat. To take this photo I placed myself with the camera and the tripod on a nearby pontoon and I tried to light the fishing boat as much as possible.

I. Memory cards

Make sure you have additional memory cards with you. You never know when your memory card breaks down in the middle of the night. Be careful where you put them and how you protect them.

Additional tips:

  •  You will need a remote control (can be wireless) to move as little as possible the camera when taking pictures. If you don’t have a remote control, set the camera to start with a 2 seconds delay. This way, you will have as little movement as possible.
  •  Again, go outside at night in the park and test your camera on the tripod. Even if you have a flashlight with you, it’s useful to know how to set the camera settings and work with the tripod in the dark.
  •  While you stay in the dark waiting for the aurora,  don’t forget to turn off the camera display and save your battery life.
  • Don’t use any filters on your lens.

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For better photos of the aurora, at a higher quality, you can visit them too:

http://doipeglob.ro/cum-am-vanat-aurora-boreala/

Good luck!

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