Photograph Aurora

How does the aurora behave? Learn how to photograph aurora and which camera settings are needed. 

Photograph aurora with VIEWINDR

It is a dream of many landscape photographers to be able to photograph the aurora one day. When the time finally comes, a gap in the weather allows an unobstructed view of the night sky and the aurora just gets going, the settings on the camera have to be right. 

Photograph aurora with the listes camera settings:

  • Mode M
  • Manual focus
  • ISO1600
  • Exposure time 5s
  • Aperture fully open! f/3.5 or smaller
  • Focal length < 18mm
  • Tripod + remote release

With these settings you won’t go wrong when you do photograph aurora, but of course this is only a rule of thumb. You must constantly vary the exact settings on location and adjust them to the intensity of the spectacle in the sky.

photograph aurora with those camera settings

Photograph Aurora Borealis: Movement and luminosity

The aurora has a wide range of luminosity. Some nights the activity is so faint that the aurora is only visible on the camera. After a strong solar storm, the aurora can dance across the sky in bright colours and be brighter than a full moon night. You must therefore constantly adjust your camera settings dynamically to the current situation. In summary, the faster the aurora moves, the brighter it is.

To ensure that the aurora in your photo is not just a large green area, but that you can also photograph the individual beams of the aurora, the exposure time must be adapted to the movement. If the aurora is very bright, you can reduce the exposure time to less than 1s. If the aurora is not moving and only the typical green arc is visible, you can expose for 30s without any problems. The exposure time is the dominant camera setting and depends on the movement of the veils in the sky.

this is how you photograph aurora

Photograph Aurora: catch much light!

So if the aurora is brighter, it moves faster. Therefore, the advantage of the stronger luminosity is gone, because you have to take shorter exposures. To still capture as much light as possible, you need to set the smallest aperture. Lenses with a particularly large aperture of f/2.8 or less offer a big advantage in aurora!

You also need to increase your ISO sensitivity accordingly. Adjust the camera so that the aurora is brightly visible in the photo, but not overexposed. Check the histogram regularly. Overexposing the aurora will cause the aurora to appear as a green area in your photos.

fast lens to shoot auroras

Choose the right photo spot

Don’t make the mistake of simply standing on the side of the road with your camera to photograph the aurora. You will be happy at first to have captured the green veils, but your composition will be unconvincing. If you are going to go to the trouble of travelling north to photograph the aurora borealis, then you should also visit local photo spots.

Therefore, be at a location at dusk, think about how the aurora will look in the sky and try to find a composition. You can even look for several picture compositions and remember where they are. This way you can return to the locations at night and photograph the aurora with your subject. With only one foreground, you take individual photos of the aurora borealis.

find photo spots with viewfindr

When can the aurora be photographed?

To answer this question, you should use the website (the stie is in German but has all the information!) There is all the information you need about the aurora. In fact, you could say there is too much information. Actually, you only need two pieces of information: The official prediction of the Kp value of the Space Weather Prediction Center and the so-called Aurora Oval of the same institution.

The Kp value indicates how far south the aurora will move from the North Pole. The higher the number, the more southerly the aurora can be photographed. At Kp-2, you must be in the north of Norway. Kp-3 and Kp-4 are good for Iceland. Kp-5 and Kp-6 can be observed in Scotland. Kp-7 in Denmark and Kp-8 in the north of Germany. Kp-9 can even be seen in the Alps. Depending on which region you are travelling to, you can estimate whether the aurora will be visible far enough south at night.

aurora forecast made easy

Aurora and Kp value prediction

When the current of charged particles reaches the Earth’s magnetic field during the night in question, the aurora does not appear immediately. The magnetic field is enriched with the particles, but they are not immediately directed to the magnetic north pole. To know if you can photograph aurora in the next 30 minutes, look at the Aurora Oval. This 30-minute forecast calculates from the current magnetometer data whether it is likely to be possible to observe aurora. The higher the probability, the better!

However, the aurora can be extremely intense over a short period of time and then retreat back to the north. Therefore, it is important to simply wait all night at the photo spot to be able to photograph the aurora.

photograph aurora with our app

Why the weather is the real problem

If you are high up in the north of Norway, Finland or Iceland, you can see the aurora almost every night if the sky is clear. And here we are at the real problem of aurora photography: clouds! It is much less likely to find clear skies this far north than it is to see aurora (above the clouds).

Therefore, when you photograph aurora, it is much more important to spend every minute outside with clear skies. This can be quite tiring, because if the gap in the clouds only comes after midnight, you may be sitting in the hut waiting for several hours.

To ensure that you don’t give up in this situation while waiting to photograph the aurora, you need to check the weather forecast so that you know when the sky will be clear of clouds. The best way to do this is to use the “Starry Sky” parameter in VIEWFINDR.

With the help of three-dimensional cloud data, in comparison to conventional weather apps, we not only calculate whether the sky is free of clouds for the location of your motif, but we also take the surrounding area into account. For example, if the aurora is only visible in the north, you have the problem that there may be no clouds at your subject, but there are some dozens of kilometres away. VIEWFINDR also keeps an eye on these clouds for you.

So if you notice that a gap in the clouds is expected at a certain time of day, you can be at the photo spot in time and already have your camera set up when the sky opens up to reveal the aurora!