Insider Tips with Daniel Cook: Photographing the Aurora Borealis
My name is Daniel Cook and I'm an amateur photographer from the Northwest Territories. I started my photography journey in Edmonton, where I lived for most of 2018, but I've had a knack for taking photos and sharing moments my entire life. I owe a lot to the wonderful photography community in Edmonton, so when Kristin asked to give some quick tips on shooting the aurora borealis I couldn’t say no. So here we go!
The first thing you should have to shoot the aurora is a tripod or at least something you can securely mount your camera too. My grandfather told me a story where he used a spade shovel dug into the ground, with his camera taped to the side to capture the aurora on 35mm film back in the 80s at the family cabin. The second item I’d recommend is a wide-angle or fish-eye lens with a high aperture. Personally, I use a 12mm f2.8 from Rokinon. That being said don’t let the fact you don’t have a “good” lens stop you from learning how to shoot the aurora. I started out shooting with my 35mm f1.8, and 18-55mm f3.5 kit lens. The last items are extra batteries, as many as you have. The worst feeling is when the sky is exploding with color and your camera dies out in the cold.
To shoot the aurora you will need to shoot in full manual mode, this includes the focus as it is a little hard for your camera to focus on charged particles in the upper atmosphere. To set the focus I first find the brightest star in the sky, open the shutter to “live view mode,” boost the ISO up so I can see said star, focus on the star then back off ever so slightly. You will end up with a focus of infinity minus a bit. Each lens will be different so you will need to play around with it. Common shutter speeds will be anywhere from 1 to 30 seconds depending on how bright the aurora is at the time. For aperture I don’t recommend going wider than f2.8 as it becomes hard to focus on the foreground and the lights beyond that point. Lastly the ISO, this will be different for each camera. I find I usually end up shooting with an ISO of 1600 - 400 on my Nikon d5300, your results may vary. Make sure to shoot in RAW!
Some useful accessories I use are a remote shutter, an intervalometer (for some sweet timelapse action), extra batteries and memory cards, a headlamp with red LEDs (this is important as to not create too much light pollution for yourself or others you may be shooting with), a portable chair, and warm clothing.
In today’s digital age we are lucky to have almost real-time access to aurora activity, and weather data. Knowing when and where the aurora will be visible is extremely handy. Personally, I use two different apps on my phone to monitor the conditions. Knowing when and where to shoot is very important for planning trips out into the dark and cold wilderness. The apps and websites I use are listed below:
Shooting the aurora can tricky sometimes even with all the data we are lucky to have. Sometimes conditions aren’t as they seem or it just won’t show. I’ve learned over the past year that you need to be prepared to spend the time out in the dark and just wait for the show to start. Keep in mind that it sometimes isn’t a constant show and is very dynamic, it’ll come and go and dance all over the sky. Whenever I go out shooting I always dress more that I think I’ll need, you can always take layers off. This way you can spend hours out in the frigid temperatures when the skies are clear the lights are dancing.
Be sure to follow Daniel on Instagram!