So you wanna photograph the Aurora Australis?
Well, I don’t blame you! Both the Northern and Southern lights are a phenomenal spectacle to behold and in fact, I’d say that it’s the most magnificent thing I’ve witnessed in nature. Some of the displays I’ve watched in Iceland over the years have left me laughing, crying and utterly without words. Seeing this spectacle should truly be toward the top of your bucket list!
Wondering how and when to plan an aurora shoot? Well, there’s a few things to consider before you go racing out the door. Check out my top tips below, especially the vlog, where I film behind the scenes as I capture the Southern Lights in New Zealand.
The aurora is generally active 24/7, but the intensity and opportunity for us to see and capture it varies greatly. It’s all about the sun and the amount of ‘energy’ it’s radiating toward the earth. The Aurora service website and the Space Weather site put out an easy to read forecasting display, but there are many you can find online. What do you need to look for? Well, there are multiple variables but generally you’ll want to refer to the KP index and also the Bz.
The KP is measured from 0-9. For the Southern Lights, you’ll want a KP4 or higher. A KP of 5-6 is classified as a solar storm and is typically as good as it gets. When it comes to the big brother Borealis in the north, even a KP2 can be photogenic and once you get a KP4 and above, viewing can be incredible.
Equally, or if not more important is the Bz. This is essentially the gate which allows the energy to enter our atmosphere. Just think of this as a gate that opens and closes. If the Bz number is in the negatives, then the suns energy will transfer. The further into the negatives, the better. A positive Bz will most likely mean the aurora isn’t visible.
TIP: Don’t get too excited if the KP index is high but the Bz is also high – I’ve had a KP7 night in Iceland but the Bz very rarely dropped, so the aurora just never showed, much to everyones disappointment.
Clear skies are what you want and I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been in a solar storm (KP5 and above) but couldn’t see anything because it was completely cloudy or raining. If the sky has scattered cloud, then you’ll still get glimpses of the aurora in between.
TIP: Consider using a forecasting tool like Windy to see if there may be clear skies nearby that you can hunt down.
The main consideration is getting yourself away from any other light sources which will hinder your ability to see and capture the lights. This is known as ‘light pollution’. Cities and towns are the main culprits here. It also makes sense to give yourself a clear, distant view south (or north) and not have the sky overly obstructed by tall mountains or trees. This is why people will often go up high to a lookout. This isn’t necessary though and will only reduce your photographic creativity.
Capturing the night sky is all about long exposures, high ISO’s and wide apertures. The settings needed for night photography are far from ideal, but it’s what we have to do in order to expose for such dark scenes To capture the night sky, you’ll want to use a wide aperture like f/2.8 and perhaps an ISO from 1000-4000. The ISO will really depend on the available moonlight and intensity of the aurora. The lower the ISO the better.
For your shutter speed, the longer it is, the brighter your exposure will be, but keep in mind that the aurora will begin to blur and details won’t be as distinct. Really, the faster the shutter speed, the better it will be for capturing the aurora details. Of course, this isn’t always possible if the sky is very dark and the aurora is weak.
TIP: Just experiment with different speeds. I’m generally shooting between 8-15 second exposures. On some incredibly bright displays of the northern lights I’ve even been able to shoot 2.5 second exposures.
Just because the show in the sky is the main star, when it comes to composing your scene, don’t throw out the fundamentals. Incorporating the rule of thirds, utilising some kind of foreground and having a subject in the distance is all very important if you want your photo to be more than just a happy snap of the aurora. Sure, you can just drive down the road, pull over and snap a photo of a paddock and sky, but if you want to make something more memorable, take the time to find a main subject and foreground interest.
What Does The Aurora Really Look Like?
Just like lightning in a storm, both the northern and southern lights are different every single time you see them. Factors like the KP index, Bz, density, wind speeds, cloud coverage etc, will determine how the lights will appear to the naked eye. The aurora fluctuates in intensity by the second. I’ve had some nights where it was barely visible to the naked eye and other nights where it was so bright and pulsating that it was difficult to drive because of the distraction. If you plan to head somewhere for the lights, my advice is to give yourself as much time as possible, so you can hopefully experience a real show and not a weak display. Some nights are certainly better than others!
The good thing about being a photographer is that you can enjoy the aurora even if the display is quite weak. Cameras have the ability to capture incredible detail in the night sky, so photographers tend to get stoked even with a little bit of glow.
What’s better, the northern or southern lights?
There’s no denying that the Aurora Australis is much different to the Aurora Borealis, and I have to say that skies up north really steal the show on this one. The Southern Lights tend to be more confined to the horizon and lower portion of the sky, whereas the Northern Lights can fill the entirety of the sky from horizon to horizon. The Northern Lights also tend to flare up much brighter and pulsate faster. That said, both are beautiful in their own unique way.
TIP: One last thing, don’t forget to take some time away from your camera and simply enjoy the show. Soak it up and enjoy it, because you never know if you’ll get the opportunity to capturing this fleeting beauty of the night again.
If you’re interested, you can learn photography and Photoshop in my extensive video tutorials, which cover everything from gear, shooting in manual mode, capturing mountains, seascapes, night skies, waterfalls and more. View the tutorial website here.
Ready to see and capture the northern lights for yourself? Check out my Iceland workshop details and I’ll make sure you go home with photos and memories that will last a lifetime.