Today we are going to give you a complete guide to Aurora photography. Indeed, watching and photographing the Aurora would be any photographer’s dream and for people who do not live in areas where these phenomena occur, it could be a once in a lifetime opportunity to observe and photograph the aurora.
Since the intensity of the aurora depends on solar activity, one needs to carefully plan and have a bit of luck to be able to photograph them while they are there.
As with any genre of photography, there are certain camera settings that you need to take care of and gear that you need to use for aurora photography.
We will quickly look at what the aurora is, how it is formed and some basic information on watching out for these phenomena before we dive into the technical side of aurora photography.
All information provided in this article applies to both Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) and the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights).
So, What Is An Aurora?
Let's start at the beginning…
For people who live near the North or South Poles, they will often be in for a treat, witnessing beautiful light shows in the night sky.
The lights near the North Pole or the Northern Lights are called Aurora Borealis and the lights near the South Pole or the Southern Lights are called Aurora Australis or in general, referred to as Polar lights.
An aurora is a natural display of colored light in the sky usually seen in the higher latitude regions around the Arctic and Antarctic regions. It can be green, pink, red, purple, yellow or even white sometimes.
How Are Auroras Formed?
Here we are going to get a bit technical, but we find it fascinating…
Auroras are produced when the earth’s magnetosphere is disturbed by the solar wind. The charged particles from the sun during a solar storm/wind or coronal mass ejection come into contact with the magnetosphere of the planet (in our case, the Earth).
Some of the energy and the particles travel down the earth’s magnetic field lines at the poles and interact with gases (atoms) in the atmosphere (mostly oxygen and nitrogen atoms that are found in higher percentages in air) causing ionization and excitation of atmospheric particles, resulting in a phenomenon called the Aurora.
The Aurora has a high intensity at the poles because the magnetic field lines are concentrated at the poles. Hence when the solar wind hits the particles in the atmosphere near the poles, they get ionized (gain or lose an electron) and when they go back to normal state (ground state) from a higher energy state (excited state) they release photons (light particles). The color of the emitted light depends on the atom that emits light.
Oxygen atoms usually emit green or red light whereas nitrogen atoms emit purple or blue lights.
Auroras often appear as curtains of light but they can also form arcs and spirals, that follow the earth’s magnetic field lines.
Capturing the aurora with the intricate details, rather than a blurry smudge or blob of light, is not very easy. You need to have the settings right to capture the details of the lights dancing across the sky.
Moreover, different cameras and lenses are going to be giving you different results and all auroras are not the same. So it will be a bit of a trial and error till you find out what works best for your camera-lens combination and for a particular auroral show.
If you understand how the exposure settings work, then you should be good to go.
Here Are Some Useful Tips For Beginners Who Are Looking To Shoot The Aurora:
The Best Locations For Aurora Photography:
When it comes to Aurora photography, the location is of prime importance. You need to be in an open area where there is no light pollution and there are no obstructions facing north (if you are in the Northern Hemisphere) or facing the South (if you are in the Southern Hemisphere). Higher elevation areas can help you get lucky going over the low lying clouds to view the aurora.
Auroras are usually strongest and visible in the upper magnetic latitudes between 10 to 20 degrees away from both the North and South Poles. When the solar activity is very high, the auroral intensity is high enough to be seen in lower magnetic latitudes of up to 70 degrees.
Some of the places in the Northern Hemisphere where Aurora is visible are northern Canada, Alaska, Iceland, Greenland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Siberia. In the Southern Hemisphere, Aurora can be seen from New Zealand, southern Australia, Chile, and Antarctica. Note: Auroras are not strong at the poles but are strong at an offset from the Magnetic Pole by about 20 degrees. This link has information on Magnetic Latitudes for a few cities or you can calculate it here. This page has a map for geomagnetic latitudes for the earth.
When Is The Best Season To Photograph The Aurora?
Since the summer season has long days with very short nights or brighter nights, the best time to get into aurora photography is from the start of the fall season until early spring when the nights are longer.This applies to both the Northern and Southern Hemispheres and it brings you to a situation where you will be shooting the aurora in very cold and icy conditions most of the time, making this a very challenging task.
The best months to view the aurora are:
For Northern Hemisphere, it is from September to March
For Southern Hemisphere, it is from March to September
Keep Track Of Solar Activity:
In order to know when the aurora will be on display, you need to keep an eye on the Kp index also called planetary index or global geomagnetic index and it is a scale of numbers between 0 to 9 that show the scale of geomagnetic activity.
Value 0 means there is very little geomagnetic activity whereas value 9 means extreme geomagnetic storm. This scale helps determine the Kp index required to see the aurora at various locations depending on where you are. Note: Kp index above 3 or 4 is a good chance to view the aurora and Kp values greater than 5 is considered a storm and chances are high for watching the aurora, provided the skies are clear and light pollution is very low.
For example, if you live close to the poles or you are at a location closer to the poles, a lower Kp index of 0 is enough to watch a faint aurora and Kp index of 3 to 4 is enough for a magnificent auroral display, but as you move further away from the poles, you will need to have a higher Kp index to view the aurora. Higher Kp index requires higher solar activity. Basically strong to very strong geomagnetic storms are the best friends of aurora chasers.
The image here gives a rough idea of the Kp index necessary to view the aurora for different locations in Europe, provided you are in a dark location with clear skies and free from light pollution. Here is another resource that gives information on the Kp values required for each location in order to see the aurora and here is another resource that gives information on locations where you can watch the Aurora Borealis.
So if you live within those latitudes, a high Kp index means, you stand a very good chance of seeing the aurora. The advice is, do not wait for it – anytime is a good chance to view the Aurora, at least a fainter one. So if you get a chance to go out, just go – if not the Aurora, you can at least shoot the night sky. Note: Locations up to 600 miles away from the auroral oval can see the aurora near the horizon if the activity is high.
Some Good Websites For Aurora Forecast:
There are many websites that have auroral forecast for different regions and they can predict the magnitude of the aurora with reasonable accuracy for up to an hour in advance. Some of them have SMS alert services that you can subscribe to, so you get alerted sometime before the activity, so you can be prepared. Space Weather Live – gives a short-term forecast of the auroral oval for both Northern and Southern Hemisphere. It shows the intensity and location of the auroral oval for a given time. You can also have a detailed 3-day forecast and information on auroral and solar activity. Space Weather Prediction Center – Shows the intensity and location for auroral activity for the time shown and this is based on current solar wind conditions.
Service Aurora – is for the European region and gives an hourly forecast based on real-time solar wind data and data obtained from a network of magnetometers located worldwide. SpaceWeather.com – lets you check the current auroral oval for Europe, USA, New Zealand and Antarctica.
Use Apps To Track Auroral / Solar Activity:
Checking on weather forecasts can be a tedious job and you may forget to do so at times and miss those rare opportunities when auroral shows are happening. If you are wondering, how else you can keep track of the Kp index or the solar activity, there are apps that help you keep track of the auroral activity for your location and they can predict it about 30 minutes ahead.
The advantage of using an app is that you get notified when there is a good chance of watching the aurora in your location, so you do not have to keep checking it at all times or worry about forgetting to check. You can also get a predicted idea of auroral activity three days ahead, but it is just a prediction and not definite.
Here are some apps that help with tracking auroral activity:
My Aurora Forecast & Alerts for iOS and Android: Gives you the current Kp index with a list of best locations to view the aurora along with push notifications when auroral activity is high. It comes with maps that show how strong the aurora is around the world including forecasts for the coming days and weeks. Best of all, there are no in-app purchases which means all services are free.
Aurora Now – Northern Lights for iOS: This app provides real-time predictions for auroral activity including the next 30 minutes. The local aurora alert service notifies you when there is a chance for high auroral activity in your location and services like solar wind data and Kp index need to be purchased within the app. There is also a 3 day Kp forecast to give you an idea of what to expect in terms of auroral activity.
Aurora Alerts – Northern Lights Forecast for iOS and Android: This app notifies the user of possible auroral activities in their location and when the Kp index reaches a certain value. It also gives a rough prediction of aurora forecast for the next few days and weather forecasts for visibility conditions. All alerts and data use local time.
Northern Lights Alerts for iOS: This app alerts you of auroral activities around your area. The user can also share their viewing experiences with others while benefiting from other peoples’ viewing experiences nearby too.