By Jenny Neyman
Viewing the aurora borealis is a magical experience. Trying to make the images last, however, can be a masterful execution of photography, or a miserable exercise in frustration.
The difference doesn’t come from the expense of the camera gear. It’s in the eye — and experienced mind — of the camera’s beholder.
“You do not need a $1,000 camera or a $5,000 camera to capture the aurora,” said Mark Pierson, a photographer in Kenai and head of the Kenai Peninsula Photographers’ Guild. “It’s your knowledge. It’s the photographer that makes that picture. It’s not the camera, it’s knowing how to manipulate that camera.”
All you need is a camera capable of shooting in manual mode and a photographer capable of knowing the basics of using those settings. (Sorry, camera-phone fanatics — don’t expect your aurora selfie to be successful.)
“Learn how to use your camera in manual mode and understand what’s going on,” Pierson said. “It’s not that difficult. If you just learn a few basics you can have a lot of luck at shooting the aurora.”
The first adjustment is aperture. Choose a small number to let the most amount of light through the lens. Next, experiment with shutter speed. It can be set anywhere from a second or two for active, dancing lights to 20 or 30 seconds to capture fainter, static, greenish glows.
But be warned that the longer the shutter speed the more chance for image blur, both from motion in front of the lens and from motion of the camera itself. With a long exposure, even the tiny amount of jostling from pressing the button to take the photo can result in a blurred image. Always use a tripod, Pierson advises — or place the camera on a stationary object (car roof, fence post, etc.). And use either a remote shutter release to take the photo without touching the camera, or if your camera has a self-timer function, set it to two seconds. That way any jostling from you touching the camera is done by the time it starts to take the picture.
Also be aware of motion in front of the camera. If you’re shooting a person in the foreground, consider using your flash, even on a long exposure, to freeze the foreground action, while the camera continues to gather and record light from the aurora. And be aware that the aurora itself can move enough to blur the image.
“If you get those beautiful ribbons in the sky and those ribbons are moving, that’s motion. You don’t want a 20-second or a 30-second exposure because then you’re just going to end up with that blurry green glow. You can capture those ribbons with a one-second or two-second exposure and get the nice textures in those ribbons, as well as those colors,” Pierson said.
ISO affects the camera’s sensitivity to light, with the higher the number increasing that sensitivity. Pierson shoots auroras anywhere from ISO 800 up to 3,200 or even 6,400, depending on the brightness of the aurora. Higher ISO can result in electronic noise — a sort of static that shows up in the photo and degrades the image — so Pierson recommends not going any higher than necessary. Believe it or not, it is possible to get too much of a good thing.
“You can actually overexpose the aurora and then you’ll lose the colors and the pictures can actually be washed out,” Pierson said.
The real trick isn’t just choosing each individual camera setting, it’s compensating for the effects of one on the others.
“It’s always a balance, and photography, when it comes to exposure, is very much a balance, like a teeter-totter. If you adjust one thing, like the shutter speed, to compensate you need to adjust the ISO or the aperture,” Pierson said.
You also need to be willing to experiment and change your settings often — but not blindly. Review each image on your in-camera display to see if your settings need to be tweaked.
“Changing it up is very important — trying different things and always reviewing your pictures after you take the shot, and then I make adjustments to the camera if it’s not exactly the way I want it,” Pierson said. “And the aurora borealis changes rapidly, so one minute it might be very bright and then the next minute it might be very dim. So it’s important to review the images. And you’ve got to be bold and have courage enough to go ahead and change those settings and try different things to figure out what’s working for you on that particular night.”
Pierson is experienced at highlighting the northern lights. If the aurora is forecast to be active and the skies clear he can often be found out at 2 or 3 a.m., capturing the show with his camera. But not very far out. Usually just along Bridge Access Road.
“In a lot of my aurora pictures I actually will encompass the city lights into those pictures and add interest,” he said. “If you really want to get clear, beautiful aurora pictures you can drive out of town. Get way far away from the city lights and you’ll get rid rid of that light pollution and you’ll get some better pictures, but you don’t have to do that. Three to four miles away from town is all you need to see the aurora borealis and get some good pictures.”
Some purists like nothing but the aurora against the sky in their pictures. In that case, point the camera up. Others like to have other objects in the frame — trees, mountains, a building, a boat, a person, etc. Pierson often shoots with the Warren Ames Bridge bisecting the frame, or trees or structures adding balance to the shot.
“Your imagination is the only limit, but if you think about pictures and how you want to frame them, you can add a lot of interest to your pictures by adding other subjects in,” Pierson said.
Once you’ve settled on the where, the when is also important. While an aurora display can be visible at any time it’s dark, it’s most likely to be active in the wee hours of the morning. And in Alaska, it needs to be a time of year when wee hours coincide with dark hours. That means winter shooting, so be prepared to be outside and mostly motionless in the cold.
Bring warm clothes, gloves and hand warmers, and an extra, charged battery for the camera that you keep warm until you need to use it.
When you’re done shooting and ready to head inside, warm the camera up slowly to avoid condensation. Leave it in your camera bag or put it in a plastic bag until it reaches room temperature, then take it out and start post-processing your photos. If they didn’t turn out quite as good as you expected, take it as a learning experience for what to do differently next time.
That’s probably the best advice for shooting the aurora — learn how to use your camera in manual mode. Take a class, read your manual, watch a YouTube how-to video, ask a photographer friend or join the Kenai Peninsula Photographers’ Guild. It meets the third Thursday of the month at Kenai Peninsula College. Membership is $10 a year.
Do your homework first, before you ever leave the house.
“They’ll have much more success shooting the aurora borealis than they will trying to use their camera in any of the automatic modes. If you’re willing to risk the frostbite you probably ought to spend a little bit of time on a YouTube video to learn how to use the camera,” Pierson said.
For more information on the guild, visit www.meetup.com/Kenai-Peninsula-Photographers-Guild/.
For more information on aurora forecasts, visit www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast.
For more on Pierson’s work, visit www.markpierson photography.com.