23 Sep About Aurora Borealis
In more than ten years as a professional photographer, I’ve had the opportunity to contemplate and photograph lots of different scenes and really beautiful places. I’m not only trying to show beauty in my images, but transmit the emotion I had capturing them.
Aurora Borealis are a natural phenomena that manage to move and touch the spectator that has the pleasure to look at them as no other phenomena.I realized it in my numerous photography trips to Iceland, where more than 50 photographers have experimented the same sensations that I still have every time I go, euphoria, fascination…
Aurora Borealis awake in the photographer and traveller lots of questions, and eve if I’m not any astronomy expert, I’ll try to give you all the answers that my experience as a photographer allows me to.
How do Aurora Borealis happen?
Aurora Borealis are a natural phenomena that can be seen specially on the Earth Poles. The North Pole ones are called Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights, while the South Pole are Aurora Australis or Southern Lights. They appear because of a collision from the particles that form the Sun wind against the magnetic fields of the Earth.
Where do Aurora Borealis can be seen?
Aurora Borealis become more visible the closer we get to the Earth Poles. As the Antarctica is an underpopulated place and has a very difficult access, the majority of pictures we’ve seen have been taken close to the North Pole. Remember that the South Pole Aurora are the ones called Austral, not Boreal.
It’s true that in some cases Aurora Borealis have been seen in lower latitudes, places like United Kingdom. But no doubt that the best places to see them are Alaska, Norway and of course, Iceland, being the most comfortable country to see them, as the temperatures are higher than the other ones. Due to the proximity to the Gulf Stream, in Iceland we can see Aurora Borealis at -10ºC, in front of the -25ºC (or less) that we can experiment in Norway or Alaska.
When is it the best date to see Aurora Borealis?
Aurora Borealis might be visible at any time of the year, as long as the sky is dark enough. Contrary to what people think, there is not a time of the year when they are more frequent. The crucial factor is the light. Close to the Arctic, the sun doesn’t go down in summer, which means that during some months of the year, the countries that are in that area don’t see the night, and that prevent the Aurora Borealis appearance. When the night comes, the Aurora Borealis appear. I usually choose November and March, because these are months with lots of night hours but not so cold as December or January, and which are the month with less light hours, and that difficult the trip.
Can Aurora Borealis be predicted?
There are webs that predicts the appearance of Aurora Borealis with quite accuracy. As I was telling before, the Aurora are the result of the Sun wind, and it takes two days for it to make the trip from the Sun to Earth. Sun is observed and analyzed constantly by astronomers, when a sun storm or an explosion happen, is possible to know that two days after, there will be a lot of Aurora Borealis activity.
Probably the most specific website and with most information is the Geophysical Institute, Alaska University.
How can we photograph Aurora Borealis?
Aurora Borealis appear in very low light conditions. That will definitely put our photography equipment to the test, and we’ll need the best material that we can afford. That is to say, low light lenses and sensitive cameras with a low noise level. Besides, Aurora Borealis move quite fast, so we can’t use large exposures or we won’t capture them with enough definition, and that’s essential to achieve a stunning image, the picture should show an Aurora with defined borders.
ISO: The higher your camera allows for an acceptable level, in my case with a Sony a99 I can go up to 3200ISO with a reasonable noise level, easily rectifiable with Lightroom.
Fstop: The faster that your lens permit, keeping in mind the definition loss with high diaphragm aperture. There are lenses that open 1.4, like the Canon 24mm, but loosing a lot of quality, best results at f2. I use Zeiss 16-35mm f2.8, that offers a great quality even with the highest aperture.
Shutter Speed: This depends on the brightness the Aurora Borealis that we are photographing. In some cases, I had to use only 5s of exposition, when the usual is between 15 and 20s. We will always have to bear in mind that if we use very long exposures the Aurora will look blurry and soft, with no definition, and we are also have the risk of showing moved stars in our picture.
If you want to experience the Aurora Borealis spectacle in person and learn how to capture them from an experienced photographer and teacher, yo might want to take a look to my next workshop in Iceland.