Workshop Aurora Borealis
First: when and where. If you are already on your way you can skip this and go directly for the photographic instructions below.
In this workshop you will learn the ins and outs of photographing the Northern Lights. As not every visitor of the Aurorea is a photographer this workshop will be low-level in photography explanation to enable everyone to get a decent photo of this phenomenon.
People often ask me where and when to go to for the Aurora. When is quite simple: always and in the dark. That would be from roughly half august till half april on the Northern Hemisphere. The Aurorae are the result of Earths defense mechanism against galactic radiation and charged particles sent out from our Sun into Space. So basically the Aurorae will be there on a regular basis though not non-stop. No threat, no defense.
Where is quite more complicated for two reasons. First you have to be somewhere around the arctic circle, preferably north of it so about 66 degrees north or higher. There are very few spots to watch the southern lights of Aurora Australis so forget about that unless you live in the most southern area of South America or Tasmania. The second reason are the weather gods. Clouds are the major spoilers. When they are thin they can provide you with psychedelic effects when Aurora shows up for her performance but this is not what you want. The light can be very faint and pale and you won't be able to see it with the thinnest of clouds.
So before planning your trip be advised about the local climate. Furthermore you have to go away from the city lighting. Remote rural areas are preferred. The less light the better and you can measure this by looking at a clear sky and make an estimate of the amount of stars that you see. You're pretty close when the sky looks like grainy from stars. But also the moon can make spotting the lights difficult. The moon is a huge lightsource in any dark sky area and spoiles the faint lights. And the lights are more often faint and pale then strong and colourfull.
When you have no experience looking for the Aurora and she is just faintly visible then look for a cloud that still shows you stars. Clouds are not transparent but the Aurora is. The problem is that your eyes are not sensitive enough to see colours when the light is to faint, your colour sight has a threshold and the intensity of the lights need to cross that threshold for your eyes to see the colours. Your camera however is. That faint white cloud will jump out of your camera in bright green if it is the Aurora.
The aurora to the naked eye at a low to moderate intensity
Look at the stars inside the "cloud"
For good weather information and the determination of the darkness on my location I use the app Clear Outside. Find it on the left side of your screen on a computer and under the menu on a smartphone. The darkness is in the orange field on the top and expressed as the Bortle value. The lower the better.
Last but not least: money. I can hardly advice you about that. Scandinavia is expensive. I go to Finnish Lapland and I have put some links in my links menu about this. I don't give about luxury but about quality. I love the Guesthouse Borealis and amongst the many Safari Companies there is one that stands out in their effort to let you experience the Aurora. Lapland Welcome does have a timeframe but hardly keeps to it if there is any chance that, making it later than planned, will help to spot the lights.
I stay in the city of Rovaniemi which has its own airport and I fly with Finnair for the simple reason that hardly any other airline goes there with the connection at Helsinki that is usefull to me. My favourite time there is September and March around the equinox. The clouds are somewhat better before and after the huge snow deposits but the weather there is extremely inpredictable due to 3 colliding systems. On the other hand... that takes care of sudden clearings quite often.
Last but not least... It is a gamble. An expensive one. Take a week at least and go every night. Go out to a dark sky area, Bortle 4 or lower, and when in winter season don't go alone as temperatures in the winter can be extremely low already or drop in seconds to minus 30 degrees Celcius or lower. If for some reason you are not able to leave a populated area behind you, Lights above the city are possible for sure but they are rare as they have to be quite strong. They can last for hours but 30 seconds for 1 night has been my part as well.
Maybe we'll meet in Rovaniemi from 21 march till 31 march 2022. See you there!
Equipment: Though listed here, do not buy it only weeks before you leave for the lights. Unless you have a lot of time on your hands under the lights, you will need to familiarize yourself with it in advance as the lights can hold for hours or... for less than a minute.
For a novice:
- must be on a tripod for long exposure times
- must be set to manual exposure and manual focussing. Auto is no option.
- set your ISO for 3200 or 1600
- If you shoot jpg files only (standard for most non-hobbyist camera's): set your whitebalance for flash or if you can at 5600 K. Do not use auto white balance.
- set the aperture on 4.0 max, preferred on 2,8 or lower if you have
- set the shutter for 10 seconds to start with.
- take enough batteries with you. Cold will make them halt before they are drained and long exposure times do drain them quickly. The camera doesn't have to be expensive but really does need these manual possibilities.
When there seemes to be nothing in the sky: Set the camera for starters on your tripod with iso 3200, aperture wide open (lowest number) and shutter 15 seconds (15", not 15). Set the focusring for infinity (the flat laying 8). When there is a reasonable light in the sky set your ISO for 1600 and shutter for 10" (seconds) When there is good light 1600 and 2,5"-5" seconds. When bright moving multicoloured 800 iso at 1 second. Remark! These settings are guidelines depending on your own perception of brightness of the lights.
A good camera that is not very expensive is by example the Sony DSC-HX400V. It has a good lens with a good max aperture of 2,8 at wide angle.
Do's and Don'ts
Beware for THE ONE destructive thing when temperatures are below zero: DO NOT breathe or even talk in the direction of the camera!!! Your warm moist breath will most definitely freeze you lens over instantly. Trust me with this... I did that... When that happens DO NOT take a cloth or lenspaper or whatever for that matter and wipe. The ice crystals are rock hard and intensely sharp. Wiping WILL damage you lens beyond repair! Let it defrost slowly and then clean it carefully. This whole thing can be avoided by placing a UV filter or a protection filter (they are different). If you have multiple of these filter you can simply replace the frozen one but HOLD YOUR BREATH during that process!
Be extra aware with this if your camera extends the lens when you switch it on. If frozen moist gets on the lens tube and the camera wants to retract the lens... it won't be very happy.
Also do not jump to get warm while exposing for a photo. The ground and specifically snow is springy like a mattress and you exposure is ruined.
Do not shine around with torches unless you want half lit trees and other stuff in your field of view.
Photographing persons in the foreground
This is quite a challenge. The main problem is the difference in distance between the camera and the persons and the stars in the background. The persons in the foreground are what is important, they want to be recognized it is as simple as that. So... focus on them. When they are in focus the stars will obviously be not. There is very little to be done about that. Forget about changing focus during exposure.
For a novice
- FIRST: Set the exposure time for the aurora on that specific moment.
- Place the persons about 4 meters in front of you and tell them your procedure so they co-operate with you.
- Let them close their eyes till you tell them to open again.
- Light the persons with a torch and let the camera focus or do it yourself. Don't forget to go back to manual focussing if you let the camera do it on its own.
- switch off the torch and let the persons open their eyes again.
- Be sure to tell them that they do not move the slightest bit during the full exposure time which you will tell them when it has finished.
- expose the photo and light the persons by painting them with your torch for about 1 second. Say for yourself "twenty one" to time that second and practice this often to get a good feeling with that timeframe. Use a watch with second hand to practice. The value of 1 second will vary with the ISO value that you set for the exposure on that moment.
- Repeat 6 and 7 untill you got a good result.
Try to set the exposure on aperture 4.0 or even 5.6 if the Aurora is bright enough. This smaller aperture will increase your exposure time and ISO value drastically but also gives you a more forgiving error margin in focussing or... when correctly focussed it will give you tack sharp faces and smaller stars (a star becomes a planet when it is out of focus, see my selfportrait).
Stars out of focus
On camera flashlight
You can also do this with an on camera flashlight. The camera may assist you with focussing by an infrared beam or maybe white light. Otherwise use the instruction in steps 1 thru 6 and 8 as above. Step 7 can then be replaced with just releasing the shutter which will also fire the flash. For this exposure technique you need the camera to weigh the distribution of the flashlight so let the camera manage the flashlight while the camera is in full manual mode. The flashlight should be well balanced now.
Before you put the next into action be very sure you have practiced this in advance INCLUDING the processing!!!
Basically you do the same as in the above. The difference now is that you deliberately focus behind the persons. This can go up to 4 meters behind them when you use a wide angle lens like at least 24mm full frame or equivalent on your cropped sensor size. If possible place the persons at 6 meters from the camera. Just be sure that the aurora is very bright so she gives you a relatively high amount of light.
Combine this with an ISO setting of 6400 and close your aperture to a setting 5,6 or 8 but keep exposing to the Aurora!
This will result in much sharper stars but also in faces that will most likely not be in focus. This is the part where your practice has to show... The faces will have to be sharpened in your software on your computer. You cannot do that beyond a certain lack of focus. That point is what your experience has to stand in for.
The technique to get the most of it is first denoise with the only denoiser that is capable of taking care of this delicate process and that is Topaz. Then after denoising you have to sharpen also with Topaz. This will increase the overall quality of the whole image in sharpness of the stars AND the faces.
Faces and stars in focus
Be aware that this is really not for novices and even experienced photographers will have their hands full with this technique. Also know that Topaz is no free software. On the contrary... it will cost you some €300 depending on the past time since I wrote this and the moment that you read this. And it will take time to process this which by the way will show your computers graphic capabilities.