Photographing the northern lights is a relatively simple process.
One of the first things to understand is that my formula won’t necessarily work for you. Why? My camera equipment probably differs from yours.
Thus, you will have to experiment to find which settings produce the best results.
Eventually, you should be able to look at the brightness of a display and know what settings will produce a photograph that is properly exposed. A major advantage of a digital camera is that you can see the results right away, and you can then make adjustments. And the great thing about a digital camera is that all the information on settings is recorded so you can go view a photograph at a later date and review all the settings.
I learned to photograph the northern lights with a single lens reflex "film" camera.
Today, I use a DSLR, a Pentax K-5 and a Pentax 15 mm lens with a 4.0 aperture to photograph the northern lights (however, I am in the process of switching to a Fuji mirrorless system).
I prefer prime lenses (fixed focal lengths) over zoom lenses based on previous experiences (typically zoom lenses do not let enough light in the camera in low light situations). However, I would encourage you to experiment with your lenses and settings as your equipment is different than mine.
I also prefer the use of a wide angle lens as it allows you to capture a large part of the sky. I don't have a fish eye lens, but would welcome the opportunity to use such a lens in the future which would allow me to capture the entire sky.
You might want to take any filters off your lens as you will sometimes see a faint series of rings in the middle of your photographs if you leave your skylight filter on, particularly on wide-angle lens.
I set the ISO on my camera anywhere from 400 to 3200. Results will vary by camera. Note - the Pentax K-5 camera takes excellent photos with a high ISO number.
The length of each exposure depends on the brightness of each display and can range from 1 second to just over 15 seconds. My camera has a B (bulb) setting that allows me to take exposures longer than one second.
I also use a tripod and cable release shutter to eliminate the camera from moving while taking photographs. A heavier tripod is desirable if it is windy out.
I also find that I have to be patient after taking each photograph as it takes 5+ seconds to record the photograph to the SD card.
While I can capture most displays with my camera, it can be difficult to photograph a real fast moving display. I often attempt to do so, but sometimes I put the camera aside and enjoy watching the display.
I also bring along extra storage cards in order to have adequate storage for photographs. Extra batteries are a must, especially during when it is cold out.
I would recommend having a backup camera. In March 2001, while photographing a major display, my camera wore out. And that was unfortunate, especially during a major display.
I would recommend photographing more than just a display. Putting something in the foreground adds to a photograph and provides some perspective. Some ideas when photographing on the prairie include windmills, trees, buildings, towers, a fence, hay bales and farm machinery.
While strong moonlight can make it difficult to see a weak show, some moonlight can "light up" the landscape and provide a pleasing effect.
Include a star background and learn more about the constellations – what the patterns are and where they are in the night sky – so that you include them in your photographs. The moon and planets also make good backgrounds.
It also helps to stay away from the interference of city and car lights, although, they too can sometimes add to a photograph.
Keep in mind that some displays "photograph better" than others. I have been wowed many times by photographs from certain shows. Other times I have been disappointed by what is recorded. Whatever happens, keep trying to capture those "winners."
I was lucky during my first ever photo shoot of the northern lights. Every photograph that I took turned out because it was a bright show.
I wasn't as lucky on some of the weaker displays. However, I did learn how to photograph those as well.
One thing I have learned, and it has influenced my “chasing,” is that I rarely observe or photograph during weak shows as results are minimal. However, during major displays, I often observe all night, and take as many photographs as possible as results are often very pleasing.
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