So you want to take pictures of the northern lights? Northern light activity is common in these parts and occasionally offer up some spectacular shows. Winter, summer, fall and spring all offer shows with the crisp winter air shows being the most dramatic.

Below are some of the essentials and advice for properly getting that shot of the northern lights.

Camera

Any digital or film camera (yes they do exist) is usable as long as you have access to manual settings or advanced features. Wide angle lenses are the best overall and never use a filter lens as they will slow down the exposure. Zoom lenses will also have a detrimental effect on picture taking.

You are taking pictures in the dark at night in the cold and as simple a setup you can use, the better.

Also handy would be a remote control to eliminate vibrations when taking pictures, although the camera timer should suffice.

Tripod

A good sturdy tripod is a must as even the slightest wind vibration can blur the pictures. Hanging weight from the centre hook will help stabilise lighter tripods as well. Quick connects for the camera are a must as you want everything to be as easy as can be when out at night.

Settings

Manual settings on the camera should be played with in the comfort of your home to familiarise yourself with them.

You will need to know how to control your camera’s timer, change the ISO, F Ratio and adjust the shutter speed.

f-ratio: The maximum light a lens will allow in. f/2 will allow more light than f/4.0

ISO: Higher the number, brighter the picture however with more noise.

Shutter speed: How long to leave the shutter open on the lens. Standard photography is a fraction of a second, northern lights will require up to 20 seconds.

The chart below is showing some testing parameters to try for optimal picture taking. Shutter speed listed in seconds, try to keep exposure times minimal to limit blurriness.

These numbers are considered a base starting point. If the picture is too bright/grainy, turn down the ISO and corresponding F/Ratio and shutter speed.

F Ratio 400 iso 800 iso 1600 iso
2   15 sec   7 sec 4 sec
2.8  30 sec  15 sec  7 sec
4 60 sec   30 sec  15 sec

 

Preparing for the Northern Lights

So you have a beautiful clear night to view/photograph the lights. During the daylight hours, it’s always good to scout out an area to view/print. A ridge is overlooking a valley, a frozen lake, somewhere comfortable where you are away from human-made lights of our towns and cities but can stay close to your vehicle/shelter. A northerly view is preferable however east/west, and even south are good during peak displays.

Typically, NW Ontario needs a Kp number of 3 or more to be able to see the lights. The Northern States need a Kp of 5 or more. Of course, that changes as you go north, as the lights get brighter and more intense even within a few hundred km of the US border.

Predicting the northern lights

An easy website to use is the Aurora forecast. It combines government data and extrapolates it into a current and three-day forecast for viewing the lights in North America. The Higher the Kp number, the better the show /chances to see the lights. Solar storms provide the best viewing opportunities and a Kp value of 5 or more are considered a storm.

 


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Source: Northwest Ontario Outdoors

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