Photographing the Aurora

Nikon D700, 10s, 24mm, f/2.8, ISO 1600
Over the last few days a few people have asked about tips on photographing the Northern Lights. So, although I can't really claim to be an "aurora veteran", I thought I'd say something about the settings I used to take my pictures.
  1. I'm assuming that you've successfully got to somewhere where the Northern Lights can be seen overhead - this might not be entirely trival, see my earlier posting.   I'll also assume that the weather both at high and lower altitudes has conspired to let you see something and that you're dressed warmly!
  2. You'll need a tripod - you can expect to be taking pictures of 10 to (maybe) 40 seconds - and probably a cable release too. If nothing else, a cable release is much easier to use when you're wearing gloves.
  3. Set the ISO setting as high as you can without letting the image get too noisy.  This is going to depend on the particular camera you have.  Most cameras will let you set ISO values much higher than is sensible.  On my Nikon D700 (which has a full frame sensor) I can get away with ISO 1600, with smaller sensors you probably need to stop at ISO 400 (or maybe 800).
  4. Put the widest angle lens you've got on the camera.  The image above was taken with a 24-70 mm lens, at the 24 mm end of the zoom.
  5. Switch the camera into full manual mode - and set the focus to manual too. 
  6. Select the largest aperture you can on the lens (ideally f/2.8 or better).
  7. Set the focus to infinity.
  8. You can do most of (3) to (7) inside before you put your gloves on and venture out into the cold and dark.
  9. Point the camera at the Northern Lights. :-)
  10. Start with exposures of 10 or 20 seconds - and lengthen (or shorten) the exposure if needed.  The image above was a 10 second exposure.
  11. Don't bring the camera back inside until you're sure you're done for the evening - bringing it back into  the warm will ensure that you get a layer of condensation over all the glass surfaces.
  12. Remember to spend a bit of time just looking at the Lights - they are magical.

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