Photographing the Aurora
Up to this point, we've been talking about things that are quite predictable in the night sky. We can predict where the Milky Way will be, we can predict when the moon is going to rise. I think the crown jewel for me, of a celestial object to photograph is the aurora, because it is not predictable. But, when they show up intensely, they're an amazing thing to capture. But, there are certainly a few things to know about them. One thing is, well, how do we predict them? Well, they are difficult to predict because there is no regular pattern. And, they rely completely on the sun. Every once and a awhile, the sun burps out a coronal mass ejection. These ionized particles that go charging off into space, and sometimes those particles are directed right at our planet. And, when they reach us, they will create a great deal of electromagnetic activity in the ionosphere, and that will get things sparkling like crazy, and we get those beautiful dancing Northern Lights. The website that I go to, ...
to help me understand when they're going to come is a website called Soft Serve News, which is kind of a strange name. But, softservenews.com has maps and predictions on how the aurora will show up. Aurora activity is measured in something called Kp level. And, it can go from zero to nine. On the average night, it would be probably quite low, zero, one, two. On occasion, you might get up to three or four. And, in the mid-latitudes, or farther south, I would never even consider going out to shoot it if it was that low. If you're living in the mid-latitudes, you would need a much higher level. And, on occasion we get a storm level, where the Kp level might be five, six, seven, which would be a really active night to go out and shoot. And so, when I see a forecast like that, I get quite excited about the potential for shooting. Gonna check my forecast, gonna check the moon, 'cause both of those can interfere with my ability to photograph it. And then, I'm out shooting. Now, once you get to a location that you wanna photograph them in, you do have to be aware that you will need to make a few setting changes. The aurora can be actually quite bright, and so you don't need as high an ISO. I've often photographed the aurora with ISOs as low as 640. Sometimes I'll go down to 1,000, but because I don't want any of these colors to be blown out, I'm gonna bring my ISO down. The other thing that I'm gonna bring down, is my shutter speed. I don't want just sort of a washed out palette of color. What I want it to see is the specific beams of light, and those beautiful purple spires that you can get. And so, I'll bring my shutter speed down to six seconds, five seconds, eight seconds, depending on the kind of activity that I see. So, those are a couple of changes to your regular astro-settings that you would need to make. The other interesting thing about the aurora is that they can be quite fleeting. Even though we might have a storm prediction, it doesn't mean that there's going to be a constant stream of particles during the night. I have come across situations where I'm driving down the highway, trying to get to a location, and the aurora are everywhere, and I realize, they might disappear within minutes, so I'll pull over, take a shot, and then keep going. And sometimes, by the time I get to the location that I'm actually hoping to shoot in, they've disappeared, they're completely gone. They might be gone for the entire night, or an hour later, they're dancing in the heavens again. They're a really great subject to photograph, but they can be tricky to find and to capture because they can be quite fleeting in the way they appear.