Updated: Nov 17
After last nights show i have been asked asked a few times on Social Media what settings I used to capture the Northern Lights. I am also often asked when out shooting aswell, so i thought i'd put up a blog post on my approach to it.
And that is probably point number 0.1! There are lots of thoughts and approaches, driven by experience, time and equipment. Hopefully though, this gives a good starting point for anyone wanting to photograph the Dancing Lady. (If you want to cut to the chase whilst out in the field, recommended starting settings are in bold in each section.)
Before getting into the camera settings, what you'll need as a minimum for this guide:
Camera which you can set to Manual
Remote control (if not then you can use your shutter delay)
1. Be prepared.
Batteries charged (been there!), jacket and hat handy and keep an eye on the forecast! It can be hard to predict, the "season" being around late September to Mid March. I use the Glendale App to get alerts when things are predicted to happen. It is known to be pretty accurate, and Andy Stables, who runs the app has a great Facebook Page with some stunning pictures. Worth a follow to keep close to the action.
If you are local to Loch Lomond, I'd also recommend you join the Aurora Loch Lomond group. Lots of like minded people share any sightings locally. James who runs the page and the rest of the members are super helpful, so check it out and join!
2. Camera Mode
This is aimed at camera's rather than phones, so you will ideally have a camera you can use in Manual (M) mode. This allows you to control the individual elements you need to control (Exposure time, Aperture, ISO) manually.
Whack it onto M, where you can start to adjust the above settings (in a minute!)
This can be tricky...if your camera has a rear LCD screen then that will make life easier.
Set your lens to Manual focus. This means that once you have locked in focus, the camera won't try and hunt for a new focal point in the dark. Find a point in the far distance to focus on (the moon, a star, lights in the distance) and manually focus your lens to get it as pin sharp as you can on your LCD screen. This might take a bit of practice and adjustment, but that's part of the fun right?
ISO is one of the 3 elements of the exposure triangle, and when you are shooting in manual you need to know about it! Basically, ISO is the sensitivity of the camera's sensor. So, the higher the ISO, the easier it captures light. But, it comes at a cost, as high ISO comes with high noise (grain) in your final image. Modern camera's can cope with a huge range on a varying scale, so you'll need to experiment a little bit. Start at 3200 and adjust up or down from there. Once you have dialled in the other settings you will then be able to see the difference it makes to both the exposure and the noise.
Honestly, as a young pup (yes yes, a while ago!) i couldn't get my head round this, but for Aurora Hunters it is simple really! The aperture is the size of the opening in the lens that lets light into the sensor, and that size of opening is measured in an "f-stop".
The confusing part is that the smaller the opening, the larger the f-stop.
Eh?! I know! It's down to maths, and seeing as i failed maths at the College of Knowledge i'll skip that part. To begin with, go with the lowest f-stop your lens allows.
6. Shutter Speed
The final part of the Exposure Triangle, the shutter speed is the next setting to dial in for now. Shutter speed (s/s) is simply the length of time the shutter is open for. The faster the speed the quicker it shuts, therefore the less light allowed in to the sensor. So as you can imagine, as we are in the dark, we need to leave it open longer than we would in the day time. Start off around 15 seconds and work up and down from there. Shorter speeds will allow you to capture the pillars and rays of light, longer speeds will capture a smoother representation of the Aurora.
Now, the above are settings to start out with. Bear in mind what works for one camera and person won't for another. With my kit, i would need to use completely different settings on my 2 main cameras to get a similar result. But that's all part of the fun. Get out, try different settings, see what they do, and marvel at your results. Remember the triangle. Each of the sides are linked, so for example, if you reduce your ISO to reduce noise, you need to adjust another setting above to compensate.
There are also other technical considerations, VR, White Balance etc etc. but maybe that's for another day!
Happy hunting, and if you get any pics, tag me on Instagram, i'd love to see how you get on!