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Aurora Photography

Guide For Beginners (Digital)

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DID YOU KNOW • The fastest, brightest auroras are often blurry in photos because of how fast they are moving. Slow auroras are great for photography and result in well defined structures with visible layers of colouring.

Photo by James Pugsley/Astronomy North.

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PART I: Getting Ready

1. Forecasts (Information)

Numerous websites offer geomagnetic forecasts based on space weather conditions and sunspot activity. Be informed about both the space weather forecast and the weather forecast prior to your expedition. These forecasts have a big impact on your photography.

2. Accessories (Equipment)

Packing a sturdy tripod, camera remote or cable release (avoids touching the camera), spare batteries, spare memory cards, spare lens (wide angle), head lamp (red and white), compass, and watch will help you maximize your aurora viewing experience.

3. Location (Information)

If you are seeking the ultimate aurora photo, composition is important. Find locations that provide multiple photo opportunities. Add context to your images by including trees, rocks, buildings or lakes in the foreground. When you are familiar with your surroundings, you can plan your photos before they happen.

4. Clothing (Equipment)

On fall or winter nights when you are outside for longer than an hour it is important to be equipped with the right clothing. Multiple layers, gloves, socks, long underwear and appropriate headgear will determine how long your aurora photography experience will last. Hand and toe warmers can be a big help!

5. Safety (Equipment)

To ensure you have a fun and safe wilderness experience tell others where you are going, be sure to have a spare set of car keys, walkie talkies, cellular phone (where service is available), a first aid kit, road flares, bear scare devices, bug spray, a whistle, a compass and, of course, survival food.*

*Survival food includes delicious snacks and hot chocolate. Survival music may also be important.:-)

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PART II: Taking the Shot

1. Film Speed* (Camera)

Film speed should be adjusted based on light conditions. If the sky is bright (moonlight or sunset) a film speed of 400 ISO is recommended. For dark nights with no moon,try 800 ISO. Higher ISO will result in more stars and colours, but images tend to be pixilated. Results vary depending on exposure length.

2. Exposure Length* (Camera)

To capture a moderate or bright aurora using 800 ISO, each exposure should be between 8-14 seconds in length. To capture a moderate or bright aurora using 400 ISO, your exposure length should be between 10 and 20 seconds. For faint auroras try 800 ISO between 20-30 seconds.

3. Aperture* (Lens)

To allow for maximum light collection, the aperture settings for your lens should be as low as possible. Many lenses have f-stops of f/2.8 or f/5.6 as the lowest possible setting. A 10-second photo taken with the aperture of f/2.8 will let in twice as much light as a 10-second photo taken with an aperture of f/5.6.

4. Focus (Lens)

Your camera should be set to manual focus, otherwise it will struggle to find a target and you may miss your photo. For best results focus on or near infinity (see the ? symbol on your lens), take a photo and zoom in on bright stars to ensure they are crisp points of light. If fuzzy, make slight adjustments.

5. Resolution (Camera)

If you are using a digital camera, you can adjust the file size prior to taking the photo. Photos taken in RAW will have the highest resolution, and will be large in size, however fewer photos will fit on your memory card. Large jpegs take up less space and will have sufficient resolution for printing images later.

*Different combinations of Film Speed, Exposure Length and Aperture can produce very similar or the same results. Give it a try!
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