Photographing the aurora at night is fairly simple. The amount of kit needed is minimal – camera, tripod and, if you have one, a remote release. The most important thing you need is a torch as the best place to photograph an aurora is also the darkest. No torch and you are blundering into a heap of trouble. I also like to take an ipod, phone and two daft dogs along too. But those are all optional.
The technical side of taking an aurora picture is quite simple. Put the camera on the tripod as you need to take a long exposure to capture the full colour and drama of the aurora. It is preferable to use a DSLR but if your compact camera lets you manually control it’s functions then that’s fine too. The more light you let in the camera the better so you want the F-stop to be low and the exposure to be long. I always want the ISO to be as low as possible as this reduces the noise and grain which can spoil a shot. Though a high ISO means a shorter exposure. This leads to the stars moving less. They are rotating round Polaris at quite a pace even though you can’t see them do it. If the exposure is too long they stop being pinpricks of light and become little curving lines of light. Less aesthetically pleasing. It’s a matter of balance. Use as wide an angle lens as possible . The aurora is a wide screen spectacle, it can fill the entire horizon. The last thing to do is set the focus to infinity then press the button and that’s that.
I like to have a counterpoint to the aurora. Something recognisable. The aurora is such a huge and alien thing that having something in the picture we can relate to helps viewers comprehend the size and scale of the lights. I have used mountains, a celtic cross in our local graveyard, a big weird tree in the graveyard, a pier , a lighthouse and a cottage at various times in the foreground of pictures and these images have proved more popular than those without context.
All that technical know how has to be used somewhere dark, isolated, spooky and, if you let your imagination run away with you, scary. Do not start to wonder what is happening behind you…
I like to listen to music while taking photographs and it is amazing the sense of humour my ipod’s shuffle selection has. It has chosen Resurrection Shuffle, Bad Moon Rising, Don’t Fear The Reaper and Thriller among many other inappropriate for being somewhere spooky songs while I have been standing in a graveyard. Having earphones in does create the risk of somebody walking up behind you and tapping you on the shoulder… Maybe those of a nervous disposition shouldn’t follow my lead. Even worse, I once found myself singing along to Barry White.
I sometimes wonder if my voice carries in the cold night air and people can hear me. What must they think of the terrible singing and my shouts of “look at the COLOURS” to my colour blind Assistants? It doesn’t stop me.
The aurora is mainly seen in winter as summer nights are too light . That means it will be freezing cold. Proper to the bones freezing cold. The last thing you should be doing is standing still, so wear the thickest soled footwear you have. The numbing cold will do it’s best so seep up from the ground and into you. Hats, gloves, scarves, many socks and thermal underwear are also recommended. You may find yourself doing some over dressed aerobics while the shutter is open just to keep warm. It’s the depths of a very dark night in the middle of nowhere, go for it.
One question is asked more than any other and our answer is usually treated as sarcastic or facetious. Where do I look for the Northern Lights? The clue is in the name. Look north. The lights are always somewhere north.
Being out in the pitch dark is not a social event and coming across other people can be awkward, scary or strange. I have met Twitter friends while at Ashaig. Being polite I didn’t shine a torch in their face so I have no idea what they look like but we had a lovely conversation. On an other occasion I arrived at the beach late one night and found a campervan parked there. The owner came out to investigate the sound of a car arriving and a man and two dogs getting out. He was suspicious. He acted like I was wandering through his garden not the Upper Breakish common grazing. I cheerily said hello and pointed out the rather stunning, highly visible, aurora happening in front of him. He looked briefly north then turned on the very bright light above the van door to see me better, utterly obliterating the glow in the sky and gave me another suspicious look. I was still in full flow about the wonders of the aurora borealis when he turned and went back inside. I heard a voice inside asking who was outside. He answered “just some weird bloke”.