My Aurora Shoot Checklist
Finally last night I came home at 3:00 a.m., wired, tired and contented. After weeks of watching the Aurora storm forecasts and cloudy skies I was lucky enough (amazing the harder I work, the luckier I get) to be in the right place at the right time as the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis put on a fantastic show. The combination of shooting a moving light show, in the cold winter, and at night presents a unique set of circumstances. If you are going out to try your luck here is a practical list of 12 Tips and Tricks you can use when going out to shoot the Aurora. Those of you with experience feel free to add your comments to the list too.
Things to remember:
1 Patience. A forecast is a highly educated guess, but it is still only a guess. Imagine you are driving to your favorite spot and THERE THEY ARE you yell. That's OK, don't crash. More than likely they will come again. It seems to me it's in waves like minutes or sometimes hours apart. They come and they go. Be prepared because the peaks may only last a few minutes. If you are sitting all snug and warm in your car and you don't have your camera outside ready to record, it could be over by the time you get set up. Hey if it was easy then everybody would be doing it.
2 Get off your butt. I once was an hour from town, along a frozen river and congratulating myself on getting there when a guy pulled in next to me from Washington state. He has seen the forecast, bought an airline ticket and flown to Alaska, then he rented a car and drove around the state for two days before ending up next to me. It made me appreciate how easy I have it.
3 Make friends not just photos. Some days it seems like everybody is doing it, taking aurora shots I mean. So when you are not alone keep your light pollution to an absolute minimum. That means blacking out cars interior lights, remove the bulb if you have to. Same for when you open the hatch back. Drive in the last few hundred feet with just parking lights on, or if you can your headlights off. Its much easier if there is a moon out. Use a headlamp and don't flash it into the other guys face. A red lens or red plastic taped over the light helps keep from destroying your night vision. A small penlight, red of course, hanging on a cord around your neck is good too because you can point it where you need without twisting your neck off to do so. And you can keep the battery warm inside your jacket. Head lamps can drain in the cold and also get in the way of peaking into your view finder. Turn off that automatic led review that you always have on during the day. If you want to review a photo, do so by playing it back and cover the screen bleed with your hand. Imagine you've come a thousand miles or spent weeks to get this photo and some oaf smears light across your video or your otherwise amazing 'National Geographic here I come' shot. If someone does this to you, count to twelve and then walk over and very very politely mention that if they have any questions you'd be glad to help them out, and that you hope none of your light is ruining their shots. If they were there before you, ask if it's OK to set up off to the side, or which direction they are planning on shooting. I have had a bunch of kids start a fireworks war just as I was hoping to have a quiet evening shooting. After I got over myself, I realized there was a unique shot happening right in front of me. Basic rule to all shooting: Go with the Flow.
4 A tripod is a must. Well you could set the camera down on a rock or stump but really? Get a tripod, even a used one. After years of lugging around a 20 pound aluminum anchor I finally bought a carbon fiber tripod. Just think of all the money I saved by skipping those pesky chiropractor adjustments.
5 Getting the shot . Do Not delete in the field. This should go without saying but especially at night. Many times I've discovered a gem at home on the computer that I would never have seen on the back of the camera. Two reasons to check your image is the field is for focus, tricky at night, and light levels. If there is a moon out then you probably can use it for an auto focus set up. Then switch it off without moving the lens zoom or the focus. Some people use tape to hold the zoom and focus in place, and it reminds you to check your setting if you recompose your shot. If you change the zoom then you should probably re-calibrate the focus. If there is no moon, you might be able to use the live preview option, or some bright stars will work as you manually twist back and forth for the best sharp stars image. It's actually not as critical as you might think if the stars are the tiniest bit out of focus.
Learn how to shoot in manual mode and you will avoid a lot of grief. Your exposure level can be more of an art and less obvious than out of focus. And your settings are going to vary with your camera and most importantly your lens. I used to try and keep the ISO down to avoid the 'noise' in the image, but hey what do you want? Noisy image or no image? So last night I was shooting ISO1250 which on the newer cameras isn't too noisy anyway. Mine is the 1Dx and I carry the old 1Ds Mark II also, which is quite noisy above ISO400. The lens I used was the Canon 16-35 at F2.8. On the older camera I used a fish-eye lens but I didn't like how small the lights over the horizon looked. If they fill the sky overhead I may try it again. It's always good to experiment and think out of the box. At 4 seconds the stars are nice and crisp and the aurora not as blurry as they are if the shutter is open for 10 seconds or longer, but some times the exposure was 10 seconds because the aurora was faint and slow moving. If you are going to stitch them together for a video then pick something that will work and don't change it because it almost impossible to bring all the exposures to the same level after the fact. If you are going for still portraits then check often and try both extremes of exposure. There is some discussion as to which is a noisier image, one shot for 20 seconds or one at a higher ISO. It's too technical for me so I'm not loosing sleep over that one.
A remote trigger, wireless or otherwise keeps your gloved hands from fumbling around on the camera body and messing up your focus or composition etc. For $30 you can get a programmable one that will keep shooting while you stand and watch the show. Be sure and check over your shoulder. Sometimes those lights can be sneaky.
6 Composition is key. There are lots of aurora shots on the web these days but the memorable ones have something added to them. A house, a person, a river or a tree to frame the image give the eye somewhere to travel. If you are lucky enough to have a long duration storm then try several compositions. It also helps to check out your destination in the daylight. It might just save you from driving into a pot hole or soft spot in the river bed, or missing a 'No Trespassing' sign. Ask your friends if they have a spot they'd be willing to share. Going out alone is my usual operation but it can be fun to have someone ohh and ahh next to you, and giggle out loud "Did you see that shooting star? I hope I got it."
7 Before leaving the house. Get a good size memory card. I like 16 gigs and have two loaded in the camera. One really big card means that if the card fails or I do something stupid then I've lost it all. Same for the camera body. If I'm going to all the work to get out there then I take every camera I own along for the ride. They may not leave the car but it's comforting to know they're there if I need them. I don't like changing lens out in the open because I really really don't like cleaning sensors. That's a subject for another blog post. So before I leave the house I set up the cameras and try not to change them. It also means less fumbling around in the dark and flashing my light around while someone else is shooting. If I am shooting repetitive frames for a video stitch later on I leave the noise reduction option off. The longer the exposure the longer the noise cleaning up takes inside the camera. That then leaves little gaps in my star trails. For portrait still shots it is OK to have on.
8 Batteries. At a minimum you must have one back up, two or three backups would be better. I met a guy who traveled for a week in the snowy mountains and he taught me if you change your batteries before, I repeat, before they start getting low they will last much much longer. If you wait until one freezes and dies and then change it, well that cold one won't come back up near as well as if you had changed it frequently with the one under your coat. Personally I keep a small generator around the house in case we loose power. It might annoy other folks so that's another reason I go it alone, or else let them know you will be bringing power and they can hook into it as well. The beauty of that is then I set the camera up, and turn on the automatic interval function, so I can go back into the car and warm up. Yeah I know it's cheating but I didn't get this old by being foolish. Well actually I did, but an old dog can learn new tricks. If you are looking for a generator you can get a nice 1000 watt, with a smooth sine wave for under $400. It weights around 25 pounds which you might not take to the top of the mountain but it will travel from the car to the beach and back easily enough.
9 Dress warm and warmer. It's easy to stay warm when you're hiking but standing around listening to the camera go clickity click starts to let the chill in. Cotton is a NO-NO. Layer up, synthetics, wool, mittens with gloves underneath, and bunny boots are the best. I will put my $60 big white funny looking military surplus rubber boots up against your $500 REI trick boots any day. Unless of course we are talking about mountain climbing, different story. Trappers up here wear Bunny Boots because if your foot punches through the ice over flow into the water underneath you can still drain the boot, squeeze your sock dry and get home without loosing a toe, enough said.
10 Leave your camera outside. The worst thing you can do it to take your camera in to the car to warm it up. If you have a break, pull the battery out and put it under your overcoats next to your skin to warm up, or take the battery with you to the car. When your done for he night or if you're changing locations then put the camera in a plastic garbage bag or two and wrap it up. Then if your moving to another spot don't heat up the car's interior. You can take a warm camera outside and shoot but once you take a cold camera into a warm area you are done for a long time. The warm air condenses moisture on it and probably inside of it. Some have advocated putting a hand warmer on or near the lens. Last night I had some frost build up after a couple of hours so that might have helped but so far I've never tried it. So when I'm done for the night I take the memory cards out and put them in a little baggie, then I wrap up the cameras and put them in the cold case and zip it shut. I won't open the case then until the next day, but I'll be able to look at my images from the cards I've ejected.
11 Backup your Backup. Once home your regular work flow ensues and I won't go in to that now but just as a reminder, have at least two back ups to your hard drive. Do not delete or format the card until you've made your back ups. Sometimes formats vary so when it's time to delete last night work, format the card in the camera to avoid any issues.
12 Other preparations
File a flight plan. Let someone know where you are going and if you change your mind let them know that too. There are lots of places up here that cell phones don't work. Did you pack your charger? Take a book, or DVD to listen too. I usually stop and the store and stock up on my favorite road food. Hey I'm out working when everyone else is in bed. I deserve that 1,000 calorie pint of Ben and Jerry's. In my favorite valley even radio reception is a bit spotty. But sitting out under the stars and listening to alien ghost stories on Coast to Coast with George Noory is fun even if the Aurora doesn't show up.
Unlike someone who travels here for a winter wonderland vacation, I admit I have the advantage of living where the Aurora lives. So I don't usually go out to look for Aurora unless the storm level is at least 5 out of 10, and the skies are reported as clear. Here's a list of sites I use before I fall into a troubled sleep, and get up at midnight wondering, 'should I have gone out?'.
Want to watch my short video... http://goo.gl/9f37cA
The FAA has a weather link, learn to use it and you can find out up to the minute sky reports for anywhere.
There are subscriptions you can get where if the storm level is happening you'll get a tweet. The one I find easiest to read is at
If you are wondering will the moon ruin my shot check out when it rises at
And here's a really cool phone app if you want to know where exactly the moon rise will be