How to take stunning photos of the northern lights

Tips for users of digital SLR cameras and smartphones

Kevin Tuong would never say the northern lights are boring. But he was beginning to feel that the photos of them he saw were beginning to look similar: a wash of green above black silhouettes of trees, maybe reflected in a lake. So, a few years ago, he set out to capture the upper atmospheric phenomenon in a different location.

“That’s been a goal of mine for a while, to shoot the northern lights in the city,” says Tuong (Photographic Technology ’13, Computer Engineering Technology ’10), the Edmonton-based owner of KTB Photography.

The result is a stunning series of images of the aurora flaring above Edmonton’s skyline, which Tuong shared with us for this article. They’re beautiful but highly technical shots. “A lot of people say it’s impossible to shoot them in the city because of light pollution,” he says. “That’s just incorrect.”

Here, Tuong takes the mystery out of photographing a sight that has mystified humankind long before a hazy image of the aurora ever popped up on Instagram.

Check the forecasts

northern lights over edmonton, by photographer kevin tuong

“When it comes to shooting the northern lights, it’s a bit of a mixture of not just knowing how to use your camera but knowing the science,” says Tuong.

The intensity of the lights will affect your image quality – and help you decide if it’s worth trying to shoot at all. Tuong recommends checking and for the likelihood of northern lights and their intensity, which is measured by something called a Kp index.

“I usually look out for a Kp 6 or Kp 7,” says Tuong. These are rare, he points out, but strong enough that the aurora should be visible in the city. A Kp of 5 is plenty for viewing at a dark sky preserve such as the one at Elk Island National Park

“Out of the city, it’s going to be a gorgeous show. You’re going to see lights hovering above you, they’re going to be dancing, they’ll even be to the south of you.”

Set and forget

When the aurora is that intense, says Tuong, even a smartphone camera set to auto should take a decent photo. But for those with a digital SLR camera, like his, settings make the image.

“For night photography in general you’re going to need longer exposures [and] higher sensitivity.”

northern lights over edmonton, by photographer kevin tuongFor his city shots, Tuong sets his camera’s light sensitivity, or ISO, at 800 or 1600.

He limits exposure time, or shutter speed, to 10 to 15 seconds. “If you have a really long exposure, [the aurora] will kind of just blur.”

Tuong sets the aperture, or the diameter of the lens opening, at F8, which he calls narrow, to keep both the city lights and the aurora in focus.

(Outside the city, he might opt for F4, or wider; ISO might creep up to 3200; exposure remains the same.)

Tuong captures the vastness of his night sky shots with a wide angle lens – specifically a Canon 16-35 mm. “Any wide angle will do,” he says. “You want to see as much field of view as possible.”

Unless you have a lens kit or certain phone models, your lens options for your smartphone may be limited, but advanced models do allow for adjustments in ISO and exposure time, Tuong points out, allowing for experimentation.

Keep it steady

No matter if you're using a camera or smartphone, put it on a tripod. “It’s really hard to hand-hold for anything longer than one second,” says Tuong.

Patience is rewarded

northern lights over edmonton, by photographer kevin tuong

“This isn’t like a rock concert where the show starts at a specific time. You just have to stand there and wait,” says Tuong. “I’ve sat outside for four or five hours, just waiting for something to happen.

“Try to stay out for more than an hour to try to catch them in full bloom.”

Warm clothes are essential. Tuong knows from experience that you can cool off quickly as you wait for that perfect shot, even if the temperature is only slightly below freezing.

“You’re going to want to go with a full winter set up to stay warm while you’re standing there doing nothing.”

Step away from the camera

“As cool as the pictures are, they never do the actual auroras justice, in my opinion,” says Tuong.

“I can capture them in one frame, but that frame literally represents one instance in the way that they flow and the way that they dance. That’s what’s missing in photos – the movement.”

Every now and then, take your own focus off your camera.

Every now and then, take your own focus off your camera, that marvel of modern technology, and gaze up into the marvel of the night sky instead. Seeing the aurora with the naked eye, Tuong says, in the city or countryside, “is an almost otherworldly experience.”

Eyesight and etiquette

The human eye adapts to see in dark conditions. Reintroducing visible light rapidly reverses that. The trick is to use a red light to check camera settings or rummage through a bag for equipment. Red preserves this adjusted vision.

For that reason, if you’re arriving at a dark sky preserve to join the masses of photographers gathered to capture images of the aurora, please dim your headlights as soon as possible, says Tuong.

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