UNIVERSAL ENERGY DANCING WITH OUR ATMOSPHERE

Aurora Borealis Photography

MAGIC IN THE NIGHT SKY

If you’re travelling to the aurora zone in the northern hemisphere (Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Faroe Islands, Greenland, Canada, UK etc), knowing how to photograph the aurora borealis is, in my mind, as essential as remembering your thermals and crampons! Seeing the aurora borealis or northern lights is something that will take up space in your heart forever. I have travelled to Iceland many times, so have predominantly seen most aurora there as well as when travelling in Scotland, Sweden, The Faroe Islands, Canada and Lofoten in the Arctic Circle of Norway.

My aurora imagery and citizen science writing has been featured in National Geographic, Ernest Journal & Iceland Monitor and I've been interviewed live by BBC Radio Kent on several occasions, as well as producing audio during aurora chases that was featured at a later date.

If there is a specialist subject to ask me about, aurora chasing is it! And it is that knowledge I have distilled to guide you on your own aurora adventure.

I have been so incredibly lucky to have seen them on so many memorable nights, the start of the season, the end of the season and in -22 deg c depths of winter. They have completely captivated me and chasing them is somewhat of an addiction! I receive a lot of questions about how to spot them and how to photograph them and I taught folk on tours I’ve led and even at stops in coffee shops and at guest houses while en route! A lot of people also said they had travelled at the same time as me and didn’t see the aurora, so I will share more about what you need to look for as the untrained eye might miss them. With all of this in mind, I promised I’d write a post to answer these questions, so hold on tight as we’re about to walk through some hints and tips on hunting, seeing and photographing the aurora.

The girl who chases the aurora

Fancy seeing the aurora

WHAT CAUSES THE AURORA BOREALIS?

WHAT IS THIS KP RATING ALL ABOUT?

WHY ARE THERE DIFFERENT COLOURS OF AURORA?

The glorious sun that brings us so much light also gives us the aurora borealis. When charged particles from the sun strike atoms in Earth’s atmosphere, they cause electrons in the atoms to move to a higher-energy state. When the electrons drop back to a lower energy state, they release a photon: light. Things get exciting when Geomagnetic Storms happen, and a coronal hole opens up on the sun and belches out a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) and the aurora activity goes crazy! My husband did his PhD about CMEs and so he gets very excited about the sun’s activity!

What I love to think about is that there are literally pieces of the sun's plasma hitting our atmosphere, getting our gas particles all excited and making them excited and the creating a beautiful visual symphony of photons that dance together to create this celestial display!

One of the joys and crushing disappointments with the aurora is trying to predict where to watch them but there are a number of websites and apps that when used together can give you the best chance of seeing some aurora.
You’ll see that on some apps, the aurora is measured on something called a KP scale, ranging from 1 – 9. KP1 being the weakest and KP9 being a very rare, very strong event. Whilst we were in Iceland we witnessed the epicness of a KP7 event or a G2 solar storm on Sun 6th March 2016, which happens approximately 200 times every 11 year cycle of the sun.
I moved away from using the KP ratings as they are more a reflection on what has happened, rather than live space weather that gives a really accurate forecast so you can be ready to photograph aurora!

There are different colours of aurora and these are dependent on which gas particles have becomes charged in the atmosphere. The most common colour is a yellow-green, and it is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the earth’s surface. Much more rarely observed are the all-red auroras which are produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles above the Earth’s surface and finally, nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red aurora. The Mother’s Day aurora on Sun 6th March 2016 was an incredible display, as the earth’s atmosphere took a direct hit from a significant solar flare and over the evening it showed all of the colours. It was one of the few times that I have seen the red and purples visible, it needs to be a particularly active aurora for that to happen.

The moment a CME explodes overhead!

WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO SEE THE AURORA?

HOW DO YOU SEE THEM WITH YOUR EYES?

WHAT APPS DO YOU USE?

Generally speaking, it is best to travel to Iceland between September and March, when winter is in full swing and long nights are in abundance! It is possible to see them in August and April, I’ve managed both. August is deemed the start of the season and April the end as astronomical twilight never ends, they are only really visible during this time when they are strong enough to overpower twilight between 11pm-2am. The sun follows an 11 year cycle of activity with the solar maximum or peak activity occurring in June 2014 and then the 2-3 years either side of this will have a greater amount of activity, before things reach a dipping out of activity. Although this implies the aurora are inactive at this point, this simply isn’t true, its just less likely to be as frequently active at the trough of the cycle. It is good to work out what the phase of the moon is. On my first trip to Iceland there was a full moon and it is amazing when you are in a ‘dark’ spot, how much light the moon gives, so I have tried to book my subsequent trips when the moon is a new moon or small so the foreground is dark and less light from the moon to interfere with seeing aurora.

Aurora-alerts.uk – The Glendale App by Andy Stables - MORE ON THIS BELOW!
Iceland Met Office – for cloud cover in Iceland


Windy.com – again for weather and cloud cover mapping


NOAA – live space weather & 27 day forecast


Star Walk 2 – hold your phone up to the night sky and it will use GPS to locate you and plot the stars you can see in the sky, which is just wonderful for identifying things and getting your bearings.


Photo Pills – has AI that allows you to see where the moon will rise to plan night shots.


Live Aurora Network - cameras in the aurora zone sharing the aurora live. Great to check how clear skies are when you're there and even better to watch aurora when you're getting alerts and you're not in the aurora zone!

Seeing the aurora is something that is a totally unforgettable experience. I remember the first time I saw them, I screamed and rejoiced so much I lost my voice! We’d photographed them on a couple of evenings but couldn’t really make them out with our eyes. On my travels in Iceland I have spoken to a lot of people who haven’t seen the aurora but we were all out on the same night and that got me thinking. Photos of aurora really do show off the display, but its important to remember that a camera is far more light-sensitive than your eyes and so what it picks up and shows is a lot more vivid that what you see with the naked eye. I have had a few people comment on how disappointed they were when they learned there was such a big difference on nights of weak aurora. If you're lucky enough to witness a really strong display, then I think they always look better and brighter than any photo can capture.

The Glendale App

visit aurora-alerts.uk

The Glendale App is the most accurate real-time

aurora app I've ever used.

When you look at the substorm strength data, the section with the graph and the nT number, which is either a positive or negative number. The magic is when there is a strong growth phase (a positive nT) before energy is released and the storm is in expansion and aurora starts to become visible. You can register with the app and report what you can see. This is really useful to see what others are reporting both locally to you and also in other areas to collectively share when it is visible, cloudy or clear skies.

If you have an android phone, then Andy has created an app that will alert you when the substorms are in expansion and if you’re in an aurora zone, you know it is time to get outside to clear skies asap! If you’d like to read more about the science behind the scenes, then you can visit Andy’s post here.

IF THE FORECAST IS LOW, IS IT STILL WORTH TRYING?

Yes. Yes. Yes. If you’re only there for a limited amount of time and you have a clear sky it is so worth looking to see if there is any activity. I’ve used the Glendale app so many times, where there is very weak activity and have seen them. If you’ve got clear skies you can just enjoy the stars in awe, while you wait for the aurora to appear. In dark spots you will see the Milky Way with your eyes as they adjust to the darkness of the sky. As amazing as the Aurora are, it is always worth looking away from them too as the night skies on a clear night are overwhelming and very humbling and you really do reflect on a lot as you take it all in.

At the time of writing this article (Sept 2019), I’ve had the joy of using The Glendale App for about a year after discovering it through the Aurora UK facebook group. This group is one of the friendliest around and one of them is Andy Stables, who wrote the real-time app, forecasting the aurora with the kind use of data from magnetometers in Tromsø Geophysical Observatory and Swedish Institute of Space Physics.

Once you understand the epic amount of data in the app, it is quite easy to be able to see what is happening and there is even a forecast time as to when activity may start. When looking at incoming solar wind data there are several elements to consider, the speed, density, pressure, power and how well aligned the solar energy is, so you can forecast and predict the incoming energy.

The really clever part of the app is the how Andy has created the substorm strength which he explains “is a totally independent metric that is calculated directly from the deflections measured by magnetometers in Norway and Sweden. These allow the substorm strength and phase to be determined accurately on the ground. This is the most important metric on the app, as it directly tracks the substorm strength and by proxy the strength of the aurora in the sky.” Putting it more simply Andy said to “think of a magnetometer as like a thermometer measuring the temperature of the aurora. Wherever the aurora moves in latitude, I have a magnetometer directly beneath it measuring how ‘hot’ (active) it is.’

Top tips on seeing the aurora

Darkness

01

Get to the darkest spot you can find. Your eyes will adjust to see more of the night sky with less light pollution around. I always try and book accommodation that is remote so I can see them without having to drive anywhere.

Look north

02

The aurora starts at the north (and south!) pole as all of the earth’s magnetic fields converge there. The stronger the flare from the sun, the further towards the Equator it pushes. Get your bearings and know where north is in relation to where you’re viewing from. If it is a majorly active event, then they could be overhead or even south of Iceland.

Cycle of the moon

03

knowing the cycle of the moon is helpful as in very dark place a full moon will offer a lot of light at night, thus making it slightly harder to see the aurora because of the pollution and for photography, it can lead to over-exposed foregrounds.

Arc

04

Most of the aurora I have seen start in the north and a low arc appears on the horizon and then starts to build in intensity. It may look white to the eye and then photographs will prove it’s green and that you’re looking at the aurora.

Ribbons and movement

05

As the strength grows, you’ll start to see the aurora dance, it literally starts to flick upwards and then ripple around. This is when you will really know you have seen it!

Colour Saturation

06

As the strength grows, you’ll start to see the aurora dance, it literally starts to flick upwards and then ripple around. This is when you will really know you have seen it!

Time

07

It is important to know the local sunset and sunrise times and when Astronomical Twilight starts and ends, so that you can be ready to chase. Aurora can be visible at any point from sunset to sunrise, so be ready as the night starts to draw in to check the apps and the skies! Sometimes the aurora can keep you waiting until the small hours, but oh how the wait is worth it!

How to photo the aurora

There are a few tips to follow to ensure you get your camera set to capture the aurora

Tripod: so your camera has time to get a lot of the light onto its sensor, you’re going to need your shutter to be open for a few seconds, taking a long exposure. Hand held would lead to blurring, so you need a tripod to offer a stable surface and allow you to angle and choose the direction you’re shooting.

Remote shutter trigger: when shooting long exposures, pressing the shutter on a tripod can induce enough movement to create blur in the final image.

Wide lens: the wider your lens the better as you’ll get more of the dancing skies in frame. I shoot with the Tamron 15-35mm f2.8 and Sigma Art 24mm f1.4

Fast lens: the wider the aperture the better as it allows you to collect more light, again a lens that has f1.4-2.8 is idea. A lot of entry level SLRs come with a 18-55mm f3.5, so you will want to use this lens.

Manual mode: being in control of all of your settings is vital for capturing the aurora and I suggest the following settings

  • Shutter – 8 seconds (or poss up to 30 seconds)
    Aperture – lowest possible, I shoot at f2.8 with my Tamron at 15mm
    ISO – 2500 – 5000 – depending on how your camera performs at high ISO depends on how far you will push this, too high and you’ll see grain in the image
  • Manual focus: if your camera has live view, select it, compose your shot, find the brightest star in the sky and use it to focus on, making sure it is sharp

    Infinity focus: if you haven’t got much to focus on, use the infinity focus on your lens and you can read here about how to do this. http://www.slrphotographyguide.com/camera/settings/focus-infinity.shtml

    Take a shot: look for a green glow or if you’re lucky red or purple/blue and keep snapping

    Remember to watch it with your eyes! I use a remote trigger so once I know my camera is set and it is all manually set and focused I can just keep pressing the trigger while I watch it with my adoring eyes!

    Shooting with mobile phones: it is now possible to capture the aurora on a mobile phone! I have the Huawei P20 Pro and it has a ‘Pro’ mode where I can control the ISO, shutter and manually focus. I’ve shot the aurora with this camera and friends have used Samsung Galaxy 9/10. The process is very similar to the steps above, you’ll want to get a little grip tripod as you can’t shoot long shutters handheld.

    I see you there my love....

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