Tips To Find and Photographh The Northern Lights

This years forecast for the Northern Lights is great! In fact NASA predicts the brightest display of the northern lights in 50 years. There are many resources to help you get the shot that you want. In this weeks post I will share some tips and resources I use to help me capture the elusive auroras borealis. The first step is determining when the lights are going to be displayed. For this I use a couple sites. The first one is a website called Soft Serve News. This site gives up to the minute updates for the activity of the auroras. What's neat is they also tweet the latest updates. Check out the twitter page here. I have my twitter set up so that the twitter updates will go directly to my phone. Day or night the updates will come through so I am always connected and ready to photograph the next big event. They usually give you about 20-40 minutes before they become active, which is enough time for me to spring into action.

Another site I use is the Geophysical institute. They have great information on where the lights will be visible from. They also go a bit more in-depth about the northern lights. They also provide many forums and links to information if you would like to learn more on the subject.

When photographing the lights you will want to have a fast lens. Probably a f2.8, or better yet, a f1.4 lens. Focus your lens to infinity, set your ISO to somewhere around 800 with a shutter speed anywhere from 4 sec to 15 sec depending on the intensity of the light. You don't want to get much higher than 15-20 seconds for your shutter speed. The auroras will begin to blur at around 20 sec and the definition of the auroras will turn to a color blob, so I recommend adjusting ISO or aperture before raising the shutter speed.

This weeks post image was taken off the shores of Lake Michigan in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore as a storm rolled in.

5D III 16-35 f2.8 at 16mm at f2.8 @ 15 sec


Hyperfocal Distance

Sharpness throughout the scene is often a desired effect in landscape and nature photography. To do this we need to know the hyprfocal distance... or do we?  There are many tricks to help come up with calculating the hyperfocal distance like focusing a third of the way into the scene. Apps for your phone, paper tables, rulers, and guides. So what do I use? None of this! When I compose a scene, I wish to have front to back sharpness, I make sure my aperture is set at f16 or f22. I then focus on the closest object in the scene. I note the distance measurement on my lens. This is usually in feet and or meters displayed through a little sight glass on the top of the lens. I take that measurement and I double it. For example:

The measurement of the closest object in the scene is 1.5 feet. I then manually focus my lens, noting the distance measurement on my lens, and focus my lens to 3 feet. With the right aperture selected this will give me good sharpness front to back. No need to calculate the hyperfocal distance. No need to get out your phone and calculate the numbers. No need for fumbling through charts. This method is quick and accurate so you can spend more time shooting.

This weeks image is a good example of using this tip. The boardwalk is in acceptable sharp focus as well as the distant clouds. Try it out and let me know how it works for you.