I suspect for the same reason that we enjoy watching a campfire burn fused with the beauty of a star-filled night we love seeing the aurora. The northern lights are rare to most of us, absolutely stunning to see, and infinitely unique. Whenever I post a new photo of an aurora, I get comments and messages asking me 'how can one see the aurora', 'why have I never seen them', and my least favourite 'that must be fake'. I would like to discuss all of these things, break down these comments, and then talk about how we capture aurora photos.
'How can one see the aurora?'
Look north when it is dark. While that's a great start and something you should do, there is much more to it. Planning to see the aurora should start with a basic understanding of how aurora happens. Our sun has eruptions on its surface called coronal mass ejections (CME) these hurl massive amounts of energy into space and when they are directed at the earth we may get aurora. Aurora happens when this energy interacts and is absorbed by the earth's atmosphere, these events are most common towards the earth's north and south magnetic poles as lucky for the majority of humans the earth's magnetic field draws these energy blasts away from the bulk of humanity.
Enough of the nerdy stuff, I am not a scientist there must be an easy way to know when these will happen. Lucky for us we live on the internet (I joke sort of, I mean you are here reading this) and there are many resources. The three that I use the most can be divided into three categories:
An app: Aurora for Android is a location-based predictor for aurora that gives you a percentage chance of seeing the aurora and predictions for the coming hours and days. It will also give you the geeky stuff such as kP and BZ if you want to get better at predicting aurora, also alerts you through push notifications of high-probability events.
A website: Space Weather simply all things astronomy and night sky, lots of interesting articles and photos from around the planet, and a great way to learn about the aurora or plan your next night sky outing. They also have an alert service for aurora events though I don't know much about it as it is subscription-based and I am cheap.
An Alert Service: Aurora Watch is a website from the University of Alberta that offers a free email notification for "yellow alert" and "red alert" conditions.
Aww man, that's a lot can't you just text me when you know the aurora are around?
I can, for those residing in or around qathet, just send me a one-time fee via an eTransfer of $5 to email@example.com and I will do my best to wake you up in the middle of the night when you have finally gotten the baby to sleep and have an early morning meeting. Seriously I will but understand that there are risks, and while there is a science to this, I offer no guarantees that I will know. Also, there is often a very short window of strong aurora, so it will be up to you to be ready to go at a moment's notice.
'I have lived here all my life and have never seen the Northern Lights'
This is probably the case for most of us living in the qathet region or along BC's coast. We are a fair ways from magnetic north and it takes a strong storm for the light to reach us. We also have more than our share of rainy or cloudy nights. Our proximity to the coastal mountains can make viewing the horizon to the north difficult. In qathet Mowat Bay provides a good starting point for viewing aurora as it has a long view to the north over the lake, is fairly dark by urban standards, and is not a huge travel/time commitment for most of us.
It is also very likely that many of us have been exposed to a show, but not noticed. Aurora is usually very faint and not the bright show of moving lights that we are used to seeing in pictures and videos. Those of us who hunt them know that you need to allow your eyes time to adjust to the dark, don't look at your phone, and turn your car lights off. Once your eyes are adjusted you may only see a faint ray of light that seems to shine straight up from a distant mountain. If you are persistent you may be rewarded with a show that includes moving waves of pale greens and even bands of red as we witnessed recently.
'That Must be Fake'
In a world where there is a lot of trickery and "photoshopping" of images, it is easy to conclude that you are being deceived when you see something new to you. As I mentioned above it is not easy to see the aurora without traveling to an exotic location like Iceland (I am accepting donations of round trip airfare, thanks for asking) and you would be correct in saying that the pictures posted are not what you would see in person, but that doesn't make them fake. I see little difference in the capturing of aurora versus the photographing of stars. Both rely on the user's ability to configure their camera to allow enough light onto the sensor or film to produce an image. For both stars and northern lights we use a long exposure, this means pictures take seconds, not the milliseconds that use during the day.
In the post-processing of these images, it can be difficult to match the faint colours that you saw to the vivid colours that appear on your screen, this can yield results that are akin to two people's interpretation of a sunset, one may focus on the pinks and purples, while the other highlight the orange and reds. Both are reproducing what they observed and neither is wrong. Photography is an art, the results are based on the photographer's style.
How to capture images of the Aurora
You just need a camera and a way to hold it perfectly still for a few seconds.
Most modern cell phones are capable of capturing decent northern light images. No matter what you are using, cell phone, point-and-shoot, entry-level DSLR, modern full-frame mirrorless, or even film, the key is controlling the length of exposure. While your camera may have a night mode, I suggest you learn to use the manual mode on your device for the best results. Exposure times in the range of 2s to even 30s are needed to capture the faint bands of light. For those that have some experience with manual modes start with a large aperture of f/4, long exposure of 10 seconds, and ISO 3200, and then adjust from there.
It is very hard to keep your camera still for the long periods necessary to capture stars or auroras. A tripod is the best choice here by far. If you do not have a tripod you can improvise place your camera in a nest of clothing on the hood of your vehicle, using a baseball cap to hold your cell phone, and if all else fails; leaning against a tree or car can help stabilize you and your camera.
Camera Settings for Enthusiasts
I have read many people's opinions on the best settings for capturing the dancing lights, and while there are some similarities they are opinions. Remember that photography is an art and how you capture a scene is up to you. I am going to show you 2 examples using different settings to try and illustrate this.
1. Longer Exposure, Lower ISO
30s f/2.8 ISO 3200 23mm
ISO 3200 is still pretty high but this photo was taken as a test shot the night after a big show. Longer exposures with lower ISOs are great for capturing faint aurora but will not show as much "structure" as the bands of light will move more in your image.
2. Shorter Exposure, Higher ISO
2s f/2.8 ISO 6400 16mm
The shorter exposure time freezes the motion of the aurora and allows you to see more of the shapes, and if it is important this will also prevent trailing stars in your image.
Another thing to play with is focal length, the images above are wide-angle shots meant to capture as much of the scene as possible but I also like to take some telephoto shots. Here I focused on Mount Denman under the lights.
Also remember to try adding some foreground interest to create more interest especially when you aren't seeing the bright aurora.
And one final tip, it is very unlikely that you will see the northern lights while sitting on your couch. Get out there and have a look.