Lee Sacrey Photography – Lee's Chatter

Mainly Photography but a little of everything at times

The Aurora Takeover – Adam Hill

with 2 comments

Being here in the north has some nice advantages. I have written here before about the abundance of Aurora we see but, there is another advantage which is Aurora related. That advantage is  that for those who live and photograph here, we get to meet and mingle with other Aurora Photographers. I am lucky to know several of them. One Photographer that I really enjoy shooting with and seeing what he can create is Adam Hill. Adam resides in Hay River, NWT and he is doing some amazing things with his camera and the Northern Lights. I asked Adam to do a post here on my Blog. Adam agreed to share what he does with some insight into how he does it, enjoy. Here it is, take it away, Adam!

The Northern Lights should be considered as one of the great natural wonders of the world. Imagine laying down on a cool fall evening or standing on a frozen lake dressed in your warmest winter clothes while the sky lights up with bands, waves and ribbons of colour. It’s a breathtaking experience.  Ah, the aurora. I never get tired of seeing these light up the sky. I usually get tired from doing it though.  Throughout the aurora ‘season’ I’m constantly checking the weather and aurora forecasts. These forecasts will help you get ready for nights of heightened activity but the best way to help your chances of viewing them is as simple as checking out your window or going out into your yard. When you see them, grab your photo gear and head out somewhere dark!

   First we should talk about photo gear and what you need and what you don’t.   When I photograph the aurora I only bring what I’ll need to use that night: one camera body, usually one lens (a good, large aperture wide-angle), a headlamp, warm clothes (even in the fall and especially in the winter), an extra battery, a cable release and of course, your tripod. Leave all your other gear at home. Become a minimalist when you photograph the aurora and get in the habit of packing your gear in the same place every time, it will help you when you’re searching your camera bag for your stuff.  I usually leave the big back packs at home and pack a simple shoulder bag. 

    When I head out I have a location in mind where I want to photograph. If it’s the fall aurora, I want somewhere with water, still or running. The water can reflect the aurora and this will help build the foreground of your photo while your aurora is in the background, making it a much stronger photograph.

Adam Hill Image 1 - October 11, 2013

If it’s the winter I like somewhere dark, with snow laden trees or some other element to use in my foreground. The light from the aurora will illuminate the snow in your foreground to make it useful. 

Adam Hill Image 2 - October 11, 2013

    So now I’m out,  and I’m patiently waiting and finally the aurora are beginning to swirl and twirl above me. Here comes the tricky part: anticipating what to do with the aurora. There is no easy formula as some may say. The aurora can happen fast and they’re impossible to predict. Have your camera set on your sturdiest tripod.  Your camera’s ISO set to a higher setting, I prefer around 800-1200 sometimes I’ll push it to  2000 if I need to. Newer camera models can go upwards of 3200 without real noise distortion. If your camera has any noise cancellations features, use them.  Auto focus won’t work in darkness, so turn your camera to manual focus and if you use a professional grade lens turn your focus just a little left of the ‘L’ marked near infinity. The best method to find your ‘sweet spot’ is to find your infinity focus in the day time when you can accurately check your focus. Use a small sharpie or piece of tape to mark off where your focus dial should be. To increase your sharpness you should also use your mirror lock and use your cable release to minimize and handling of your camera. If you don’t have a cable release use your camera’s timer setting at 2 seconds so you don’t have your hands on the camera when it begins to expose. 

Adam Hill Image 3 - October 11, 2013

Turn off your automatic settings and go into Manual mode. This will allow you to control your aperture and shutter.  I generally leave my aperture as wide as possible.  If the aurora are moving fast and bright try to set your shutter speed to 5 seconds to 10 seconds. If you use longer shutter times you can easily over expose the aurora and turn them into a messy blur. If the aurora are slow and dim you can use this to your advantage by having to expose longer. I find these aurorae to be easier to work with, you won’t get the crisp movements with brighter aurora but you can use the longer exposure time to help expose your foregrounds. Set your aperture to it’s lowest number (usually F/2.8 or F/3.5 for most common lenses). This setting will allow the most of light to come into your camera’s sensor, allowing you to use a faster shutter speed. 

Trying to balance the highlights from the aurora and the shadows of the foregrounds is one of the great challenges. One tip I find very useful is dim your LCD screen. Do not trust your LCD when you’re photographing at night. The LCD will make your image appear brighter than it is. Always check your histogram and make sure your highlights aren’t blown out and your shadows are exposed.  

When your composing your photo try to set up before the aurora are swirling above you. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and get ‘beauty blinded’ by the moment. Make sure to move around, take a great photograph in each location then move to a new vantage for your next photograph. Don’t stay in the same place with the same view all night long. You won’t enjoy coming back in after a long night of photographing with only one view of a landscape. Try and use the landscape around to help you frame your photographs. Incorporate landscape features to help build a strong landscape instead of just photographing the sky. You’ll thank yourself later. 

Adam Hill Image 4 - October 11, 2013

Editing your photographs is another story and you need to be able to properly edit your photos properly to make them look right. The aurora are surprisingly bright in comparison to the rest of the photograph. If you’re in the Hay River area and are interested in learning more about the aurora and how to photograph/edit them check at the Hay River library, you may find a free Aurora Workshop from yours truly!


For anyone reading this and wanting to see more of Adam’s work click this link www.adamhillstudios.ca or go to https://www.facebook.com/adamhillstudios1

Thanks Adam for doing this guest post, it is a great piece, thanks to everyone for checking in to the blog, enjoy and as always Happy Shooting.


2 Responses

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  1. Thank you for sharing your ideas and manner of shooting the aurora. I am thinking you are calm and steady when you head out for a night of shooting….where us newbies are so caught up in the moment….wanting to get it all right….I call them my ” Laurel and Hardy” moments ! Thank you again !

    Laura Ferguson

    October 11, 2013 at 11:52 PM

  2. Beautiful photography from an Aurora chaser in Labrador,

    Larry Jenkins

    October 12, 2013 at 10:15 AM

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