How to capture the aurora

Aurora is an atmospheric phenomenon in the form of a glow in the upper layer of the atmosphere, caused by the interaction of the Earth’s magnetosphere with particles of the solar wind. In October 2023, I was able to see and photograph the aurora for the first time. To do this, I had to go all the way to the Arctic Circle (Teriberka village), since the likelihood of seeing the lights in the southern regions of Russia is extremely low.

Aurora in Teriberka, October 17, 2023, 22:46
Aurora in Teriberka, October 17, 2023, 22:46

To shoot night landscapes, I usually use a DSLR and several wide-angle lenses, as well as an astrotracker. However, it turned out that the high brightness of the auroras allows the use of very short shutter speeds (about 10-15 seconds). When shooting with a fast lens and (or) a modern low-noise camera, an astro tracker is not needed and a photo tripod is quite sufficient.

In addition, modern smartphones with the ability to set long exposures in manual mode (15-30 seconds) can also be successfully used to photograph auroras from a tripod. An additional adapter may be required to mount your smartphone on a photo tripod.

Capturing the aurora using an Android smartphone
Before shooting, you need to install your smartphone on a tripod using a special adapter.
1. Launch the camera on the device, go to “Pro” mode (on other devices it may be indicated as Pro, M, Expert, etc.). Turn off the built-in flash.
2. Turn the focus slider (F) to infinity. If necessary, we pre-focus on a distant flashlight (with digital zoom).
3. Set the shutter speed (S – from 10 to 30 seconds, depending on the brightness and dynamics of the glow).
4. Set the light sensitivity (ISO) higher (3200-6400).
5. We activate the self-timer (3S) so that there is no camera shake when the shutter button is pressed.
6. I recommend activating shooting in RAW and processing the image. Xiaomi 12T shoots in dng format, which opens without problems in Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom.
7. We press the shutter button, wait, and look at the result. If the image turns out to be too bright, reduce the shutter speed to 5..10 seconds and (or) lower the ISO value.

Below is the process of shooting the aurora using a Xiaomi 12T Android smartphone:

Further processing of material in RAW format is usually performed on a computer in graphic editors (Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom or their free analogues). When processing, I usually adjust highlights/shadows/black level/white balance/noise reduction.

Native jpeg of Xiaomi 12T smartphone
Native jpeg of Xiaomi 12T smartphone
RAW file processed in a graphics editor
RAW file processed in a graphics editor

Shooting the aurora using a DSLR/mirrorless camera or digital compact
Install the camera on a photo tripod.
A wide-angle aperture (f\1.4-f\2.8) photographic lens is desirable for the camera.
1. Switch the camera mode wheel to manual shooting mode M (Manual).
2. Disable the built-in flash.
3. Set the shooting format – RAW is required!
4. In camera settings, I recommend activating long exposure noise reduction to reduce the visibility of defective pixels.
5. Activate the shutter delay in the settings (value from 2 to 10 seconds) to prevent camera shake when pressing the shutter button.
6. The shutter speed must be set from 10 to 30 seconds.
7. Sensitivity (ISO) – from 800 to 6400. Be guided by the final image – if it is too dark, then raise the ISO, if it is too light, lower the ISO.
8. Open the lens aperture as much as possible. If the lens does not have an electrical connection with the camera, then turn the aperture ring on the lens.
9. Switch the lens to manual focusing mode (the lever on the lens to the MF position), and turn off the stabilizer in the lens (if it has one). Focus on the camera screen using a distant lamp or a bright star in Live View mode, preferably with digital zoom.
10. After this, point the camera at the aurora region, start shooting and look at the result, if necessary, adjust the shooting parameters (ISO\shutter speed\focus).

Approximate camera settings for shooting auroras using the Canon 550D as an example:

Teriberka, October 18, 2023, 03:23
Teriberka, October 18, 2023, 03:23
Полярное сияние в Териберке, 17 октября 2023 года, 23:01
Aurora in Teriberka, October 17, 2023, 23:01
Aurora in Teriberka, October 18, 2023, 23:10
Aurora in Teriberka, October 18, 2023, 23:10

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