How to takes images of the Aurora
Firstly you need find out if the Aurora is visible in your area. There is no exact forecast for this and it is never guaranteed, as the Aurora is difficult to predict! We keep our eye on the data daily and live data can be see on Oldham and Rochdale Astronomy at the following pagesL 'CURRENT AURORA' & 'AURORA ALERTS & FORECAST'. To see the Aurora from Manchester areas; the KP number needs to be above 6 but again this is not guaranteed and would depend on your location, view of the North horizon and other data. Depending on your location and the Aurora strength you may be able to see it below a KP6, but you would need to be able to clearly see the horizon to the North. The KP number is an Auroral Index, it ranges from 0 to 9, with 0 being no activity to above 5 being storm. Another important measurement to look at is Bz, when Bz is negative, you are far more likely to see Aurora. The best thing to do is to look on either of the above Websites to see if you are likely to see the Aurora from your location.
You need to consider how dark your skies area, from our area around Manchester we have a lot of Light Pollution and don’t get good images of the Aurora without traveling to a dark sky site. You need to get as high as you can and ensure you have an un-obstructed view North.
DSLR camera (so you can manually change the settings) but a decent point and shoot Camera should work too
A tripod to keep the camera steady (for long exposure photography this is a must otherwise the image will be blurred)
Things to check before heading out:
Battery is charged
Memory card is in the camera (yes, seems obvious but we have made this error before)!
That the Moon isn’t going to ruin your image (if the Moon is bright it will drown out the Aurora)
Planning the shot:
This is where you get artistic; think about how the final image will look and what you want your overall image to look like. You could try and get other objects in the photo with the Aurora. Ensure you don’t have too much light pollution where you plan to take the image from, if you have, it is a good idea to get to somewhere darker. The light pollution will drown out the Aurora and if bad it may not be visible at all.
Be aware that unless you are in very dark skies most of the time you won’t see the Aurora with the naked eye! When we have imaged the Aurora, both times we were not able to see it with the naked eye, but as soon as we took a long exposure image it was clearly seen.
Settings and getting it right:
Now set the camera on the tripod and change the setting to Manual shooting.
The first thing you need to do is get a good focus. The best way to do this is to zoom right out with the lens to get a wide view (don’t forget to take automatic focus and flash off), point the camera at the brightest star you can see. Use the live view LCD screen as it is easier to see. Taking photos at night can be difficult as there isn’t much light coming into the camera but it’s easy when you know how! Hopefully now you should see the star on the screen, if you can’t see the star try increasing the ISO to around 1600 and the shutter speed to around 15seconds.
Once you have the star onscreen use the zoom button on the camera (on a Canon this is to the top right on the back of the camera body) and zoom in as much as you can on the star (don’t zoom in with the lens as you want to focus the camera without changing this). Once zoomed in you should them focus the star by manually turning the end of the lens, be careful not to turn the whole lens, just the end of it, holding the main body of the lens whilst doing this so it doesn't move can help.
Now use a compass if needed and locate north, point your camera in this direction and try to get as much of the horizon in shot as possible.
Now you are focused in, take some test shots and get your settings right. Hopefully you should now see the Aurora in your images! You may have to change the settings a few times as every ones levels of light pollution will be different. Also keep in mind that if it hasn’t been dark for long, the higher exposure and shutter speed will give a rather bright image! So ..... Set ISO to about 800 and change the shutter speed to around 15 seconds. Take a test shot and view the results. If the image looks too bright reduce the ISO, if it is too dark increase it. You will need to adjust your exposure and ISO settings until you are happy with the image. If you don’t have a remote shutter release button, it can be a good idea to set a 2 second delay before a picture is taken, to avoid the camera wobbling when the shutter is released.
Don’t be disappointed if you got don’t see the Aurora on your images, it is worth staying in the location as long as possible, the Aurora changes quickly and it can get stronger in a short space of time. The amount of natural and unnatural light has a large effect on any night sky images.
© Sarah Hall & Colin Campbell