Photo Journal: Aurora Photography

During my vacation, I was able to take some shots of the Aurora Borealis.

Aurora Close

Setup:
Believe it or not, these were shot while I was on a plane to Los Angeles. I didn’t really have much time to prepare, as a member of the cabin crew noticed I had a camera and gave me a heads up very little time to spare. Therefore, I spent quite a bit of time trying to get the exposure right by playing with the ISO settings and the shutter speed.

I used my D5300 with a 18-55mm VRII Nikkor lens. Now, if you know that lens, you’ll realize that it is a kit lens, which means it doesn’t have a particularly wide aperture. But working with what you’ve got is part of what makes photography fun for me. Also, airplane windows are surprisingly reflective, especially at night. This is because the only light source comes from inside the aircraft cabin. This makes it really difficult to take a photograph without reflections. Again, I improvised my taking a handkerchief and using it to cover the window behind the lens of the camera. This was all while using a shutter release trigger to trigger the shot. I took about 20 pictures in total, two of which I am fairly happy with, which I will be featuring here.

Final Result 1:Aurora 1 Full

Exposure Settings and Post-Processing:
The F-stop was set at f/3.5. This was the widest I could get at the 18mm focal length I was using. I also used ISO 800 with a shutter speed of 5 of seconds. Shooting in the dark, on a moving plane poses its own unique set of problems. High ISO can ruin the picture, so you’ll want to use as low ISO as possible. However, using a lower ISO means you’ll need a slower shutter speed, causing star trails. There’s a very careful balance to be had here.

Also, it is impossible to create long exposure images like these without additional processing in Lightroom or Photoshop. I didn’t have to use Photoshop at all, but a lot of post-processing in Lightroom was necessary to get the colors to pop out. The Aurora itself, is very faint when viewed by the naked eye. The settings I used were as follows:

Lightroom Settings 1

Final Result 2:
Aurora 2 Full

Exposure settings and post-processing:
The F-stop was set at f/3.5. This was the widest I could get at the 18mm focal length I was using. I also used ISO 2500 with a shutter speed of 10 of seconds. You can see how reluctant I was in using a longer shutter speed, because star trails are a real problem. Even at a 5-second exposure (as above) you can see a bit of star trailing. But as the aurora was starting to fade (we were flying away from it) I figured I had nothing to lose and took a shot anyway.

The settings I used were as follows:

Lightroom Settings 2

 

Thoughts:
Photographing the Aurora was a really great learning experience for me. I am, by no means, a professional photographer, but a beginner. I didn’t even expect to be photographing the Aurora until about five minutes after we had entered within sight range of it, so thinking on my feet was really important. I’m just glad to have had my camera on the flight. The learning experience on how to adjust exposure settings was great.

The advantage that photographing the Aurora has over other long exposure photography is you can actually use the noise reduction sliders quite a lot in Lightroom. I was able to shoot as significantly higher ISO’s than the ones I normally use. This is because the Aurora is looks silky, without any really sharp boundaries. This allowed me to play with Lightroom’s noise reduction sliders and really push them up to levels you would not normally use.

Overall, I think the images came out fine, considering I was on a moving plane. I wasn’t prepared for it, I was using a kit lens, and an entry-level DSLR. I believe the most important skill I learnt was the ability to quickly figure out how to get a correct exposure with minimal tries. Additionally, I was also able to improve my ability to post-process in Lightroom – both very important skills for any photographer. It was a great learning experience, and I think I got some fairly decent photographs out of it.

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