Brian Peterson: How to photograph northern lights

  • Article by: BRIAN PETERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 2, 2012 - 5:45 PM

Photographing the northern lights requires patience, the right equipment and a bit of knowledge.

If you live in Minnesota and spend any time Up North, you undoubtedly have witnessed or heard someone tell you about a spectacular display of northern lights. Capturing this magnificent display of nature can be a tricky proposition.

The aurora borealis, or northern lights, are on the upward side of a 10-12-year cycle that is expected to peak in 2013-2014. Recent solar activity has presented the patient observer with some of the best since 2004.

In Minnesota, the dark winter months are best for viewing the northern lights. Statistically, the equinox months of September and March are the most active, but it's possible to see activity any month of the year.

Here are a few tips to help you capture with your camera the magic of the experience:

• Most important, you need to find a dark place, away from city lights, with a clear, moonless view of the northern horizon. The farther north you go, the better your odds.

• Southern shores of large lakes and open hilltops are good options.

• You will need a camera capable of manual exposure. Preferably a digital SLR with a f2.8 or faster lens. My favorite is a Canon 24mm f1.4 wide angle. It's a little pricey, but a simple 50mm f2.0 or 1.8 can be purchased for most DSLRs for about $100 and will do just fine.

• A steady tripod and cable release or remote trigger are a must for long exposures.

• Set your camera to manual exposure and your lens to its widest aperture. Switch your camera to manual focus and tape the focus ring on your lens to the infinity mark on the range scale, to prevent accidental bumping in the dark. Bring a flashlight to see your camera settings.

• I like to start with an ISO setting of 1250, aperture at 2.0 or 2.8 and shutter speed of 15 seconds. Monitor the exposure on your LCD screen and adjust from there. You must keep your exposures below 20 seconds to prevent star trails.

• Don't want to lose a night's sleep or the possibility of a 4 a.m show? Use an intervelometer or electronic remote trigger. This will allow you to automatically record images at 30-second intervals throughout the night. It's also a great way to capture images for spectacular time-lapse video. (See online time-lapse video.)

• Most nights you will be happy to see more activity on your camera than you were able to see with the naked eye.

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