Denise Silva’s Top Tips for Photographing the Aurora Borealis

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PHOTOGRAPHER: Denise Silva
BASED IN: Virginia, USA
KNOWN FOR: Creative landscape, wildlife, and travel photography, as well as being a key member of Road Runner Photography Tours
SHOOTS WITH: FUJIFILM X-H1 Camera, X-T2 Camera, FUJINON XF16mmF1.4 R WR Lens, XF56mmF1.2 R Lens, XF18-55mmF2.8-4 R LM OIS Lens, XF50-140mmF2.8 R LM OIS WR Lens, XF55-200mmF3.5-4.8 R LM OIS Lens, XF100-400mmF4.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR Lens

Introduction

An aurora has got to be one of the most incredible sights on the planet. Streamers of red or green light ripple across the night sky, caused by charged particles from the sun interacting with atoms in our upper atmosphere. It’s a phenomenon that Denise Silva has seen many times in her career as a landscape photographer, and has captured using her FUJIFILM X Series equipment.

Denise spoke to us about her passion for photographing the Aurora Borealis (otherwise known as the Northern Lights) and shared some of the secrets behind her extraordinary images.

 

Denise Silva

1. Look up for movement in the night sky

Your first sighting of an aurora may not be what you expect, in fact you may not even realize that you’re seeing one. It’s likely you won’t see any color at first, but rather a soft, white undulating cloud. As the night sky darkens and your eyes adjust to the conditions, the color will become apparent. However, an aurora will never look quite as it does in photographs – cameras accumulate light over many seconds, while our eyes need brighter light to discern color.

 

2. Take the right camera gear with you

Seeing an aurora might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so make sure you’re not disappointed by arriving with the wrong kit or a flat battery. Use a weather-resistant camera body that allows full control of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO, along with weather-resistant lenses that have a fast maximum aperture of F2.8 or wider. This allows for faster shutter speeds without needing to raise ISO too far, which preserves image quality.

It’s also a good idea to use a cable release, an intervalometer, or the FUJIFILM Camera Remote app on your smartphone to trigger the shutter. You don’t want camera shake to detract from the sharpness of the image. A sturdy tripod is a must, with leg sleeves to make moving it easier in freezing temperatures. A red penlight torch will help you see what you are doing without causing night blindness and fast memory cards allow for continuous shooting without long pauses. Extra batteries are essential, as they drain faster when they’re cold. To get the most out of them, keep them warm in your coat when they’re not in use.

Waterproof dry bags will help protect your gear from condensation when moving back into warmth from extreme cold temperatures. Simply put your gear in a waterproof dry bag before you go from a cold environment to a warm one.

3. Think carefully about camera settings

You might think that photographing an aurora is going to be a complicated process, but once you have your technique sorted, it’s simpler than you might think. My initial settings are:

  • Daylight white balance
  • ISO 1000-3200
  • A shutter speed of no more than 8 sec
  • Long exposure noise reduction off
  • Optical Image Stabilization or IBIS off
  • A wide-open aperture, like F1.8

It’s also useful to know how to adjust camera settings in the dark, so practice changing your camera settings with your eyes closed (an easy feat with the X Series’ tactile controls). By keeping artificial light to a minimum, you are better able to monitor the intensity of the aurora as it changes and to adjust your camera settings in response. I also recommend that you look out for interesting foregrounds and backgrounds that will help to give a sense of scale to your pictures.

4. Stay safe!

When photographing the Aurora Borealis, you’ll be shooting in extreme conditions, in temperatures as low as -40˚F, where frostbite and hypothermia can set in quickly. It’s essential to wear proper clothing and have somewhere to warm up at regular intervals. Dress in layers and wear gloves or mittens, a hat or hood, and wool or silk undergarments. Boots rated for -40˚F are a minimum requirement.

Aurora viewing takes place in remote locations, with little or no cell phone reception. When you go out, always inform someone of your whereabouts, or don’t go out alone. Don’t assume that there will be good weather because this can change at any time and become a serious challenge.

A word of warning about your camera too: don’t take it indoors with you when you’re taking a break – moisture from the warmer air will condense in the body and refreeze when you go back outdoors, which can cause permanent damage. Better to leave your bag outside.

5. Be patient…

Photographing the aurora can be a frustrating experience, especially when Mother Nature isn’t playing ball. Many circumstances – all of which are beyond your control – need to coincide for the phenomenon to make an appearance. The sun needs to have a fairly sizable ejection of coronal gas, which needs to head towards the Earth. Plus, you’ll need clear skies that are free of light pollution.

For the most part, the best auroras are seen from late fall through to early spring. Give yourself more than a couple of nights to increase your chances of success. And check the weather forecast to see when the skies are going to be clear – that way you won’t have wait outside all night!

6. Forget your camera for a moment

Lastly, when photographing the Aurora Borealis, don’t forget to experience this amazing display with your own eyes. Step away from your camera and watch it for a while with your own eyes. When this aurora occurred, I was so captivated that I set my camera to shoot continuously with its intervalometer then lay down in the snow to take it all in.

Denise Silva is a FUJIFILM-compensated professional photographer.

To see more of Denise’s work, visit her website.

To explore the full X Series lineup visit X Gear Chooser.

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