Chasing Aurora

Photo of Auroa Borealis over Loch Fleet by Norman Young

Aurora, the Aurora Borealis or in Scotland, “The Northern Lights” are phenomena I’ve known about for many years.

Living in Central Scotland for most of my life, I had no expectations to be able to see them as they are associated with more northerly places.

I’ve heard tales of those who travelled to Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Northern Canada or Alaska, in hope they might catch a view of the Aurora. Some return with wonderful photos but many have been disappointed as sightings are relatively rare. But these are the best places to be when they do happen.

In Scotland, ‘The Northern Lights of old Aberdeen’ is a well known song, but you would need to be there, in the area of Aberdeen, at the right time and in the right conditions to see them, so once again, sightings are rare, albeit frequent enough to inspire a song.

The reality is, in order to see them, the ideal would be to live in a place where they can be seen, and be there, looking, when they happen. If you are not looking, you might miss them, ‘the merry dancers’, up there in the sky.

Social media and digital photography are wonderful things.

Due to pictures posted on the internet, I became aware that, on limited occasions, the lights can sometimes be seen much further south than I realised. A picture of the lights near the Ayrshire village where I lived in my youth, awakened me to the possibility. It made me wonder how often I could have seen them but simply wasn’t looking or aware.

I then discovered social media groups and websites dedicated to the Aurora. They helped me to understand the best criteria for seeing the lights, however I was still uncertain as to whether they were visible with the naked eye, as most images were taken at high ISO and long time exposures. Nothing I read addressed this question or whether other processing trickery was involved.

One website I have found helpful is ‘Softserve News’.

It publishes forecasts and predictions of possible Aurora activity based on disturbances in the earth’s magnetosphere and other related data. As it says, you need to be ‘patient and lucky’ but I have been lucky several times by following its predictions and I check it frequently to see what could be happening. I have also had numerous outings when nothing happened, so it is an indicator of the possibility, only. There are no guarantees. None.

Persistence can bring rewards. I have now seen the Aurora Borealis on numerous occasions from various locations throughout Central Scotland, from the Black Isle, and more recently further north.

(Edit/Update: Since writing this article, I have moved home to the Scottish Highlands and, within 2 months of arriving, already observed and photographed the lights from the windows of my house several times, albeit faint & brief episodes. Hoping for great things in future and seeking out new locations.)

For the the most part, a long time exposure was required and apart from a lightness in the sky, I often wasn’t sure I had seen anything significant until I saw the image on my camera’s LCD screen or on my computer at home. The human eye is less accurate with colour in the dark, so it is hard to determine whether a faint brightness is a wispy cloud or a ‘green glow’.

However, I have seen Aurora several times with my naked eye and not just a faint ‘something in the sky’ that needs a long time exposure to be sure. I have seen the shimmering, ghostly, shape-shifting apparitions and that is what I would aspire to find now. If you need the camera to be sure, it’s not really a thing, although you do get a photo. Only ‘the merry dancers’ will do for me now. But they are rare.

If you’re looking, the ideal is a dark, night sky and you need to look towards the north. (That’s if you’re in the northern hemisphere. Look south if you are located in the southern hemisphere to see the Aurora Australis. The nearer (or inside) the Artic or Antartic circles respectively, the better). It needs to be very dark and the sky is best to be really clear and free from clouds or other pollution. Even a heat haze, lingering from a hot day, can impair the experience and the hope of getting a good clear photo. Unfortunately, so can an ‘East Coast Haar’, as I’ve discovered.

So it will be a starry night and in Scotland you will see the star formation known as ‘the plough’ above the Aurora, if you do indeed see them in the early part of the night. The plough will move across the sky as the night progresses.

It is said that the moon can impair the experience, the fuller and brighter, the worse it will impede. I have experience of bright moons (same one different nights) illuminating the sky at night & destroying any hope of a sighting or a decent photo. So it can be true, but it isn’t always, most of the time a bright moon hasn’t been a problem, so don’t let that put you off.

There is a theoretical ideal that the best time to see the lights is after midnight, or if the time is adjusted for summer-time, after 1 am. I’ve never stayed out that late (chasing Aurora anyway) and had some of my best ‘naked-eye’ sightings between 7.30-8.30pm. Sadly, I have also missed some of the ‘best shows’ as I had packed up and returned home too soon. I know because I saw the shots from people who stayed out longer, posted on flickr, facebook or twitter, the following day.

(Update, I have have now stayed out until after 1 am and it was the best show ever, between 11pm to 1 am. The need to rewrite this article is increasing)

Having said that, the first time I saw the lights with my own eyes, I was driving in Central Scotland, with headlights on, and I could see the mysterious swirling, high above my car lights and the light-pollution from nearby towns. You can see in some of my portfolio images that there are house lights visible, so the Aurora can be seen above these things if it is strong enough. But you have the best chance, the darker the sky, the clearer the sky, the further north you are and you should allow your eyes to adjust to the darkness, which can take around 20 minutes.

So keep torches or other lights off. If you are around other Aurora chasers, don’t shine your flash-lights around, particularly not into their cameras. I’ve had people show up only to sit with car headlights on and engines running for prolonged periods, despite me and others clearly being there with cameras on tripods. It may be the offenders were not photographers and didn’t know or care about shooting the Aurora, it’s a free country. But there have been some, who while setting up their camera gear, shone a torch all over the place, including into my lens during a time exposure – one sure way to wreck other people’s photos and be unpopular.

On one occasion, someone seemed to be attempting to read their camera manual by their flashlight amid a ‘scrum’ of photographers and their tripods. People would be best to know what they are doing with their camera in advance. That really is not the time to check the camera manual. Or maybe they were reading a ‘step by step guide on how to shoot Aurora’!!

If a light to check your camera settings is essential, take a very dim one, keep it pointing downwards and only for very short bursts. Many cameras have illuminated buttons on the controls or LCD screens, so a torch shouldn’t be required, but if you do use one, keep it to a minimum and be sensitive to others.

Of course, if you can, find a spot away from towns, traffic, popular parking spots, and other people if possible. That could be harder to do than you might think. On numerous occasions, when a possible sighting is predicted, I have encountered lots of other photographer-hopefuls, like myself, roaming around in the dark with cameras, tripods and the gear they need for the job. There are some very popular scenic viewpoints in Central Scotland for Aurora chasers. Not only might there be others there, wandering around in the dark, but you would need to be there early to get the best spot. Others may come and invade your space or field of view. It’s not very polite but there is little you can do. I have observed grumpy exchanges and indeed experienced insensitive behaviour from others. Finding a location that is a good viewpoint, and that isn’t already well-subscribed, could be challenging. You might need to think creatively. Once you do, if you post your shots online, the location is likely to become popular, so be careful who you tell.

I usually aim to have a foreground object in the shot to give context and interest beyond simply a green/purple glow in the stars. It isn’t always possible, but you can see in my portfolio, shots across water with hills beyond. The hills need to be distant as the angle of view for Aurora is lower in the sky, the further south you are.

While out and about, you should keep a healthy awareness of the risks to your own safety, from being on potentially uneven, rough or slippery ground, as well as from other undesirables. It is surprising how many people and cars are around late at night. As already stated, there could be other Aurora chasers who are probably innocent enough and that maybe comforting, but there can be others like the ‘boy racers’, consumers of drugs/alcohol, and cars with ‘steamy windows’. I have encountered all these and try to steer clear but sometimes they enter your space and you need to make a judgement as to whether to stay or move on.

Another ‘occupational hazard’ is encountering very pleasant, chatty people. The camaraderie, the sharing of knowledge or tips with fellow Aurora chasers or curious locals taking the night air, can be reassuring, enjoyable and sometimes useful. You’re not the only idiot creeping around in the freezing cold, in the darkness and you’re not ‘up to no good’. But sometimes it can get in the way if you need to focus (pardon the pun) on the task to hand.

People frequently do talk to me while out and about with my camera, generally. Provided they don’t get in the way of the shoot, the conversations can be very enjoyable. Over the years I have conversed with people from around the world. Almost everyone has a story to tell. That aspect can be fascinating, part of ‘life’s rich tapestry’.

In Scotland, in the summertime, from approx mid-May to the end of July, it doesn’t get completely dark. So even if Aurora activity is happening and the sky is clear, the northern sky will probably be too bright, even at midnight. So autumn, winter and spring are best, when the nights are longer and dark.

Unfortunately, the best environmental conditions for clear skies at night, generally mean the air can be crisp or cold. I’ve had my best shots in near freezing temperatures. Be prepared. Take appropriate clothing, gloves, head-wear, footwear and do have a torch, albeit you should be careful what you do with its beam. In Scotland, a clear sky can turn to rain or snow very quickly so watch out for forecasts and go prepared. Don’t take risks with your own well-being. You will most probably be out for a while so take food and something to drink, maybe even a warm drink in a thermos flask.

A sturdy tripod is essential.

I usually set everything on the camera to manual. The settings can vary due to numerous variations to the conditions. If there is only a faint glow, typically try ISO 800 or higher, shutter speeds between 5-30 seconds, aperture at around F4 to f8 and a 2 second delayed timer to reduce camera shake. Use the ‘mirror up’ option if your camera has one. Switch off VR or IBIS, manually focus at infinity. If you have a remote shutter release that can be handy too.

Lately, when ‘seeing a good show’ the settings that work for my current camera & lens combination are, shutter: 5-10 seconds, aperture: f3.5-f6.3, ISO: 800-1600.

This is a panorama I took with these settings. The sky was a blaze of colour for almost 2 hours and I took the risk of attempting a ‘stitched panorama’, a sequence of individual shots stitched together in Lightroom. The field of view is almost 180°.

Photo of Auroa Borealis over Loch Fleet by Norman Young
A stitched panorama of the Aurora Borealis over Loch Fleet

Some photographers advise opening up to the widest possible aperture for the lens used. My ‘gut feeling’ resists that when shooting at infinity, but if your focus is perfect and the lens of sufficient quality, it could work for you. I prefer to stop down a few stops, and ‘pull things up’ in software if required, although I recognise there are compromises in doing that too.

One difficulty with shooting the Aurora is that it moves. If the shutter is open for too long, to get the required exposure, the lights will appear to be blurred in your photo, as they are moving. So a higher ISO would be useful, allowing the shutter to be open for a shorter time. You need to balance the motion blur risk with the risk of digital camera ‘noise’, due to the higher ISO. Modern cameras are improving with each new model that is released but it is still something to consider, together with the capabilities of the software you use to process the images, along with your skill using it. Luminosity, de-haze, unsharp mask and sharpness software tools are invaluable when used correctly, but if not, can be detrimental.

Another consideration is that stars travel across the sky. With a shutter speed of 15 seconds or longer this movement will become visible. If your purpose is to have star trails, then the longer the better, however if you wish to ‘freeze them’, keep it below 15 seconds.

So it’s a balancing act to determine the best settings, combined with everything else. Until you gain experience, it does no harm to vary the settings throughout the shoot to ensure that you get something worthwhile. If you use the LCD screen and histograms on your camera, it can give an indication that you are on the right track. Just don’t blind yourself or others around you while using it.

Here is my Aurora Borealis portfolio link. Enjoy.

Happy Aurora hunting.