Moonlight and Auroras


Photographic Field Guides




The Photography Blog

Practical Philosophies
Careers and Ideas
Good Gear
Inspiring Journeys


“Northern Lights in Abisko”
February 2017

14mm
5/1th @ f/2.8
ISO 1600
Canon EOS 5DS R







Every year Ewen runs a handful of unique and marvellous tours and workshops. Find out more about what tours are coming up and how to book.

Photo Tours with Ewen






Journey into the dark winter of Arctic Norway in search of incredible aurora locations. This is a one of a kind itinerary for photographers who want to maximise their chances of capturing exceptional northern lights photography We have a unique team and level of experience, with a flexible itinerary based out of Tromso in Arctic Norway.

Polar Nights Aurora Workshop

 





Moonlight and Auroras
Mixing in the light of the moon can bring a new world of possibilities to your aurora photography.



The Photography Blog




Most of my time in the past decade of chasing the northern lights has been in the depth of dark nights, waiting for the slightest glimpse of aurora activity against a moonless sky. The traditional way of thinking is that any moonlight is simply competition for an aurora borealis. You usually want the clearest nights in order to best see the aurora activity on offer.

Photographically however, I’m less interested in the quiet echoes of a minor aurora than I am the amazing spectacle of an aurora borealis bursting over the top of my head. Bigger is typically better when it comes to compositions and ISO performance. Bigger aurora events make for better photos.

This should not be a great surprise to anyone, but it’s worth dwelling on when considering the moonlit night. If you’re going to be most excited by a big aurora then how exactly does moonlight change the equation? In truth, it changes everything.

Big auroras will compete with the moonlit sky in the same way the brighter stars compete. The smaller aurora activity that wasn’t going to make for great compositions may not be easy to see when the moon is out in full, but the big auroras still shine and still inspire and still offer a powerful reward for the patience and determination that is required of this photography.



So you will definitely see a decent aurora even when a full moon is lighting up the landscape. Which brings me to the second bonus of the moon, being able to work properly with the landscape for compositions. The extra light across the landscape and merging with the aurora means you can stop down your aperture and gain a little depth of field. You may not want to push out to f/8 of course, but even getting to f/4 means you gain flexibility in foregrounds.

You also gain a lot of options for lens choice when shooting at f/4. My standard advice for shooting auroras is to work at f/2.8 and get a fast+wide lens to make that possible. Tipping in a flood of moonlight changes that equation a little, because you can wide lenses around the f/4 mark for less money than the f/2.8 equivalent. I still favour the Zeiss 15mm f/2.8 for image quality and for all-round night sky flexibility, but if you don’t have a full frame camera or can’t afford the Zeiss, then moonlit nights allow you to shoot with a wide range of more affordable lenses.

On my most recent Arctic trip we started with a moonless sky and finished with a full moon. Across that spectrum of skies we saw very clearly how the moonlight changes the colours of the aurora as well. Under a dark sky the aurora colours are high in contrast and even a little colour pops against a black night. Under moonlight both the sky and auroras gain intensity of colour, especially when shot over a pristinely snow-white landscape such as Arctic Sweden.

I am critical of photographers who over saturate their images to boost the colours of an aurora. This is a natural event and it deserves to be represented with natural colours, so I don’t care for the super flouro hues that so commonly appear on Instagram. At the very least, when processing your aurora photos they should look natural when sitting next to your other landscape work. There is no doubt that a moonlit aurora takes on a vibrance of colour that is unmatched by a regular dark night, but you still have to be careful not to over-emphasise the saturations.

Our final destination while touring Swedish Lapland this week was the massive Lake Torne, which sits near the border with Norway and enjoys some of the clearest skies in the entire Arctic. This means that you get more nights free of cloud with which to wait for aurora activity. On our last night of aurora chasing we enjoyed everything that I truly love about this part of the world. We sat around an open fire drinking hot chocolate, and caught a glimpse of aurora activity. In the following hours we photographed and watched and giggled with excitement.



I had one particular composition I really wanted to pursue, a row of frosted trees sitting on a rock ledge above the lake. I just needed to wait for some aurora to come down to the South-West to fill in the scene. The big action was happening out to the North-West instead, and often overhead. Eventually a little sequence of dancing light came through my setup and I got a few keepers. It was shot around f/4 with the ISO down to 1600, and an exposure time of 5 seconds.

The other advantage to shooting under the moonlight is the ease with which to get around at night. You don’t need a flashlight to see where you’re going, or to work the camera. It makes it easier to compose the scene through the viewfinder. I am very much inspired to pursue more of this style, perhaps by shooting along woodland trails where I have more elements in the composition but still a channel of sky above to fill in with aurora.

You just have to wait for those nights when it puts on a decent show. But this is always the deal with aurora chasing, you need to have patience with the weather and with the fickle nature of the northern lights. And as always, pick a lovely location to enjoy it.


(our photographers on location at the Aurora Safari Camp shooting under a very dark sky)


  Keep Reading

Join Ewen's newsletter for monthly updates on new photography articles and tour offers...

Thanks, you are now subscribed. Please check your inbox for a welcome email.




Computer says NO.
Please check the email address.
 


Please Share Your Thoughts



JUST THE FACTS



We'll be running our bespoke Swedish Lapland tour again in 2019. Come and join us :)


ewenbell.com
This feature was last updated on Saturday 11th February 2017
This article was published and written by

Copyright
All images and words on this web site are copyrighted and may not be used without permission.
When requesting permission to republish this article please quote reference #1242.

URL for this Article


Related Links
  Sweden  Swedish Lapland  Arctic Sweden  Arctic  Photographic Field Guides  aurora borealis  aurora  northern lights

Fabulous field guides for my favourite destinations. Full of rich detail to help you make the most of your photographic opportunity on location.

Why Auroras Look Different on The Camera

What your eyes see and what your camera sees are typically very different when it comes to the Aurora Borealis. Capturing the Northern lights on camera changes our entire perception of this phenomenon, and mostly for the better. Just a word of caution though if you're heading to the Arctic and expect to see those Photoshop colours with the naked eye.



Layers of Colour with ICM

Intentional Camera Movement (ICM) is a doorway to opening your creativity. Here I present a hands on guide to getting started, with an emphasis on using ICM to blend colours and textures.



Panning for Gold in Kathmandu

Panning is a simple way to kill an afternoon and make yourself exhausted. The concept is pretty simple: you use a slow shutter speed like 1/30 of a second to separate a moving object from a chaotic background. Hundreds of your shots will be useless. A rare few will be perfection. Those are the ones you show your friends.



Butterflies in Bhutan

I'm going to miss Bhutan when I head home, but this time for the most tiny of reasons. The butterflies. Having a few days to step into their miniature world of scaly wings and hairy heads has been an absolute joy.



Stars Over Uluru

I've written a few articles on the basics of star trails, but the finer details on making your trails look as lovely as possible are often where photographers struggle the most. This article explores the finer points from my annual visit to Uluru to chase the stars.



See What I See

Introducing my new series of streaming videos you can enjoy at home, and see what I see after taking a walk in the park with camera in hand. See what I see as I walk through the images on my desktop and extract precious moments from the RAW files.





Ewen's Photography Book



"ReIMAGINE" is now available to order online.
It's a very big and very generous book that will help you to reconnect with your creative side.


ReIMAGINE