A 2 part series on how to photograph the aurora (borealis & australis).
In the first part about how to photograph auroras, it was more about physically getting out there and taking the pictures. This part will cover the post side of things of when you get back home, load the images into your editing program and begin editing your aurora shots. This is a very sensitive area in aurora photography, there are many different opinions on it. How much can you tweak aurora images without going overboard. Tweaking aurora shots is fine, totally normal in fact, most aurora photographers tweak their images a bit. But there is a fine line between tweaking and overdoing it. And it is so easy to overdo it with aurora shots. The colours jump out and you just want them to keep jumping. There are even some aurora photographers that think you can go overboard as much as you like and saturate the images to death because it is your artistic license. We think that is lame, anyone can whack the levels up on a photograph. But getting a beautiful composition where everything is right and balanced, and quite close to realistic levels is somewhat more difficult.
So, in our opinion, the sign of a good aurora photo (and the sign of a good aurora photographer), is photographs which are not over-saturated with colour. It is a photographer who shows self-restraint and uses the less is more approach. The majority of professional aurora photographers we have spoken to agree with us on this. But there are a couple who take it as a personal attack on their artistic license by suggesting they shouldn’t crank the levels up to unrealistic levels. So it really depends on your own personality which kind of aurora photographer you want to be. You can wow people on facebook with unrealistic images, or you can earn respect amongst your peers by having beautifully balanced and reasonably realistic aurora images.
Thanks to social media, aurora images (good or bad )are visible to most people now. This is great that now the whole world can see last nights aurora show. But, we (as an aurora information service) feel it is of paramount importance that aurora images be reasonably close to the real thing, with only light tweaking. The images of “neon” auroras that you often see, as well as hurting our eyes, they are really hurting the aurora industry. Most people on social media have never seen the northern lights in person, they really don’t know how they look in real life. They look at pictures and assume that is what they would see. It is your responsibility to try and portray the northern lights in a sensible manner through your photographs. So if that person decides to visit Lapland to watch auroras, they are not waiting for neon lights in the sky, because they will be deeply disappointed.
Last night we had auroras at Aurora Service HQ so I had the opportunity to go out and do some photos for this article. So I will do some examples here of what we feel is good, what we feel is bad, and what we feel is crazy.
Another major issue we see often is exposure. Aurora shots are often over-exposed to try and pull more colour of them. This can be a little tricky to get right to a beginner aurora photographer. You will sometimes see comments on aurora images on facebook from people saying “I didn’t know auroras were visible in the daytime” etc. This means the images was very over-exposed. This can happen if you use a “one-rule fits all” aurora photography setting on your camera. You have to adjust your exposures depending on the moon. Usually most over-exposed shots are due to it being near full moon and the photographer has not considered that extra light (and it is a lot of light) when composing the shot.
Again, it is absolutely fine to tweak your aurora images a little, most people do. It is fine to adjust exposure if your image requires it. It is fine to tweak many different aspects of your image. But again, less is more. Everything is fine in moderation. What we are trying to steer you towards is sensible aurora photography, not overly saturated aurora images that are quite some ways off the real thing. When we first started editing aurora images, we often used to think, when clicking a particular setting in Lightroom, would I slide it this far for normal photography, the answer was often no. You wouldn’t over saturate normal images so you shouldn’t do the same to aurora images.
For example adding a similar amount of saturation to the over-done aurora images above to normal photography would look like this…
They are just not acceptable. Aurora photography is still photography, and the same rules should apply to auroras as they do to normal photography. Like the images above, you just wouldn’t crank the levels up on normal photos like that, and as tempting as it is to do so on aurora photos (and it is tempting), you really should use self control to strike a good balance between reality and a good composition.
It is a fine line, tread it carefully.
So I hope this guide has given you some information on what it takes to get reasonable aurora pics. The most important thing is that your are warm and safe, no aurora shot is more important than this.
One more thing, don’t spend the whole night watching auroras through your viewfinder/monitor, enjoy them with your own eyes. Put the camera on intervalometer, lie down in the snow and enjoy the show.