These tips on photographing the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights or Merry Dancers come from the skilled photographer behind Andrew also has the undoubted challenge of being my other half…..


Quite often this winter, just as Andrew has settled down on the sofa with the remote control, the laptop and, perhaps, a small beer, I have crashed into the room from the office shouting excitedly  “there’s aurora  tonight!” and “we must get a picture!”

The Aurora Borealis can be difficut to see. Most of the time it is just a faint green glow on the northern horizon. You have to be clear of all light pollution and have your eyes well adjusted to the dark to see it. Sometimes, however, it can be quite spectacular while still being barely visible.  We receive alerts from Aurora watch and belong to a facebook group of like minded enthusiasts who keep an eye on all the science that means an Aurora display is likely. When an alert pings through I rush off and nudge Andrew from his well earned rest. Happily we will trip out on to the deck and take a ” test shot”. This is a long exposure (maybe 20 seconds or so) that allows us to see quickly if colours and rays are present in the sky.

Then comes the tricky bit about  photographing the Aurora Borealis.

1. Getting your husband to leave the warmth and general cosiness of the sofa and fire and head out into the  invariably dark and icy cold night.

Once step 1. is accomplished the task becomes ever so much easier..

Photography tips:

1. When photographing the aurora you need a camera and tripod. A SLR is preferable but any camera you can set manually will do.

2. Set your focus to infinity. You won’t be able to see much to focus on looking through the viewfinder or on the screen on the back and autofocus won’t be much use either.

3.  You need as low an F-stop as your lens has, as high an ISO as you dare and as short an exposure time as you can. What you’re trying to do is get as much light into the camera as you can as quickly as you can so the stars don’t move in your shot. If you open the shutter for too long they look like little lines of blurred and curved light. The stars look better when sharp and bright. Use a remote release or the timer function to take your picture. Simple.


Now let’s talk about the important stuff. Andrew writes:

“Always pick somewhere nice and spooky to take your photos. I chose Ashaig graveyard which is really creepy. Lots of tumble down gravestones and a big gothic tree in the middle with thin skeletal branches. Remember to not look behind you while taking your photos. Once you start looking you’ll never stop and eventually your inky blackness fuelled paranoia will have you thoroughly freaked out. I had a head torch on so I could see the setting on the camera and into my bag. This lit up a tiny patch in front of me but emphasised the surrounding darkness. I completed my isolation by bringing my Ipod and listening to John Martyn who’s other worldly jazz/folk music and gruff voice rounded off the bizarreness of my situation. If anybody had walked up behind me,  then tapped my on the shoulder I would have died instantly. Straight down, like a sack of potatoes.

I crept around the cemetery which looks out to the north over the Ob, and Ashaig then the islands of Scalpay, Pabay and Raasay taking various images. I particularly liked having a celtic cross to put in the foreground. I decided it was time to move to the beach below when I realised that I had started to chat to the headstones while taking pictures.

I blundered out onto the pitch dark expanse of sand. The tide was out so there was quite a long walk to the water’s edge. It was properly dark as I was as far as I could get from the lights of our village but I realised that I could clearly see the lights in the sky. A green flickering glow rising from the horizon and great shafts of green and red light pulsing and strobing up into the sky. I stood and started then started to shout and dance with joy. Have I mentioned this was my first experience of the Northern lights?

I started to concentrate again and take more pictures. I was standing almost in the sea, I wanted to try and capture the lights reflected in the sea and I soon discovered that the tide was on it’s way back in. Ashaig beach is very wide and very flat so when the tide does come in it really rushes. My method became to take a picture then stamp my feet. If there was a splash I moved back a bit.

I’ve been out quite a few times since and I can say that other than all the expected camera stuff the important thing to have are arctic quality clothes, about 9 or 10 layers preferably – you get really cold standing about on a crisp, clear winter night. Have a playlist of your favourite songs on an Ipod – there’s probably no one else about so you can have a really loud sing along. As we have recently got 3G here I can now send lots of over excited almost hysterical tweets and Facebook  posts while  taking photos.”

And that is how to photograph the Aurora Borealis.

Rosie – x-