Monday, 15 October 2012

Da Mirrie Dancers

I may have missed what seems like it was a spectacular aurora display a week ago as I was tucked up in  bed poorly sick, but I did manage to catch a bit of a display this Saturday night.

Here over Tingwall Kirk...

I've not got the hang of this aurora photography yet and these pics are no great thing, but they are my first attempt this season. In the past I tried very long exposures with a low ISO (over 1 minute), but after some reading up I thought I'd try higher ISO for shorter exposures (20 secs). I also tried with my ultra wide angle lens, which seemed to work well if you ignore the distortion, thinking I'd get a good coverage of it with out start trails. Fiddling with too many variables in one night has lead to some noisy photos, but I thought I'd share anyway.

I also tried lighting up the Kirk with a torch for part of the exposure...

If I can get the exposure right with minimum noise I might get there eventually. Plus being in the right place at the right time helps to catch the more interesting features of it.

If you're up here and wanting to see them sign up to aurora alerts on twitter which will tell you when they are likely. I also check on The University of Alska Fairbanks forecast if it's looking likely which gives a better idea of how good it might be (Just click the map on the left for Europe and also look at the map on the top right). Of course it needs to be a clear sky and not too much wind if you're after photos.

After spending a bit of time at the Kirk I headed up the Lang Kames and stopped in a likely spot of darkness.

Here's part of the Milk Way through the aurora...

And looking north along the road...

The odd car added a rear light trail to the road. Some one even kindly stopped to ask if I was broken down, no I'm just taking photos, but thanks anyway!

It wasn't late, only around 9.30pm but I was tired so headed home. While faffing in the house with photos I looked out the back and rather than just glow there were columns shooting up into the sky. In a flap I went to try to take a photo, but my memory card was still in the computer. Then I thought I'd better just go and get my tripod from the car. Next as I headed into the back garden next doors security light came on a blaze! And by the time I was ready to take a photo the rays had died down and were just showing occasionally...

So a quick guide to photographing the aurora from some one who's not great, but has read up on t'interweb!

  • Sign up to aurorawatch for alerts
  • The web says around 'local' midnight there are usually the strongest shows, but anecdotal evidence up here seems to suggest around 10pm or 2am. A mooch about around10pm is fine for me as I'm no night owl!
  • Wrap up warm and head somewhere with dark skies to the North-North-West away from street lighting 
  • Use a tripod or bean bag and shutter release cable or self-timer
  • Try and shelter the camera from the wind. The car, a wall, your body...
  • Shoot in manual with as wide an aperture as you have (low F number)
  • Set manual focus to infinity in the day or on a distant bright object (and tape the focus ring so you don't move it)
  • Have long exposure noise reduction on if you have it
  • Experiment with different ISO's and lengths of exposure to get a good exposure that doesn't need boosting on the PC as that increases noise. More than 20 seconds depending on the lens and stars will start to go oval and trail, but you might want some star trails so experiment with much longer
  • If you've got a point and shoot rather than DSLR set the timer, set it for a long exposure and high ISO and turn your flash off
  • If it is dancing and doing things you may want a shorter exposure (higher ISO) to get more detail. If not and you want the glowing arch and star trails then a longer exposure is fine with may be a lower ISO
  • Try and get an interesting feature like the Kirk, trees, standing stone, loch in the frame
  • Don't be too hard on yourself if you photos aren't amazing like most you see on the web, just enjoy being out and seeing it. i saw shooting stars too as well as the wonderful Milky Way


  1. Lovely photos as always - still not seen them this year yet but I will keep looking.

  2. Cheers, though I went to take a picture of Ronas Hill today in lovely autumn colours only to find my camera broken! The mirror has fallen off, hopefully it'll be covered from the last work on the shutter done to it. Boo hoo :'(

    1. Great pics Kev. Wow! I can see about 10 stars at night here :-( So much light pollution it's incredible.
      (Sorry, having trouble posting comments hence the reply to your post :-))

  3. Still love the photos, even if you feel they are not up to your high standards. I am smitten with Shetland so they keep me going till I can get up again. Thank you.

  4. Thanks for your kind words on the photos, I wasn't going to post them so I'm glad I did. Hopefully my camera will be sorted before the next display or Bonfire night!