|Roi Levi managed to capture both the Aurora Borealis and the constellation Orion (on the right) in one panoramic shot that was recognized by the European Space Agency. Levi used PhotoPills to track Orion. Shot on a Canon EOS H-Alpha astro-modified camera, F1.8, 13 frames ISO 6400, 1 frame ISO 800.|
Photographing the night sky is a wonderful, rewarding experience for those brave enough to seek out remote areas free of light pollution, and expose themselves to conditions outside their comfort zone. These include intemperate weather, long hours, and potential local hazards including large animals such as bears.
While the Milky Way galaxy is the easiest and perhaps most popular night sky phenomenon to photograph, it isn’t always the right season for it. During winter in the Northern Hemisphere, it remains a bit out of reach. But never fear: your best bets during the winter are the Orion constellation and the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis).
Your best bets during the winter are the constellation Orion and the Northern Lights
The Northern Lights’ appearance is dependent on a few factors including geomagnetic activity, which will require more preparation and perhaps more experimenting with your settings. But both subjects can be immensely rewarding to photograph.
The Aurora Borealis can be viewed during all times of the year, but are more visible during the winter due to darker skies and fewer daylight hours. Orion is most visible from September through March.
We talked to top photographers and astro experts for advice on how to capture these winter wonders. For detailed instructions on photographing the Aurora Borealis, read our article, How to photograph the Northern Lights for equipment recommendations, step-by-step instructions, and recommended locations.
The Orion constellation
When the Milky Way starts to fade out in early October, star chasers should start looking for a constellation that’s circular in shape with a reddish hue – that’s the Orion constellation. Along with the Pleiades and Andromeda galaxy, Orion is the brightest object in the sky during the winter months.
|The Orion constellation, captured in Utah, and explained by Abhijit Patil. Nikon Z6 II, Nikon 14-24mm F2.8 with Ioptron Telescopes’ Skyguider Pro star tracker.|
‘One feature that makes Orion different from the others is the nebulosity in the constellation,’ photographer Abhijit Patil explains. ‘Orion’s belt, Orion nebula, Running man nebula, Horsehead nebula and Flame nebula are some of the major nebulas which are situated in the Orion. There are other smaller nebulas too. This makes it one of the most colorful constellations in the sky.
It is visible from the end of September onward and continues rising up in the sky through the months until March,’ Patil continues. ‘Mid November to mid February are the best times to view the Orion constellation.’ In terms of picking your night, he says, ‘Capturing the Orion should be carried out only on clear crisp cold nights when there is no water vapor content in the air. It helps reduce the dispersion of light which reaches your imaging equipment from the far off nebula.’
As an aide to getting an ideal composition, Patil uses a free open-source application called Stellarium. It provides a 3D rendering of what the sky will look like at any given time and location. ‘You can input your sensor size and focal length and it will provide you with a frame of reference of how your shot will look,’ he explains.
‘Orion’s belt, Orion nebula, Running man nebula, Horsehead nebula and Flame nebula are some of the major nebulas which are situated in the Orion’
‘Orion is easy to find, so once I plan my shot in Stellarium, I have to point my camera mounted on the [Ioptron Skyguider Pro] star tracker and frame my shot.’
A star tracker is a motorized, equatorial mount that fits between the top of your tripod and your camera. By moving ‘with the stars’ it allows for longer exposure times without the possibility of star trails. Without one, you can expose for only up to 15–20 seconds per image. You won’t capture as much light or detail, and in some settings you may incur graininess. Using a star tracker allows you to expose for minutes on end, introducing richer details with a lack of noise.
Patil typically opens the shutter between 3–4 minutes at an ISO of 800 and F3.2 for ‘wide-area’ shots with a 14-24mm lens. For tighter crops of the core, he’ll use a 70-200mm lens and only expose for 1–2 minutes. He stresses the importance of experimenting with settings.
Star trackers are more common nowadays and are tailored in functionality and price point for everyone from beginners to professionals. This in-depth article from AstroBackyard covers which ones yield the best results plus how to properly use them.
|Photographer Bettymaya Foott doesn’t use a star tracker, nor does she stack images. See below for details on her astro-modified camera.|
Does your camera need astro-modification?
While the Orion constellation may be easy enough to find, how difficult is it to depict accurately? Are there any enhancement tricks to make all its elements visible in an image? It’s true that in a majority of Orion shots I’ve seen, the EXIF data revealed that an astro-modified camera was used to bring out more color and clarity. Is purchasing such a camera or modifying an existing one necessary?
First, what is astro-modification? What is done to a camera, and what does it even accomplish? To get a clearer picture, I asked my professional drone and astrophotographer friend, Drew Armstrong, to explain it in a way that’s easy enough for most enthusiasts to understand.
‘They pull the UV or anti-aliasing filter off the sensor and replace it with a different one that blocks less of the [light] spectrum. The filter that is on the sensor [from the factory] is basically tuned to our eyes. When you use the modified camera it allows the camera to see and to represent more of the light that we cannot normally see with our eyes. And via the camera and [its] software, it allows that light to be visible.’
Armstrong pointed out that it ‘is no different, just on a less impressive scale, than Hubble, the new James Webb or any number of other telescopes – many of which are specific to Microwave, X-ray, gamma ray or radio waves,’ all wavelengths invisible to the human eye.
|Justin Anderson, who leads Aurora-chasing workshops, sent over examples of images taken without an astro-modified camera (top) and with a Canon 6D Mk I that received the treatment (bottom).|
Photographer Bettymaya Foott doesn’t use a star tracker, the device descibed above to permit long exposures without introducing star trails. But she is able to capture her single-exposure night sky images with the help of an H-Alpha-modified Canon R6 from Spencer’s Camera.
‘What inspired me to get an astro-modified camera was that I have always been fascinated by what the camera can see that our eyes can’t,’ says Foott. ‘It is incredible what detail you can bring out in the Milky Way, including the Cat’s Paw nebula, that you just can’t see with human eyes. I wanted to be able to bring out even more of the magic of the night sky in my images.
The most noticeable difference at first was the color balance,’ she continues. ‘It was a lot different than what I was used to shooting with a regular camera for astro shots. The reds and pinks are much more pronounced.’
‘What inspired me to get an astro-modified camera was that I have always been fascinated by what the camera can see that our eyes can’t.’
‘You have to use more color-balancing techniques to get your entire scene to not look purple, but after a while I actually really started to like the purple hues and let it take over a little bit more.’ Foott also claims her astro-modified camera allows her to see more definition in the Barnards Loop of the Orion, which makes shooting it in the winter, with the absence of the Milky Way, that much more fun.
‘You don’t need an astro-modified camera to capture Orion, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt,’ says photographer Nate Luebbe. ‘The most important thing is to make sure your focus is sharp so the stars are crisp, and to keep your shutter speed fast enough to prevent star trailing – likely between 10 and 13 seconds, depending on focal length.’
Catching the Aurora
Another mesmerizing target in the winter night skies is the colorful, dancing display of Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis. Capturing those can be an exhilarating experience.
‘The peak season for Aurora falls roughly between the autumnal equinox [late September] and the vernal equinox [late March],’ explains Melissa F. Kaelin, founder of the Michigan Aurora Chasers Facebook group and co-founder of the annual Aurora Summit. ‘That’s when the Interplanetary Magnetic Field is more susceptible to the solar winds that flow through outer space. Our long, dark nights also make it easier to see the Aurora, which rises and sets nearly opposite of the sun.’
|Melissa F. Kaelin captured this image, on a recent trip to Alaska, with an iPhone 14.|
What gear do you need?
Somewhat surprisingly, Kaelin says that a modern smartphone is capable of capturing a decent image of the Aurora. ‘The tips I would offer: turn off your flash, set it on night mode, use a tripod with a remote if you can find one. This enables you to adjust the phone to the max exposure time possible, [usually up to] 30 seconds. Wait until your phone finishes processing before you adjust or move it.’
Autumn Schrock, who leads astrophotography workshops around the globe, would be the first to agree that owning top-of-the-line gear isn’t a prerequisite for capturing the Aurora. However, there are certain requirements to keep in mind if you’re aiming for professional-grade images. First and foremost, you need a camera body that can operate in Manual mode. You’ll need to play with the adjustment ring until the stars are pin sharp. Autofocus is not capable of this level of preciseness.
Wide-angle lenses (8mm–35mm) are helpful as they give you more of a foreground to frame the sky, while lenses with fast apertures (think F1.8–F2.8) are ideal as they let in a lot of light . A mandatory piece of gear for shooting any image at night is a sturdy tripod. Since you’ll be exposing images for at least a few seconds, your camera needs to be absolutely still without the slightest hint of movement. Any slight shift, while the shutter is open, will create a blurry image.
|The app My Aurora Forecast offers nice displays of the auroral oval, which shows you the best places to view the lights.|
‘Camera settings can be trickier with the Aurora simply because it’s ever-changing,’ Schrock says. ‘A good place to start is between a 2 and 10-second shutter speed and as wide as your aperture can go. My starting ISO is usually around 1600–3200 depending on how bright the Aurora is. For smoother, more ethereal aurora, go with a longer shutter speed, and to catch the many textures of the aurora, go with a shorter shutter speed.’
She’s caught strong Aurora storms with a 1–second shutter and fainter storms at 15 seconds. Echoing what Abhijit Patil mentioned earlier, she says experimenting with settings is important.
Where (and how) to find the Aurora
Schrock and partner Nate Luebbe prefer capturing the Aurora in Norway. Besides the beautiful, mountainous and rugged landscapes surrounded by the North Atlantic ocean, the Nordic country is located within the 67-70º N parallels – directly in the auroral oval.
These longitudinal parallels mean that Norway, along with Sweden, Russia, and the US State of Alaska, are situated 67º North of the Earth’s equatorial plane. While the displays will be more vivid and frequent in these locations, planning ahead is imperative. Apps such as Aurora Alerts, for its solar wind data, and My Aurora Forecast for visual representations of the auroral oval, are useful for predicting where displays are strongest, on any given night, for the best overall viewing experience.
The good news is, you don’t need to be in an area under the auroral oval in order to see the lights. Melissa Kaelin recently authored
|Autumn Schrock prefers the dramatic landscapes of Norway. She uses Sony Alpha 1 and a7R V cameras with Sony G lenses.|
Wrapping it up
When shooting outdoors in the winter, don’t forget to layer up to avoid frostbite, bring hand warmers along, and wear a headlamp with a red light to view your surroundings without disturbing others. Always be wary of your surroundings at all times. And note that it’s not always guaranteed that you’ll capture the lights. We’re outside of our comfort zone, remember?
But that’s why it’s a good idea to have a backup plan. If you’re waiting around in the freezing weather and the Aurora decides not to appear, well, try getting the Orion constellation instead.