Aurora Timelapse Workflow

Aurora Timelapse Workflow

I am fairly new to time-lapses but have tended to hit the ground running :), this workflow is what works for me but do note that like many things there are probobly 100 different ways to achieve the same thing so this is by no means the only way to do a timelapse. Nonetheless this is what has worked for me in capturing timelapses of the Aurora Australias (the Southern Lights) from Coastal Victoria, Australia.

 

The Weather & Location

Being able to shoot an Aurora does very much depend on the weather and your location, to see the aurora you need to be in a coastal area which is facing south (for the Aurora Australias) with very little light pollution (i.e. not in a major city). Depending on the strength of the Aurora you can often see these from the South Island of New Zealand, Tasmania, and if it is stronger you can occasionally see it from coastal victoria or Western Australia.

The Aurora Borealis occurs in the northern hemisphere (and to see it you need to be facing north), whilst I have not seen this one, it is visible from being close to the center of the Arctic Circle such as Alaska, Canada, Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden and Finland

In all cases, it needs to be dark (i.e. ideally not a full moon) with little light pollution from nearby cities, and for there to be little cloud cover. Fairly often I have recieved an Aurora alert but because of 100% cloud cover it is not visible, or of course it occurs during the day….

To check cloud cover, I tend to use a website called meteoblue through their “Astronomy Seeing” forecast. In the link here, is the forecast for Melbourne, the main thing you care about is the Cloud Cover. An Aurora is not always visible, as it depends on solar wind from the sun, so most people look at some of the Aurora forecast services or Apps. The Australian Bereau of Meteorology has a page which allows you to find out more and sign up to alerts here, whilst the space weather prediction centre of the US national oceanic and atmospheric administration have a 3-day forecast here.

There are also a number of different apps and websites that can give you an idea of the forecasts, these include (but are not limited to):

 

The Hardware

I tend to shoot my time-lapses on my Nikon D610, this is my backup body (as I now use a Sony as my main shooter) so i figured it made sense to use the Nikon. The lens used varies based on what I am shooting but often for capturing the Aurora I will use a Nikon Nikkor 16mm Fisheye. I power the camera through a battery grip in which I have a dummy battery that connects to an external battery bank which I can power the camera and one USB-A device from.

In terms of the control of the camera, I have been using the Arsenal AI (V1) to control the camera settings and do the holy grail timelapses, you could use another device like a tablet with qDSLR Dashboard or something similar though. There is a second generation Arsenal AI coming out soon, so once that arrives I will likely use that.

For support, I typically either use the Platypod Max and attach the camera to a sturdy railing, or failing that then I use my Manfrotto 190Go (but I tend to prefer to keep that free so i can use that for the Sony).

I should note: I am about to change the dummy battery to one which uses a USB-C dummy battery so I can connect directly into my main external battery bank (Supertank Pro)

 

The Optimal Settings

The biggest challenge with these time-lapses is that the settings you typically require for capturing the aurora are different to that of capturing a sunset, and as the light reduces the shutter need to become longer and the aperture becomes wider (i.e. a lower number). With respect to photographing the aurora itself, typically you want to shoot with a DSLR in manual mode (and manual focus), I have heard of people managing to capture with a mobile phone but it does need to be a newer phone and it tends to be much harder.

 

The Camera

The camera itself doesn't matter too much as long as you can put it into manual mode, more recent cameras are preferred however you can still get good results from entry level DSLR's so I am not going to focus too much on the camera. I have captured the aurora with a Nikon D5300, Nikon D610 and a Sony A7R IV.

 

The Lens

Usually you will want to use a fast lens (something like f/2.8 or lower ideally) and something fairly wide; 13-30mm for a full frame camera and between 10-25mm for an APS-C (crop sensor camera). Because it will be dark you will usually need to put your lens into manual focus mode and focus to infinity (often referenced on the lens as ∞).

In my timelapses I am usually using my Nikon Nikkor 16mm fisheye (since it is one of the widest lenses I have), if I am not using that lens then I usually opt for the Tamron 15-30mm @ 15mm.

 

The Settings (for the Aurora)

  • Your lens should be as wide as possible (ideally something like f/2.8 if you can go that fast)
  • Set your white balance to manual (between 3000 – 5000 Kelvin)
  • Depending on the intensity of the Aurora, your shutter speed will need to be between 1 – 30 seconds (ideally 1 – 15 seconds), do note that the longer your shutter speed to more detail you lose so you want to use the fastest shutter speed you can, in my timelapses I have used up to 30 seconds but in reality I would have done better to increase the ISO and make the shutter speed faster
  • ISO should be between 500 – 3200, depending on your camera you may be able to go higher but the higher you make your ISO the greater the amount of noise so you want to make this as low as possible
  • Turn of in-camera noise reduction
  • Use a hand-held shutter release & tripod of course, if you don't have a hand-held shutter release you can use the 2 second self timer.

 

Because of the difference between the optimal settings from sunset to the Aurora you will often need to change your shutter speeds, ISO and aperture as you are going. For this reason i tend to recommend working smarter (not harder) and using either an App or an accessory to help, below has information on Holy Grail exposure ramping.

 

Holy Grail Exposure Ramping

Holy grail exposure ramping refers to the technique where you adjust your shutter speeds, aperture and exposure as it either goes from day to night, or night to day. Typically during the ligher hours (i.e. sunrise / sunset) you will have faster shutter speeds than when it is fully dark and your shutter speeds will be longer, your ISO higher, and your aperture wider.

You could manually adjust your settings between shots but in my mind that is a painful process, you could also try something like aperture priority but that can struggle when the light is rapidly changing. Some triggers (which are more like intervalometers) let you change the shutter speed dynamically, but these have no feedback so if the shutter speed is wrong then they don't know that it should be adjusted.

The third option is to use a smart trigger, or smart software to help with the exposure ramping. With most of these utilities or peices of software they run on a device (i.e. a tablet, or the smart trigger itself) and connect to your compatable camera. Before it takes the shot it takes a look at the exposure levels and adjusts the settings within the range you specify to achieve the best exposure it can, this way as the light changes, the smart trigger or software changes your camera settings to reflect the best exposure.

Whilst this is not an exhuastive list, below are the things I am aware of that allow you to achieve this, of course these may or may not work with your camera so you should always check:

 

Post-Processing

There are a significant number of apps that can be used for post-processing your timelapses, at their heart they take each of the images and create them into a movie, where there are typically around 24 frames (i.e. still images) per second of timelapse video.

Whilst the above is true, this is over-simplified as often timelapses require tweaking to improve their quality. When light rapidly changes if not addressed this can introduce flicker into the video, and often you will also want to do some post processing to improve color, white balance and a range of other image parameters (even as simple as cropping) before being made into a movie.

In my case, I use a peice of software and Lightroom plugin called LRTimelapse. Whilst I only touch the surface of what this software can do, basically it allows you to set ‘keyframes' which is a shot that defines the start or end of a transition. Whilst this sounds complicated it means that you can set a number of frames within lightroom and specify where you want to change the color, or exposure, or other parameters and the software will apply that from where your keyframe is until the next keyframe, or the end of the timelapse.

For example, I might want to reduce the highlights in an image where there are car trails but only when it starts getting dark. To achieve this I can set a keyframe around that point, and change the highlights to decrease them, LRTimelapse will then progressively change the highlights so it is a gradual transition to that point rather than an abrupt jump. I can also do the reverse so when it starts to get light I increase the highlights back to normal by finding the keyframe near that point.

There are a range of other timelapse utilities I am aware of, this list is not exhaustive (and not all are free) but includes:

 

The Results

Below are a few of the aurora timelapses I have captured, doing them again I would make sure I have a cleaner sensor (dust spots are a right pain), and also use faster shutter speeds rather than maxing at 30 seconds: