North and South Bubbles as seen from Jordan Pond in Acadia National Park.

Capturing Aurora: Coming to a Sky Near You!

Northern lights are on the bucket list of many people to see and experience. Traveling to Alaska, Norway, Iceland, and other northern points are certainly one way to fulfill this, but if you do a little homework to prepare yourself you may be rewarded and get to see the show without the need for a passport or expense of an airplane ticket. Capturing the display will make for a wonderful visual memory to always have.  Here are some pointers to get you on your way to making your best shot of nature’s very unique light show in the sky.

The key to getting the perfect photo is understanding exposure. You need a camera capable of making long exposures in order to collect the dim light. Just as you would use a cup to collect water from a faucet, think of your camera as being a collector of light when you “make” a picture. (I always say “make” rather than “take” a photograph, because you’re creating visual content by doing more than pushing a button.) We usually capture an image in a fraction of a second under bright daylight – it’s like filling a cup under a high-pressure fire hose. Light from Aurora is like a dripping faucet and just as you would need to hold the cup under the faucet for a long time to fill the cup, the same is true with your camera to collect enough of the dim light to make a favorable exposure.

For DSLR camera settings – I start around ISO 1000, Daylight White Balance, try 10 seconds at f/4 as a working starting point and adjust from there. Capturing in Camera Raw mode will give you the maximum editing capabilities after you make your image. Auto focus will likely not work and may actually prevent the camera from shooting, so disable that function – usually it is a switch found on the lens. Use the Live View function and manually adjust the focus to make some bright star sharp in the electronic viewfinder. Alternately, adjust your lens to the infinity mark but not beyond or your stars will look like blurry snowballs. A good tripod is a must to keep the camera steady for the anticipated longer exposures. If you don’t have a shutter release cable, consider using the timer function in the camera and Live View mode together to mitigate any camera motion when pressing the shutter button. A fast f/2.8 or better wide-angle lens is preferred but a fast 50MM will work too.

There are apps for smart phones that will allow for long exposures and it is worth looking and installing one of those before going out to capture an Aurora. Most Android cell phones have the ability already installed. If you have an Apple phone you may need to download a free app such as Adobe Lightroom that restores many camera functions that were not included. Also, there are adaptors that will let you mount your phone to a tripod and it’s worth investing in one of these handy mounts if you only plan to use your phone. Most cell phones have an option to trigger the shutter with a simple Voice Command that will leave the phone motionless. Capturing in Raw mode or Digital Negative [DNG] is important to be able to make more adjustments later when editing your image.

Planning where to take the picture is very important. In general, any place with a good look angle to the northern horizon and with low light pollution is where I would begin. It’s worth scouting out places on a map and visiting those places in the daylight. Grab a compass or use the one in your vehicle or GPS to help you locate a place with the northerly exposure.

The sky needs to be free of cloud cover – if you cannot see stars, then you will not see the Aurora. Also, the moon phase is important as a partial or full moon can wash out the ability to see the dim lights of an Aurora.

Aurora is NOT a seasonal event – it comes in about a 21-year cycle and can be visible any month of the year. The year 2025 is the predicted coming peak for Aurora activity, and like an incoming tide, there are always some rogue waves, so to speak, that are a little higher than the rest. We are experiencing this now as the cycle continues to peak.

The Kp index is an indicator of the Aurora activity. You can find the current state anytime and sign up for alerts by going to this website:

Sometimes, this will spike during the day, and were it not for the sunlight, we could actually see the Aurora more often. The higher the Kp index, the lower in latitude the Aurora display may be visible. When the index goes to 5, the Aurora can be visible in northern Maine – primarily Aroostook County and into Canada. An index of 6 puts the visible Aurora on the horizon in the Midcoast area and to the west through the lakes regions. When the Kp index approaches 7, you could expect to see a possible Aurora in Southern Maine. With an index of 8 and above, it’s possible to see Aurora overhead in southern Maine and possibly further south into southern New England. The Kp index is only updated in three-hour intervals and if you see a rising trend it’s worth going out to look as there can be momentary spikes where you may catch a view of the lights.

The three optimal conditions of having a cloud-free sky, a new or setting moon, and a higher Kp index does actually happen more often that you think. If seeing Aurora is on your bucket list, it is best to keep an eye on all three factors and know with the coming peak that the odds of seeing Aurora in your sky is looking pretty good.

Even if you are not successful capturing the Aurora, there still are other elements that are worth trying for, such as the Milky Way. You can create some wonderful nighttime images just using a cell phone as well and that’s just one more bucket list item to forward to this summer.

Story by Michael Leonard, a certified night owl who feels right at home shooting pictures after the sun sets and before it rises. His course, AfterDark, details all you need to make pictures at night. See more of his course offerings under the Events Tab at his website

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