Photographing the exquisite colours and majesty of an aurora is high on the bucket list of most nature and landscape photographers. So we were thrilled when Chimu Adventures invited us to join them on their Southern Lights by Flight tour to photograph the spectacular Aurora Australis.
We boarded a Boeing 787 and headed out over the Southern Ocean on a 12 hour round trip. Experiencing this natural phenomenon from the air was breathtaking and a unique experience we won't forget.
Capturing an aurora from an aircraft window demands a little skill, lots of preparation and patience, and some luck. The good news is that we've put together all the tips we picked up on our trip so you can go in with a better idea of what to bring and what to leave at home.
We took along four full-frame lenses to cover our bases:
We essentially only used the 35mm prime lens. The wide-angle zoom was just too slow to be useful, and the extra light that the f/1.2 aperture offered came in extremely handy. We left the other two lenses in the bag.
We would recommend anything in the 20-85mm range with a preference leaning on the wider angles. You might be tempted to bring something even wider, like a 16mm, but oftentimes the aurora is not filling your window, so you might want a tighter field of view.
For speed, think f/2 or faster. If you are wanting to get away with your basic DSLR and kit lens, we would strongly recommend against it. A simple, fast prime is not terribly expensive. The f/3.5 max aperture on most kit lenses is simply not fast enough to give you a nice and well-defined image for the sacrifice in shutter speed and ISO.
Speaking of ISO, a body with good, clean high ISO performance will go a long way. A modern mirrorless camera with in-body image stablisation (IBIS) is also highly recommended for the shutter speeds we’ll be dealing with. We took along a full-frame Sony Alpha 1 and a Panasonic S1R.
Photo by Lachlan Tang from the Team CameraPro
We shot handheld for the flight. Naturally, for most landscapey subjects, you might think a tripod is a must. However, we were on a standard layout for an international flight, and there was no way to fit a tripod comfortably in that space. We forwent a tripod for this reason, but we did spot a suction mount on the flight, which is a neat idea, although we can’t comment on its efficacy.
Bring lens hoods for your lenses. Another great idea is a flexible rubber lens hood. Again we didn’t bring one, but we did meet a few who did, and it helped immensely with the reflections from the cabin lights.
The lights from the inside of the aircraft are your biggest enemy. You might think to bring a circular polariser to alleviate reflections, but forget it; you’ll want to harness as much available light as possible, and any sort of light blocker makes your job that much harder.
We made sure to take plenty of spare batteries and memory cards. You might get a few hours of shooting in and possibly capture hundreds of images if you’re lucky on the night. Nothing worse than running out of storage or battery and wistfully looking out the window for the remainder of the experience.
When you first spot the aurora, you might take a few moments to recognise what you’re looking at. With any luck, the pilot will be above the cloud layer to get as clear an image of the aurora as possible.
For us, with mortal night vision, we saw light grey bands of shifting and shimmering light across the sky. Some reported seeing colours with their naked eye. Still, most won't because, let’s face it, human night vision is not particularly impressive. It’s only when that light is captured through a camera do the colours really come out.
What you might get out of camera (35mm | f/1.4 | 1sec | ISO6400) VS. What you might see with your eyes
The settings you’ll want to use will be similar to ones you’ll find doing astrophotography but with a few caveats. A fast lens here will help greatly. We shot all our images below f/2. f/1.4 is fantastic to have, but you can go as slow as f/2.8 and still have reasonable settings. ISO3200 and above is also a necessity, we went as high as ISO12800, but how high you go will depend on your grain tolerance.
The shutter can go as high as 5 seconds, any slower, and you’ll risk the plane’s movement and Earth's rotation from smearing the stars across the sky. This is where a body equipped with IBIS can help greatly, as hand-holding any camera for more than a half-second shutter is extremely difficult. Now it is tempting to think you can push your lens right up against the glass for stability, but the engines’ vibrations rule that option out.
You’ll discover that it is useless to try and take a photo whilst the aircraft is turning as your angle of view will change as it does. If your shutter is open while the plane starts a turn, you’ll have to consider that photo lost, unfortunately.
Also, if the plane is going through turbulence or a rough bit of air, you’ll see that the wing will become blurry and less defined as it wiggles and jostles in space. These difficulties may seem daunting, but thankfully the aurora doesn’t move very quickly. An example of the settings you might use is f/1.4 | 1sec | ISO6400. Of course, this matters heavily on the intensity of the light you are looking at, but these settings are a great start.
Whether shooting from the sky or the ground, we hope that these tips may help if you get an opportunity to see this amazing phenomenon. If you are interested in flying with Chimu Adventures on the next Southern Lights by flight, you can find the tickets and timetable for the next events here. We want to thank Chimu Adventures for the opportunity to bring you our experience on one of their flights.
Want more advice about Shooting from the air? Just ask one of our experts!