Photography Tips for the Tacoma Aurora

The saddest people in Tacoma today are the few who went to bed before 11:00. What happened last night was a once-in-a-lifetime experience—unless of course it happens again tonight. I got to Point Defiance just before 10:30 last night and I’ve never seen so many people out on the promenade, even in the daylight.

Families were cozied up on camping chairs, kids were laying on the ground, and everyone with a camera and tripod was set up with their widest lenses pointing to the northwest. I’m not going to pretend to be a scientist and I’m checking the NOAA space weather forecasts as much as everyone else, but if it gets anywhere close to what it looked like last night, I’d say it’ll be worth staying up for.

There was a period of time around 10:50-11:30 when even the most steadfast atheist was at least open to the idea of God. For anyone who has seen the aurora borealis above the Arctic Circle, this probably still paled in comparison. But seeing it right here in Tacoma, on the warmest night of the year, with a thousand strangers who, for that brief moment were your closest friends, was absolutely incredible.

ISO 1600, f2.8, 3.2 sec.

But here’s the deal: if you didn’t see it in person, or you missed the peak, you may be feeling confused or misled by the pictures you’re seeing today. Now that I’ve actually seen this in person and photographed it, I can tell you with confidence—and respect to any fellow photographers—that the pictures that come out of a camera are always going to be an enhanced version of what it looked like in real life at that moment.

When it comes to nighttime photography, it’s extremely difficult to replicate what the human eye sees. Or more accurately, it’s impossible for the human eye to see what a camera lens can see when it’s taking long exposures with exceptional light sensitivity.

So just in case it happens again tonight (or you go see it somewhere else in the future), I wanted to share some technical photography tips and general advice (keep your cursor off that saturation slider) that might be helpful for making some good photos.

General how-to-see-it tips:

  1. First and foremost, if you saw some wispy clouds way up high in the sky, chances are high that you were actually looking at the aurora. What looked pale gray to you looked green or purple to my camera. This is because the cells in your eyes that work more in the dark (rods) don’t do color like the cones do in the daytime (more about that here if you’re curious).
  1. The further you are from light sources, the more likely you are to see anything, color or otherwise. I couldn’t believe how many people were sitting literally under street lights trying to watch for the aurora. If you can get out into the middle of nowhere, that’s the best. But anywhere in the city that’s far from streetlights, cars, businesses, etc. will help. 
  1. Give your eyes time to adjust to the darkness. It can take 20-30 minutes to get fully acclimated so if you’re cruising down Ruston Way and you expect to see something right when you pull over and get out, you’re going to be disappointed. Turning the brightness down on your phone or camera display will help keep your pupils good and dilated.
  1. Look around! General advice says to look north but a lot of the best stuff I saw was actually to the west. I also had trees to my back so I didn’t see the curtains of light coming straight down until later that night when I was in my backyard.
  1. Stay up late! I can’t imagine how disappointing it must be for people who hung out until 10:30 and decided to call it a night. It was fully visible to the naked eye right around 11:00 and, based on a GoPro time lapse I set up later that night, it got pretty bright again sometime between 2AM and 5AM. Check the NOAA forecasts for the best data.
ISO 1600, f2.8, 6 sec.

Photography tips:

  1. Using a tripod is obvious but they can be expensive and there are lots of options out there. If you don’t have a tripod or don’t want to buy one in a hurry, a couple bags of rice will hold a camera fairly steady in a pinch.
  1. If you are going to run to a camera store and load up, you could also get either a remote or an intervalometer. The intervalometer will let you shoot time lapse if you’re into that kind of thing. A remote (wired or wireless) will help keep your camera steady during long exposures. Even on a tripod, it can wiggle a little from you pressing the shutter button.
  1. Shoot on RAW! If you’re shooting JPG, you’re missing out on a huge amount of data that will translate to flexibility when you’re working on your photos later. Trust me, it’s worth the cost of a new hard drive to store all the giant files. You’ll need Photoshop or some equivalent software to work with it but it makes an enormous difference.
  2. Wide angle, large aperture lenses are your friends. I was shooting f2.8 for most of these on my 16-36mm lens. The larger the aperture, the shorter your shutter speed and lower your ISO needs to be. The aurora moves surprisingly fast, especially if you’re looking straight up, and if your exposures are too long you’ll lose definition in the color bands and pillars.
  3. ISO is going to be the biggest variation from camera to camera. Generally speaking, the lower the ISO, the better the photo quality. If it’s too high, it’ll get grainy/noisy and you’ll lose saturation and detail in both highlights and shadows. But if the ISO is too low, you’ll have to compensate by having longer exposure times.
  1. You’ll need to set your lens to infinity on manual focus and that can be difficult when it’s totally dark out. Remember that autofocus looks for points of contrast, though, and you can usually get it to focus on a faraway point of light or even someone’s phone if they’re standing at least a few yards away. Once you know you’re focused all the way out, set it to manual and you should be good to go. Just don’t forget to check it! I shot about 250 incredible photos over 20 minutes for a time lapse that ended up being useless because I accidentally nudged the focus ring while I was repositioning my camera. 
ISO 1600, f2.8, 4 sec, out of focus 😭
  1. One of the shortfalls of smartphone cameras is the auto white balance. White balance basically tells your camera what “white” should look like and thus what all the other colors look like. For example, a white shirt lit by candlelight looks different than it does in sunlight. So when your camera is shooting the night sky, it’s going to have a hard time getting the colors right. So if you’re able to, be sure to set your white balance to flash or daylight. That will ensure your colors are accurate and as close to the real thing as possible.
  2. Last but not least, if you’re doing any kind of post production on your photos (JPG or RAW) please, pretty please, with a cherry on top, don’t go crazy with the saturation. It’s already one of nature’s most incredible phenomena. It doesn’t need any help. Sharpness, clarity, maybe a little dehazing, and that’ll make it good and pretty without adjusting any saturation or vibrance.
ISO 1600, f2.8, 6 sec.

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