Ah, panoramas. They work so well on flickr due to their weird layout algorithm. So combining the panorama technique with the Northern Lights can only ever be interesting. Let’s explore which conditions suit a Northern lights panorama then we will consider some techniques to help to get the best results.
Milky way and Auroras at Jökulsarlon, South Iceland.
Just like regular panoramas, aurora panos require planning and correct judgement (in other words, the photographer has to decide that this is the best way of representing the scene). The main challenge for any Panorama photographer is changing conditions, i.e. conditions which change while you are in the process of taking a panorama. In regular panorama photography, this could be waves on a beach or clouds in the sky. With regular panorama photography, the photographer might deal with moving clouds by taking the sky frames quite quickly to minimise the movement between frames. For the waves on the beach, the regular panorama photographer might take a range of shots to improve the chances of a good match. This is a decision which has to made by the photographer at the location, it requires judgement and forethought.
But, what about Auroras? Northern Lights offer even more challenges because if the aurora display moves, it may never appear in the right place again! Because the exposures are going to be long, this is a real challenge with a high failure rate. This is why it is important to choose the right kind of conditions for Aurora Panoramas. Before you decide if the conditions are good, you need to establish your sky exposure. If the Aurora is strong and you have up-to-date gear, you might be able to get the sky exposure down to a few seconds. It is important to take a few frames at this stage. Then run back through the frames to see how much movement there is in the Northern Lights. If you can see minimal or no movement between each frame, then these could be great conditions for a Northern Lights panorama. If there is large movement, but in a central area, then it could also be worth a shot.
Just like regular panoramas, it is very important to be in manual mode so that you can have exactly the same exposure/aperture for each frame.
You should experiment with the brightest frame to establish the exposure you will use across your panorama. You should be in manual focus anyway for Aurora photography. I like to be systematic with Panoramas, shooting from left to right with about 30% overlap between frames.
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It can be even more difficult to keep the camera level in the dark, so invest in a Vello Three-Axis Hot-Shoe Bubble Level. Even better to have a camera with a built in electronic level. The system on the Canon EOS 5D Mark III DSLR Camera Kit with Canon EF 24-70mm f/4L IS USM Lens is fantastic.
If possible, I try to make each frame a composition in its own right. With Aurora panoramas, it is best to avoid close foreground objects. Firstly, they add an extra challenge of multiple exposures if you want to present the object well. Unless the object is way off to the right or left of the panorama, i.e. in only one frame, you could have issues with parralax (unless, of course you have a panorama head).
Here are the un-processed frames from the above shot.
I exported these as TIFF files from Adobe Lightroom with a reduced contrast – this gives me more post processing control. It is important to create the panorama before all post-processing, therefore it makes sense to minimise early Lightroom processing for better photoshop control.
This was a shot from the same evening with 2 horizontal frames.
And another from a year later.