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Wild Aurora Camping in Donegal, Ireland

Text and images: Bren Whelan, Wild Atlantic Rock Climbing & Photography

I'm sitting alone inside my tent which is perched on the edge of a 200 foot cliff at Ireland's most Northerly Point, Malin Head.

Below me, the wild Atlantic's roar breaks the silence of this wild and isolated location where I have chosen to come in search of Mother Nature's most mystical light show...the aurora, aka the northern lights.

It was Galileo Galilei, that named the Aurora Borealis in the early 17th century . He took the name from Aurora, who was the Roman goddess of dawn, and Boreas which was the Greek name for the north wind. At this time he thought an aurora was caused by the sunlight being reflected from the atmosphere.

The display of coloured light is actually caused by the interaction of the solar wind, and the Earth's magnetic field, and atmosphere. It occurs as the solar wind carries electrons, from the sun's atmosphere into space.

These charged particles/ions are drawn into the Earth's magnetic field, particularly at the North and South magnetic poles, and down into the Earth's ionosphere (upper atmosphere). When the particles collide with gasses in the atmosphere energy is created. Some of this energy is given off in the form of light emissions, - the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights.

Aurora can vary in colour and they can be red, green, blue and violet. Different colours are produced when the charged particles collide with different gasses, in the atmosphere, mostly compounds of nitrogen and oxygen.
The light shows can take various forms, some of the most common types are arcs, bands and curtains.

The 5 Factor Aurora Rule...

In order to be successful in seeing the aurora borealis, the following factors must all be in place, these are:

1. Solar conditions - this is essential, no solar storm, no show, always wait for the actual impact to happen and watch for live reports too on Twitter.

2. You must have clear skies to the north.

3. You must be away from light pollution.

4. Patience is important when it comes to aurora hunting, you need to let your eyes adjust to the darkness for at least 30 mins. Both of the images used here, were taken 4 hours apart! And the show was visible to the naked eye!!

5. Information is key to knowing when the 'lights' are happening. Follow @Aurora_ireland on Twitter for the best Irish information and news feeds.

The 7 Photographic Tools You'll Need...

Photographing the Northern lights requires some reasonably decent equipment, because a mobile phone camera will not work!

Here is a list of what's required in order to capture the 'lights'.

1. A camera that you can set to manual

2. A camera that allows you to adjust the ISO settings

3. A camera lens which you can manually focus (auto focus does not work at night), a lens at F1.4 to F2.8 are ideal.

4. A sturdy tripod

5. A remote trigger or cable release, you can self timer, but the other tools work better.

6. Fully charged batteries, keep the spares warm inside your jacket

7. A head torch, you do a lot with your hands, these are great for letting you change camera settings.
Lights, camera, action...

5 Camera setting to help you capture the 'lights'

1. Set your aperture as low as possible i.e. F2.8

2. Set your ISO to a minimum of 800 and a maximum of 1600. *The higher the ISO the less sharp your image will be!

3. Focus your camera on a good foreground feature that is close to the camera, if you have a 'live view' function on your camera use it and shine your torch on the object to make focusing easier.

4. Turn off any image stabilisation settings that your camera or lens might have.

5. Set your exposure time to between 5 to 30 seconds, the best setting will depend on your lens type.

*The longer the exposure time is, the bigger the increase in cloud and star movement.
Now work your way through these settings, work from the lowest to the highest and see what your results are like. In the image review try zooming in to see if the image is sharp and the focus points are clear in there detail.

The next solar storm is upon us, if you go hunting, good luck and wrap up warm!

© Bren Whelan
Wild Atlantic Rock Climbing & Photography
Facebook / Twitter

*Visit also: www.visitinishowen.com/northern_lights for more details & a Step by Step Guide to chasing the Northern Lights in Inishowen.