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Photographing the Aurora Borealis over the New Forest

Updated: May 15

Well, I never thought I would be making a blog entry about the Northern Lights in the UK, let alone as far south as the New Forest in Hampshire !

I've never really been interested in chasing the Northern lights in the UK as to be fair this far south the showing, whilst super rare is often very poor and just not my cup of tea.

However on Friday the 10th of May, 2024 there was a lot of chatter going on about an extremely large solar flare event that could possibly cause a showing of the aurora borealis of epic proportions, even as far south as here.

I didn't pay much attention to it at first as I had heard it all before but after hours of hearing the same thing and having so many of my photography friends asking if I was going to shoot it I got drawn in a little bit, then a lot.

northern lights new forest
Moonlight Aurora Borealis

I have always had a bucket list wish of seeing the Aurora Borealis in all its glory somewhere like Norway or Iceland but never the UK, but it was fast becoming apparent that there might actually be such a showing that it could rival these amazing countries and there northern locations.

I downloaded a few apps for aurora alerts and true enough, they were off the chart and alerts constantly popping off.

I have never really been a night sky photographer, I have dabbled with it a few times but it didn't give me the same sort of thrill as good light and a sunrise does but equally, I really didn't want to miss out on this event as it sounded like a once in a lifetime event.

I knew the basics of it all, the 2 biggest requirements were face North and go to a dark sky location with as little light pollution as possible.

I know several locations in Dorset that would be suitable for this, but I also knew they would be rammed full of people and thats absolutely my worst nightmare so I decided to think outside the box a bit.

The New Forest came to mind, a vast sprawling landscape full of interesting oddities and hopefully a lot less people.

A plan was made to visit a loan tree which I felt would be a good subject for the shot and also had a couple of back up locations close by just in case it didn't work out.

The camera was charged, everything was removed from the bag that I didn't need to make it as light and mobile as possible.

The F2.8 15-35 was added to the bag and off I went to the New Forest in search of the Northern lights !

I arrived around 9 pm and headed down to my favourite lone tree, around a 30 minute walk so as I got there it was just getting dark but still had that delicious twilight mood around it.

I knew I would probably have to wait for an hour or so before it got really dark before I saw anything so I decided I was going to try a few compositions to work out which one I liked best before the light completely went.

There was one major problem, the midges ! They were everywhere and in numbers the likes of which I have never seen before, my entire body felt like it was being attacked by these horrible creatures.

no problem, I always have mosquito spray in the ruck suck so I smugly reached in to get it only to realise in my haste to lighten the bag as much as possible I had accidentally left it at home, There were new swear words invented at that moment.

I decided I would just tough it out........for all of 5 minutes ! It had gotten so bad I just couldn't take it any more, there were angry swarms of insects going potty and every single one of them had me as its chosen dinner.

I'm not usually that bothered by them but this was unbearable and I decided it just wasn't a viable option to shoot there so a move was in order, but believe me I was on the verge of packing up and going home as it was that uncomfortable.

I walked half a mile or so to another location with an old dead tree and a big old oak tree that I felt would work well and to my surprise there were far less midges there despite it being close to a body of water, there were still lots but it was at a manageable level of uncomfortable.

I set up and took a test shot, by now it was pretty dark and way past the blue hour.

Nothing showing of the predicted Aurora Borealis yet, just a blue sky with a small tinge of amber from the city way in the distance.

After about another half an hour of waiting around just watching and seeing nothing I took another test shot and to my surprise it was orange/red in the sky, not visible to the eye but it was very clearly there, I increased the ISO to 2000 and a 8 second exposure and there it was, visible Aurora Borealis, at this point you could have knocked me down with a feather and I suddenly became very excited at the prospect of what was going to happen.

Now its important to note here, up until this point I really wasn't that bothered in shooting it, I was very much take it or leave it and if I missed it then it would have been no biggie.

The whole drive down there was no real excitement, I felt nothing which surprised me as I have been looking for new things in my photography to try.

The second that I saw that the Aurora borealis was actually there though, my excitement was off the scale ! I was suddenly very into the moment and the photography again, something I have really been missing recently.

Now another factor I haven't mentioned here is that I had just done 6 mornings in a row of 3 am starts due to workshops and it being bluebell season which I tend to go all out for so I was beyond tired and could have easily skipped the shoot in favour of a well earned rest.

I was flagging thats for sure, until I saw the first signs of the Northern lights then all of a sudden it was like I had drunk a couple of cans of Red Bull mixed with sugary coffee as I was buzzing and felt alive again.

The composition I had wasn't great, it was OK but not great so I decided I would move to a couple of old dead trees that had been on the radar for a while but I hadn't shot them so I made my way over to have a look and to be fair they looked pretty good.

Old gnarly twisted branches that looked like something out of a horror movie, I got down low in order to get the hang of the branches in the best way in the frame and looked North.

Thats when I got my first sighting of the Northern lights with the naked eye, It was no more than a flicker really, you could see a couple of beams but no real colour, just a slight twinge of red/magenta in the sky.

I composed the shot and set it at F2.8, ISO 2000 and did a 6 second exposure as I didn't want to get much star movement and the sensor performance on the Canon EOS R5 is really good in low light and doesn't produce too much noise so I was fairly confident I could crank it further if I needed too.

I clicked the shutter release cable and waited for what seemed like an age, and when the shutter finally finished its exposure and the image came up on screen I was absolutely blown away, the colour in the sky that the sensor was able to pick up was vibrant and vivid, it was the most wonderful hues of magenta just catching on the way down, this was the beginning.......

Aurora Borealis New Forest
The Beginning......

I realised I needed to adjust my composition to be a bit more north, and checked the compass on my phone to confirm this and repositioned slightly, a composition that I didn't like as much but It had a far better showing of the Aurora Borealis so I went with it and again hit the shutter and waited.......

The colours were absolutely off the chart, greens, blues, magentas all dancing in the sky and brighter than you can imagine, it was absolutely insane and left my jaw wide open.

I was joined by another photographer who was making similar noises of disbelief and I said to them, People will never believe these shots aren't a photoshop, it just looked so vibrant.

photographing the Aurora in the new forest
The Aurora Borealis colours were off the chart

I stood for ages taking shot after shot and not varying the composition as I was completely mesmerised by the colour display in front of me and just couldn't snap out of it.

I finally tried a few variations of the composition in an effort to mix it up but it wasn't really working for me and I didn't want to waste the opportunity of a lifetime here.

northern lights Hampshire
A different point of view

I was looking around for a new composition, and I happened to look behind me, facing south, somewhere where the Aurora shouldn't be, but I could already see the shafts of light in the sky albeit no real colour except a small tone of magenta near the top so I span the camera round and recomposed to a shot that was visually much more appealing to me with the two trees side by side looking downhill and again excitedly clicked the shutter release.

Aurora Borealis in the New Forest
Northern Lights on full display

Waiting for the camera to expose the shot it felt like Christmas, I was giddy like a child waiting to open Christmas presents and see the surprise that was in store for me, and for once I knew it wouldn't be socks!.

When the camera finally revealed the image I was again absolutely elated at the wide colour spectrum that was on show, it was all the colours ! Like a nigh-time rainbow above the trees with very visible beams, these were emphasised by doing shorter shutter speeds and increasing the ISO to 3200, the longer I left the shutter open the more blurred the colours were, obviously really but this was all new to me and it took a second to work out how to get the best out of the scene presented to me.

Northern Lights new Forest
The Watchers

I played around with exposure times, unsure if I preferred the silhouette look or exposing to get some foreground, it was all a giant learning curve so I tried many things to see what worked best for me, one thing was for sure, I was glad I had got the F2.8 version of my lens instead of the F4 as I was able to get that critical faster shutter speed.

At one point there was even a moon in shot which was incredibly hard to expose for but I tried all the same and still quite liked the result.

After a while more photographers turned up and It made moving round the subject very tricky as you don't want to get into someone else's shot and on top of that there were a lot of torches being shone on the subject (Please don't do this) which was killing the shot so another move was called for and I headed over to a small pond that I hoped might give me some nice colour reflections.

As I strolled round I could see there was another photographer who had the same idea and he too had found many new swear words that night due to the epic conditions, he kept saying I have to go as I have work tomorrow, followed by I'll go in five more minutes, He was still there after I left uttering profanities to the Aurora gods !

The pool wasn't quite still, there was a bit of a ripple on it but a slightly longer exposure would take care of that and smooth it out a bit more.

The Aurora was kind of over half the pool, then a bit of a gap then a bit more of it, there was also great colour behind it but I couldn't really go there as I would have been in the other photographers shot and lets face it, that wouldn't have been ideal for any one and manners shown, are received back (In theory).

Aurora Borealis
Aurora Reflections

I took a slightly side on picture to show the contrast between the sky with no Aurora and the other side which was lit up like a Christmas tree but I knew what I really wanted was to try a panorama across the pool so thats what I set up for next.

Panoramic Aurora Borealis
Panoramic Aurora Borealis

The Aurora was still in full swing but I was not, I had been up for 24 hours and was badly flagging so I decided to call it a day and head for home before I made myself sick.

Now it might seem like a strange thing to do, to go in the middle of one of the most amazing sites that happens so rarely but I cant stress just how beaten I was at this point and more & more people were turning up to either photograph the Aurora or just to watch but it was getting a bit too much for me so I hit the road.

While driving back I couldn't help but get the feeling that I wanted to get at least one Aurora Borealis shot from my beloved Dorset, but I knew it would be busy, but this was once in a lifetime so I decided I was going to go for it, and you can read about that in the next instalment HERE

All my pictures from the New Forest can be seen HERE

And if you fancy a print of this amazing occasion you can get one HERE

Northern Lights prints to buy


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