It is very difficult to see aurora. Firstly, you need to stay in the wilderness in freezing temperature for long hours. Secondly the solar activity needs to be strong. Last but not least, the sky needs to be clear. Indeed clear sky may actually be the key factor – as you can protect yourself from cold by warm clothes and normally there will be solar activity whether it’s strong or weak. Yet if it’s cloudy, you have no chance.
There is one thing which is more difficult than seeing aurora – and it’s shooting aurora! Trust me, the aurora you see in most pictures (including this one) is brighter than the real one people could see. No, it’s not because the photographer cheated. It’s because the sensor of a camera can absorb more lights than our eyes. Since it is actually very dark around, composition and focus are very difficult. Also while the picture might look great on your camera’s LCD, it would be very different when you see it on a computer.
Shooting aurora is difficult enough and shooting it with a lower end camera makes it close to be impossible. I shot this one with a Nikon D90 using ISO800, F2.8 and 25 secs exposure. I’d want to have a shorter exposure but ISO1600 or above was simply too noisy. Even with ISO800 the noise level was high so I did some noise reduction which reduced the sharpness a bit. Also you can see some unwanted “star trails” as the stars had moved in 25 secs.