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Explainer: How to photograph the northern lights

Robert J. Lype, Jr.
Aurora borealis dancing during on Jan. 22, 2012

HEALY -- Our sun is approaching its peak in sun spot activity this winter and producing some awesome night-light shows. This winter's aurora borealis hasn't been a let-down, so far, and we haven't even hit "peak season" yet, which tends to occur around the equinoxes. Alaskans are fortunate: the northern lights enhance our winter skies and give us something to anticipate on long, cold nights.

Capturing the aurora borealis with a camera may seem complex, but it's a fun family-friendly activity that also encourages everyone to get outside. Here are a few tips for finding good locations, forecast watching and camera handling to capture ideal northern lights photographs.

Location

Location is a key factor when preparing to photograph the northern lights. A clear shot of northern and eastern skies is helpful. As activity increases it normally starts from the east as Earth rotates into the aurora. If you need an excuse for a road trip, pack up the camera gear, bundle up the kids and head out beyond the city lights.

In Anchorage or Fairbanks, outskirts above the cities make for an easy quick trip. Up north, Pedro Dome is also considered a popular spot.  North of Fairbanks might seem an extreme trip but the experience is, oftentimes, worth it. In the Mat-Su Valley, Hatcher Pass is easily accessible and known for good photo opportunities. But there are lots of others -- just look for cars parked along the roads on nights with good aurora forecasts.

Be courteous and switch off your car lights. They can interfere with efforts of others. You should also consider turning your car off altogether: exhaust at low temperatures can cause ice fog, impeding the viewing experience and photography.

Looking for a true adventure? Leave the car and the crowds behind by skiing or snowshoeing to an awesome spot with a great setting. (Remember to let someone know your plans and destination, and check-in when you're back safely). An inexpensive, child's plastic sled makes a great transport for all of the gear you might need; just extend the ropes and drag it behind.

Forecast

For beginners, moonless nights and clear skies are best. The moon can work to one's advantage, though, lighting up the foreground and making a pleasing photograph. That said, full moons tend to be bright enough to overcome the lights, so try and plan your shoot for a week with less moon light.

Partly cloudy skies can also provide great conditions for depth in your aurora photos. This takes some practice once you view some of your photos you will be hooked and want to add to the experience.

Traditionally, good times for aurora viewing and photographing is between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. But don't bank on it: during strong solar storms aurora can be seen at all hours once the sky darkens.

Camera considerations

A digital single-lens reflex camera is best suited for photographing aurora. Point-and-shoot cameras will work but they have their limits. Camera phones are not suited for this task unless the activity is really strong.

Remember that old camera manual you stashed away after you figured out the most basic features? Dig it out: you're going to need it. If you don’t have the manual find your way to the camera manufacturer's website. Bring it out to the shooting site. How about a tripod? If you've got one, dust it off and figure out its use before you're out in the cold, where the plastic becomes brittle and has a tendency to break in extreme temperatures. Point-and-shoot users will find a mini tripod sufficient; if you plan to use your car to steady it, make sure and turn the car off, first.

Point-and-shoot cameras have their advantages and disadvantages. Use a manual setting if you have one. Adjust the camera's ASA/ISO (film sensitivity); turn off the auto-focus, vibration reduction and auto flash. Get familiar with your camera's controls. Adjust exposure and aperture settings (refer to manual).

If manual settings aren't an option, most modern point-and-shoots have a fireworks setting, which, if the aurora is bright enough, will yield astonishing effects. Don't get discouraged if all you see is a black screen, there is hope in the end.

Camera batteries in the cold lose power real quick; having a spare is an all-around good investment. Long exposures drain the battery. So does the cold. At 40 below zero, a camera battery lasts around 20 minutes. Placing the battery in your coat pocket often will warm it back to life in some scenarios.

Keep a Ziploc bag handy for storing your camera (make sure it fits). You'll need this after capturing the photos in the cold. Placing it in a Ziploc keeps condensation from forming inside the camera.

Make sure your in-camera storage media card is clear of any other photos. Long exposures require a lot of room.

Lenses, shutters and film speeds

Wide angle lenses are best suited for the northern lights. A lens over 50 millimeters will limit your viewing area. Remove lens filters -- they block some aurora qualities you're trying to capture as well as a small percentage of the light. Lens filters can also produce what's known as a ghosting reflection between filter and front glass of the lens.

Automatic focus is absolutely useless for aurora photography -- make sure it's disabled. Most lenses have a manual focusing ring. Rotating a lens's manual focus clockwise will set it to infinity. A good rule of thumb is to rotate the lens to infinity and then back it off just a hair. Keep in mind that as you move the camera around in the cold, the focusing ring may need to be reset to infinity.

Most novice camera lenses have an f/stop (lens opening) around 3.5 to 5.6. Set your lens aperture to the lowest number.

On film speed: a good starting point is 800 ASA/ISO. Activate high speed noise reduction, which will clean up the photo. Some cameras do this automatically. Some cameras also have a long exposure noise reduction function. If yours has it, turn it on.

When photographing northern lights, keeping camera movement controlled is paramount. Remote shutter release is one way to keep movement minimal. On DSL cameras, mirror opening and closing creates most vibrations in long exposures. There are other options, though. Most cameras are equipped with a self-timer. Set it to a short time and push the shutter release to minimize camera movement. If "mirror lock up" is an option, use it.

Reminder: Turn off vibration reduction (VR). It's a bad idea. VR will try to compensate for the movement as well as use up valuable battery power.

Shooting and exposure

Shooting the northern lights requires some testing for the novice. It's time to start! If the preview shows up black, do not, repeat, DO NOT, delete. Your camera will capture more than meets the eye. Due to long exposures, cameras record a lot more than the eye can process, and more than likely you won't be able to see it on the camera screen.

A good starting point is at 800 ASA/ISO, at 15 to 30 seconds with a lens aperture at f3.5. This, like everything else, depends on the aurora's brightness. You're going to have to adjust the exposure times until you find the sweet spot. The brighter the lights, the less exposure time is needed. A good rule of thumb: if you look at the snow and it's reflecting the the color of the northern lights, exposures need to be around 5 seconds. Adjust the exposure time rather than the aperture. If your preview shows up dark, add more exposure.

In the event that your camera won't allow you to shoot past 30 seconds and your results come up dark (which will likely happen with some novice cameras), adjust the ASA/ISO to a higher number. This will resolve the issue.

Common mistakes to avoid

  • When setting your camera exposure time to seconds, keep in mind that oftentimes, fractional seconds are indicated with the " sign and full seconds have no corresponding punctuation. So a 15th of a second will appear 15" and 15 seconds will appear as 15.
  • Save yourself time and pain: set your camera up prior to heading out into the sub-zero Alaska winter temperatures.
  • Once you've found a good exposure setting, avoid looking at the preview. Doing so wastes critical battery life.
  • At times aurora borealis activity comes in spurts. Don't head out or give up after the first show. Instead, consider heading back to your car and warming up.
  • If you do warm up, don't take your camera with you. Leave it in the cold but remove the battery and warm it up for the next round. Rule of thumb: once the gear is out in the cold, leave it out.
  • Keep the battery as warm as possible at all times.
  • Don't forget to turn off the headlamp while the camera is making an exposure.
  • Don't forget to focus. Your auto-focus should be off while photographing northern lights.
  • Don't breathe on or around the camera. Condensation will form on the optics at cold temperatures.
  • Keep your dog restrained. Dogs and tripods don't mix.

Robert Lype Jr. is a freelance photographer in Healy, Alaska. Contact Robert at hazbob43(at)hotmail.com