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Explainer: How to photograph the northern lights

Robert J. Lype, Jr.
Taken March 19th, 2012 at 1am in North Pole, Alaska. We had a North Pole Police officer pull over and check on what we were doing out in the middle of the street.
Lara Poirrier | Northern Source Images
March 2012 northern lights.
Photo courtesy Colin Tyler Bogucki
Aurora borealis dancing during the early hours of January 22, 2012. As seen from the Elliot Highway.
Lara Poirrier | Northern Source Images
Aurora viewed at Point Woronzof in West Anchorage, dancing over Fire Island in Cook Inlet.
Frank Keller photo
Northern Lights dancing above the Knik River early morning April 25, 2012.
Courtesy Arlen Ayojiak
The northern lights in March 2012 at milepost 201 on the Parks Highway.
Tracy Petersen photo
The northern lights and full moon.
Photo courtesy Colin Tyler Bogucki
Aurora borealis over Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Sam Amato photo
Northern lights dancing over Palmer, Alaska, on Jan. 24, 2012
Andrea Humphreys photo
Northern Lights dancing above the Knik River early morning April 25, 2012.
Courtesy Arlen Ayojiak
The northern lights in winter 2012.
Lucie Steiger photo
Northern lights near Cold Foot, Alaska.
Photo courtesy Mike Criss, akphotograph.com
Northen lights over the North Slope
Ryan Soderlund photo
Northern Lights over Talkeetna Airport, 2-18-12
Photo courtesy Josh Martinez
Aurora timelapse over Valdez April 24, 2012
The Living Alaska Project photo
The northern lights in winter 2012.
Lucie Steiger photo
Aurora near Cold Foot, Alaska.
Photo courtesy Mike Criss, akphotograph.com
Northen lights over the North Slope 2
Ryan Soderlund photo
Northern Lights over Bethel on January 25, 2012.
Joe "Jojo" Prince photo
The Northern Lights near Cantwell on April 12, 2012.
Courtesy Todd List
The northern lights in winter 2012.
Lucie Steiger photo
The aurora over North Pole, Alaska.
Photo courtesy Lara Poirrier, Northern Source Images
Aurora borealis over house.
Sam Amato photo
Northern lights dance over Bethel Alaska during the solar storm in January of 2012.
Joe "Jojo" Prince photo
The Northern Lights in Nikiski, AK on March 9, 2012.
Courtesy Leon Richard
Aurora in Eagle River. March, 2012.
Photo courtesy Curtis Bingham
A rocket launched from Poker Flats to study the northern lights heads skyward.
Photo courtesy Lara Poirrier, Northern Source Images
Northern lights over the North Slope
Ryan Soderlund photo
Cherry red aurora borealis over the Elliot Highway during the early hours of January 22, 2012.
Lara Poirrier | Northern Source Images
The northern lights dancing over a home in Fairbanks, Alaska, during St. Patrick's Day weekend 2012.
Brandon Lovett photo
Northern lights over the Cordova harbor on March 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Chelsea Haisman
February aurora over North Pole, Alaska.
Photo courtesy Lara Poirrier, Northern Source Images
Northern lights over the North Slope
Ryan Soderlund photo
A red hue to the aurora borealis over the Elliot Highway during the solar flare event of January 2012.
Lara Poirrier | Northern Source Images
A stunning display of the northern lights from Fairbanks, Alaska. March is prime time for aurora viewing, especially during the two weeks around new moon.
Brandon Lovett photo
Aurora in Eagle River. March, 2012.
Photo courtesy Curtis Bingham
February aurora over North Pole, Alaska.
Photo courtesy Lara Poirrier, Northern Source Images
Northern lights dance over the mountains at Hatcher Pass, Alaska
Sam Amato photo
Traditionally, a good time for viewing and photographing aurora borealis activity 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.
Brandon Lovett photo
Captured from Birch Hill Cemetery in Fairbanks, Alaska, this photo shows that sometimes, no trees or background are needed, the beauty of the northern lights can stand alone.
Brandon Lovett photo
Ursa Major Amongst Aurora. Hatcher Pass, AK March, 9 2012
Photo courtesy Rick Antonio
Northern Lights outside of Delta Junction on Feb. 18, 2012.
Photo courtesy Andrew Downing
Northern lights over Hatcher Pass in the Mat-Su
Sam Amato photo
March 20th marks the first day of the spring equinox during which northern lights viewing is at its peak.
Brandon Lovett photo
The northern lights were so beautiful in Anchorage around 3am.
Photo courtesy of Moira C. Choi
Aurora outside of Delta Junction on February 18, 2012.
Photo courtesy Andrew Downing
Northern lights over Bethel, Alaska on January 25, 2012
Joe "Jojo" Prince photo
Photographers, it's time to get out your cameras! Prime time for norther lights viewing is during March around the spring equinox. The best time for photographing this wonder is between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m. but with the increase in solar activity, you could catch a glimpse of them pretty much whenever it gets dark.
Brandon Lovett photo
March 2012 aurora from Chena Hot Springs Road.
Photo courtesy Thomas Popple
Aurora borealis over Healy, Alaska on Feb. 18, 2012
Bob Lype photo
Shot this back in October 2011 at Beluga Lake in Homer about 2am. Have not seen recent activitiy here (during January 2012 solar storms) due to cloud cover and snow.
Steve Young photo
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 for a glimpse at these amazing displays in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Brandon Lovett photo
The northern lights from Shishmaref on March 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Ken Stenek
Northern lights dance over Cook Inlet at West Anchorage's Earthquake Park
Frank Keller photo
Aurora borealis dances in Alaska during January 2012 solar storm
Rebekah Cadigan photo
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.
Brandon Lovett photo
Northern lights during a March 2012 solar storm.
Photo courtesy Sandee Rice
Northern Lights over Talkeetna Airport, 2-18-12
Photo courtesy Josh Martinez
Northern Lights over Talkeetna Airport, 2-18-12
Photo courtesy Josh Martinez
The northern lights came out in North Pole for Valentine's day one day early. Feb 13, 2013
Courtesy Lara Poirrier / Northern Source Images
At times aurora borealis activity comes in spurts. For all you photographers out there braving the cold, hoping to get some good pictures, don't head out or give up after the first show. Instead, consider heading back to your car and warming up.
Brandon Lovett photo
The Anchorage light pollution and moon were no match for this brilliant show!
Photo courtesy Holly Weiss-Racine
Northern Lights over the Elliot Highway on January 22, 2012
Lara Poirrier | Northern Source Images
Taken up near Chatanika, north of Fairbanks, on Jan. 21, 2012
Sandra Osborne photo
The northern lights came out in North Pole for Valentine's day one day early. Feb 13, 2013
Courtesy Lara Poirrier / Northern Source Images
Brilliant green northern lights can be seen from Birch Hill Cemetery in Fairbanks, Alaska. Watching these lights dance across the sky is one of the few events Alaskans have to look forward to during the long, dark, cold months of winter.
Brandon Lovett photo
Northern lights over Palmer on March 8, 2012.
Photo courtesy Thom Swavely
Aurora borealis in Goldstream Valley, Alaska, during January 2012 solar storm
Rebekah Cadigan photo
Lara Poirrier | Northern Source Images
The northern lights came out in North Pole for Valentine's day one day early. Feb 13, 2013
Courtesy Lara Poirrier / Northern Source Images
This photo was taken from Fairbanks, Alaska, a popular viewing place for Alaskans and visitors alike to sneak a peak at the lights. In fact, Fairbanks is such a popular location that some hotels offer wake up calls so you won't miss prime viewing time.
Brandon Lovett photo
Northern Lights from Earthquake Park, March 6, 2012.
Photo courtesy Christy Hedrick
Northern lights over Anchorage
Ryan Soderlund photo
Shot with a 1981 Canon Ae-1 over a 10-minute exposure period at Denali National Park, Alaska on Jan. 17, 2012.
Finney Kimsey photo
The northern lights came out in North Pole for Valentine's day one day early. Feb 13, 2013
Courtesy Lara Poirrier / Northern Source Images

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