There is an art to watching the northern lights. Looking for aurora borealis in the Alaska sky is always a game of chance: Even nights predicted to be excellent for northern lights viewing don't always pan out. Clear skies are a must. Light pollution must be minimal. And, of course, the universe itself has to cooperate, as supercharged particles ejected from the sun interact with Earth's thermosphere 60-70 miles overhead to produce celestial light shows.
Northern lights can often be difficult to spot, but as the sun builds toward its highest level of activity -- expected to peak in 2013 -- Alaskans get to enjoy the spectacular light show that begins millions of miles away. Check the aurora forecast from UAF's Geophysical Institute for daily forecasts.
When the stars are aligned, so to speak, spectacular northern lights observation under the vast skies of Alaska can be like nowhere else on the planet.
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. Finding good locations, forecast watching and camera handling are important for capturing ideal northern lights photographs.
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.
More tips and tricks are available in our guide to photographing Alaska aurora borealis.