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How to Photograph the Northern Lights/Aurora Borealis


The Northern Lights are one of the world’s greatest phenomenons that is truly a once in a lifetime experience. There are just a handful of places in the world where you are able to see this awe-inspiring natural event take place, including right here in Alaska. Photographs of the Northern Lights are impressive to say the least, and often leave people questioning whether or not they are real. The bright green dancing lights littered with shades of red, yellow, blue, and violet can be difficult to capture, but if you have the right tools and a good idea about what you’re doing, the end result could exceed your expectations.

It’s safe to say you will probably have a hard time capturing the essence of the Northern Lights with your smartphone, but if you come prepared and with the right equipment, you could leave Alaska with the picture of a lifetime. Before we dive into how to properly photograph the Northern Lights, let’s look at what they are, exactly, and why they are so special.


What Are the Northern Lights?


Known as Aurora Borealis in the north Aurora Australis in the south, the Northern Lights can appear in a series of vivid colors, but most people associate them with a stunning green. The most common colors people see are pale green and pink, which can appear in many different forms, including curtains in the wind, rays of light, cloud-like shapes, and mind-blowing arcs. So, what causes the Northern Lights, anyway? In a nutshell, the lights of the aurora are caused by a collision in the Earth’s atmosphere of charged particles that have been released from the sun’s atmosphere. The different colors are based on the type of particles that find one another and collide in the sky. The green Aurora that most people think of is the result of oxygen molecules that can be found about 60 miles from Earth. The rarest Aurora – that is those that are all-red – is caused by high-altitude oxygen at least 200 mile above Earth.

One other thing to keep in mind before grabbing your camera and heading out to photograph the lights is that there is a pretty substantial connection between the Northern Lights and sunspot activity. This means that changes in temperature and the position of the sun will have a hand in the color of the Northern Lights and how visible they are. Before booking your ticket to Fairbanks, it may behoove you to do a bit of research and see what scientists are saying about the sun and the impact it will have on how the lights are displayed. While we certainly can’t predict Mother Nature, there are certain times of year that are better for viewing the lights simply because of what’s going on in the atmosphere. The Northern Lights can be seen in both the northern and southern hemisphere, but scientists have determined that the lights occur closer to the Earth’s magnetic poles. This is why Alaska is such a wonderful place to catch a glimpse. When the sky is clear and the everything aligns just right in the atmosphere, Alaskan residents and visitors alike will be in for an unforgettable experience.


When Is the Best Time to Photograph the Northern Lights?


As we’ve discussed, the Northern Lights happen as the result of solar activity and specific conditions in the atmosphere. Right now the sun is currently in solar minimum, which has caused many to mistakenly believe their chances of seeing a spectacular display of lights are not as great. While there is undoubtedly a slimmer chance of experiencing a full-on auroral display, scientists say the Northern Lights will still be visible on a nightly basis. The solar maximum will return in 2024 for any truly fanatic aurora hunters who don’t want to take their chances. For those traveling to Fairbanks in 2018 to capture the Northern Lights with their lens, you may want to plan your trip around September or March. Both of these months have a higher chance of witnessing the Northern Lights because of how the Earth is tilted towards the sun. Spring in Alaska is notoriously a good time of year to catch the Aurora because of clear skies and the cool, crisp air. Many people have reported seeing the Northern Lights on a regular basis during the spring, even inland. Here are a few other tips before we move on:

  • Avoid the full moon, as well as the week leading up to it and the week after
    • ○ The sky is often washed out by moonlight during these weeks
  • If the skies are clear, keep a watchful eye trained toward the sky between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m.
  • The best time to see the aurora is around midnight
  • The Northern Lights are at their peak in Alaska between 65° north and 70° north latitude
    • ○ Fairbanks is located at 64° N, putting it in a good spot for a lights display
    • Tip: Charter an Aurora Borealis tour that will take you just outside of the city in right in the line of the lights
  • Scientists recommend avoiding the Anchorage and Juneau until 2024 if you are really wanting to capture the Northern Lights by lens
    • ○ These southerly spots will experience far fewer displays of the lights during the solar minimum, which lasts until 2024
  • The further north you go in Alaska, the much higher of a chance you will have of seeing the Northern Lights

Alaska is a hotspot for those hoping to witness the Northern Lights – especially those who plan to try and photograph the astonishing event – and Fairbanks is considered the capital of the hunt for the Aurora. While you may have better luck going a bit further north, there is something truly magical about the area’s Aurora.


Tip for Photographing the Northern Lights


OK, now we are getting to the good stuff. Whether you are a professional photographer or a novice who is looking to try their hand at capturing one of the world’s greatest displays on camera, there are a few things you should keep in mind when it comes to photographing the Northern Lights. The twisting swirls of greens, reds, and purples combined with the breathtaking curtains of color are an experience you will not soon forget. Millions of people have tried to capture the dancing lights on camera, and it’s easy to see why. Looking up at the sky as the lights make their way all around you is an experience difficult to explain to those who have never seen them firsthand. It’s only natural to want to take a photograph to post on social media or bring home to show all your loved ones. However, it takes a bit more finesse than simply pointing your iPhone towards the sky. In order to truly capture the Northern Lights, you will need to be prepared and have a good handle on what you are doing. With a little legwork upfront and the right equipment, you will find that photographing the aurora isn’t as difficult as you may have thought at the start.

First and foremost, leave your smartphone at home or in your pocket when looking for the Northern Lights. Sure, smartphone cameras have come a long way and many are quite impressive, but when it comes to photographing the Northern Lights your smartphone just won’t cut it. Plus, you risk your phone shutting down in the freezing temperatures of winter in Alaska. Most photographers recommend a DSLR or other manual camera that can be set up on a tripod with a wide-angle lens (10-20 mm is best) and an aperture of f/2.8 or less. Please keep in mind the weather and what the temperature will be. If you are visiting in the winter – or even spring, for the at matter – it may be wise to carry an extra battery or two in your jacket pocket to keep it nice and toasty, should your current battery get too cold and lose life.

If you’ve never seen the Northern Lights before, chances are you will be full of anticipation and wonder. First-timers often report having a difficult time identifying the lights, sometimes mistaking a cloud for the once-in-a-lifetime aurora. If the lights are just starting to light up the sky and they are too subtle for you to tell exactly what is going on quite yet, it may be a good idea to snap a picture with your camera. Your camera is more sensitive than your own lenses, so if it is in fact the Northern Lights, your camera should be able to capture a much greener display than what you are seeing in front of you. While a full on aurora is unmistakable, the subtle displays can be a bit tricky if you are less experienced.


How to Get the Perfect Shot


The perfect shot is all about how you set it up and what equipment you are using. While even the most novice of photographers can set up their DSLR on a tripod, point it towards the sky and start clicking, the best images require patience and preparation. A good wide-angle lens is an absolute must if you want to capture the lights in their magnificent form. Many people wind up disappointed after trying to photograph the Northern Lights, as what they’ve captured often looks like a bunch of green clouds in the sky. If possible, try and capture a static building or other structure in the background, as this will make the lights pop and result in an undeniable picture of the aurora.

Once you have your shot lined up and feel good about your chances of seeing the Aurora, it’s time to have some fun! Get creative with your photography and don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Hey, a Northern Lights selfie may even be something to try your hand all. All you need is a 10 second shutter delay and you should have a shot thousands will cover on Instagram.


Setting Up the Shot


Now that you’ve got your bearings and you are ready to go, let’s look at how to setup your camera. Be sure and remove any filters you may have on your lens, including the UV filter, as they will likely result in a messy photograph. While every photographer has their own preferences when it comes to setting up the perfect shot, one of the most important aspects is exposure. The exposure will most likely depend on the light and what the sky is doing, but a good option is setting your camera on manual and using the live view setting to make sure the lights are in focus. Set your ISO to somewhere between 800 and 3200 and make sure your aperture is somewhere in the middle of f/2.8 and f/5.6. Opinions differ here, but we like the shutter speed between 15 seconds and 20 seconds for a truly magnificent effect. Again, all of these settings will depend on your personal preferences, but this is a good place to start. Be sure and take a look at your pictures as you are snapping them, as you may need to adjust if you have either an overexposed or underexposed image.

Getting the perfect shot takes practice and may not come right away – and that’s OK. Keep in mind that the Earth is a moving object, as are the stars. While the stars are impressive in themselves up here in Alaska, your focus should be on the aurora. There are a couple different schools of thought when it comes to capturing the Aurora without all that other stuff (like stars). Some say to make sure the ISO is set as low as possible and don’t leave the shutter open for too long, as this could result in star trails and a noisy picture. However, others recommend a higher ISO and faster shutter speed in order to capture the Northern Lights in their truest sense.


Problems to Avoid


In addition to cloud, there are a few other common problems that photographers will want to avoid, if possible. Unwelcome ambient light is one of the biggest issues photographers run into up here in Alaska. This light can have a negative effect on your images, which is why it is best to get outside of Fairbanks and away from the lights from the city. Take one of the chartered trips mentioned above, or just make sure you are in a dark open space with some trees or maybe an abandoned building in the foreground. Another mistake beginner photographers make when trying to capture the Northern Lights is not bringing a sturdy enough tripod. If you are going on a bit of a trek to capture the lights and don’t want to haul too much with you, make sure you make room for your tripod and a shutter release mechanism. These two pieces of equipment are absolutely critical to the success of your images.

The Northern Lights are sporadic and unpredictable, making them one of the most highly coveted natural phenomenons to capture. If you are lucky enough to be in Alaska when the lights are at their peak, or if you are planning a trip to capture the Aurora, it is imperative you are prepared for many different scenarios. While we are currently in a solar minimum, there will still be many chances to capture the lights over the next several years. The Northern Lights are highly dependent on how strong the solar flares are, as well as how frequently they take place. As a photographer  traveling to Alaska, you must be prepared to jump in your car every night for an Aurora encounter. Before you head out, make sure you check the weather and pay attention to cloud patterns and the moon. Capturing the Aurora is not impossible, in fact it is relatively straightforward if you take your time preparing and have the right equipment. If you do happen to get lucky enough to capture the Northern Lights, we would love to for you to share your pictures with us. The Aurora never gets old, even for those who have seen it time and time again. Happy photographing!