Budding photographers prep for strong winter aurora

The northern lights are bright over Alaska this winter. And those with a little luck, knowledge and patience can keep their views all year long.

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Phone courtesy UAF Geophysical Institute.
Phone courtesy UAF Geophysical Institute.

It’s 10:30 Tuesday night in a parking area below the Warren Ames Memorial Bridge over the Kenai River. The lights of Kenai twinkle to the north, but the only immediate light comes from the occasional passing car and the sporadic burst of a flashlight clicked on to check camera settings by the handful of people gathered by the riverbank.

It’s a nice November night, clear and cool but not frigidly cold. Even better, the aurora is starting to heat up.

“It’s not really strong right now. We’re getting some greens and we know the aurora is out. It looks a little bit, like, white up there, like it does a lot of times. And the forecast for tonight is hot, so I’m kind of excited.”

Kenai photographer Mark Pierson is leading an impromptu workshop on aurora photography. Nothing formal, just a few people who jumped at the convergence of a clear night, active aurora forecast and a knowledgeable professional to show them how to capture it. But Pierson speaks from experience in cautioning that an active forecast isn’t a guarantee of a good show.

“The aurora’s fickle. You never know exactly what it’s going to do. I’ve been out here in this same spot before and just have sky explode and in five minutes it’s all over and then someone shows up and I’m like, ‘You should have been here 10 minutes ago, you missed it.’”

The budding photographers — Bruce Hardesty and Anna Joy Babcock — are undeterred by the so-far lackluster luminescence. They’ve got tripods and remote shutter releases to take long exposures, making the camera better able to see the aurora than they can with their own eyes.

“We don’t see it right now but you took a picture and there’s the color, how does that happen?” Babcock asks.

“Well, because you have a lot longer exposure,” Hardesty says. “Your eye can’t pick up the color that your camera will with a longer exposure, so you’re getting all the light over 15, 20 seconds.”

“So even if you can’t see it if you see a streak and you take a picture of it, it will show up?”

Some nights, patience is the hardest part of getting a good aurora photo, just waiting for the lights to flare up. When they do, you have to be ready. Pierson advises getting all your gear prepared before you head out — make sure your battery is charged, and bring a spare, hook up your tripod mount and remote shutter release, and dress in lots of layers, with hand warmers and a hot drink at the ready.

Most importantly, know how to operate your camera in manual mode. Automatic settings just aren’t going to cut it. Sorry, smartphone camera-users — an aurora selfie isn’t going to work.

“Three things you need to know to take a good aurora picture, or any good picture, and that’s shutter speed, aperture and ISO. And if you understand those three things you can pick up any camera, anywhere and you can use it and you can take spectacular pictures, and your imagination is your only limit.”

A tripod is essential for low-light, long-exposure photography to minimize image blur from jostling the camera. Once your camera is stable, frame your shot. It could be just the night sky, or aimed lower toward the horizon, with trees, buildings or other imagery in the picture, like, in this case, the bridge and the river below it.

Next, set your focus. If you aren’t somewhere completely remote, find a light in the distance and autofocus on that, then set your focus to manual to lock in the setting. Anything over about 40 feet is infinity to the camera, so focusing on a far-off earthbound light will work for lights in the heavens, as well.

After that, it’s just a matter of watching and waiting.

“Oh, yep, there’s some ribbons starting to show a little bit there,” Pierson says.

“That’s what we see at our house, just like that, but no colors.” Babcock says.

The lights weren’t super bright yet, so they shot to make the most of the dim green glow, aperture at f 2.8, shutter speeds of 15 to 25 seconds and ISO set to 800.

“And then go ahead and take a picture,” Pierson says. “Just press it and take your hands off so you’re not moving the camera. You got the cars going across the bridge, which should be great in your shot.”

The aurora is just passing the high point in its 11-year activity cycle, meaning all this winter should offer good opportunities for viewing and practicing the art of photographing the northern lights. This group was already getting the hang of it.

“I have my first aurora picture,” a student says.

“Good job. That is a gorgeous picture. That’s one you can hang on your wall.”

To see the daily aurora forecast, visit the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute’s website.