From Early May through mid-August, those of us who live in the Arctic regions of this planet experience what we refer to as the Midnight Sun. Truly, unless you are actually above the Arctic Circle Latitude 66, the sun does really set, for a couple hours, but it’s so close to the horizon, that the effect is a long twilight from sundown to sunrise, and there are no stars present in the sky. Then suddenly, mid August, the night’s finally get dark enough to see a few stars and even catch a random Aurora. So, it is with great pleasure that the last weekend in August, the Earth was hit with a Geomagnetic Storm and with clear skies overhead, Alaskans all over the state, go outside to watch the Lady dance across the sky!
Many of us rely on tracking websites, like Spaceweather.com, UAF Geophysical Institute gi.alaska.edu , and Solarham.net to plan our evening photo adventures. Avid sky watchers utilize these sites to plan ahead for sky related phenomena, and don’t forget your favorite weather app. We can have the most spectacular Geomagnetic occurrence overhead, but if the weather is socked in, you’re not going to see a thing! There are also a half dozen or so social media pages devoted to the Aurora for sharing photos and experiences for folks of all levels of experience.
So, you’ve booked your trip to Alaska and you want to see the Aurora, where do you go and how can you see it? Most people will attempt to get away from the city, town, neighborhood lights. Reality check: with the increase in communication towers, and the occurrence of houses and cabins, the only guaranteed way to accomplish an Aurora scene with no light pollution is to get off road and deep into the bush. Not an option for most of us, so I choose to embrace the available sky I have and learn to make it pretty.
Another factor to consider is the setting and composition. Just like any other natural image, you want to have an idea in mind of what you’re photographing. There’s not always going to be a lot of detail in your foreground, unless the moon is shining or you use some spotlights to enhance a nearby feature, but shapes are visible. You may also have to contend with the wind. Higher elevations are known for their better sky views, but with higher elevations comes more wind. Nothing is more frustrating than coming home, throwing the images up on the computer and realizing that with all that wind, not only was the Aurora moving but so were the trees. Even perfectly still on a tripod, a 4 second exposure in the wind, and nearby trees will have too much motion blur. Under those conditions it’s best to try to find an open landscape with no nearby artifacts that can distract the eye from the image.
Photo Equipment: You do need to pack some gear. Your camera and lens need to have a manual mode. You will need a sturdy tripod, and preferably a remote trigger. Depending on the weather, you should also include a lens cloth, to wipe of condensation as the nighttime climate changes, and if you are operating in sub freezing conditions, a bag or wrap for your camera before you go from the cold into a warm building.
Non Photo Equipment: Other items, include a small penlight, I prefer red because red light waves don’t travel as far as white and if I’m shooting in an area where there are other photographers, it’s easier to edit out a red spot then a white blob. You need to dress for the conditions; warm water resistant outerwear, thermos of hot fluid, remember you’re just standing around, your core will get cool if you don’t keep it warm. This weekend, I chose our local Migratory Bird sanctuary. Parts of it are boggy and there are some ponds surrounded by trees. After the recent August rains, the pond water level is up to the tree-line, so in order to position my camera outside of leaves and limbs, I have to wade just a bit into the water.
Camera Settings: That’s always a loaded question, it really does depend on your equipment. Most photographers will prefer to open the aperture all the way to let in as much light as possible. This allows you to capture more sky details and keep that exposure time under 10 seconds. My favorite lens for Aurora shooting is my f2.8/20mm. Depending on the speed and intensity of the Aurora show plus the presence of Moon (or not) will determine your ISO. I’ve shot some beautiful images with ISO 400, under a full moon. More often though, my ISO is either 800 to 1600. I’ve experimented with 3200 and 6400 ISO and found that I can actually capture the Milky-way but then I’m combating a lot of image noise. Exposure time is a big issue. after 15 seconds, the stars begin to take on that jellybean shape. Too short, and you have a dark noisy image, too long, and your Aurora is just a blob across your image.
The Aurora has different speeds as well. When its heated up and racing across the sky, anything longer than 4 seconds results in an undefined blob. When it’s gently flowing across the sky, you can take a good 5 to 13 second exposure and capture more stars, and features in the landscape.
Post Process: I don’t know a single Aurora Shooter who displays an image straight out of the camera. If you’re shooting within 5 miles of population, you’re going to have light pollution. Even though we don’t see it, every town has a light curve that will affect your images. So you need to decide if you’re going to balance your lighting just a tad post process. You will also find that shooting in higher ISOs will produce a certain amount of grain (noise), so you want to learn how to balance the noise in your post processing.
That I suppose is the quick basic overview of photographing the Aurora. Based upon your camera gear, if your experiment around, you will find some favorite settings. I’m always pushing to get the best balance of ISO to shortest exposure time with the least amount of noise. The enclosed images with this essay are from this weekend, August 31-September 1. Location was Creamers Migratory Bird Refuge, located just on the outskirts of Fairbanks. The weather was fluctuating from 50 degrees to just less than 40, causing a mist to rise up and periodically I had to check my lens and wipe off condensation.