We call them the Northern Lights. Aurora Borealis.
They are the lights of the northern hemisphere, or, the ‘dawn of the north’. They enchant seemingly all of us, some from afar, while many are lured to the various outpost bailiwicks where the lights become visible in a tidal wave-like storm of color in the clear, jet black night sky.
“The sight filled the northern sky; the immensity of it was scarcely conceivable. As if from Heaven itself, great curtains of delicate light hung and trembled. Pale green and rose-pink, and as transparent as the most fragile fabric, and at the bottom edge a profound fiery crimson like the fires of Hell, they swung and shimmered loosely with more grace than the most skillful dancer.”
-PHILIP PULLMAN, The Golden Compass
Many cultures across time have legends to explain the lights. Cave paintings in France – thought to date back 30,000 years – have illustrations of the event. In medieval times, the occurrences of auroral displays were seen as harbingers of war or famine.
The Menominee Indians of Wisconsin believed the lights marked the location of manabai’wok -or giants – who were the spirits of great hunters and fishermen. The Inuit of Alaska believed the lights to be the spirits of the animals they hunted: the seals, salmon, deer, and beluga whales.
In 1616, the astronomer Galileo used the name “aurora borealis” to describe them, taking the name of the mythical Roman goddess of the dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the wind of the north, Boreas.
The science behind the aurora is an interesting tale as well, and should also be told here. The lights are actually collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere.
While Earth is constantly being bombarded with debris, most of the time the planet’s magnetic field will deflect rays and particles, including those from the sun.
Particles discharged from the sun travel 93 million miles toward Earth before they are drawn toward the magnetic north and south poles. As the particles pass through the Earth’s magnetic shield, they join with atoms and molecules of oxygen, nitrogen, and other elements, resulting in the glittering presentation of colored light in the night sky.
Variations in color are due to the type of gas particles hitting one another. The most common, a sort of pale yellowish-green, is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the earth, so not all that high up there, right? All-red auroras (which are very rare), are produced higher up at heights of up to 200 miles! Nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red aurora.
“Aurora had but newly chased the night,
And purpled o’er the sky with blushing light.”
-JOHN DRYDEN, Palamon, and Arcite
Seeing that this is a photography blog, let’s take some time now to get to the reason we’re discussing the Aurora in the first place.
We want to photograph it, of course!!
So, what are the considerations when looking to photograph this event? Let’s break things down in order to highlight three elements that we feel are very important:
Planning, gear, and technique.
Planning. Where are the lights best photographed, and when is the best time of year?
Clear skies, dark nights, and prime location make Fairbanks, Alaska one of the best places in the world to view the Northern Lights. While the light shows can be spectacular in other places such as Iceland, Denmark, or Finland, we at Backcountry Journeys view Fairbanks as the number one place to photograph the Aurora. Fairbanks boasts the clearest night skies in Alaska, and its prime location directly underneath the Auroral Oval makes it second to none.
We time our Ultimate Northern Lights tours so that it occurs during the best month of the year to photograph the Aurora, and we schedule it to coincide closely with the new moon for the darkest skies possible. Although predicting the Aurora is fickle at best, statistically March is the best month for viewing the Aurora and photographing these phenomena under the clearest skies. The Northern Lights are always present, but late winter is typically the best time due to lower levels of light pollution and the clear, crisp air.
Gear. What do we need?
You’re going to want a camera capable of shooting great images at higher ISO levels. Most modern digital cameras can, but check yours out prior to heading up to the arctic! Full frame sensors will give you the best quality in concert with that high ISO, but as we mentioned in our previous blog post, buying a full-frame is not necessary to get great “frame-worthy images.” The wider angle lenses are best because they will give you enough “reach” to capture as much sky (and landscape) as possible.
Since you will be photographing in the dark you’ll be working with sometimes longer exposures and shutter speeds. We’ll call a tripod essential for this photographic situation, as it is with most landscape and wildlife photography. You’ll really want a nice, solid tripod. This will be helpful to prevent any blurring while providing the best stability in awkward locations with potentially crazy weather conditions. A remote shutter will also be nice in order to eliminate the potential for vibration from your pressing the shutter.
Technique. What are our best camera settings?
When photographing the Northern Lights you’ll want to use a wide-angle lens. This lets you capture both the landscape and the sky in one shot. When the Northern Lights are strong you’ll also notice that they stretch all over the sky and it’s impossible to capture all of it in one image, unless you use a wide-angle. During nighttime photography, you want to use an open aperture such as f/2.8 to allow enough light to reach the sensor.
The shutter speed depends on the strength and movement of the Lights, so this will be pretty dynamic (lots of changing, moving parts) while in the field. You’ll want to consider your shutter speed versus ISO so that you don’t lose detail if the lights are changing quickly, which can create some blur if your settings are a bit off.
Set a cool white balance of something like 3000-4000 Kelvin.
Sounds so simple, right? But it’s so not cheap to travel to these locations, what if I get out there and just can’t quite get it all just right. It won’t be as satisfying if I don’t get that perfect image.
If you choose to travel with Backcountry Journeys for a trip up North to photograph the Aurora Borealis, we will of course be there to help with the best professional instruction available, in the field as we are shooting the event together! And, of course, handle all the other details like timing, food, and lodging.
On our Ultimate Northern Lights tours, we switch gears and photograph at night while sleeping during the day. Each night after a hearty Alaskan dinner we will head out to search for the Aurora. Although we stay at a nice hotel in Fairbanks our evenings are spent at remote cabins with access to great photographic compositions and so you can quickly return to the cabin and warm-up when the Northern Lights calm down. When the Aurora comes on strong we head out to photograph!
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Havasu Falls, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone National Parks as well as in the Grand Staircase Escalante in southern Utah. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, newspaper photographer, and writer. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.
Don’t miss the next session of BCJ Live!
Managing Your Photo Library (rescheduled)
with Russell Graves
Tuesday, Jan 25th, 2022
11 am – 12 pm Mountain Time