We call them the Northern Lights. These lights of the northern hemisphere, or, the ‘dawn of the north,’ enchant us all.
Some see images of the lights and wish for a chance to catch a glimpse ‘one day.’ Others 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. They come to bear witness. They come to photograph the display. They come to feel the electricity and the wonderment the Aurora silently provides.
Various cultures across time have legends that help 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 wind of the north, Boreas.
The science behind the aurora is an interesting tale as well. The lights come from 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.
So, what are the considerations when looking to photograph the Northern Lights? Let’s look at three we find most important: planning, gear, and technique.
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 like Iceland, Denmark or Finland, we look to Fairbanks’ clear night skies and its location directly under the Aurora Oval as the number one place to photograph the Aurora. It’s second to none.
We time our Ultimate Northern Lights tours so that we are in Fairbanks during the best months of the year to photograph the Aurora. Although predicting the Aurora is fickle, statistically March and October are the best months.
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. 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. A good tripod is essential for this photographic situation, as it is with most landscape photography. A remote shutter will also be nice in order to eliminate the potential for vibration from pressing the shutter.
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.
Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Olympic, Redwood, Arches, and Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. 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, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and 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.