Ah, the Northern Lights. Aurora Borealis. Pure magic. Regardless of what you call them, these mysteries of our universe are truly impossible to forget once you see them, and now that I have, I totally understand why people plan entire trips around the sliver of a chance to witness them with their own eyes. The Northern Lights don’t come out for humans to see that often, but February and March are considered prime viewing months in the frigid wilds of Fairbanks. The northern half of Alaska is one of the only places in America where you stand a chance at seeing this phenomenon yourself, and it’s yet another incredible reason to visit The Last Frontier in the winter. Seeing these colored swirls dance across a starry Alaskan sky stirs the soul like few other experiences can, and if there’s one thing you’ll want to do when spotting them, it’s capturing the moment for years to come. Photographing the Northern Lights is no easy task; it’s more like a science, but it’s far from impossible. Read on to learn how I was able to capture the images seen here in the gallery on one bone-chillingly cold night north of Fairbanks.
%Gallery-118384%For one, it’s important to position yourself in a place that’ll provide the best possible chance to spot the Northern Lights. The Northern Alaska Tour Company runs overnight trips to Coldfoot and Wiseman for this very purpose, and Chena Hot Springs Resort — located some 60 miles from the city lights of Fairbanks — also has a specific area setup to view them. But of course, they don’t emerge every single night, and their appearance is both varied and unpredictable when it comes to timing. You can read more on exactly where I camped out to capture these shots here, but the long and short of it is this: Fox, Alaska is just far enough away form Fairbanks to get a non light-polluted view of the sky, and Goldstream Road is known by locals as having great vantage points. If you’re looking for an easy spot to go in your rental car, Fox is it. Here’s a more detailed look at how to reach this spot.
Now, for the equipment. If you’re making the effort to capture the Northern Lights, you’ll need to come prepared. Being that it’s the winter, you’ll need to dress in pretty much everything you have. Spotting the lights requires patience and time. I started my campout session at 1:00am in early March, and didn’t see any activity until 1:40am. Once you see any activity at all, you’ll need to move fast. I saw them dance for around 60 minutes before vanishing, but there are no guarantees that you’ll see them hang around for that long. Heavy coats and pants, thick socks, a face mask and hand warmers are all a must.
Here’s a breakdown of what camera gear I’d bring when camping out to see the Northern Lights:
- A DSLR (two if you have them!); the nicer the model, the better. My gallery here was composed with a Nikon D3S and a Nikon D90.
- A sturdy tripod. This is essential. I know it means you’ll need to check a bag, but you simply have to have a tripod for each camera.
- Wide-angle lenses. Dedicated wide-angle lenses (like Nikon’s 10-24mm DX lens) capture the widest amount of sky, but even a standard lens (like the 24-70mm FX lens) is “wide enough” for most.
- Fully charged batteries. -20 degree temperatures can zap a battery in no time, so make sure you’re at 100 percent before leaving home. If you have spares, bring them!
- Flexible gloves. You’ll need to be able to tweak your camera settings, so make sure you wear gloves that allow you that luxury.
- A remote shutter. This is optional, but having a remote to activate each shot means less opportunity for blur in long exposure shots.
- A flashlight / headlamp. This is super useful for lighting up the buttons on your camera so you can tweak settings in the dark of the night.
So, that’s about it as far as kit. Now, let’s talk settings:
- Widen your lenses as far as they’ll go — you want a vast image, and having the ground / surrounding buildings visible on the lower portion of the shot provides outstanding scale and context.
- Place your DSLR in full manual mode; you’ll want total control over every single aspect of these shots.
- Switch each lens to manual mode, and dial your focus ring to Infinity. Be careful to align that Infinity symbol precisely (rather than just cranking the focus wheel past it).
- Lower your aperture as far down as it’ll go. I’m talking f/2.8, f/3.5, etc. Whatever your lens will stop down to.
- Lower your ISO to 200 – 1,000. This varies greatly depending on the camera, so you’ll need to start at 200 and raise it notch by notch if your shots are simply too dark.
- Adjust your shutter speed to 30 seconds. If your camera will only go to 20 or 25 seconds, you can probably make that work as well. Those with a remote shutter can use “Bulb” mode for even longer exposure shots, but remember, the longer you leave that shutter open, the lower your ISO needs to go (and / or higher your aperture value needs to be) to prevent too much light from “whiting out” the shot.
- Set your file capture type to RAW! This is an extremely vital step. Feel free to shoot in RAW + JPEG if you want both, but RAW files grab the rich blackness of the sky far better than JPEG will.
- Align your shot on the tripod. Peek through the viewfinder and make sure you’re getting the angle you want; I’d recommend various portions of the sky to be in various shots to add some variety.
- Gently press the shutter button, and remain still. Even the slightest shaking of the ground could introduce unwanted blur into your shots, so it’s important to remain still as the long exposure takes place. You can dodge this by using a remote shutter from a distance away.
- Evaluate your results. If it’s too dark, bump the ISO value higher or lengthen the exposure time (i.e. shutter speed) beyond 30 seconds. If it’s too light, raise the aperture value a notch or two or bump your ISO value closer to 0. You could also slow the exposure, but I’d use that as a last resort.
The only other major advice I have is to shoot a lot. A whole lot. You aren’t guaranteed to see the Northern Lights, so if they come out, you need to be quick in your setup procedure and continually fire shots in hopes of grabbing a handful of keepers. You also cannot assume that you have “one great shot” based on what your see on your DSLR’s LCD. Those are often misleading, and can hide subtle amounts of blur that’ll show up later. Take as many shots as you can stand to take, as each one is guaranteed to be somewhat different than the last. If you execute the shoot properly, you won’t have to fiddle much with the shots in Photoshop afterwards. The Northern Lights pretty much accentuate themselves. I’d also recommend a lot of patience, and if you don’t see them on your first night out, try again. Trust me, it’s totally worth the effort.
Have any tips of your own for capturing the Northern Lights? From prime viewing locations around the globe to helpful photography tips, feel free to share in comments below!
My trip was sponsored by Alaska Travel Industry Association, but I was free to report as I saw fit. The opinions expressed in this article are 100% my own.