fbpx

Photographing The Northern Lights

The Northern Lights over Vista House and Crown Point Oregon

I will never forget the first time that I saw the Northern Lights. It was on my first trip to Alaska. I’m talking a real, bright, dynamic display straight above my head and not a faint glow off on the distant horizon like I have seen in Oregon in the past. In Oregon the Aurora could barely be seen with the human eye but was clear to the camera’s sensor after a relatively long exposure.

Trillium Lake Aurora
Trillium Lake Aurora

Photographing the aurora in Oregon required that I set the exposure at around 15-20 seconds on average because of how dim that they were. There was no real definition in the glow nor was there any discernable movement in the light. It was mostly a colorful glow.

Aurora near Hood River Oregon
Aurora near Hood River Oregon

My first real experience with the aurora was on a trip to Alaska to visit my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, who was living near Palmer in a cabin on the edge of the Knik River. My flight arrived at Anchorage at approximately 11pm. Darlene came to pick me up at the airport before we drove to her cabin, arrived there at around midnight. We were sitting in her dining room discussing the lay of the land that surrounded her home when I asked if it would be practical to take a midnight stroll to the river. She said that it would be fun so we grabbed our tripods and cameras and off we went.

The Northern Lights from the Knik River in Alaska
The Northern Lights from the Knik River in Alaska

It was a moonlit night, which would completely cancel any chances of seeing an aurora in Oregon, but I hadn’t even considered that there would be a chance of seeing it anyway. Off we went down a path and through the forest that lined the edge of the river. As soon as my eyes had adjusted to the night and we were about to emerge from the trees I could see a beautiful green light in the sky. When we got to the beach at the edge of the Knik River I was amazed by the scene before me. In front of us was the placid and mirror like water of the Knik River and just beyond in the distance stood the rugged peaks of the Chugach Mountains and above it all was the most incredible aurora. The lights were a vivid green and were moving like curtains in a soft breeze. Over my right shoulder was a moon illuminating the scene. The whole scene was reflected in the surface of the river that slowly flowed past in front of us. Of course I was completely blown away by the view and didn’t know if I should stand and watch it or divert my attention to photograph it. Of course I set up and proceeded to take some photos.

The Northern Lights over Anchorage Alaska
The Northern Lights over Anchorage Alaska

My approach to setting up to get the photos was to start with some longer exposures. That’s the approach that I would take for most any night photos, and was my experience with the aurora here in Oregon, but when I reviewed the photos and looked closely at them the definition of the curtains that I saw was gone. The aurora looked like just a big green cloud or something similar. Then it occurred to me that the lights were moving and were blending together during the long exposure. I thought that I should use what I’ve learned about photographing a moving creek. If I expose longer the water smears. If I want to freeze it I want ta fast shutter speed.

An aurora near Anchorage Alaska
An aurora near Anchorage Alaska

At that point I started to raise my ISO and shorten my shutter speed. I also made sure that I didn’t underexpose the shots. By making sure that the photos were exposed properly, and wouldn’t require me to raise the exposure in post, I would reduce the chance of ISO noise from using a higher ISO. That’s something that I can’t stress enough. It is better to use a higher ISO and to expose the photos properly than to use a lower ISO and underexpose the shots and then raise it in post. When you raise the exposure of an underexposed photo the noise will be greater than one with a higher ISO that was exposed brighter.

Upper Trail Lake Kenai Alaska
Upper Trail Lake Kenai Alaska

Next make sure that you check your exposure by using the histogram. There are two reasons to keep an eye on your histogram. The first is to make sure that you’re ETTR – Exposed To The Right, as much as possible and to make sure that you’re not over exposing the aurora. On exceptionally active auroras the light can be quite bright.

The aurora near Talkeetna Alaska
The aurora near Talkeetna Alaska

And so the short answer to the question about how to photograph the Northern Lights would be to use a shutter speed that is as quick as possible. I wouldn’t recommend exposing longer than 2-3 seconds in Alaska, and 10-20 seconds in Oregon, for instance. It’s acceptable to use a larger aperture opening (f/2.8-f.3.5) to bring more light in, which will help to shorten your exposure time. And last but not least don’t be afraid to raise your ISO. In the case of the aurora it would be better to have a more defined aurora than one that is smoothed together from a long exposure.

The last thing to remember is that although you’re using a quicker exposure to capture the lights, the exposure times will still be too long to hand hold so don’t forget to bring your tripod.

Summary:

  • Use as fast a shutter speed as possible
  • Use an open aperture
  • Raise you ISO
  • Use your histogram
  • Use a tripod
  • And don’t forget to take time to just watch and experience the incredible light show.
A selfie under the Northern Lights in Alaska
A selfie under the Northern Lights in Alaska

The Northern Lights over Anchorage Alaska

The Northern Lights over Anchorage Alaska

The Northern Lights over Anchorage Alaska 9/3/16 – 2:28 am

On this particular night Darlene and I were driving back toward Wasilla through Anchorage when I decided that I wanted to drive up to the Glen Alps to see if we could see the aurora over the city. Darlene wasn’t feeling so well but agreed that it would be fun. I was driving and Darlene wasn’t paying much attention to where I was driving so I ended up driving to the end of a road that I never intended to drive to. Whatever the road, it had a trailhead and a turnaround, so I turned around, which oriented my windshield directly north toward the lights of Anchorage so I pulled to the side of the road to take some photos. This is the result.

I may have got turned around but I ended up with some pretty cool photos. It’s not often that I’ve seen a nnive aurora over city lights.

Aurora Borealis Over the Knik River Alaska

Aurora Borealis Over the Knik River

This is a photo of the aurora borealis over the Knik River and the Chugach Mountains near Butte Alaska.

This photo was taken August 25th, 2013 at 3:09 am. I had just arrived at the Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport around midnight that night on my first trip to Alaska and I was already photographing the northern lights. My purpose was to get to know Darlene first, and to photograph this amazing state second. Darlene and I had been on a couple dinner dates on a few of her trips to Oregon but we had never really spent a lot of time together doing what we both enjoy, hiking and taking photos.

From the airport we drove to her cabin on the Knik River. We were sitting at her table when she was describing where she lived, the layout of the land, mountains, proximity to the Knik River etc when I suggested that we grab our cameras and tripods and go to the river. Darlene agreed so off we went. We spent the next week travelling around from the Kenai to the Mat-Su Valley to Denali NP taking photos of the amazing landscapes there. We would eat, sleep and start over the next day with a mission.

As we left the light of her cabin and into the forest behind we followed a path, me in front with Darlene right behind explaining where to go, under a bright half moon when as my eyes adjusted I saw a green glow in the sky through the trees. I yelled “aurora!” amd started running down the trail toward the river oblivious of the chances of a bear or even worse a bull moose crossing my path.

This particular night was an amazing night for me. I fell in love that night. Within three hours I was standing on the edge of a glacial river in Alaska with a beautiful woman and a sky dancing with bands of green aurora.This is how Alaska greeted me that night and Alaska has blessed me with such amazing experiences ever since.

As we got to the river’s edge, this was the view. Can you fault me for falling in love? ­čÖé

Learn more about Gary CLICK HERE