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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. 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 Mount Hood

Aurora borealis over Mount Hood

The aurora borealis over Mount Hood at Trillium Lake August 2015. This was an incredible night. The skies were great and the lodge only had one invasive light that I was able to brush out of the photo easily.

I’ve been asked a lot about seeing the aurora here in Oregon after seeing one of these photos. I explain that although you can see them with the naked eye, the camera absorbs more light than you eyes are able to. Therefore, these photos don’t represent accurately how you’re able to see the lights. So don’t be disappointed if you go in search of the aurora and you can’t see it. If it’s forecasted to be displayed that night take a test shot or two just in case.

It was this night when I met two young women that were there enjoying the stars with one of the women asking me questions about photographing at night. I had yet to start to take any photos and gave her a quick two minute night photography tutorial. We got her all setup with her camera and tripod, took the first shot and looked at the preview screen. The image showed the northern lights as they were just starting to flare up. The woman practically freaked out when she saw the photo. I had to explain to her what was going on. She was amazed.

Once I was done with the two ladies there I went to get a few photos of my own, this being one.

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Upper Trail Lake at Moose Pass Alaska

Upper Trail Lake Kenai Alaska
 A front row seat to the light show at Upper Trail Lake at Moose Pass on the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska.
 
The story behind this shot… Darlene and I had scouted this location out earlier in the day and then drove in the Seward to get a room for the night and some food in our bellies. We returned about dusk to wait for the show. When we arrived there were two guys there with their tent set up.
 
We parked and I approached them and said hello. They were from Germany and were touring British Columbia and Alaska by car. They flew in to Vancouver, bought a cheap used car and hit the road.
 
We had a great time visiting and shooting the aurora. Darlene wasn’t feeling so well that night and so as she was sitting above and behind she decided to take a photo of us down by the shore. When she showed me the shot I had to do it too, of course. 🙂 This is my version of the scene with our new German friends and Darlene standing at the shoreline getting their shots of the aurora.
 
The other detail that might complete this scene was that there was a beaver who would swim past every now and then and slap his tail on the water to try to chase us away.
 
Props to Darlene for standing back and capturing the scene and not just the scenery. 🙂

The Aurora over the East Fork of the Hood River

The Hood River Oregon

The Aurora over the East Fork of the Hood River on the east side of Mount Hood, Oregon.

Some people enjoy a nice Sunday drive. One that’s warm and sunny where you can just relax, roll the window down, put your elbow on the door sill, crank the music up and hit the open road, destination not required… worries be damned.

I enjoy that too, probably more than the average person, and thankfully so does Darlene, but we do it in the middle of the night a lot of the time. Last night was one of those nights. Darlene came and picked me up at 10:30 pm to go look at the night sky.

My Jeep has been at the Jeep Whisperer being attended to and so I have had no wheels for the last couple of weeks. Thankfully I get it back today, but in the meantime I have missed a few things that I would have liked to have been a part of, including the amazing aurora show the night before last. I think Darlene could sense my anguish and felt sympathy for me. 😀

It was a beautiful night. We were in communication with another night owl photographer, Erika Eve Plummer. who got some incredible aurora photos the night before. Darlene and I decided to get out from under the clouds that were over us here on the rainy side of Mount Hood and go east where we ended up standing in hurricane force gorge winds at Rowena Crest, near The Dalles.

We set up and took a few test shots and the aurora was faint at best, so we took off and headed back toward Mount Hood, not hoping for much as we headed back toward the clouds, but as we approached Mount Hood we stopped at a little spot that we like to go to pee in the woods, and decided to take a photo or two to see what kind of color aht we could see in the sky.

This this photo. The time stamp is 1:17am. The aurora was glowing again, although not near as strong as the night before, but it still set a nice mood for this simple photo.

We drove back home on deserted highways, after visiting beautiful places, with no people. I can’t understand why more people don’t take their Sunday drives at Midnight. 😀

#oregon #randallpics #aurora

Oregon Aurora

Oregon Aurora over Mount Hood 10/24/2011

Oregon Aurora – The Northern Lights in the Pacific Northwest – There once was a day when I was asked, “What would be your dream shot?” I replied that my dream shot or the impossible shot would be the aurora over Mount Hood, Oregon.

Since then Earth has passed into the peak of the solar cycle known as solar maximum and camera sensors have become much more sensitive to light allowing myself and many other photographers to be able to photograph the event when it happens, and it has happened quite a bit the last three years.  The first time that I photographed the aurora I had no idea that I had captured it in the shots that I had made the night when I went to photograph Trillium Lake, but when I looked at the photos when I had returned home I noticed a green glow on the horizon. Granted, it wasn’t columns and ribbons of light, but a soft green glow. That was October 24th, 2011. Four years ago.

Since then I have been able to catch the Northern Lights in the area and snap a few photos. It’s not as easy as just taking a chance and going and to get a photo. They only come after a solar storm and typically happen from a day or three afterward. I use an application for my phone called Aurora Notifier that signals me when the Kp level, the strength, of the aurora rises above 4Kp. Once that happens, if it’s a dark night, I grab my gear and go.

Once out in the dark one must realize that at this latitude the light is dim and difficult to see with your eyes, but if it’s a strong enough display you can see the light pillars dance on the horizon once your eyes are adjusted. You must get away from any sky whose darkness is diluted by any affect from town or city light. Even the light from the moon can wash out the northern lights. Choose a dark sky with a view toward the northern horizon. Set your camera on a tripod and set your aperture wide open to allow as much light in as possible. Then set your ISO high, it will vary depending on how dark the sky is or how bright the aurora is. Then set your shutter speed for at least 20 seconds. This long exposure is only for the aurora at this latitude. When photographing the aurora in the northern latitudes where the aurora is much brighter a much shorter exposure is called for.

Once you have your camera set take a shot and see how it looks on your preview screen. If it’s too dark raise your ISO or extend your shutter time, from 20 sec to 25 sec for instance. If it’s too bright lower your ISO. That should get you started. There are challenges that you will run into but in time you will get some northern light shots for your own.

Below is a collection of some of my Oregon Aurora photos. I hope that you enjoy them.

No color was added to any of these photos.

Enjoy!

Gary =0)