Archive for the ‘Aurora Borealis’ Category

My Top Five Aurora Nights

Monday, January 5th, 2015
My Top Five Aurora Nights

A friend noted on his Facebook page that he had missed the most recent aurora borealis show, and I noted it was on my “Top Five” list of aurora nights. I actually didn’t have such a list at the time, it just randomly came out. That got me thinking a little bit about what have been some of my favorite aurora nights, focusing just on the most recent solar cycle. In the previous cycle, I was only dabbling in aurora borealis photography. And the one before that … well, I was living on Guam. Not much aurora chasing going on down there.

It turns out it was not too difficult to come up with an actual list of my Top Five aurora nights during this solar peak. In coming up with this list, I considered the length of the display, the variety of displays (shapes and colors), the display’s reach across the sky, and how active the display was.  Given those considerations, it is easy to come up with my number one.

1. St. Patrick’s Day, 2013

For years I had been working on capturing the aurora borealis in Portage Valley within the Chugach National Forest south of Girdwood. With some friends visiting from out of state (Nick Selway and CJ Kale of Lava Light Galleries and Nolan Nitschke of Bishop, CA) and a good forecast, we headed down to Portage Valley. We set up and waited, and things were quiet for  a while. Then, a deep purple glow started to appear in the sky above the mountains to the north. The first set of curtains of green appeared and danced above the mountains. The rest, as they say, was history. And for many people, this was one of the top aurora events in the last twenty years. You can read more about this night in “Portage Persistence.”

Aurora borealis over Portage Valley, Chugach National Forest, Alaska.

St. Patrick’s Day, Aurora and Moon over Portage Valley

2. October 13-14, 2012

This evening started with me checking Facebook and receiving an IM from a friend asking, “Are you heading out?” My response was, “Why?” Then I checked the spaceweather data and noticed a strong aurora was in progress. Then, I looked outside, and saw aurora directly over my home in western Anchorage near Jewel Lake. It was 9:00 p.m. I grabbed my gear and headed out, exchanging texts with friends who were already on location. I stopped first at Point Woronzof to photograph the view of the aurora with Cook Inlet. After capturing several images (including one with yellow and red aurora), I headed north on the Glenn Highway. Another eruption of the display forced me to pull over on the highway near the weigh station and capture some more. I eventually spent the next seven hours photographing at various locations along the Knik River near Palmer.


October 13, 2012, Aurora over Mt. Susitna and Cook Inlet

3. January 3-4, 2015

Yes, this just happened a day ago, but it is the reason I decided to come up with this list in the first place. The aurora started showing up fairly early, but really took off shortly after 2:00 a.m. and kept going and going. I got home at 6:30 a.m. and could have stayed up for more. Others reported seeing it still going at 8:00 a.m. I include it high on this list because it really meets a lot of the criteria above, but it also had something I have never seen before, what I am calling an “Aurora Flash Fire.” Essentially, it was an auroral band of green that formed on the horizon, and then the underside turned a bright magenta. The magenta part rippled and danced very quickly for about four seconds, and then the whole band just disappeared. Poof! Gone from the sky.


Jan. 4, 2015, Aurora over Bird Creek, Chugach Mountains

 4. February 7-8, 2014

It is a really close call between this night and the night of Jan. 3-4, 2015 for third place. This night had incredible, across-the-sky, undulating displays. It had these beautiful rainbow curtains that I have never really seen quite the same on other nights. But, the main part of the show only lasted about two hours. That shorter duration is what puts this night in fourth place, but it was still a fantastic night to be out on the Denali Highway east of Cantwell.


Feb. 8, 2014, Aurora over Alaska Range

 5. November 8-9, 2013

This night had a real mix of some soft, slow-moving aurora that kind of hung in the sky for a while and others that waved about. It was also the first time I saw what I call “Shimmering Aurora” where the aurora appears as flashes that go across the top of the sky, like ripples in water. I started in Portage Valley and stopped at a few locations along the Turnagain Arm on my way home. All told, I shot for about five hours this night.


Nov. 9, 2013, “Shimmering Aurora” over Turnagain Arm


To view more aurora borealis images from these nights and others, visit my Aurora Borealis gallery. When viewing an image simply click “Buy Image” to see options for print purchases.

Brooks Range Aurora and Autumn Photo Tour

Sunday, September 28th, 2014
Brooks Range Aurora and Autumn Photo Tour

Brooks Range: Aurora and Autumn Photo Tour 
August 27-31, 2015

This is a unique 4-day Photography Tour

An exclusive field workshop with one of Alaska’s most award-winning landscape photographers, based out of a classic Alaskan town in the Arctic

This workshop is opened to all photographers regardless of camera format or level of experience

Open to 10 photographers maximum

Fee $2,750, all-inclusive

Announcing an exciting, photographic-instruction oriented, remote Alaskan photo tour with professional photographer and instructor Carl Johnson, located at the Boreal Lodge in Wiseman, Alaska!

I am pleased to announce some very exciting news: I will be offering an autumn and aurora borealis photo tour that is feature packed, filled with several exceptional photographic opportunities and designed to help improve your photography in a short time! This workshop will take you to some of the most beautiful landscape scenery that is accessible from the Alaskan road system. Based in the subject of Robert Marshall’s “Arctic Village,” the village of Wiseman will provide quick access to dramatic mountain and river landscapes, and place us at the heart of Alaska’s aurora activity. The autumn landscapes will include golden aspens as well as the red and orange colors of alpine tundra, and possibly even fresh dustings of snow. The aurora landscapes will include river, stream and pond reflections, mountain passes, wide open tundra, and close mountain scenes.

What’s Included in your Excursion

  • One night stay in Fairbanks
  • Transportation from Fairbanks to Wiseman
  • Lodging in Wiseman
  • All meals and snacks during your excursion
  • One-on-one photographic instruction in the field

Your itinerary:
This four-night tour will be based out of the Boreal Lodge in Wiseman, Alaska, in the heart of the magnificent Brooks Range. I designed the photography workshop with two goals in mind: capturing the mysterious aurora borealis and creating stunning images of magnificent mountain autumn landscapes. Throughout the tour, the plan will be to shoot evening light after dinner, chase and photograph the aurora, and capture sunrise, followed by breakfast back at the lodge. Some nights we may not stay out all night, we will stay out as late as the conditions permit and the group desires. Daytime will be for resting, and food will be available during the day for snacks or do-it-yourself lunches. Snacks and hot drinks will be available at night as we chase the aurora.

Here is a detailed account of our planned itinerary. It may be modified depending on weather conditions and light:

Wednesday, August 26, 2015
This is not actually the first day of the workshop, but the day you should arrive in Alaska. You should fly into the Fairbanks International Airport (FAI), and take the courtesy shuttle to the River’s Edge Resort in Fairbanks, where a room has been provided for you. Enjoy a comfortable stay and get plenty of rest – you will need it!

Thursday, August 27, 2015
Meet in the hotel lobby at 7:30 a.m., where I will pick you up for the ride to Wiseman. Along the way, we will stop at various locations on the Dalton Highway to start practicing some tips. After arriving at the Boreal Lodge, you will be provided the opportunity to settle into your accommodations, which consist of rooms at the main lodge or in a cabin. Rooms at the lodge will be either single or double occupancy, depending on the number of registrants. We will then meet in the main lodge kitchen and dining area for a short video presentation, and then dinner. Then, we will head out to capture evening light on a nearby trio of mountains, aspens, and a pair of rivers. After dark, we will proceed to a nearby lake to wait for the aurora to come out, and capture it over the nearby peaks of Mt. Dillon and Mt. Sukakpak.

August 28-30
Each day, we will transit to various locations in the Dalton Highway corridor north and south of Wiseman, depending on the weather. Sunrise is approximately 6:00 a.m. and sunset is around 10:00 p.m. After twilight and before dawn, we will have about 5-6 hours of nighttime shooting to work on aurora and other night sky techniques. Most instruction will be in the field. We will be experiencing full moon during the trip, so that will provide additional elements.

Most of our field photography will occur between evening light and after sunrise. Depending on conditions, success, and the interest of the group, we may be out in the field all night for some nights, and other nights get some sleep. However, plan to get most of your sleep during the day between breakfast and dinner. This sort of schedule is necessary to take advantage of the autumn landscapes and the aurora. And staying out all night is the very sort of schedule that aurora chasers have to endure!

August 31
After breakfast, we will conduct a short photo critique of images you have captured during the trip. We will depart the Boreal Lodge in Wiseman no later than 10:00 a.m. for our return drive to Fairbanks. Plan to arrive back in Fairbanks no earlier than 5:00 p.m.

This photographic workshop is designed to help you learn new skills and build on existing ones, the sort of trip from which you will return with a great collection of images to add to your portfolio!

Tour focus and Photographic Skill Exercises
The focus of this tour is Light and Composition for the daytime landscapes, then Exposure for the aurora borealis. You will be practicing photographic skills exercises daily to strengthen your knowledge of light and composition. You will receive handouts with a description of each exercise and we will go over the exercises with you, explaining to you both the theory and the practical side of each exercise. You will then be asked to conduct these exercises on your own. Make sure to bring a folder where you can store your handouts, a notepad to take notes during the workshop, and several pens and pencils.

Don’t let this unique opportunity pass you by!
Seats in this unique workshop are in high demand. To be fair, reservations are taken on a first come first served basis.

If you have been thinking about building up your portfolio, if you have been thinking about becoming more serious about your photography, if you want to photograph some of the most beautiful photographic locations while receiving photographic instruction, don’t hesitate another second: sign up now. This is truly an incredible opportunity, something that many people would even consider a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

You may register for this workshop by calling Carl at (907) 748-7040 or completing our Registration Form. To secure your spot, a deposit of 50% will be required. The remaining balance is due no later than 60 days prior to the workshop.

Read our General Terms and Conditions, which are a part of your registration. If you have any other questions, check out our Workshop FAQ.

Click here to see examples of Carl’s aurora borealis photography.




The Making of a Photo: Aurora Over Wrangell Mountains

Thursday, June 12th, 2014
The Making of a Photo: Aurora Over Wrangell Mountains

Michelle and I decided to spend a long weekend at the end of March to get away and scout for locations to shoot for a future workshop, and to find a base of operations for that workshop. Unfortunately, the bed and breakfast we stayed at did not pan out as a potential workshop location – it lacked a central meeting space, had far too few rooms, and was too comingled with family spaces within the structure.

But along the way, we found a few good vantage points to capture the aurora borealis along the Richardson Highway north and south out of Glennallen. The weather forecast looked good for providing us clear skies during the trip, but the question remained as to whether the space weather would cooperate. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), one of my more reliable forecast sources, did not have a good forecast for the time period. So, the only thing to do was to watch the real time data on and see if conditions would develop that were favorable to aurora photography.

When we went to bed, I set my alarm to go off once an hour so I could get up and check the Spaceweather data. In each instance, the data did not look conducive to producing an aurora borealis that would be worth shooting. But at 1:00 a.m., which is when the aurora had been “going off” recently, I decided to add a visual check in addition to my look online. I went to the front porch, went outside, and looked north – to see the aurora dancing in the sky. It was a dim display, but I went inside, grabbed the gear, and headed out to a pullout I had scouted earlier.

When I arrived, I set up the camera and took several test shots to check for focus and exposure. Even though the display was dim, I kept taking pictures occasionally to watch for increased activity. In many cases, the aurora can be doing things that are not visible to the naked eye, but will show up on a long exposure. After a while, it built enough to where it was dancing over the St. Elias Range, and spiking with peaks of reds. And while it was a moonless night, the aurora produced enough light to show silhouettes of the trees in the foreground and the mountains in the background.

Nikon D800E, Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8, Gitzo tripod, Arca Swiss ballhead, ISO 3200, f/2.8, 10 seconds.


NOAA Nails It!

Monday, February 10th, 2014
NOAA Nails It!

In his opening scene in Twin Peaks, FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper said, when referring to the ability of a meteorologist to accurately predict the weather, “If I could get paid that kind of money for being wrong 60% of the time, it would beat working!” We have all at one point in our time complained about an inaccurate weather forecast.  But how often do we praise the weatherman when he gets it right? What about when the Earth weather and space weather forecast is right on? Well, when it leads to an amazing night of aurora borealis photography, some praise is in order.

If you have read my prior blog post on “How to Shoot the Aurora Like a Pro,” then you would know that I subscribe to an email aurora forecast service provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  More than once a day, I will receive a table – like the one indicated in the graphic below – showing the forecast for the next 72 hours.  Since the time table is in GMT (Greenwich Mean Time), I have to adjust it for Alaska Standard Time, which means subtracting 8 hours. Thus, according to this table, there was going to be some good action between 4 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. on Friday night, Saturday morning, February 7-8.


Having an idea of what the space weather might do is just part of the planning.  The other part is the Earth weather forecast. For that night, NOAA had forecast that most of the Southcentral Alaska region – from the Kenai Peninsula up through the Matanuska-Susitna Valley – would remain mostly cloudy through the night. However, the forecast did say that for the area north of Talkeetna and through Cantwell, the skies would be clearing in the evening. So, at 4:00 p.m. on Friday, I headed north, with a goal of Broad Pass in the Alaska Range – just a short distance south of Cantwell.

By the time I got to Broad Pass about four hours later, there was still some twilight in the sky.  And, consistent with the NOAA forecast, the skies were completely clear. I drove to the last pullout in the pass before the descent to Cantwell and got out to take a look at the sky. I could already see some pillars of aurora off in the distance, so I composed some images to include the Parks Highway and some nearby trees. But the lights were way to the north, and it was still early (it wasn’t even fully dark yet), so I continued on into Cantwell, and east on the Denali Highway as far as I could go. In the summer, you can drive from Cantwell to Paxon – but in the winter, the road is not maintained and you can only go a few miles before you run into a barricade.  (If you have a snowmachine, though, it’s a great place to go!)

But, consistent with the space weather forecast, when I pulled over and stopped at the end of the maintained area, there they were – the lights of the aurora borealis dancing over the Alaska Range to my north. They danced for a while, then subsided, and then a while later they were calmly dancing overhead and to the south.  Then, they built up and kept going on a crescendo until a sky-filling climax at 11:30 that lasted a half hour.  They still kept going with a gentle, shimmering display for a while after that.

So, let me say, “Thank you very much” to NOAA for a forecast that put me at the right place at the right time to capture some amazing images of the aurora borealis!



Top Images for 2013

Monday, December 16th, 2013
Top Images for 2013

One of the treats of looking back at the year is realizing the diversity of what you captured, and recognizing that each year, something new comes along. This year saw three principal areas of photographic exploration for me: the American Southwest (in winter), the Bristol Bay region and the aurora borealis. And while my aurora borealis prints are definitely my top selling category of print right now, I would be remiss if I did not give the other areas equal weight.  This is especially true for my Bristol Bay images.

In January, Michelle and I were in the American Southwest, starting in Las Vegas (the best place to fly into from Alaska for a visit to the Southwest). We went to Death Valley National Park, Mono Lake, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Unfortunately for us, for the first part of the trip, it was actually colder than our home in Alaska, where we found unseasonably cold weather in Mono Lake and the Moab area. But, for me, it reiterated that winter can be a fantastic time to visit national parks – far fewer people and the opportunity to take some more unique images.

The year’s fieldwork for the book started out in the village of Nondalton, a small community of Dena’ina Athabascans on the edge of Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, and situated only about 11 air miles away from the proposed Pebble Mine site. I photographed some winter scenics, spent some time with a trapper as he checked his trap lines, and went for a snow machine visit to some friends near the mouth of the Chulitna River. Next, in May, I flew out to Dillingham where I met up with Frank Woods and joined him and his crew to head out to the Togiak herring fishery.  Five days on the boat during incredibly clear and gorgeous weather produced a lot of fantastic images of hard work in amazing scenery. In June, I joined a group of Alaska Alpine Adventure clients for a guided backcountry trip into the Twin Lakes area of Lake Clark National Park & Preserve. Next month would find me visiting fish camps on the Newhalen River and out on the Cook Inlet coast visiting the Silver Salmon Creek Lodge to document brown bear viewing and flyfishing. Finally, in September, I flew out and spent a few days with the team at the No See Um Lodge, documenting sport fishing and the incredible scenery of the Kvichak River.

And then, there was the aurora chasing. In March, I was joined by Hawaii photographers CJ Kale and Nick Selway, owners of the Lava Light Galleries in Kona, and Eastern Sierras photographer Nolan Nitschke. After they did a mad-dash run up to Prudhoe Bay, I joined them in photographing the Broad Pass area of the Parks Highway one evening, and then we happened to be in Portage Valley of Chugach National Forest for the incredibly epic St. Patrick’s Day display. And then, this August, September and November, I was out again capturing more images in the vicinity of Anchorage to build up my aurora borealis image collection.

And then, there were a few things here and there that rounded out the year.  Countless incredible Cook Inlet sunsets photographed from the deck of my new home on the Anchorage hillside. A jaunt out to Prince William Sound for a reality TV show episode. A flight to do some aerial photography of properties in the Knik Arm area for Great Land Trust. Exploring fall colors in Southcentral Alaska.

You can view the totality of my “Best Of” selection in my 2013 Year in Review gallery, but here are my some highlights from my favorite images from the year.

December 2013 Print of the Month

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013
December 2013 Print of the Month

One of the challenges as a photographer, artist, and business owner has always been answering the following question: “Which images do I create as prints for sale?” Each part of these different identities always wants to get its own perspective represented in the choice.  The photographer wants to print the photos that were the most physically demanding, most technically challenging to capture. The artist wants to print the image that is the most emotionally evocative, most inspirational. And then of course, the business owner wants to print the one that will sell the most. Merging those sometimes competing interests into a smart choice has always been difficult.

And then came along social media.

Using Facebook to promote my photography often gives me a clear indication as to which images are going to have a broad appeal. Following the traffic generated by a particular image can make it much easier to decide which image will likely make a good selection for, say, my Print of the Month collection.  Take in point, this month’s choice, entitled, “They’re Here.” Captured during the November 8/9, 2013 aurora borealis display, it is a view of a winding green band of aurora through some leafless birch trees in Portage Valley of the Chugach National Forest in Alaska. It was the last shot I took of the evening, as I was heading back to my car to head toward home. I looked up, saw the orientation of the trees and the glowing aurora, and knew I had something good. It was challenging to frame the shot with the camera pointed straight upward, but the settings were already good from exposures made earlier in the evening.

But seeing the reaction to the image on Facebook helped me to better understand better how much appeal it had to a broad audience. It received a moderate reaction on my own Facebook page – 36 shares, 124 likes and 24 comments.  But then it was shared to two other Facebook pages with very broad audiences: Milky Way Scientists and Aurora Borealis. Between those two, it garnered an additional 1,801 shares, 6,744 likes and 75 comments.

So, photographer, artist and business man can all agree – with resounding support from social media -that “They’re Here” will make a fine addition to my Print of the Month collection. And another great thing about this shot … it can be either a vertical or a horizontal image, depending on your layout needs.  It can be purchased for 30% off through the end of December 2013 by entering the coupon code POTM1213 when finalizing your purchase here.

On Darmok

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013
On Darmok

I have increasingly been including my car, a 2010 Toyota Prius, in photos taken during my nighttime forays into aurora chasing. After doing it a few times, I decided I needed to come up with a name for the car.  I figured, in the interest of more colorful captioning, a name would be a good addition to the photo’s story.

I realized early on that I did not want to select a human name.  Part of it was that I wanted to avoid a gender-specific name.  Who am I to say what my car’s sexual identity is? Only it knows that sort of detail, and fortunately it does not share it with me. So I thought that I would look to legends and mythology, seeking out a name that would be synonymous with “friend” or “companion” or “buddy.” Some good ideas came out at first, and I even solicited ideas from the general public.  In the end, though, the idea I settled on came from a Tweet.

I was reading my Twitter feed one day, and I saw a Tweet from Wil Wheaton (@wilw) that referenced “Darmok” from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” I knew then that I had chosen my car’s name.

If you are not familiar with the episode, “Darmok” aired during the 5th season of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” I will leave the full episode synopsis for your reading pleasure.  The highlight is that the Enterprise crew makes first contact with a race calling themselves “The Children of Tama.” Captain Picard is forcibly removed from the Enterprise to meet up with the other ship’s captain, Dathon, on the planet below.  It takes Picard a while to figure out what the other race’s intentions are because they communicate entirely through metaphor, drawn upon the stories of their own myths and legends.  Quite frequently, the other captain uses the phrase, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.”  Darmok and Jalad were mythohistorical figures who met on the island of Tanagra and worked together to defeat a terrible beast, something that Dathon had hoped he could do with Picard in order to build relations.

So, naturally, I envisioned posting on Facebook or Twitter things like, “Darmok and Carl, on the road.” So, my first Tweet on my first aurora outing after the naming was, in fact, “Darmok and Carl, on the road. The aurora borealis, its sails unfurled.” Of course, you would have to have seen the episode to understand the “sails unfurled” reference.  I recommend you find it and watch it if you can.  It is definitely among the top ten of all episodes generated by the “Star Trek” franchise.

How to Chase and Shoot the Aurora Like a Pro

Monday, November 25th, 2013
How to Chase and Shoot the Aurora Like a Pro

Alaskans tend to take advantage of their long days in the summer by getting out and hiking, biking, camping, and fishing.  We savor the opportunity to have six hours of sunlight to enjoy on a weekday even after the work day is done.  Farther north, the sun never even goes down.  But as winter comes, the light goes down sooner and the nights grow longer.  Temperatures drop, chills set in.  And while some types of activities go away, they are simply replaced by others that can be pursued in the winter.  Nordic skiing, snow shoeing, trapping and snow machining take over as popular outdoor activities.  And then, there is a small but growing (thanks to the prevalence of digital cameras) sliver of the population that pursues another activity: aurora borealis chasing.

There is a lot that goes into planning and preparing for a night out in the cold and dark seeking the perfect aurora photograph.  Some people head out more prepared than others.  I lean toward the prepared in order to not only be successful but to enjoy the experience.


Unless you live north of the Arctic Circle, you can’t just head out on any clear night to photograph the aurora borealis.  There are certain conditions that produce strong auroras, strong enough to be seen farther south; and they are not always present.  So you need to know how to interpret the space weather as well as the Earth weather, and get a read on current conditions.

First, you can’t see the aurora if it’s cloudy where you live.  In Alaska, your best source of getting weather information is the NOAA Alaska Region website. You can get detailed regional forecasts and examine real time satellite imagery of cloud cover, including six-hour loops, in your area.  That way, if it is cloudy where you are, you can at least look for the holes in those clouds using satellite imagery.  Your best bet for nighttime imagery is to go with the “Thermal IR” or “Infrared” images.

Second, you need to know if the space conditions are going to produce an aurora in your area.  The first indicator is the strength of the forecast for that night.  The best forecast service I have seen yet is offered by NOAA, and you can subscribe to a variety of email alerts, but I recommend the 3-day forecast.  You can also view the 3-day forecast for geomagnetic activity directly on the NOAA Spaceweather Prediction Center website. It is updated at least twice times a day and has proven quite accurate since I started using it in 2013.  NOAA also has a 30-minute forecast.  Other short term forecasts include Soft Serve News.  I have not found the Geophysical Institute Aurora Forecast page to be accurate, as it is not updated regularly. You will want to look for what “KP Index” or “Planetary K-index” is predicted.  The higher the number, the further south the aurora will reach.  For example, a KP3 aurora can reach overhead Anchorage, while a KP7 aurora can reach overhead Seattle.  Your best bet for obtaining and understanding the data necessary to determine if there is going to be an aurora is to visit and SolarHam. Look for discussions on when a CME (Coronal Mass Ejection) is expected to hit the Earth’s magnetosphere, as well as the speed of the Solar wind (look for increasing winds, better than 500 km/sec) and a southerly Bz in the Interplanetary Magnetic Field.  The higher that Bz (south) number, the better. For the St. Patrick’s Day 2015 display, it was over 20. You can also see the current and anticipated KP Index.  Additionally, you can sign up for text alerts on Spaceweather, for a nominal monthly fee ($5).

Finally, in addition to the real time data on Spaceweather and NOAA POES Auroral Activity, sometimes it’s nice just to be able to look and see.  There are two aurora cams that are worthwhile to bookmark on your computer and smartphone. For Alaska, you can’t go wrong with Ronn Murray’s Alaska Aurora Cam, housed at Sirius Sled Dogs in Fairbanks. For Canada (even though I know of many Alaskans who follow it), keep an eye on the AuroraMAX aurora cam in Yellowknife.    For Facebook reports, join the Aurora Lovers and Aurora Borealis Notifications pages. I also follow the @AuroraMAX and @AuroraNotify Twitter feeds, which provide real time updates.

Ready for the Road

Most people who are experienced and prepared drivers in Alaska have a winter survival kit in their car.  I have one of those.  But I also have an extra set of gear in the back of my car to provide some additional comfort in my aurora hunting.  I have a bag that contains a MSR Whisper-Lite stove, a MSR bottle of white gas fuel, a Ziploc with snack bars, instant Starbucks coffee, hot chocolate, and plastic eating utensils.  There is a bag of Sailor Boy Pilot Bread and a container of creamy peanut butter to go with it.  I also have a small cook kit and a kettle for boiling water, and a travel mug for drinking hot liquids.  This bag, along with a few camping chairs and a -20 F sleeping bag, stay in my car at all times.

In my office, I keep a camera bag fully-loaded and ready to go for running out after the northern lights. Having the gear ready eliminates frustrating and stressful running about and panicking when you realize the aurora is going, and it avoids missing something important during that chaotic time. The bag contains my Nikon D800 and three lenses: Nikkor 14-24 f/2.8 AFS, Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8 AFS and the Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 AFS VR.  I also stock an assortment of CF and SD cards, spare batters, lens cloths, Lee GND filters (in case there is a great aurora display over some artificial lighting, like the city or a cabin, or to balance exposure involving a reflection), battery charger, and AC inverter to plug into my car “cigarette lighter” outlet.  Sitting next to it is a one-gallon jug of water I take with so I will have something to boil to add to the coffee or hot chocolate packets.

Before heading out, you need to make sure you are dressed for the long haul.  From head to toe, you will not see me wearing cotton.  It has to be either synthetic or wool or fur, for the simple reason that cotton, when wet, takes longer to dry and does not retain heat as well.  For my head, I take a seal/beaver/otter hat handcrafted by an Inupiat artist, a thin hood layer, and a mask.  I wear two layers under my jacket, and a pair of thermals under a pair of snow pants.  For my hands, I prefer a thin liner glove underneath a set of fingerless gloves with a mitten flap.  On my feet, a pair of wool socks and a set of Baffin polar industrial boots.  Sometimes I wear moose hide Steger Mukluks of my Baffin boots, depending on how cold it is or how much snow depth there is, or if I anticipate possibly having to step through shallow water.

When to Go

Then there are certain times of the year that are best for chasing the aurora; you can’t effectively go aurora chasing when it is not dark.  (You could go in the daylight if you are a sucker for quixotic pursuits.)  I know, it seems crazy to mention, but a lot of people ask me when the best time of year is to see the aurora, or they ask if it has to be cold in order for the aurora to come out.  So, my answer is, the best time is when it is dark and in Alaska, that more likely than not means cold.  Sure, it starts getting dark enough to see them in August, and you can still see them in April, but most of the time during those months in between, it is cold outside.  Also, the aurora is most active around the fall and spring equinoxes – no one knows why, that’s just the way it is. That makes September-October and March-April the best times for viewing and photographing the aurora, although I have photographed some good displays in August and November.

Another consideration is the phase of the moon.  I rely on the U.S. Naval Observatory to check the phase of the moon and when it will rise and set at a particular location.  Unless you are planning on using silhouetted trees as your foreground, a new moon is not the best time to capture the aurora. A little bit of moonlight will bring some detail to the landscape and make your photo more interesting.  With a dim aurora, a full moon will provide too much light and overpower the aurora (but with a strong aurora, it doesn’t matter).

Where to Go

If the conditions are right and you have the gear ready, you need to decide where you are going to go for the evening.  I have scouted several locations within an hour to hour-and-a-half from Anchorage that have proven to be good locations.  What makes a good location? If you don’t want city lights in your photo, get out of the city and out to a location with an open view of the sky to the north.  Try to find a place with some foreground elements to add interest.  While sometimes the aurora can be awesome enough to stand on its own with a flat foreground that is generally not the case.  A great aurora photo also includes an interesting landscape.  Look for a location with some good foreground elements – water, trees, distinctive mountains, maybe some sort of structure (like an old bridge or building). Near Anchorage, good locations can be found along the Turnagain Arm and Knik River (although, be on the lookout for the pink glow of Palmer on your horizon).  The Matanuska Valley and Hatcher Pass offer excellent locations as you get farther away from Anchorage. Suitable landscapes with open skies can be found on the Parks Highway in the Broad Pass area just south of Cantwell.  The Interior regularly gets good views of the aurora on clear nights, from Fairbanks to Delta to Copper Center.  Farther north, great viewing can be found on the Dalton Highway near Wiseman and in Atigun Pass.

Taking the Photos

It may seem like a lot of settings at first, but once you get familiar with capturing the aurora, these settings will become second nature.

Lens selection and focus.  It is preferable to have a lens no slower than f/2.8 and as wide as 24mm.  Shooting at f/4.0 or slower will often produce too long of an exposure to get the brilliance you need for some of the less brilliant, but still lovely, displays, and it will create undesired star trails at exposures longer than 30 seconds, sometimes even 15 seconds depending on your focal length.  And having that wide focal length of 24mm or wider is key when you are trying to capture a phenomenon that encompasses the whole sky.  Disable your automatic focus and use manual focus; then set the focus point to near infinity.  If you place your focus point right at infinity, then you will get slightly-out of focus images.  Use your initial waiting time to take several test photos, moving slightly off infinity in each direction, and check the focus of the image (by zooming in on the stars while viewing in your LCD display) each time until you find the right setting.  If the moon is out and bright, I will actually turn on the auto focus, focus on the moon, and then turn it back to manual focus, locking in that setting.  You can also use Live View mode to zoom in on a focus point and manually focus on that.

Filters.  Remove any and all filters from your lens.  We all like to put UV filters or some other neutral, clear filter on our lenses to protect them from damage.  But any filter of any kind that is screwed onto a lens will create a distortion, represented by concentric circles, in dead center of your image.  Somehow, the light of the aurora bounces back and forth between the lens elements and the filter during long exposures to create the undesired effect. With that said, I have used graduated neutral density filters (square filters in a bracket attached to the lens) to darken a brightly lit foreground or to balance the exposure of the aurora with its reflection on a water surface.

Camera functioning.  The key to keeping your camera working is its batteries.  I always take at least three spare batteries with me when venturing out into the cold.  I keep them in a quart-sized Ziploc™ bag and tucked inside amidst the many layers I wear to keep myself warm.  As your battery power starts to wane, simply replace the cold battery with a warm one.  Also be mindful of condensation.  At extreme colds, your breath will fog up and frost the back of your camera, including the viewfinder and LCD display.  So, hold your breath when composing.  To prevent fogging and frosting of your lenses, either keep your camera and lens together in a camera bag when bringing back into your vehicle (and keep the bag away from a heat source), or simply remove your battery and leave everything outside.  If leaving your camera outside for extended periods of time, you may also want to cover your lens element to prevent frost buildup. One thing I will also do if I have my vehicle nearby is to run my camera directly on A/C power, running the power cable through an A/C inverter that is plugged into my “cigarette lighter” plug.

Settings.  With your aperture set at f/2.8 (or whatever is the widest opening on your lens), set your exposure mode to manual.  Then, set your exposure at 8 seconds and ISO at 1600.  This is a good starting point, but, depending on the intensity of the aurora and the brightness of the night sky (if the moon is out), you may need to adjust your shutter speed faster or slower and/or adjust your ISO up or down.  My most common settings are ISO 1600 at 6-10 seconds, but I have done it at ISO 400 at 2 seconds for a really bright aurora and ISO 3200 at 30 seconds for a really dim aurora.  If your exposures need to be longer than 30 seconds, then use a higher ISO before you set a longer exposure.  If your camera has the function, enable your High ISO Noise Reduction.  You may also want to enable your Long Exposure Noise Reduction.  Set your white balance to Auto. Finally, make sure you are shooting in RAW mode for the type of file you are creating.

Tripod.   Of course, the basic rules of long-term image stability govern: tripod, cable release, and using the mirror lock up feature.  One of the more challenging aspects of composition for an aurora shot is ensuring that your horizon is level.  This can be accomplished by using (a) a bubble level for your hot shoe, or (b) using the viewfinder grid in your camera (if you are lucky enough to have one; the newer Nikon cameras do).

Now you Wait

Now that you are suited up, geared up, have checked the latest data on what the geomagnetic activity is and have found a good location with clear skies, it’s time to wait.  And be patient.  And wait some more.  On a good activity night, you will not have to wait long, as the aurora can hit as early as dusk.  And if it is good and looks like it is going to remain busy all night, don’t stay in one location; move on to somewhere else to capture other images.  I like to diversify my shooting locations so that all of my aurora borealis photos do not all look the same.  Diversity is one way to make your aurora images stand out compared to others.  And just like any other landscape photography situation, it is key to vary compositions, lens focal lengths, and orientation (horizontal or vertical).  If you feel like you have captured “the shot” for the night, keep shooting and try new techniques and compositions.  When I can, I like to set up and capture images for creating a time lapse movie.  It’s best, though, to take along a second tripod and camera (or even a “rail” system) to capture the time lapse so you don’t have to worry about missing a good still capture.

A short night is typically about three hours.  On an October night in 2012 with a particularly spectacular display, I was out for eight hours, and could have stayed out more.  I felt, though, that by 4:30 a.m. I had captured a lot of really good images and could go to bed satisfied.  But even having great aurora borealis images to show for a night out in the cold cannot truly capture the thrill of just being out there and witnessing this amazing phenomenon.

To see my successes based on this approach, visit my Aurora Borealis gallery.


Aurora hits and misses

Friday, October 11th, 2013
Aurora hits and misses

There are the technical aspects of capturing the aurora borealis with a camera.  There is all of the preparation and study that is necessary for a successful aurora hunting outing.  And then, there is just the repetition and the waiting.

So, I’ve been doing a bit of chasing and waiting so far this aurora season.  It started with what is perhaps my earliest venture in the autumn for chasing the northern lights – late August. For that early start, I went back to a familiar location that showed me great success during my last aurora hunt back in March – the Portage Valley of Chugach National Forest.  Located less than an hour away from Anchorage, but far enough away to avoid the city’s lights, it provides a spectacular landscape to compose with the aurora.

There was a brief aurora show that produced some vivid green spikes with some pink highlights. But that was really a warming up for the season, a chance to clear the cobwebs and make sure that everything was in working order. After my St. Patrick’s Day weekend success in Portage Valley, I wanted to start trying some new locations.

The next time I headed out on the aurora hunt was the first week of October.  Weather in September was mostly crappy and made aurora chasing fruitless.  I wanted to try a new location, so I headed north along the Knik River via the Old Glenn Highway.  I discovered a marvelous creek with some easy access to a gravel bar to provide low-to-the-water views for compositions. There was a very brief, very weak aurora borealis display that barely provided some green highlights to the sky.  I checked out a couple of other locations that I determined would not be suitable for future northern lights shooting – way too many artificial lights in the vicinity.


That night was a consolation prize.  The night before, there was an incredible aurora storm, with displays vivid and visible as far south as Iowa.  Unfortunately, it was cloudy as far as one could reasonable drive in one night  and still get to the location in time. A week later, the same pattern emerged: a strong aurora storm with displays visible in the Lower 48, but a vicious wind and rain storm struck Southcentral Alaska, wiping away the peaking colors of autumn and obscuring any opportunity to view the northern lights. Again, the night after the storm was clear, and with a NOAA forecast that suggested a KP4 level aurora, I headed out, looking for new locations.  This time, I headed south again, but past the entrance to Portage Valley and around past the Placer River crossing on the Turnagain Arm.  There is a series of ponds and standing dead trees with a view to the north that I always thought would make a great landscape setting for an aurora image.

So, I found a good spot, put on my headlamp and scouted the grounds.  Sure enough, it was very wet ground, with standing water up over my ankles even before the edge of the pond.  Fortunately, I had my Extra Tuffs in the rear of the car and changed into those. I grabbed the camera and tripod and headed down. I took several shots to check compositions, exposure and my focus point, noticing a dim green glow on the horizon in the long exposures. I also tried some compositions that showed the orange glow of Anchorage on the horizon. And, after all of that, I even captured an image of my 2010 Toyota Prius with the Milky Way towering overhead. But I could only do so much of that before it was time to go back inside the car and wait.

Waiting inside my car with the seat tilted back so I could rest and look out the window for the glow of the aurora on the horizon, I took the time to get caught up on podcasts of The Shannyn Moore Show, a local progressive radio talk show on, of all things, a FOX affiliate radio station. It’s smart and entertaining radio, and Shannyn has a thing for the aurora borealis so it seemed like good synergy. After waiting and dozing off and on for an hour and a half, I looked over to see a solid curtain of green starting to develop on the horizon above the mountains. It was a sure sign of a building display, so I pulled out the gear and, by the time I was setting up, the lights were well underway. I sent a message to photographer friend Joe Connolly to let him know the lights were out and continued shooting, changing lenses and compositions.  After about a half hour, the lights calmed down. I changed to another location for more scouting and captured some images of the dim aurora on the horizon.  Again, another good location for future use.

The push to Homer

Thursday, March 21st, 2013
The push to Homer

Sometimes things can take on a life of their own.  This is especially true if you are traveling with a group of photographers fresh from a sleep-deprived high of some spectacular aurora photos the night before – March 8, 2012.  With space weather forecasts suggesting another good night for aurora borealis displays, we headed out to the Kenai Peninsula.  It seemed to be the only place in our region where the clouds might be clear.

With clouds enshrouding the Turnagain Arm area, we pressed through a snow storm in Turnagain Pass, turning instead of toward Seward but down to Cooper Landing.  This small town on the Kenai Peninsula is ideally situated for landscape photography – high mountain ridges rise up on both sides of the town, which rests at Kenai Lake and the headwaters of the Kenai River.  A bridge on the Sterling Highway that crosses those headwaters marks the key launching point into the river, which also presents an opportunity to photograph the landscape in the flowing waters of the river.  Scattered clouds allowed us to view the tandem of Jupiter and Venus in the western sky, and even a bit of a green aurora glow rising up above the mountains to the north.  But before the aurora could grow and present a stronger display, the clouds rolled in.  We had come too far to turn around and head north of Anchorage – so we continued on down the highway toward Homer.

Most of the trip down to Homer was a blur for me, as I sat in and out of consciousness in the back seat of one of the two vehicles making the photo convoy. At one point I awoke to us being pulled over by Alaska State Troopers because the vehicle I was riding in had one headlight that was inoperative.

Before I knew it, we were at a well-known overlook that presents sweeping views of Kachemak Bay, the Gulf of Alaska, and the Homer Spit.  A nearly-full moon was blasting its way through a strong cloud canopy that swallowed the sky.  I captured several images, drawing upon the various tonalities in the scene and textures represented in the clouds and mountains on the far side of the bay.  After a while, we headed down to Bishop’s Beach, a public beach adorned with driftwood and rocks polished and shaped from eons of tumbling in the surf.  Surprisingly, we easily spent a couple of hours playing with low light photography, long shutter speeds, rolling surf, and various compositions of deadwood and stone. While not stellar images, it was fun to take advantage of being all the way down in Homer in the middle of the night and making the best of a cloudy night.

Shortly after 3:00 a.m., we headed back to Anchorage.  Again, I dozed through most of the four hour drive, catching glimpses of clouds, darkness and falling snow.  By the time we got back to Anchorage, the skies had opened up and the sun was shining. No aurora, but a photo adventure that ably reflected the craziness that can ensue when a group of photographers decide to head out and try to capture some nighttime magic.