Alaskans tend to take advantage of their long days by getting out and hiking, biking, camping, hunting, 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.
Most people who are experienced and prepared drivers 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 aid 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 utinsels. 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. It 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), 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.
But that’s just the gear; there is more to being prepared for aurora photography – like knowing when the aurora is going to be on display. There are several web tools that I consult in determining whether or not I will go out. Top of the list of tools for me is Spaceweather.com, which provides real time information as welll as some forecasting information (you can also sign up for text alerts). Two other real time sources are the NOAA POES Auroral Activity website and the SALMON Cam, which is a camera at the Poker FLats Research Range for the University of Alaska Fairbanks showing a still image that is refreshed every minute during nighttime. I also follow the @AuroraMAX and @AuroraNotify Twitter feeds, which provide realtime updates.
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.
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, 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 handcrafted by an Inupiat Eskimo, 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, depending on how cold it is or how much snow depth there is.
Then, 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 – open sky, good foreground, and minimal city lights. But whether the location will be good that evening depends on cloud cover. Again, I look to the web for that information, consulting the most recent thermal satellite images on the NOAA Alaska Region website.
Now that you are suited up, geared up, have checked the latest data on what the geomagnetic activity is and know a good location with clear skies, it’s time to head out. And 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 9:00 p.m., or earlier. 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.
While you are out there for many hours, there are several challenges you face throughout the course of the night. The primary of those challenges is the care of your camera gear. In colder temperatures, frost build-up on the camera and lens is a constant issue of concern, regardless of your proximity to an open water source. Power drain on the batteries is a concern. Being able to see your viewfinder and LCD display are also an issue, as you typically tend to exhale while composing images, and that breath creates frost on the backside of the camea. There are a lot of ways to deal with these challenges. I deal with power issues by keeping spare batteries warm in a pocket. For frost build up, I will either cover the camera or lens element, or take the camera back inside the car, but inside a sealed camera bag in order to slow the temperature transition and prevent fogging. As for breathing on the back of your camera, well, sometimes I just hold my breath, or consciously make an effort to breathe off to the side.
A short night is typically about three hours. On a recent Ocotber night 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.
For technical aspects of aurora photography, visit my instructional blog post on the subject. Visit the Aurora Borealis gallery on my website to view and purchase some of my aurora images.