The aurora borealis – myths, science and photography

The aurora borealis - myths, science and photography

I first saw the aurora borealis long before I contemplated the mystery of it.  I was working as a bartender at the Birch Terrace Lounge in Grand Marais during the winter between my two summers as a canoe guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  It was a Sunday night, and I was taking out the trash in preparation for closing.  I dropped the trash in the bin out back and lo0ked up into the crisp, cool November night to see dancing waves of green light in the sky.  I knew instantly that I was looking at the northern lights.  Why had I not really thought of these before?  How was I not spending every night out looking for them?  What wonderful, magical curtains of shimmering mystery they were, casting aside all thoughts of the dreariness of the tasks I had ahead yet that night.  When I was finished closing, I grabbed my camera, a Minolta X-700 and headed up the Gunflint Trail out of town to capture some images.

Unfortunately, I was not much of a nature photographer then.  And I certainly did not know much about nighttime or aurora photography.  I only had one other chance after that to capture the aurora when I was working and living in northern Minnesota that winter seventeen years ago, and the display was fairly faint.  During that time, though, I was watching Northern Exposure.  There was a memorable episode dedicated to the aurora and a particularly powerful display that occurred again and again over several nights.  During that time, it appeared that members of the town were swapping dreams, and some attributed it to the power of the aurora.  There I was introduced to the idea that people and cultures throughout the ages had attributed so many things to the aurora, and built strong mythologies around explaining its power and allure.   In the episode, “Mr. Sandman,” which aired in the fifth season, we find Marilyn, Dr. Fleischmann’s Tlingit assistant, telling a story about how her people believe that the northern lights were the spirts of people who had passed, and how you could make them dance by whistling to them. 

The Tlingit, along with the Kwakiutl and the Salteaus Indians believe that the aurora does represent the spirits of people, while the Yup’ik are said to believe that the northern lights were dancing animal spirits, particularly deer, seals, salmon and beluga whale.  The Yup’ik also believe that when Aurora is red, it indicates that “there will be war and blood shed” in the near future.  I also learned during a visit to Anaktuvuk Pass that the Nunamiut people believe that, if you are not wearing a hat, the aurora will chop your head off and play with it like a ball.  They also believe that you can manipulate the aurora by whistling at it.

The conventional wisdom has always been that the sun is on an eleven-year cycle, with the peak of that cycle creating the hyperactive sun spots that lead to the most brilliant auroral displays.  There are several websites that offer either the raw data you can interpret for yourself or the intrepreted data if you lack the faculty.  One of the more well-known raw data sites is Spaceweather.  On the Science-NASA site, there are some recent studies indicating the explanation behind the solar cycle may be changing (particularly with regard to why the low point of the cycle has been so low in activity).  One of the more well-known interpretive sites was created by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, the Aurora Forecast site.  You can also sign up for aurora alerts via email at the UAF site.  Spaceweather also has options for receiving text alerts for different levels of activity. 

With the proliferation of smart phones and various apps, I would be remiss if I did not mention some useful, free applications for Android or iPhone systems: Aurora Buddy and 3D Sun.  And, if you are on Twitter, make sure to follow @AuroraNotify (a network of Fairbanks, Alaska residents who provide real time information) and @Aurora_Alerts (automated and fairly accurate, provided by 

Having a passion for the mythos of the aurora and an understanding of the science will get you out at night, enduring those cold conditions waiting for long hours for the sky to produce the display of your dreams.  How disappointed you would be, though, if you ended up making a technical mistake that costs you the shot to share with others.  I learned some of those mistakes early on, when I was still shooting negative film before switching to slides, and ultimately digital. 

So, here is a comprehensive list of settings and other equipment issues you will need to know to take great aurora photos:

  1.  Lens selection.  You need 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 infinity. 
  2. 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 on 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.
  3. 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. 
  4. 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 15 seconds and ISO at 400.  This is a good starting point, but, depending on the intensity of the aurora, you may need to slow things down or adjust your ISO up or down.  My most common setting is ISO 400 at 30 seconds.  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.  Also enable your Long Exposure Noise Reduction.  Set your white balance to Auto
  5. 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, (b) using the viewfinder grid in your camera (if you are lucky enough to have one; the Nikon D700 does), or (b) setting up your composition before it gets dark and waiting for the magic to happen.

The last thing I want to address is when you can photograph the aurora.  It is a common misconception that the aurora only “comes out” when it is cold.  It is always cold for the aurora, because it is in the vacuum of space.  In reality, the connection with cold comes from the fact that it is only visible when it is dark.  For northern latitudes where the aurora is most frequently observed, this means the winter months.  In Alaska, that means from mid-August to early April.  The farther north you go, like above the Arctic Circle, the later you have to wait before it is dark enough.  The first time I was in Gates of the Arctic was in mid-August.  It never got dark enough to see the aurora.  During my next backcountry trip the following early September on the Noatak River, it was dark every single night and I saw the aurora every single night.   And darkness inherently also includes periods where it is not cloudy, which in the wintertime also means cold, but clear skies.  Finally, it is best to photograph the aurora during a new moon than a full moon, because in these northern latitudes, a full moon puts out a lot of light pollution.

4 Responses to “The aurora borealis – myths, science and photography”

  1. Carl Johnson Photography - Blog Says:

    […] to view and photograph the aurora borealis.  For tips on photographing the aurora, visit my prior instructional blog on the […]

  2. Carl Johnson Photography - Blog Says:

    […] free to visit my Aurora Borealis gallery on my website.  I also have a prior instructional post on how to capture the […]

  3. Carl Johnson Photography - Blog Says:

    […] 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 […]

  4. Carl Johnson Photography - Blog Says:

    […] 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 […]

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