If photographing the aurora borealis, also known as the northern lights, is on your bucket list of things to accomplish, Alaska is the right place to be, and Eagle River, especially during optimal viewing conditions, can be the place to watch some of the most spectacular displays – rivaling any seen across the circumpolar north.
Understanding some essentials about the occurrence of these northern lights may be helpful in accomplishing your intention to capture an image worthy enough to share with your Facebook friends, or hang a prized image on your living room wall. Merely access the University of Alaska Geophysical Institutes website — //www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast, and you will begin to not only understand why and how auroras occur, but also where and when to best view them.
Digital photography is now two decades old and continues to evolve at a rapid rate.
There seems no end to making the best light-sensitive camera for night photography, and that’s a very good thing for those chasing the northern lights. Here is the basic equipment you’ll need:
- A Digital Single-Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera made within the past five years.
- A very sturdy tripod to hold your camera steady, especially stopping camera shake when the shutter is released.
- Preferably a 16mm to 35mm f2.8 or f4 wide-angle lens.
- A shutter release cable.
- Headlamp with a red light option to allow you to adjust your eyes to changing your settings as well as the dark.
When the aurora forecast from the UAF Geophysical Institute predicts an active display, Mount Baldy, a favorite destination for many, has been known to deliver memorable views because of its high elevation and northerly perspective.
As well, the wide pull-offs along the 7-mile marker on the Eagle River Road can also be a prime location to photograph northern lights because of its dark location that blocks city lights. However, the forecast must call for the lights to clear the Chugach Mountains and appear directly overhead. If you happen to look out your door, and the aurora is intensely dancing overhead, it may be worth setting up on your deck, which I’ve successfully done on occasion, when the lights have been overly active and bright.
Regardless of where you decide to go, once your camera equipment has been stowed in your car, and it’s time to rock and roll, here are the camera settings and hints to serve as a guide depending on the intensity of the lights:
- Set the camera to M for manual.
- Choose an ISO setting of 1600.
- Choose the widest aperture opening, f2.8 for example.
- Choose an initial 20-second shutter speed, and adjust down to perhaps 5 seconds or less if needed, especially if the aurora is bright and active.
- Engage Mirror Lockup for maximum sharpness.
- Take several test shots before the aurora appears, and check the LCD screen to see if other compositional details of mountain ridges or trees are evident.
Remember that at least two-thirds of the top of your frame should be sky, and the bottom third dedicated to other compositional elements as simple as a mountain ridge, a house or trees for a composition that favors the aurora. Always review what you’ve shot on the LCD screen and check for exposure and sharpness of the image.
Finally, have fun, stay warm, and may the auroral force be with you!
Roy Corral is a freelance photojournalist, who lives in Eagle River. His photography has been published in many national magazines including National Geographic. He has also worked as photo editor for Alaska Magazine and Alaska Newspapers. Many of his photographs are currently displayed at the Anchorage Museum’s Smithsonian Arctic Studies.