Midwestern Wanderlog

Finding the northern lights – Capturing the Dancing Aurora Borealis

2015-06-23, 12:40 AM - Northern Lights

ISO 400, 30 seconds at f/3.5

I think I was sixteen the first time I saw them.  We lived in semi-rural Minnesota at the time, and I worked at the bakery in town.  I was up in the wee hours of the morning that summer (my shift started at six, and it took me close to an hour to ride my bicycle there).  I hadn’t looked skyward; I was too focused on the time and making sure my bike chain was taut enough it wouldn’t slip when I made that first, very important stroke downward.  My Dad came out – I thought to check on me – but instead he directed my attention northward.

The sky was alive with banded color; vivid emerald green, dazzling white,and bright, fire-engine red.  I was stunned, and stood there, one leg thrown over the bike on the steep hill that was my parents’ driveway, just staring.  Dad said that as brilliant as these were, they couldn’t hold a candle to what he’d seen when he was working in Alaska:  “Not just reds and greens,” he said, “but yellows and blues and purples, and they’d cover the sky and… sort of shimmer.”

No, I wasn’t late for work.  But I did have some trouble steering a straight course down the road!  And I was hurting inside at the thought that there was no way for me to capture the moment and those colors.

I was forty-two when I saw the pretty sky lights again.  I’d had a rotten day, I was in a bad mood, and I’d decided to head for bed when I detoured to check Facebook ‘one last time.’  A friend had posted that the heat had dropped, the wind had died down, the fireflies were dancing and the northern lights were putting on a minor display.

And I thought, why not?  Wasn’t this kind of possibility one of the reasons I’d taken up photography?  Weren’t slow exposures the reason I had a tripod and cable release?  So I grabbed the camera, camera bag, and tripod and headed outside.

What I actually saw was a shock.  Flimsy strands of milky white, wisping across the sky like high, thin clouds.  Where were the colors?  Where were the shifting, layered bands?

Disappointed, I almost headed back inside.  Then I shrugged to myself – might as well set up and see what the camera got.  I could use the practice, right?  And… I had a vague remembrance of a photography class I’d taken when I first picked up a modern camera (you know, the kind that doesn’t use film), of the teacher saying that the camera doesn’t see what we see.

So onto the tripod my 30D went.  Hooked up the cable release, used a flashlight to set it for f/3.5, ISO 100, 30-second exposure…

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And there were my colors.

So, the nitty-gritty of the northern lights.  (If you’re inexperienced on the subject of night photography, check out this article; it’s maybe a bit lengthy, but should get you started.  Plus, there’s a list of what to bring with you, once you’ve covered all the groundwork.)

What is the Aurora?

First things first.  This planet of ours is something unique and amazing.  It has water, habitable temperatures, a balanced amount of light and day, heat and cold.  The ozone layer absorbs most of the biologically-damaging ultraviolet radiation, keeping us from frying into crispy critters as well as acting as part of the temperature-regulation of the planet.  And the earth’s magnetic field is like a planet-sized force shield, deflecting and diverting the dangerous particles and high-energy radiation that are carried on the solar winds.

Because that is what causes the Aurora to form.  See, the sun is constantly throwing stuff at us, far more than the visible light and heat that feeds the world.  Anything the sun bombards us with is electrically charged, and because of that, when those particles encounter our magnetic shield, they’re forced to curve with the lines of force surrounding the earth.  Eventually they collide with an oxygen or nitrogen atom; those collisions release photons (particles of light) which produce those lovely living colors.

Where can the Aurora be seen?

First off, understand that unless you live in the far-flung north – like Fairbanks or Anchorage in Alaska, Abisko in the Swedish Lapland, Luosto of northern Finland, Iceland (dear gods, I want to go to Iceland when the colors are in season!), the Kola Peninsula in northern Russia, Calgary or Whitehorse in Canada, Norway, Greenland, Scotland, Denmark… – then you aren’t likely to see them often.  (I live in the northern midwest of the U.S., and I still don’t live far enough north to see them often.)

Secondly, a word about light pollution.  If you want to see the Aurora clearly, you need to be away from major cities.  Even large towns will interfere in the sight (though not quite as much).  So if you are planning an aurora hunt, bear that in mind too.  If you want to check your area and see how much interference your location gets, www.lightpollutionmap.info is half-decent and so is darksitefinder.com.

Oh, side note:  Just as these collisions of electrically-charged particles happen at the north pole, they happen exactly the same way in the far south.  Those lights are called the Aurora Australis, or the Southern Lights – just as pretty, and they can be seen in Antarctica, New Zealand, and the southern edges of Australia.

How can you know when they’re going to happen?

It’s strange to think of the sun as having a heartbeat and internal weather, isn’t it?  Heck, it even rotates around its axis, just like the earth does!  (That’s why, when you look at pictures of sunspots they’re often swirling out from the sun – although the sun’s rotation takes 24 1/2 days, not 24 hours.  And because the earth has moved in the meantime, we don’t see the exact same spot on the sun in the same place  until 26 1/4 days have passed.  Kinda wild, huh?)  The sun has an eleven-year heartbeat, based on the numbers of sunspots that are occurring at any given time.  And there are jetstreams under the surface of the sun that Frank Hill of the U.S. National Solar Observatory has been tracking using helioseismology, one of which seems very tightly linked to the solar cycle.

The sunspots are the critical bit to creating the aurora.  Sunspots produce CMEs (Coronal Mass Ejections), which are likened to the sun hiccuping or burping.  Enormous bubbles of plasma (superheated gas) are ejected from the sun and sent hurtling through space at upwards of a million miles an hour.  During its most active periods, the sun might hiccup several times a day; during times of less activity, it might only happen once every five days.  Not all of these eruptions are aimed at us; the ones that are start the clock on a potential aurora.

But the closest scientists can manage to predict for when that plasma gets here is between 1-3 days.  So really, predicting when the Northern Lights will appear is rather like predicting the weather:  Yes, there are indicators; yes there’s a set of ideal conditions for them; yes, scientists can measure and predict certain factors and say when the aurora is most likely; no, you are never going to receive a guarantee about when, where, and how brightly they will appear.

And even if you could, and did, there’s no guarantee that the cloud cover and other weather will cooperate in your area.

I’ve been out and caught them unexpectedly when I shouldn’t have been able to:

Unexpected Aurora

Unexpected Aurora – I was out to capture both Big and Little Dipper in the same photo!

I’ve been out when I should have been able to see beautful dancing lights with my own eyes as well as the camera’s and saw next to nothing:

5.0 predicted Kp

5.0 predicted Kp – Aurora should have been brilliant. The shooting star was nice though!

I’ve been out when the skies should have treated me to a show… but the clouds got in the way.

Predicted Kp of 7.0

Predicted Kp of 7.0 – and there’s CLOUDS! Arrggghhh!

So how do you prepare to capture the lights?

  1. Find a site that’s reliable and accurate and check with them often

    (After all, the Law of Averages states that sooner or later, all factors will align properly! ) Here’s a couple of my go-tos:

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    1. auroranotify.com  I actually just found these guys through Facebook.  They’re up to date, they post regularly, and as devoted sky-watchers they will tell you if the expected event isn’t going to occur.
    2. aurorahunter.com  He has some phenomenal photos you can browse through and drool over, great research, and he focuses (ha! I made a pun!) solely on the Aurora, so his expertise is specific as well as helpful.
    3. For maps and real-time graphics, aurora-service.org is okay; they used to be my primary source of information, in fact.  Trouble is, the portion of their site that was real-time has now gone down twice while in the middle of a potential G1 storm – not enormously helpful if what you want is the graphic that showed how far south the aurora extends and what the Kp level is.  I do like the way it’s set up, though.
    4. Current favorite app for the iPad/iPhone: Aurora Forecast by TINAC Inc.
    5. For background information or just to satisfy curiosity, I like earthsky.org – they’re informative, the writing style shows humor and thorough understanding, and they’re not so technical your eyes glaze over by the second sentence.
  2. Have your spot picked out ahead of time
    1. Away from city light pollution
    2. A place where you can compose a shot you like – a lake, a mountain, a grassy field, croplands – the aurora comes primarily from the north, but could extend northeast to northwest
    3. Set up permissions if needed (be particularly respectful of croplands; farmers DO NOT LIKE people driving over their fields of growing soybeans or corn – IF the plants recover, the yield is reduced, so if a place is not your personal property, DON’T get cavalier with it)
    4. Plan, plan, plan.  Yes, the aurora isn’t going to give much notice; if you are prepped and ready when you hear it shout go!, you’re ahead of the game
  1. Have your camera gear prepped and ready to go
    1. Fully-charged batteries – yes, batteries plural.  If the display is particularly bright and lengthy, you don’ t want to have to stop taking pictures just because you’ve run out of battery.  Also, the clear and dark skies needed to show off the colors at their will often mean the air is cooler – and downright cold in the wintertime – which means batteries will drain faster
    2. Clean memory cards
    3. TRIPOD.  Tripod, tripod, tripod!  These will be slow exposures, even if your camera takes kindly to turning the ISO up high (mine doesn’t – 800 is as high as I can go before the noise is uncorrectable even in Lightroom).  The camera has to be held still – and your pictures  are better off if the camera is hands-free, so consider a cable release as well.  The timer function on your camera will work, but it’s far more satisfying to press a button on the cable release and hear the shutter open.  Plus, then you don’t have to wait ten seconds and maybe miss the colors and pattern that delighted you
  2. Camera settings
    1. First off, don’t be afraid to play.  Taking pictures is supposed to be FUN!  So monkey with the settings.  Heck, I’ve been out of a night and thought, hey, I wonder if i can make the camera match what I actually see…?  (Yes.  Yes, you can.)
    2. ISO – as high as your camera will tolerate and still give you a good photo… and that’s not necessarily as high as the camera is capable of going.  (If you’re working with film, get a minimum of 800-speed, and 1600 would be better.)
    3. Lens – you want one that’s wide-angle and fast
      1. wide-angle is better; you’ll capture more of the sky, let in more light per shot, and reduce the risk of smeary star-trails because your shutter won’t need to be open as long.  I do all right with an 18-250mm lens, though I have a 10-16mm on my wish list, specifically for night photography
      2. Faster is better – f/3.5, 2.8 or 1.4 if you have one capable – when taking pictures of stars, you can’t hold the shutter open for longer than 15 seconds before you start getting motion blur.  That’s okay if you want star trails, but not if you want a crisp, clear shot of those lovely points of light shining through the aurora
    4. Aperture – wide open.
    5. Shutter speed – this is going to depend on how high up you can turn your ISO, how fast your lens is, how wide an angle you’re shooting, how bright the aurora is, and what you want to photo to look like.  Play with it.  This is your point of versatility.

Happy shooting!

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