Growing up as an astronomy enthusiast in a big city, I dreamt of seeing the aurora in real life one day. I seized every opportunity to look at the dark sky and deep sky objects. I continued pursuing these opportunities during my travels which led me to visit some of the finest dark skies in the world, and many sleepless nights of chasing northern lights: Greenland, Iceland, northern Norway, and northern Finland. My neverending passion for the night sky was one of the reasons that I decided to live in Alaska.
For the last three years in Alaska, I’ve been thoroughly enjoying our pristine night sky and long winter of northern lights hunting. I was lucky to have met good people along the way to help me find my own ‘secret’ spots. I can proudly say that I’ve been photographing northern lights for the last 8 years (dreams do come true!). Now I want to share a few tips on how to capture interesting northern lights photos, especially in Alaska. The aurora season is just beginning here, so it’s time to gear up!
All the photos I’m using in this post as examples were taken somewhere in Alaska within the last three years, mostly around the Anchorage area.
Capturing active lights is always the goal of a northern lights outing, but having a foreground makes it a more interesting photo. That’s why I love the Anchorage area for northern lights photos in Alaska because there are open bodies of water, mountains, and trees to frame. Want to know more about what I’m talking about? Read on.
In Alaska, our aurora season spans from mid-August to mid-April, depending on where you are in the state. Where I am in Anchorage, the lights are visible from as early as the beginning of August. I like going out for the northern lights earlier in the season because a) temperature is warmer than deep in the winter, b) lakes and rivers aren’t frozen yet (read on to see why this is important), and c) autumn colors make a great foreground.
A simple light painting with your flashlight or an opportune moment of a car passing will bring out those fall colors with beautiful lights in the night sky. Don’t think that it needs to be the coldest and darkest night of the year to see the northern lights. The fall and spring shoulder seasons offer more than you’d think.
It’s not a secret that wide-angle lenses are good for night sky photos. I have a long history of chasing down wide-angle or super-wide-angle lenses back as far as the Pentax MX (mechanical camera) days. The same principle goes for the northern lights, especially when the light is very active. You want to capture the shapes and movements of the dancing lights. I use a variety of lenses including 14 mm Rokinon, 16-35 mm Nikkor, and 24-70 mm Nikkor lenses. When the light is really active and there is an interesting close foreground, I often use the 14 mm focal length.
Don’t be afraid to use zoom lenses, too. Interesting shapes often happen when the lights are getting active. Look to the northern horizon, you might see green light spiraling up from afar. I use a 24-70 mm lens for those effects.
One of my favorite ways of capturing the northern lights is using an open body of water for a reflection. I’ve always wanted to get the aurora reflection shot and I finally got it. We have so many lakes, rivers, and seas in Alaska! In Anchorage, it’s often accompanied by beautiful mountains and trees. There are a few places I like to go to get the reflection shot. This is why early aurora season in autumn is beneficial since these waters aren’t frozen yet.
Foreground. Utilize those beautiful sharp peaks, birch and spruce trees, open water, and objects. When the northern lights are happening, everyone else in the northern hemisphere is photographing the same lights. What makes a difference in your photo is the foreground. Tell your story with your surroundings. It’s a beautiful way to show the environment you’re in.
Don’t be afraid to include people in your photo. When the northern lights forecast is really good, people in the area tend to go to certain places to look for the lights themselves. I encounter small groups like that here and there, and sometimes that’s a great addition to my photo. And when you’re lucky, you get to know people who build a snow igloo for their photos (thanks, Lars!). Photography tells a story. That’s why I’m so passionate about taking photos, and this is one of my favorite ways to tell this particular story.
The most important question; what if the aurora isn’t out? Then, have fun with it! The nights that we decide to go aurora hunting are usually clear. This means you can enjoy the finest night sky shining bright with stars, planets, and celestial objects. I always bring camping chairs and a hot beverage when I’m out hunting northern lights, because I love sitting under the beautiful sky and enjoying the tranquility. We also do light painting. Thanks to my friend Jody, we got to play with the steel wool and create this awesome photo. The light comes out when you’re least expecting (not true but it feels that way). No matter what you do, where you are, enjoy Alaska’s beautiful and pristine nature while you are out and about.
If you’re new to the area and traveling without knowing anyone, I highly recommend you to join a tour. There are many great tour operators in Alaska that provide you with comfort, knowledge, and occasionally even photos. When I was traveling, I joined tours and hunted the lights myself. There are pros and cons of both options, but once you go on a tour, it gives you more knowledge about the area which is valuable information. And if you are new to photographing northern lights, highly skilled tour guides will get you started. Look for the best Alaska northern lights tour options with Your Alaska Trip (it’s Stephen’s new tour company!).
There you have it! I tried not to go into too many technical details. In this day and age when digital camera technology is so advanced, sometimes those technical details don’t really matter. But it’s always important to know the strengths and weaknesses of your camera and play with it. When you are out in the field, try capturing the light with different settings (ISO, shutter speed, f stop, etc.) to see what suits you best.