Full Moon Aurora

15 seconds, 20-35mm lens, f/3.5, 400 ISO; Off the Dalton Highway, 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle

For many outdoor and nature photographers, the enjoyment of being OUT THERE seeing the beauty of our planet is all it takes to make a great day. When that enjoyment is combined with memorable sights, the experience is enhanced. Capturing images of an outing makes for the ultimate happening. 

Photographers are frequently asked about their favorite subject or most memorable event. While I can’t pick a favorite subject from the many I enjoy, my most memorable event had to be seeing and shooting an eared grebe hatching out of its shell—at least that was my first choice until a recent trip. Having seen a book on northern lights photography in Alaska, I wanted to see this wonder first-hand. 

Lots of Internet searching for location and shooting tips is helpful, but until you get out there, find your subject, and shoot it yourself, no amount of research can prepare you for the actual event. Anyone who has gone to Alaska knows that weather is an outside element you can’t control. While there are plenty of subjects you can work no matter what the weather is, a good image of northern lights is not one of these. You schedule a trip and hope for the best, waiting to see if you’ll be lucky enough to have a clear night or not.

When you do your research for shooting the aurora, you’ll find pluses and minuses for going when a full moon is present. On the minus side is if the lights that night are somewhat faint, the brightness of the moon’s reflection of the sun can fade them out. On the other hand, a full moon can be used to illuminate objects in the foreground. Many aurora shots include buildings with lights on inside to provide an interesting foreground subject. Depending on your shooting location, this feature might not be available. However, a full moon will help light up anything you have in front of you, no matter where you are. Because shots are done for at least six to eight seconds and up to fifteen seconds or more (depending on your shutter and ISO settings), the full moon will do a great job of making what would otherwise be a silhouette into a well-lit subject. Conversely, if you choose to go when there isn’t a full moon, a strong flash can be helpful in popping light onto a foreground subject. Another tip is to turn off your auto focus and set the lens to infinity, as everything you’ll be shooting will be a good distance from you.

15 seconds, 20-35mm lens, f/3.5, 400 ISO; Off the Dalton Highway, 75 miles north of the Arctic Circle

Many online guidelines for the duration of exposures go out the window when you’re shooting northern lights plus a full moon. Typically, everything out there shows shooting times of 25 to 30 seconds with an f/2.8 lens at 400 ISO. With this combination and a full moon, I found that six to eight seconds was more than enough. And, given that digital has now made it’s way into the mainstream of photography, this helps keep the noise down in the resulting picture.

Digital has another advantage when you’re shooting the aurora, especially if you’re on a one-time trip and might not be able to see it again. Experimenting with shutter speeds and using the image playback feature can help point you in the right direction, whereas with film you shoot at various settings and hope for the best when the film is developed. Yes, online guides do give you a good starting point, but every guide is just that–a guide. Two I found online before my recent trip varied as much as five to ten seconds for the same settings. 

If you use film, take plenty and do lots of shooting at multiple shutter speeds and ISOs. ISO 200 and 400 are the best choices for both film and digital. Wide-angle lenses are also called for, as you need to be able to get as much of the sky and foreground in the image as possible. Also, use your widest aperture in order to be able to achieve the fastest shutter speed. Noise does come into play when you’re combining digital and long exposures, but if you try to minimize the shutter speed and ISO, noise can be diminished. Taking a couple of shots at various settings and then reviewing them helps give you a thumbnail as to what you’ll see when you look at them larger on your computer or print them out later.

 10 seconds, 20-35mm lens, f/3.5, 400 ISO; Off the Dalton Highway, 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle

Because the best aurora shows occur between 10 pm and 3 am, you need to head out during the daylight hours to find spots that will make good locations. No matter where you go, you need to be as far away from the city lights as possible. In Alaska, this is not quite as difficult as in parts of the lower forty-eight states. When you take your daytime scouting trips, look for clear views with good foreground subjects. An isolated cabin or home works well, as do nice tree lines. Mountain ridges add character to the lower portion of the frame, and with a full moon, the detail of these can be seen. The higher you can get, the better, to give yourself a better vista of the surrounding area. No matter where you go, plan to include as many nights as possible, since you’ll encounter cloudy nights that take away from your shooting. (On my first trip to do northern lights, I enjoyed three nights of aurora shooting and slept through three nights of poor conditions.)

Being treated to your first glimpse of the northern lights is an event you won’t soon forget–especially when the lights start dancing across the sky like someone opening and closing the living room drapes. If you ask me what my most memorable photo outing has been now, I’ll tell you it was one night in northern Alaska, sixty miles north of the Arctic Circle, when the sky looked like a Tchaikovsky ballet.

10 seconds, 20-35mm lens, f/3.5, 400 ISO; Off the Dalton Highway, 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle

10 seconds, 20-35mm lens, f/3.5, 400 ISO; Off the Dalton Highway, 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle

Check the First Light schedule for when the next northern lights workshop is scheduled, as this trip to Alaska will now be offered each year with other photo opportunities included–based on when the trip is scheduled.

By Andy Long

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