Did you really see the Northern Lights if there’s no picture?

Constellation Orion Fairbanks, Alaska
Orion the Mighty Hunter – Fairbanks, Alaska
Bucket List item:  Experience the Northern Lights and See a Shooting Star 

“We’ve been doing it all wrong!” said my son as he shook my husband and me awake from a deep slumber. “We need to be out there now! Right now!” he shouted. “We’ve been doing it wrong and I figured it all out. But we’ve got to go now!”

 

It was nearly three o’clock in the morning in Fairbanks, Alaska. My husband, the boys, and I had finally peeled off layers of Michelin man coats and itchy wool and settled in for what was left of the night. After two unsuccessful northern lights viewing attempts stretching into the wee hours of the morning, I was exactly where I wanted to be — in bed in a deep and satisfying sleep. Were our sons not exhausted too?

 

“No, thank you,” I said to my son. He had already gotten the same response from his older brother (like mother, like other son).  But my husband dutifully got up. The two of them once again piled on all their layers of arctic gear and headed out to brave the twelve below zero temperature. They wanted to see what we had flown all the way across the country to see.

 

Several hours later, they returned in a flurry of excitement and pulled out their iPhones to show us the evidence. I could see the disappointment as they flipped through the photos. “These are terrible!” they both agreed. “They didn’t look anything like this.”

“This is not what we saw.  What we saw was so much better!” said my son.  “How do they get those shots to look so good on the postcards?”

They learned the hard way that iPhones aren’t the best cameras for photographing the northern lights. Fortunately we had the rest of the week.  Now we were also privy to insider information on aurora timing since my son had learned to read the online chart.  I had my dSLR camera, a tripod, and a little bit of experience with night shots and long exposures.

 

Several years before, I had spent many long evenings photographing a comet.  I was trying to make the comet appear as if it were about to crash into our home. I never got the shot exactly as I envisioned, but the experience came in handy for this trip.

Comet crash into home
Practicing long exposures / Comet crash
So the next day we took a long nap, ate a late dinner, and got out when my son said it was time to go.  The weather was clear.  It was ten degrees below zero Fahrenheit, so I got out of the car to set up the camera, got back in, and we waited. Ah, family togetherness. We chatted about our travels, pointed out constellations, and watched for falling stars, but the northern lights weren’t cooperating.

 

“We’ll stay just fifteen more minutes so I can get some shots of Orion and the Big Dipper. Someone give me a warmer baklava,” I joked.

“It’s called a balaclava, mom!”

“No, it’s not. It’s a baklava I want,” I was laughing as I jumped out of the warm car to take down the camera. That’s when I saw the cloudy white rays of light, much like sun rays appearing from the horizon. It was around 2:30 am mid-winter and the sun wasn’t due up until around 10:30, so we knew they weren’t sunrays. Something unusual was happening. Everyone jumped out of the car.

White rays of the aurora
The first white rays of the Northern Lights
“Awesome!” said one son.

“I thought they had colors,” said the other.

It would be an understatement to say the cold got to us all very quickly. We were out for twenty minutes, tops. At ten below, even with the best gear, that happens to those of us not accustomed to arctic temperatures.  They piled back into the  car.  I had to get that one last shot.  That’s when I saw the green glow behind them.

northern lights family car
The Northern Lights are behind us!
“Get out! Get out! It’s glowing green…the lights are behind us and they’re green!” It wasn’t long before the white streaks and green glow exploded together into a shimmering, magnetic dance of green and shades of purple across the sky. Nature was treating us to a bucket list performance.

 

Of course, my photos with the dSLR didn’t turn out as I had hoped. Even under the best circumstances, they rarely do. My shutter release cable was broken, and between my shivering hands and wobbly tripod there was quite a bit of camera shake in most of them. Out of over 100 photos, about ten turned out okay.  But that’s fine with me. One decent shot makes me happy 🙂

 

One of the best Fairbanks northern lights pics
The Northern Lights putting on a show in Fairbanks
I have since seen and photographed the northern lights from Abisko, Sweden and Tromsø, Norway. My photography skills have improved a bit.  I’m certainly not an expert but I have learned a few things that may help you.

 

Tip 1—If you’re going mainly for the northern lights alone, make sure you choose a destination with a high likelihood of clear weather and many hours of darkness. Fairbanks, Alaska and Abisko, Sweden are two places that fit that bill.  And not in summer– there’s not much nighttime darkness that far north.

 

Tip 2—If you want to take quality photographs learn about photography; night photography and long exposures in particular. Make sure you understand your camera settings and practice, practice, practice before you leave. There is a wonderful website I wish I had discovered before my first trip to see the lights: www.davemorrowphotography.com.   I don’t know him, but his photos will take your breath away. Also, it’s good to have the following camera accessories:

  • Extra batteries for your camera (the charge runs out more quickly in freezing temps)
  • Tripod
  • Shutter release cord
  • Wide angle lens

 

Tip 3—Dress warmly, in layers. You may spend many hours standing still in freezing temperatures so you need the proper gear. Hand and foot warmers are a lifesaver and can be found at a local camping/outdoor store.  Camera equipment can get really, really cold. 

 

Tip 4—The final tip is to keep an eye on the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute forecast at gi.alaska.edu and learn how the map works so you will know the best time for viewing.

 

Here’s wishing you safe & happy travels ❤️✨and, if you’re looking for them, cooperative Northern Lights 💚💜💙💫✨

© 2017 jsf.

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