First published 06-Jan-2024. Last revised 07-Jan-2024
Who doesn’t want a photo of a curvaceous near-earth phenomenon called an Aurora? Not you? Well if not, you need not read on. But if you’re thinking that sounds interesting then you’ve found a good place to hone up on aurora and aurora photography. We’ll address what aurora are, how to plan for them, equipment, and photography methods including how to get decent photos from night capable cameras and typical current generation cell phones. In many ways aurora photography is similar to trying to catch meteors – see: Coaxing a Meteor into Smiling for your Camera – only aurora are easier!
Until recently, photo 3, below was the only aurora photo I was ever able to capture, and it was in 2011 while travelling back by plane from the Royal Observatory in London where I had won Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2010. While flying over Canada, I noticed an odd glow that seemed to be moving unexpectedly. Suspecting it might be an aurora borealis, I covered the window up as best I could with a dark coat while simultaneously holding my camera against the window for a 4 second exposure on a bumpy flight. The camera immediately registered the tell-tale green color which wasn’t visible to my eye.
What IS an Aurora? and What Does it Look like “In Person”?
An aurora (which is named after the Roman goddess of Dawn) occurs when the sun ejects charged particles toward the earth. Those charged particles are warped by our earth’s magnetosphere which concentrates them like a lens and they then collide with components of our atmosphere (in the ionosphere and thermosphere) as high up as 1000 miles to as low as 30 miles above the earth. Note that the magnetosphere is centered around the earth’s magnetic poles, not the geographic poles. The north magnetic pole continuously moves and is presently near 81°18′N 110°48′W which is Ellsmere Island, Canada NOT at the geographic north pole (90°N). The location of the north magnetic pole within the North American continent is fortuitous for those of us who live in the extreme northern United States especially for those in Alaska, and Canada. Though the band of possible aurora sighting locations is broad and includes other northern countries and continents it favors Northern North America. Aurorae (the plural of Aurora) that occur in the Northern hemisphere are called Aurora Borealis from Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind. Those in the Southern hemisphere are named after the Greek god of the southern wind: Auster and are called Aurora Australis.
Other interesting places in the world to see the Aurora Borealis include the northern areas of Norway, Sweden, Lapland, Iceland, Greenland and Finland as well as the Siberian region of Russia. In the south, Aurora can sometimes be seen in New Zealand, the Southern tip of Chile (e.g. Tierra del Fuego) or the Falklands. In the south, however the best place would be on the continent of Antarctica.
All you really need to see an aurora is a reasonably dark sky and sufficient solar wind to produce a strong aurora. Aurora have no seasonality. The anticipated strength (brightness) of the aurora is forecast by the “Kp Index“. Unlike the apparent magnitude scale used by astronomers in which the smaller the number the brighter the object, the Kp scale goes from 1 to 9 with 9 being the brightest and MOST likely to produce aurora. During our sojourn in the Fairbanks area, the scale ran from 2 Kp to 5 Kp – and as I note below that 5 Kp event on December 17th was awe inspiring.
But what does an aurora look like in person?
Most aurora will appear gray to the human eye which is poor at discerning color in dim light. A camera can capture the true color, and that color is generally predominately green due to the interaction of the charged particles with oxygen in the atmosphere. In Photo 4 you can see a peculiar diagonal glow that IS a diffuse aurora partially obscured by clouds and it is close to what it looked like to the naked eye – though the whole scene was dimmer in person.
What an aurora actually looks like depends on the overall sky darkness, the cloud cover, and the strength of the aurora. Just as seeing the true majesty of the Milky Way requires dark skies, the beauty and shape of the aurora is easier to spot in dark skies. A dim aurora might look exactly like the amorphous cloud in photo 4, above. In fact, many people who first notice aurora think they ARE clouds illuminated by moonlight or some distant city lights. A stronger, brighter aurora might have discernable hints of green, red or blue. And the aurora may also move quickly and chaotically about the sky in a display that can only be described as mesmerizing, and evocative. We got very lucky. Of the 4 nights we spent seeking the aurora we saw aurora on 3 of those nights, and the fourth night literally had this author in tears over the sheer beauty of what he saw. Don’t let this meager photo dissuade you… we’ll discuss in a bit how to get much better photos and show you much more delicious examples. We were fortunate in that there were two very large solar flares (class X) that occurred on December 14th
But here is a timelapse from the most energetic of the nights we watched. It zips along at about 15 times the actual speed.
Where can you See an Aurora? and WHEN?
The short answer to the question is literally ANYWHERE with great good luck, but the the more accurate answer is near (about 20 degrees from) the north or south magnetic poles when the sky is dark and there is significant solar activity. The sun goes through an 11-year cycle from a quiet period (solar minimum) to lots of sunspots (solar maximum) and back to a quiet period. The sunspots are generally where the charged particles come from Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs). The next solar maximum is in 2024 and the previous maximum was 2013 but the years on either side of the maximum can be just as good as the year of the maximum -> so now you know why we went in 2023!
A more detailed explanation of WHERE includes these criteria:
- A place with non light-polluted skies
- near the arctic or antarctic magnetic poles but preferably not at the poles. The farther you are away from the magnetic poles, the less likely you are to see any aurora activity
- generally favorable weather (meaning at least some clear skies).
- a season when there is true night/darkness. For example August in Alaska would be a bad choice because it never gets truly dark – which is why it’s called the “Land of the Midnight Sun”. In late December through January Fairbanks and farther north could aptly be called the “Land of Perpetual Midnight”. The more dark, the better the chances!
- travel distance and cost,
- availability and cost of lodging,
- and if you’re looking for that primo shot, consideration of the foreground for your shot (a flat field may not be as compelling as a snow flocked forest with a mountain poking out in the distance).
- time on site. Aurora are a “Space Weather” phenomenon and that is apt in the sense that you might confidently book a one-night stay in Seattle, Washington and expect it to rain because it frequently does so, but the longer you stay at a site, the more likely you are to observe the Space Weather you’re interested in and hopefully the less likely that the snow, rain, clouds or fog are to completely blot out your aurora experience. The first night we were on site at Borealis Basecamp it had snowed all day and was a gloomy overcast, foreboding night. We thought it would be a bust and we could catch up on sleep, but at 2:00 AM it cleared enough that the Aurora was pretty awesome.
One strategy is to book a place and hope that while you’re there you get an aurora. I call this tactic “Book and Hope“. But there is another tactic you can try, too.
Monitor and Go
Another approach is to pick where to go based on monitoring the Space Weather reports for strong solar events and correlating the aurora predictions with weather forecasts. You can immediately arrange travel to an accessible location in the US or Canada at the last minute since there are often 2 to 3 days between the observed solar activity (CMEs) and the increase in aurora activity. The Monitor and Go approach may cost more and require more flexibility. You may find that some of the best locations and tours are booked seasons in advance for those who took the book and hope approach. We are strong proponents of Having a Plan C – which means having alternatives pre-investigated in advance of any possible opportunity to see the aurora.
If not above latitude 45 or so the aurora will be low in the northern horizon. But the closer you get to the magnetic pole, the higher in the sky the phenomenon will occur. In fact, one driver in Fairbanks told me “we don’t call them the Northern Lights here we just call them The LIGHTS because for us they are usually overhead and seldom only in the north.”
If you don’t live in Alaska or Canada, but are lucky enough to live in the northern-most portions of the northern US the chances of seeing an aurora are pretty good on as many as 5 or 6 nights a year when there is significant space weather (Kp index forecast is greater than 5). It may just be a matter of figuring out what nearby location has the darkest skies toward the north. Some of my photo buddies in New England, Washington, and Idaho have managed several times through a year to get captures of an aurora when the activity level is high. See the Viewing the Aurora link, in the resource list below for a better understanding of Kp.
Where Did StarCircleAcademy Go?
For nearly all the reasons cited above, we chose to go during the winter to the area near Fairbanks, Alaska, and specifically to Borealis Basecamp which is located about 20 miles north of Fairbanks. We chose December for it’s longer nights and snowy environment (better for interesting foregrounds) even though December in Fairbanks has more cloud cover than say March. We’ll describe more about Borealis Basecamp in the next article, including features of the “igloo” accommodations offered, as well as weather considerations.
There is a downside to Fairbanks, Alaska. By going in Winter… there are only 4 or 5 hours of daylight, and the average high temperature hovers near zero Farenheit (-17 Celsius). Borealis Basecamp is 800 feet higher in altitude than Fairbanks, so is usually a few degrees warmer (cold air sinks and settles in low areas). Borealis Basecamp is situated north of Fairbanks which helps because the light pollution from Fairbanks only affects the southern skies. There are other areas worth considering in the vicinity of Fairbanks as well, like Chena Hot Springs, Chatanika Lodge, Aurora Borealis Lodge north east of Fox, and many more. You can also opt to stay in Fairbanks and charter expeditions that ferry you by van to the best available spots for photography. Or if you are accustomed to driving on ice and snow you can be brave and rent a car. Beware that locals don’t call them “roundabouts” they call them “slide-abouts”. The upside to residing in Fairbanks is that you can avail yourself of the variety of restaurants and amenities in Fairbanks and also get aurora photos. The disadvantage is that the aurora can pop up at any time so generally you’d want to be out from say 10 pm until 3 am to have a good chance of catching what does occur. In our case at the Borealis Basecamp (as is true at nearly ALL aurora oriented accommodations), they notified us by phone when an aurora was visible and it was a matter of looking through the windows to decide if it was worth donning all the layers of clothing and heading out of doors or just staying in bed and observing in comfort. Plus we had the advantage of retreating indoors for breaks or to rewarm as needed. Indeed, one morning the aurora display was dim but really awesome at 8 am!
Resources and Links
- Explaining Solar Cycles @Nasa
- Viewing the Aurora @NOAA
- 30 Minute Aurora Forecast @NOAA
- Aurora Forecast for Alaska @Geophysical Institute (Alaska.edu)
- About Colors in the Aurora @Physics.stackexchange.com
- Where and How Do Aurorae Occur @UCAR Center for Science Education
- General Information About Aurorae @Wikipedia
- Android (My Aurora Forecast Pro) or IOS App (My Aurora Forecast Pro) for predicting Aurora visibility WITH alerts. The Basecamp staff recommends this particular app.
- Archive of Solar Flare Activity @SpaceWeatherLive.com
- Live Solar Flare Activity Report @SpaceWeatherLive.com this resource contains reports emitted by NOAA and other sources.
Coming up In Parts 2 and 3 of this Series:
2 Aurora Photography with A Night Capable Camera COMING SOON.
+ What is a “Night capable” camera?
+ Equipment (Camera, Tripod, warmers, dew heaters, …)
+ Aurora aspects that dictate settings.
+ Adapting to conditions – both of the Aurora and the weather.
+ What to pay attention to to get the best results (there are 3 keys!)
+ Batteries, camera controls and tripods.
+ Aurora photography goals and considerations for getting a better picture.
+ Preparing for Winter in Alaska
+ Is -20 F survivable? (Short answer, yes!)
+ What should I bring / how should I dress?
+ What is Borealis Basecamp like?
+ Tips from Borealis Basecamp staff.
3. Aurora and Night Photography with a Cell Phone COMING SOON
+ Cellphone cameras – are they usable for aurora photos?
+ Stablizing a cell phone for better photos (both hardware and posture!)
+ iPhone settings – “Night” and “Pro” mode
+ Android phone settings “Night” and “Pro” mode
+ Handheld or stabilized?
+ How to hold a cellphone if you DO NOT have a tripod/stable base
+ Hands free photos (e.g. tripod plus voice command or bluetooth trigger)