Capturing Alaska’s Auroras


In the 18 years I’ve lived in Alaska, I’ve seen some spectacular photos of the auroras (northern lights).  It’s only recently that I took a ‘shooting the auroras’ photography course and spent that evening in the midst of an aurora storm outside of Fairbanks, Alaska.  

This time, I took the photos!  Once you do it, you want to do it some more!  Imagine that cold, invigorating wind on your face, the auroras dancing overhead, the snow crunching underfoot, and an energy that fills the air that you can’t capture in digital!  I also learned there is incredible aurora-viewing from BLM-managed lands near Fairbanks, Alaska.   

The Northern lights from Wickersham Dome Jan 21, 2012. Photo by Susan L. Stevenson

The Northern lights from Wickersham Dome Jan 21, 2012. Photo by Susan L. Stevenson, used with permission.

The University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute estimates the auroras are visible 243 nights a year from the Fairbanks area.  Many photographers escape Fairbank’s ambient lights by traveling the Elliott or Steese Highways to capture the auroras.  A popular destination is the Wickersham Dome trailhead parking lot at mile 28 and nearby pullouts on the Elliott Highway.  Those trails lead into the BLM-managed one-million-acre White Mountains National Recreation area and its winter trails. 

Near Wickersham Dome Trailhead, streak on right under aurora is the NASA rocket from Poker Flats Research Area. Photo by Karen J. Laubenstein

Near Wickersham Dome Trailhead, streak on right under aurora is the NASA rocket from Poker Flats Research Area. Photo by Karen J. Laubenstein

My aurora-photography class and venture into shooting the auroras was Saturday, Feb. 18. Although prime aurora viewing is typically around midnight or later, on that day an aurora storm began before dark and just when my class ended. By 8:30, the auroras were going strong, dancing and radiating across the skies over the Wickersham Dome trailhead and throughout Alaska’s Interior.  In the midst of the show, scientists studying the aurora at the Poker Flat Research Range about 30 miles north of Fairbanks launched a two-stage, 46-foot National Aeronautics and Space Administration sounding rocket into the aurora.  The rocket gathered information on space weather conditions that affect satellite communications by recording how radio waves travel through the plasma.  Four 18-foot wire antennas helped measure the strong electric fields generated by the aurora.  Photographers throughout the area caught the light stream of the rocket as it entered the auroras.

Northern lights from road near Wickersham Dome Trailhead. Photo by Karen J. Laubenstein

Aurora near Wickersham Dome Trailhead. Photo by Karen J. Laubenstein

Story by Karen J. Laubenstein


Here’s some of the tips 
I learned:
  1. Never use flash photography with auroras. 
  2. Remove any filters and use a lens with a focal length as wide as possible (I used an 18mm; ideal is from fisheye or 14mm; many use 22mm or 24mm), and shutter speeds of about 3-5 seconds to capture as much of the sky as possible. 
  3. Manual settings – as low an f-stop as your camera will go; fast ISO settings of 800 or more.  Photographers will take it on different settings, but if you open the shutter too long, it will be a blur or pick up star tracks, so it is a fine-balance to get your ISO, f-stop, and exposure settings fine-tuned for optimal photos. 
  4. Prefocus before dark if possible on stars or the horizon, do not set the ‘infinity’ setting as it will likely not be in focus. 
  5. Learn how to hunt the auroras – there are many tools available (Facebook group pages, twitter alerts, the “salmon cam,” University of Alaska Fairbanks geophysical institute aurora forecasts, and in Fairbanks, even some of the hotels will alert guests when the auroras become visible).  Study the forecasts and learn the levels of aurora activity and moon phases.
  6. Most auroras have the best viewing when the sun is having geomagnetic activity; during the five days before and after a full-moon; with clear skies and usually subzero temperatures; and between the hours of 11 pm and 5 am.