Alaska: Northern Lights Take #1

The Universe is a vast and beautiful place and standing here on the globe of the Earth as it spins is only a fraction of what there is out there to "ooh" and "ahhh" over.  Standing outside on the Alaskan hill looking up through the aspens as the bands of green light literally danced with the stars and the moon was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.  What made this even more special was that it followed an afternoon of my brother-in-law's Celebration of Life...lots of great memories shared, laughter, tears, hugs and those moments that make life so rich.  He gave us a gift that night in the sky over one of his favorite places in the world...Alaska.  A night I will never forget.

While I am going to share lots of aurora pictures with you to enjoy, I am also going to be a little technical here to help you if you are wanting to explore the possibility of shooting the Northern Lights or night-time photography in general.  Take the parts you like and enjoy...but first things first!  The next morning's view out the window was vastly different from my view at home, and I was 4 hours earlier here so while I was just waking up with this glorious sunrise, it was already mid-morning back home.

The Northern Lights

The sky was clear with lots of stars and a fairly bright waxing moon.  Friends and family were at my sister-in-law's house and as they were leaving they came back in to say excitedly, "The Northern Lights are here!"  If I was feeling a little sleepy adjusting to the time travel I was instantly awake and filled with excitement...and had so much running through my head all at once!

    Grab the tripod!  

               Set the camera settings!  

What should my settings be?!  

             How high should I set my ISO, I don't want a lot of noise?!  

                                    Where's my coat?  

Should I grab my gloves?  

Somehow, I worked through all of those questions in a flash in my little brain and headed out the door with Fiona and tripod.  My first shots are not extremely clear or without a lot of noise but I learned a lot and still captured the lights to remember the night.

First shots...ISO 6400, f3.5, 0.5 You can see they are a bit noisy at this high ISO but you can see the progression of the band across the sky.

I thought the most challenging part was finding focus.  I did not understand until a few days later the phrase "set your lens focus on infinity".  While in the plane on the way to the Arctic Circle the next week I noticed the INFINITY symbol on my lens and eureka!

So, to shoot the Northern Lights (or the stars/lightning, etc) here is what you need to do:

* Use a tripod

* Set you camera to MANUAL (you don't want to be on AUTO) or APERTURE PRIORITY

*Set your LENS to manual and line up that INFINITY symbol.

*Set your ISO to as low as 800 or 1000.

If you choose to set your camera on MANUAL, you will need to choose everything...your ISO, your aperture (the widest you can get...aka the smaller the number of your f-stop, the more light that comes into your camera) and your shutter speed.  

You can set your shutter speed to BULB which means that you can hold the shutter button down for as long as you like.

 To avoid camera shake you will need a remote shutter of some sort if you choose the BULB option.  Otherwise you can set your camera's timer. 

I chose to use APERTURE PRIORITY and set my camera timer.  That ended up keeping the shutter open for about .2 seconds at this high ISO

  You can also take a light or use your headlights to help you establish focus on something far away.  You could also in the daylight, focus your lens on something in the distance, turn your camera OFF, and then set the lens to manual so it is good to go later.  This will keep your noise level down and your photos more crisp

These two top shots were taken at ISO 6400 and the lower two shots at a lower ISO of 1000, f3.5 and f4.0, shutter speed 3.2s and 2.5s.

The little cabin on the hill...ISO 6400, noisy and you can see I still have some work to do!

We hopped into the car and drove to the bottom of the hill to get a wider look at the sky.  There were street lights which helped me to focus on the landscape.  

My ISO here is 1000 and my shutter speed ranges from 1.6 seconds to 2 seconds...the shorter times b/c of the light added from the street lights.  You can see that these shots are much cleaner at the lower ISO.

You can see the importance of being away from distracting light with the light orbs in the lower shots.  

Now just enjoy these lower photos of the lights dancing across the sky without all the technical information.  Scroll through at your own beautiful!

I hope you enjoyed the Northern Lights and thank you so much for coming along with me to watch and learn.  Usually I Google things I have not shot before BEFORE I have the opportunity to shoot them but here I was shooting from the hip and used all the knowledge I have gathered over the past few years about ISO, aperture, bulb, manual focus, etc.  I was pleased to find out I did most of it right!

I am not one who is afraid to play with the buttons on my camera and I hope that this experience of mine helps you to be brave and try something new with your camera.  You'll make some mistakes and you'll cringe at the thought, I know, but no mistake is is an opportunity to learn to make it better and to get the shot just the way you envision it.  There was another night of amazing Northern Lights so be sure to watch for it in the coming weeks!  

Please feel free to share some of your experiences changing settings on your camera and let me know if you have any questions, too!  If you enjoyed this blog, you can share it with your friends and have a lively discussion of the topic over coffee!  (You're welcome!)  ;)  

Happy shooting!

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