Tips For Seeing and Photographing the Northern Lights

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Seeing the northern lights had been on my bucket list for years. I knew that someday  I must see them. But I never got around to actually making that dream happen until this year. At the beginning of this year I was just hanging out in California waiting on a visa for Fiji. When I mentioned this to my friend who lives in Alaska, she suggested that I come visit her since she was house sitting for a friend and had a huge log cabin for us to stay in. Plus I’d just read an article that said that due to the 11 year cycles of the lights, 2016 would be the last good year to see them for a while. I jumped at the chance to go because I had frequent flier miles just waiting to be used. I booked a flight that same day.  img_3444

After I booked my flight, I started doing research on photographing the lights, and was suddenly disappointed. Several articles I read said that the lights don’t really look as bright in person as they do in pictures. They said the eye can’t really see the colors as well as the camera can, and that to the naked eye they actually look more white than anything else. I was so disappointed and asked my friend if this was true. She assured me it wasn’t, but I still felt a bit let down.

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A “J” in the sky, just for me!

I’m happy to report, however, that that is not true. We saw green, pink, red and purple lights and seeing them was THE most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced. I was completely blown away by the experience and had a hard time falling asleep every night after witnessing them. I know that someday I will definitely go see them again. In fact, I think I might move to Alaska someday just so I can see them on a regular basis.

The northern lights are truly spectacular and something that must be seen and experienced firsthand.Pictures and videos don’t do justice to the actual experience.

A few tips if you want to go and get some great pictures:

Fairbanks, Alaska is one of the best places to see the lights

There are a few places in the world that are considered the best for seeing the northern lights, and one of those top three places is Fairbanks, Alaska. This great for those of us who are from North America. It’s relatively close and inexpensive for those of us in the Lower 48 to travel to Alaska as opposed to heading all the way to northern Europe. Plus Fairbanks has a very high number of nights per year that the lights are “on” as the locals say. Statistically if you are there for a just a few nights, your chance of seeing them is very high. I was there 7 nights and we saw them 6 of those nights. One night was sadly too cloudy.

Once you arrive in Fairbanks, head away from the city. You can actually see the lights while in the city, but they are a lot brighter once you head away from the city and light pollution. Book yourself a private cabin and enjoy having all that nature to yourself!img_3450

Go between November and March for the best chance at seeing them

The lights are “on” year-round, but your best chance of seeing them is during the winter months when the days are short and the nights are long and dark.

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Pack lots of warm clothing

I brought hats, scarves, gloves, boots, HotHands warmers, and even a face mask, because I envisioned myself spending as much time as possible outdoors waiting to see the lights. And with the peak viewing hours being between midnight and 3 am, I spent a lot of time outside, and it was cold! I was so thankful for all the things I’d brought to keep me warm.

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Bring a DSLR camera and a tripod

You won’t be able to get good pictures of the lights without a camera that lets you adjust your aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. And having a tripod makes the whole thing much easier. I had put away all my gear just after 3 am one of the nights and was heading inside when suddenly the sky overhead exploded with so much color and dancing that it actually scared me. I frantically turned on my camera and held it upside-down on the snow-covered railing of the cabin deck to try and get some halfway decent pictures, all the while cursing myself for having already put the tripod away. The pictures turned out ok, but I think they would have been better if my camera had been on the tripod.

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Practice with your camera ahead of time and make sure you set your focus to infinity mode or get it focused and taped in place ahead of time

Your camera won’t be able to auto focus in the dark, so you will have to change your focus to manual and set your focus yourself. The easiest way to do this is to set it to infinity if you have that capability. If not, try to focus on a far away object while it’s still light out. Then at night you should be set to have pictures that are in focus. The lights are moving, so they won’t be as crisp and clear as you might like, but at least your stars will be in focus. I was constantly moving the tripod around the deck because the lights dancing were all around me, and was constantly having to adjust my focus because of the different objects in my foreground. That meant I missed a lot of great shots that I wanted. Next time I will go with a lens that lets me set infinity.

Don’t get so caught up in getting the perfect shot that you miss actually just enjoying the lights

I was so excited to shoot the lights that my friend had to keep reminding me to just enjoy them. So I tried to step away from the camera from time to time to just marvel at the amazingness that was happening above me. They truly are a sight to behold and I am still, months later, amazed at all that I saw during that week.

Have you seen the northern lights? Where did you see them? 

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