Seeing the Northern Lights is a truly magical experience and one that is high on many peoples bucket lists. As well as catching a glimpse of the dancing lights, many understandably also wish to capture the moment on camera. In countries close to the Arctic Circle, weather can change very rapidly, making it difficult to see the aurora through the clouds, let alone capture them. But with a little patience and planning, you can take a dreamy image of the lights to cherish forever. To help you to prepare to photograph the Northern Lights, we spoke to Ronn Murray of Alaska’s Northern Lights specialists, The Aurora Chasers.
Could you tell us a bit about yourselves?
Marketa and I are a husband and wife team of professional Aurora chasers in Alaska. We both began chasing and capturing the Northern Lights around 2007 in separate parts of the world. Marketa was in Iceland and I in Alaska. We joined forces in 2012 when we met and began photographing the Aurora together during a visit by Marketa to Alaska. Since then, we've built a tour company leading workshops to take folks out and experience the magic of the Aurora with us and to help them capture their own magical photos of the Northern Lights.
When did you both start taking an interest in the night sky?
We've both always enjoyed the night sky since we were young but with the advent of digital cameras and social media, the ability to capture images and share those interests with the world became more accessible.
Do you remember when and where you first saw the Northern Lights?
I witnessed my first Northern Lights in West Yellowstone, Montana in 2001 where I was working as a cook after high school. The next time was on a flight departing Alaska from the plane in 2004 and it was a magical show. That's when I knew I had to see them again. That's when the infatuation began.
When is the best time to see the lights?
It is possible to see the Aurora Borealis anytime that we have darkness in Fairbanks, Alaska. We are however living in the land of the Midnight Sun and thus during our long warm summers with 24 hours of daylight, Northern Light viewing is impossible. Around mid-August we start to see subtle changes in the night sky and by late August we are able to see nice displays of Aurora dancing overhead. This will last until mid-April when the sun takes back over the night sky. During Lady Aurora's time to shine, the best Aurora activity statistically happens during the 8 weeks around the fall and spring equinox. As such, we schedule our season around the fall and spring equinox for the peak months of September, October, February and March. But a good display can happen any time that we have darkness.
In regards to the specific times, the Northern Lights can be visible at any time the stars are visible. This means you can see them anytime it's dark. However, due to the physics involved with our magnetic field, the best time is typically between 10pm and 2am AKST. Keep in mind that the Aurora doesn't recognize Daylight Savings Time so you'll need to shift an hour later during that time as we do with our tours. These times will also be different in other parts of the world so if you’re not in Alaska, you'll want to get the local info on best hours to be out watching.
What kind of gear would you recommend people take to photograph the aurora?
Most modern cameras beyond a point and shoot are capable now of taking a good Aurora photo. The key factor is wide angle lenses with fast apertures. The exposure times are quite long and the Aurora can move quickly and fill the sky, so any advantage you can gain to capture more sky quickly is helpful. The best bet is still a full frame DSLR or mirrorless camera with professional lenses but even the modern intro DSLRs and mirrorless cameras can do the job much better than our pro gear even 5-10 years ago.
What is the biggest challenge when photographing the lights?
The biggest challenge to photographing the Northern Lights isn't the gear so much as using the gear in the dark and cold. I often tell our guests that the clothing they bring or rent for a trip is far more important than the photography gear. You can have the best camera equipment in the world but if you skimped on clothing gear, you're not going to be out there using it much. The schedule is also challenging as I get older and my body wants to fight the night shift.
Do you have any other advice for novice photographers hoping to capture this phenomenon?
The best advice I can give a novice is to bring a lot of patience. The Aurora, while magical, is a natural phenomenon. It isn't guaranteed and weather can impede our ability to see a good display. It's often a game of waiting and the best photographers you see out there are those that have the patience to sit and wait for something to happen while everyone else has given up and gone to bed.
If you’re itching to search for the Northern Lights, Cruise and Maritime Voyages operates several cruises to some of the world’s best locations to see the aurora, including Norway and Iceland. Alternatively, Hurtigruten run a classic round voyage throughout the winter, leaving you spoilt for choice. Remember to wrap up warm and keep Ronn’s tips in mind to capture the perfect photograph on your cruise holiday.
Image credits: The Aurora Chasers