Tips for shutterbugs

Posted: Friday, February 16, 2001

While most people enjoy Alaska's winters during the short daylight hours, there is a sky full of activity available to those with warm clothing and patience.

Photographing the northern lights, or the aurora borealis, does require more advanced equipment than the point-and-shoot in your pocket, but not much more. In fact, you do not need -- and really, you

shouldn't use -- a camera with automatic everything.

"A point and shoot absolutely will not work. You need an SLR (single lens reflex camera) that you can set the aperture and timing manually," says Soldotna photographer Bill Hutchinson, whose World Wide Web site (www. is filled with shots of auroral displays he and his brother, Dick, of Circle, have taken.

A sturdy tripod also is crucial so the camera will not move during the time exposures required for auroral photography.

Hutchinson calls camera settings and film speed the trick to successfully shooting the northern lights.


Like a slowly-moving snake, the aurora rises above spruce trees near Beaver Loop.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"If you have a f2.8 lens, you need 400-speed film and exposures of 20 to 30 seconds," he said.

But with a faster lens, (a wider aperture), finer grain film can be used, increasing image quality.

"With a f2.0 lens you can use 200-speed film and exposures of 15 to 30 seconds," he said.

Neophytes to auroral photography may be surprised at the slow speed film and relatively short shutter speeds used by experienced photographers. But in reality, very long shutter speeds are the enemy.

There are two demons lurking at the far end of long shutter speeds: one is star trails and the other is what is called reciprocity failure.

Star trails, sometimes seen as long and beautiful curving arcs across a picture made with hours-long exposures, can show up as short, ugly, blurred streaks in exposures around 30 seconds, ruining an otherwise great shot.

Hutchinson has a formula that was passed to him from other auroral photography hands that will help a photographer determine when he is approaching the star trail danger zone.

"Divide 600 by the focal length of your lens," he said.

For example, if you have a 20 mm lens, you divide that into 600 and come up with 30, which is the number of seconds you have before star trails show up. With a 50 mm lens, the formula calculates that you have 12 seconds.

"I've seen people try to use 300 mm lenses to shoot the aurora and they only have two seconds, which is just impossible," he said.

Reciprocity failure is the inability of film to be used for extremely long exposures without causing a color shift. Using shorter shutter speeds is the easiest way around it.

When photographing in the cold, a manual camera is the best insurance against a locked up camera due to dead batteries just as the sky begins to dance.

Also, put your camera and film in tightly sealed plastic bags before bringing them into your warm car or the house. Moisture from the warm air will then condense on the outside of the plastic bags instead of on the film or camera, which could be disastrous to the sensitive electronics and mechanics.

Other tips:

n Bring extra batteries and a back up camera.

n Wrap your metal tripod legs in foam or a towel to prevent frostbite when handling them.

n Be prepared. Hutchinson says an auroral display can disappear just as fast as it begins.

n Don't get too far from your warm vehicle.

n Dress warmly and bringing a thermos of warm beverage.

n Since the best auroral photography is done away from man-made light, that is, out in the boonies, tell people where you're going, when you'll be back, and bring a cellular phone with you in case of emergency.

n Check the aurora forecast on the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Geophysical Institute web site ( to see if it's worth going out into the boonies, as auroral displays often vary from night to night.

n Include objects in the foreground of your picture. Some of the most spectacular photos on Hutchinson's Web site have trees, rivers, boats and cars in the foreground. It gives the viewer a sense of scale and provides additional visual interest.

n Nights with a full moon are probably not the best for making aurora photos, since moonlight could emphasize atmospheric haze and reduce contrast in the picture.

n Don't use a motor drive in extremely cold weather. Film moving too fast in the camera can cause static electricity sparks, ruining a picture.

Rewind film slowly for the same reason. And since the film is more brittle at such temperatures, a motor drive could break it.

n And lastly, take a lot of pictures. Film is cheap when you're looking for that once-in-a-lifetime photo.

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