Photographing the aurora takes practice, patience and warm clothes

Posted: Wednesday, December 27, 2000

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Contrary to what most photographers say, you need more than a 35 mm camera mounted on a tripod and equipped with a wide-angle lens and cable release to take time exposures to capture the aurora borealis on film.

You also need long underwear, a good parka, a hat, mittens and boots to stay warm while you stand outside waiting to take pictures at 20 below zero. The colder it is, the more picturesque the northern lights.

You might as well brew up a pot of coffee, too, because you're going to need it to stay up late enough to capture the aurora at its peak, which usually is well after midnight.

''You've got to sit out there and watch and wait,'' said Dick Hutchinson of Circle, who has been photographing the northern lights for 10 years and displays his photos on a Web site,

''It's being in the right place at the right time, putting the right stuff in the picture and standing there getting cold,'' said Charles Mason, photojournalism professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

So, only well-dressed insomniacs take pictures of the northern lights?

That's not true, of course, but you get the picture. There's more to photographing the northern lights than meets the eye. And often there is more to the northern lights than what the eye sees.

''The response to film is different from the human eye,'' said Jan Curtis, one of Fairbanks' foremost aurora photographers, who displays his photos on his own Web site, ''You can't see purples well with the human eye, but the film has an emulsion that allows you to see purple.''

The middle of the winter is the height of aurora activity in the Alaska Interior. Clear, cold nights open the window for nightly displays of northern lights dancing across the skies.

The three basic things you need to take pictures of the northern lights are a sturdy tripod, a 35 mm camera with wide-angle lens and a cable release set to take time exposures.

''People often see brilliant aurora all by itself in the sky and they figure they can take a half-second exposure and get it,'' said Neal Brown, the retired director of the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Poker Flat Research Range, who has been studying and photographing northern lights for almost 40 years. ''You can't get a picture of the aurora with a point-and-shoot camera.''

The lens has to be open for considerable amount of time to allow the image of the lights to be captured. How long the lens must remain open depends on the speed of the display and of the lens.

It's important to have a ''fast'' lens, or one that lets a lot of light in, when photographing the aurora. A lens with an f-stop setting of 4.5 will work, but an f1.4 or f2.8 works the best, with the aperture set at the lowest setting.

A slower lens requires a longer exposure. One way to offset that dilemma is to use higher speed film, such as 800 ASA.

''If the aurora is not moving much, you can take a longer exposure,'' said Curtis, who has been shooting the northern lights for six years and has had some of his photographs published.

''If it's really moving, you'll want to take a short exposure because, if you don't, you'll lose the detail.''

Most of Curtis' exposures are for eight to 15 seconds using an f1.4 or f2.8 lens and 400-speed film.

''If you see a nice display, I would take exposures of eight, 12 and 16 seconds; one of those three pictures will come out,'' Curtis said. ''If you take an exposure under 30 seconds, the star images aren't blurred.''

Brown suggests a 20-second exposure with 400-speed film.

''It doesn't matter if it's print or slide film, you're guaranteed to get a pretty good picture of any aurora,'' Brown said. ''You're going to get stars and they won't leave star trails.''

Most photographers prefer negative print film over slide film because there is a wider margin for error with exposure. ''If you use slide film, you have to be right on with the exposure,'' Curtis said.

While Hutchinson recommends an f2.8 lens, 400-speed film and an exposure of 30 seconds for beginners, he uses an f1.4 lens, 100-speed slide film and a 30-second exposure.

''I only shoot 100, slide film,'' he said. ''(Developers) screw things up too much with print film.''

So far, this winter has not been a good one for photographing northern lights, Hutchinson said. ''It's been terrible because of the warm weather and cloudy skies.''

The coldest nights have occurred when there has been a full or half moon, which makes photographing the aurora difficult because the light tends to wash out the color of the aurora unless the northern lights are very intense. Moonlight can be used to illuminate the foreground in some situations, however, whether it's a cabin, trees or mountains.

Using foreground elements also helps frame the aurora.

''Something that gives you a sense of the physical dimension you're looking at,'' Brown said.

In Circle, Hutchinson has taken pictures of the northern lights reflecting off the Yukon River.

For the most part, you'll have to stay up late into the night if you want to capture the northern lights on film.

''It seems like 2:30 a.m. is the best,'' Brown said. ''That's typically when the aurora is 45 degrees above the northern horizon north of Fairbanks.''

It's also best to get outside the city, away from any light source.

Capturing the northern lights on videotape or with a television camera is almost impossible, Brown said.

''Most video cameras are 200,000 times less sensitive than you need to get the aurora,'' Brown said. ''It just won't cut it to see the aurora yet.''

Likewise, most digital cameras have not progressed to the technological point where they can take good pictures of the northern lights. Digital photos lack the contrast and depth of photos taken with print or slide film, and it's harder to take long exposures with digital cameras.

Photographing and watching the aurora never gets boring to Curtis, Brown and Hutchinson.

''It's never the same,'' said Curtis, who recently gave a slide show at the Alaska Public Lands Information Center. ''Every night I can go out and it's different.''

Which is why Brown remains captivated by the northern lights after 40 years of studying them. ''Every time I see the aurora I stop and look at it or go outside and look at it.''

But he doesn't always photograph it, even if he has a camera. He likens his passion of the aurora to a hunter who stops killing moose and instead simply observes them. ''Sometimes I just watch.''

Mason, from UAF, does not photograph the northern lights all that much because of the cold. ''If the northern lights happened in Hawaii, I'd be there.''

But anyone interested in photography at least should experiment with shooting the northern lights, he said. ''If you're a photographer you need a good northern lights shot. It's something everybody needs to shoot.''


(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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