Note... this is a guide on how to give yourself the best possibility to see and photograph the Northern Lights. We can't guarantee you will. The phenomenon that is the Aurora Borealis is fickle, and it does what it wants. We had the privilege to visit Fairbanks, Alaska in March, one of the best months for Aurora viewing. During our trip we saw just enough of the Northern Lights to feel extremely lucky... but we definitely came away craving more! The following is a guide to prepare you for your upcoming trip to Alaska, and how to make the most out of chasing the Aurora Borealis.
For how to get there, get around, and where to sleep, check out this more comprehensive blog on our trip... Here we're specifically talking Aurora Borealis.
Seeing the Northern Lights - For the Non-Photographer
Okay if you are just there to view, then you should probably go on a tour or get a guide. We'll recommend two: Fairbanks Snow Sleighers and SkyFire In Focus Tours. Snow Sleighers may be the better choice, because you can do a snowmobile tour in search of the northern lights. On our next trip you will ABSOLUTELY find us here! SkyFire in Focus Tours is a great option too, because they will pick you up at your hotel, provide camera equipment if you'd like, and hot drinks to keep you warm while you're viewing.
Seeing the Northern Lights - For the Photographer
We encourage you to stay in one of the epic spots above and still go on a tour (because locals will take you to the best spots), but here is some information on what you need to take photos once you're lucky enough to see the northern lights.
- Make sure you have the right cold-weather gear. Standing out in sub-zero temperatures while waiting for your shot can be miserable if you aren't prepared.
- A high quality-camera and lens (renting is okay if you know how to use it) is a must. More specifically, you want a camera that can provide good image quality at high ISOs. Full-frame DSLRs or mirrorless cameras (Sony and Fuji) are solid.
- When it comes to lenses, you want a fast lens with an aperture >f 4.0. A lower aperture will allow for your images to have less noise and better quality.
- Invest in a tripod. You need something strong and sturdy that will stand up (hehe) to all types of weather. Make sure it has a solid ball-head so it can quickly maneuver to wherever the aurora may be.
- Don't plan on getting a good picture with your iPhone.
Before you go out
- Charge your batteries and bring extras. Extreme cold can drain your batteries quick, so keep them somewhere insulated (inner coat pocket).
- Check that your memory card has plenty of space on it, and bring a back-up.
- Pack your extra lenses, your tripod, a shutter release, a headlamp, flashlight, snacks, water, extra layers, and anything else you might need.
Getting the epic shot
- Be patient.
- Shoot in RAW so you can have more flexibility when editing the photos later.
- Prepare to shoot in manual mode.
- Set your aperture to the widest setting possible setting, or one stop down - around f 2.0.
- If you are going to do manual focus, then get any objects in the foreground really sharp and in focus.
- In terms of ISO, try not to shoot above 3200. We prefer to be in between ISO 800 and ISO 1600.
- For shutter speed, we used between 5-30 seconds. Check out your image, and adjust accordingly.
These are some things that worked for us. Adjust based on your experience and let us know what you think!
Lastly - Pray, cross your fingers, clinch your lucky penny, or do whatever superstitious thing you think will help you... we hope that you get a spectacular show while you are there! Good luck!