Capturing the aurora

Juneau photographers give a how-to on snapping the elusive Northern Lights from your backyard

Posted: Sunday, December 10, 2006

It's a rare clear night in Juneau. The moon is absent and the sky dark. You've checked the forecast online at the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Geophysical Institute's Web site, and it says there's a good chance of seeing the aurora borealis.

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So it's a great night to try for a photograph of the luminous glow. What are the chances of getting a good picture on your first try? Or even your second or third?

Local professionals answered some questions on how novice photographers can get a good quality image.

What do I need to bring?

Art Sutch recommends warm clothes, patience, and lots of luck.

"The thing about northern lights, 80 percent is luck, 20 percent is being there," he said.

It helps to have a good tripod, a piece of equipment photographer Don Douglas said is absolutely necessary. A tripod is needed any time you must keep your shutter open for an extended period of time, usually when lighting is low.

Then there's the camera. Both film and digital cameras work fine, although Sutch warned that digital point-and-shoots don't always work well because their exposure times might not be long enough.

If you're using an old-fashioned film camera, however, Douglas said the type doesn't matter.

He said he used to use a 35 mm when he lived in the Interior, one of the best places to capture the aurora's glow. A medium-format film camera is better, but not necessary.

Whatever the camera, it should have manual controls, said Tony Harbanuk.

What kind of film is best?

Douglas recommended experimenting with film and exposure times to find out what works best.

"Sometimes they (the northern lights) are moving more or less; it's just a matter of playing with it and seeing what works," he said.

"The thing that worked for me when I was doing it, I was tending to shoot them on 200 speed film." In part, he said, that's because "films used to be a lot grainier than they are now."

What about exposure?

Exposure time is the amount of time light is allowed to be absorbed in the film or light sensor. In low light, longer exposure times are required or the image will come out black.

There are two ways to control the amount of light that comes into the camera: the f-stop, or the size of the aperture, and the shutter speed. Typically, you want to try a longer shutter speed and as low an f-stop as possible.

Web links

For more on photographing auroras, check out the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute's aurora forecasts for Juneau at:

www.gedds.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast

On most cameras, you can set a timer that tracks how long your shutter is open. Sutch's times vary, from 15 seconds to a minute and a half, depending on conditions, he said. This can pose a problem for some digital cameras.

"Consumer grade digitals won't let you do a long enough exposure," he said. Many might have a "night scene mode," but Sutch warns that the exposure time might be too short for northern lights.

Douglas "brackets" exposures to see what settings work best. Bracketing is the technique of taking several shots of the same subject using different settings.

Empire's photographer Brian Wallace, suggests that you experiment with different settings while shooting from various locales. For example, if you aim to capture a northern lights display over the downtown area, the city lights might mean you would shorten the exposure time. Over a dark channel, you might lengthen the exposure time. You also vary your exposure time based on the intensity of the lights themselves.

What else to I need to think about?

Cameras have all kinds of extra tools that can make a gearhead happy or a tech-phobe anxious.

If you want to try more advanced techniques, experiment with lenses.

"Generally my rule of thumb is to shoot with as fast a lens as you can," Sutch said.

Harbanuk recommended avoiding telephoto lenses, because typically you are shooting the whole sky. He does recommend using a wide angle lens: "pretty much the widest thing you've got."

Wallace recommends investing in a shutter release cable, which allows you to take a picture without inadvertently shaking the camera and leaving you with a ruined image.

What's special about Juneau?

Cloudy Juneau skis make the aurora difficult to see here. Also, the aurora tends to be lower in the sky here.

"They tend to be a lot closer to the horizon; you don't see them way up in the sky, which puts them nearer to lights on the ground," Douglas said.

Some spots are better than others. Harbanuk suggested Blueberry Hills, Mendenhall Lake, the Douglas boat dock, or Eagle Beach, depending on the kind of shot you want.

Any other tips?

Remember to think of the entire image.

"Instead of just shooting them in the sky, have something in the foreground, have a house or a cabin or trees or something to give it scale," Douglas said.

"One of the other things is find out as much information as you can the likelihood of the aurora even being out," Sutch said.

Also, make life easy for yourself by checking the University of Alaska Fairbanks' Geophysical Institute's online forecasting system to see if the aurora is even expected to be visible in the Juneau area.

For photo tips and discussions, think about joining an online group, Harbanuk suggested. A good one is yahoo.groups, "it is a really great resource for pretty much any type of photography," he said.

But ultimately, have fun.

"It takes a little bit of experimentation, but it is not rocket science," he said.

• Brittany Retherford can be reached at brittany.retherford@juneauempire.com.



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