Anatomy of an Aurora Hunt

Thu Dec 21 2017


Alaskans tend to take advantage of their long days by getting out and hiking, biking, camping, hunting, and fishing. We savor the opportunity to have six hours of sunlight to enjoy on a weekday even after the work day is done. Farther north, the sun never even goes down. But as winter comes, the light goes down sooner and the nights grow longer. Temperatures drop, chills set in. And while some types of activities go away, they are simply replaced by others that can be pursued in the winter. Nordic skiing, snow shoeing, trapping and snow machining take over as popular outdoor activities. And then, there is a small but growing (thanks to the prevalence of digital cameras) sliver of the population that pursues another activity: aurora borealis chasing.

There is a lot that goes into planning and preparing for a night out in the cold and dark seeking the perfect aurora photograph. Some people head out more prepared than others. I lean toward the prepared in order to not only be successful but to enjoy the experience.

Most people who are experienced and prepared drivers have a winter survival kit in their car. I have one of those. But I also have an extra set of gear in the back of my car to aid in my aurora hunting. I have a bag that contains a MSR Whisper-Lite stove, a MSR bottle of white gas fuel, a Ziploc with snack bars, instant Starbucks coffee, hot chocolate, and plastic eating utinsels. There is a bag of Sailor Boy Pilot Bread and a container of creamy peanut butter to go with it. I also have a small cook kit and a kettle for boiling water, and a travel mug for drinking hot liquids. This bag, along with a few camping chairs and a -20 F sleeping bag, stay in my car at all times.

In my office, I keep a camera bag fully-loaded and ready to go for running out after the northern lights. It contains my Nikon D850 and three lenses: Nikkor 14-24 f/2.8 AFS, Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8 AFS and the Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 AFS VR. I also stock an assortment of CF and SD cards, spare batters, lens cloths, Lee GND filters (in case there is a great aurora display over some artificial lighting, like the city or a cabin), battery charger, and AC inverter to plug into my car “cigarette lighter” outlet.

But that’s just the gear; there is more to being prepared for aurora photography – like knowing when the aurora is going to be on display. Check out my blog post on How to Chase and Shoot the Aurora Like a Pro to see what websites and apps I use to determine when is a good time to go out.

Before heading out, you need to make sure you are dressed for the long haul. From head to toe, you will not see me wearing cotton. It has to be either synthetic or wool, for the simple reason that cotton, when wet, takes longer to dry and does not retain heat as well. For my head, I take a seal/beaver/otter handcrafted by an Inupiat Eskimo, a thin hood layer, and a mask. I wear two layers under my jacket, and a pair of thermals under a pair of snow pants. For my hands, I prefer a thin liner glove underneath a set of fingerless gloves with a mitten flap. On my feet, a pair of wool socks and a set of Baffin polar industrial boots. Sometimes I wear moose hide Steger Mukluks, depending on how cold it is or how much snow depth there is.

Then, you need to decide where you are going to go for the evening. I have scouted several locations within an hour to hour-and-a-half from Anchorage that have proven to be good locations – open sky, good foreground, and minimal city lights. But whether the location will be good that evening depends on cloud cover. Again, I look to the web for that information, consulting the most recent thermal satellite images on the NOAA Alaska Region website. Most of the images in my Aurora Borealis gallery were captured within an hour-and-a-half drive from Anchorage. Contrary to what the folks in the Fairbanks Convention and Visitor's Bureau may try to tell you, Anchorage is not a bad place to view the aurora. Yes, we are farther south than Fairbanks, and Fairbanks can get a better view of a weak aurora borealis than we can, but Anchorage gets it pretty good when there is a good show. Even within the main part of Anchorage, what locals call the "Bowl," there are several prime locations for viewing: Point Woronzof, Potter Marsh (go to the gravel pullout on the left past the turnoff to the boardwalk), and the Glenn Alps parking lot with access to the city overlook trail.

Now that you are suited up, geared up, have checked the latest data on what the geomagnetic activity is and know a good location with clear skies, it’s time to head out. And wait. And be patient. And wait some more. On a good activity night, you will not have to wait long, as the aurora can hit as early as 9:00 p.m., or earlier. And if it is good and looks like it is going to remain busy all night, don’t stay in one location; move on to somewhere else to capture other images. I like to diversify my shooting locations so that all of my aurora borealis photos do not all look the same. Diversity is one way to make your aurora images stand out compared to others. And just like any other landscape photography situation, it is key to vary compositions, lens focal lengths, and orientation (horizontal or vertical). If you feel like you have captured “the shot” for the night, keep shooting and try new techniques and compositions. When I can, I like to set up and capture images for creating a time lapse movie. It’s best, though, to take along a second tripod and camera (or even a “rail” system) to capture the time lapse so you don’t have to worry about missing a good still capture.

While you are out there for many hours, there are several challenges you face throughout the course of the night. The primary of those challenges is the care of your camera gear. In colder temperatures, frost build-up on the camera and lens is a constant issue of concern, regardless of your proximity to an open water source. Power drain on the batteries is a concern. Being able to see your viewfinder and LCD display are also an issue, as you typically tend to exhale while composing images, and that breath creates frost on the backside of the camea. There are a lot of ways to deal with these challenges. I deal with power issues by keeping spare batteries warm in a pocket. For frost build up, I will either cover the camera or lens element, or take the camera back inside the car, but inside a sealed camera bag in order to slow the temperature transition and prevent fogging. As for breathing on the back of your camera, well, sometimes I just hold my breath, or consciously make an effort to breathe off to the side.

A short night is typically about three hours, with about 100 miles of driving. On nights when there have been particularly active displays, I have been out for eight or nine hours, and could have stayed out more. And when there is a strong forecast, but the nearest clear skies are up in Broad Pass near Cantwell (about a four-hour drive one way), I have traveled there and back in a night. But even having great aurora borealis images to show for a night out in the cold cannot truly capture the thrill of just being out there and witnessing this amazing phenomenon.

aurora over ridge, portage valley
aurora over knik river
aurora over Potter Marsh
aurora view from pt. woronzof