Capturing the Northern Lights
Dancing lights cascading and moving across the sky in greens, purples and even sometimes pinks are a natural phenomenon that are enjoyed often in Alaska.
People have wondered in awe since prehistoric times what these glowing, dancing displays could be. According to NASA, the earliest potential recordings of the aurora borealis were uncovered at at the site of Babylon on a clay tablet. Archaeologists and historians believe the clay tablet was comprised of observations made by the official astronomers during the 37th year of King Nebuchadnezzar II which dates back to 568/567 B.C.E. The observations describe an unusual red glow in the sky at night.
Mark Conde, associate professor of physics, has studied the upper atmosphere since 1983. Conde grew up in Australia and saw the aurora a few times in his hometown in Hobart, which is situated on the south eastern coast of Tasmania. The first time he saw polar Aurora was in 1984 in Antarctica at the Mawson Station.The Mawson Station is one of the three permanent bases and research outposts in Antarctica managed by the Australian Antarctic Division. Conde was a there as a Ph.D. student, studying space weather effects of Earth’s atmosphere.
“I was in the harbor and patrolling the fuel tanks for leaks,” Conde said. “I remember standing on top of these big fuel tanks and there was a tremendous auroral display. It was freezing and 3 a.m., but I was quite impressed.”
Conde was watching the aurora australis or the southern lights which are visible from high southern latitudes in Antarctica, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia. Whereas, in Alaska it is the aurora borealis or the northern lights.
In order to see these grand displays in the sky we need a couple things working in our favor – it has to be dark and there needs to be charged particles raining down on our atmosphere Conde said. These charged particles are mostly from the Sun, although some also come from material previously lost to space by Earth itself. They are accelerated onto our atmosphere by the solar wind and and are guided to high latitudes by Earth’s magnetic field. These particles strike our atmosphere 100-150 kilometers above our heads, where their collisions cause air molecules to glow.
“The colors that you see are characteristics of which chemicals of atoms or molecules are admitting the glow,” Conde said. “They hit oxygen or nitrogen and there are different energy level transitions that can happen which give you four or five different colors that appear in the aurora.”
The green color in auroral displays, for example, tends to be the brightest and most common. It is caused by electrons hitting oxygen atoms.
In order to capture the aurora in a photograph, use a camera that has the capability of manipulating the shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Familiarity and some knowledge manipulating these three different settings will be crucial in order to achieve the desired results. If needed, cameras can be checked one out from the UAF library for free with a valid student ID. Or for a specific lens there are several camera stores in town that can rent equipment from for a nominal fee per day.
Make sure to have a sturdy tripod, a wide lens with the capability of opening up to F/2.8, F/2.0, F/1.8 or even F/1.4. and some knowledge of how to use a camera in the manual settings, according to local professional photographer, Jan Denapoli.
DeNapoli has taken photos since she was young and started with a little brownie camera. She began experimenting with Aurora photography about 8-10 years ago in her yard.
“Every night out shooting the aurora is different,” DeNapoli said. “I love being out there in the cold, shooting the incredible formations that the aurora takes in the sky.”
Using the manual settings on a camera may seem a little overwhelming, so here is a break down some of the settings into general steps:
- Set the camera up on a sturdy tripod.
- Make sure the camera body and lens are in manual focus. This may mean switching the AF (auto focus) button on the lens and slide it over to MF (manual focus).
- Focus on infinity. Advanced Tip: Use live screen, zoom in on a single star, focus on it and make it as sharp possible.
Set the aperture to the lowest number possible.
Start off with an ISO at 800 and work from there.
Set shutter speed for 3 seconds.
“Don’t give up,” DeNapoli said. “ It really isn’t that difficult to capture the aurora on your camera sensor, but getting it all down right takes practice, and experiment so you know the limits of your own equipment. Shoot with people who have experience and whose photographs you like. Develop your own style of shooting and editing and keep on shooting. That’s how you get better.”