The phone chirped, interrupting a late Saturday evening dinner at a favorite pub in North Conway. I usually ignore the phone during meals, but this time I checked and there was the text from Soft Serve News: “In 38 minutes the Kp should be at 7.37 — STORM LEVEL!”
I’ve pursued the northern lights for many years, but have only actually seen them 3 times (granted, I haven’t traveled out of New England to try). But this time the “Kp level”, a measurement of aurora strength and essentially the closest thing to a northern lights forecast available, was higher than I had ever seen. Kp levels can range from 0 to 9, with 9 being a major geomagnetic storm; 7.37 was BIG for this area.
We finished dinner, made a quick stop at home for gear, then headed 10 miles south to the shores of Chocorua Lake. Sure enough, just as we arrived, a quick look over the lake to the north showed a faint horizon of green with vertical pillars of light purple shimmering slowly over the lake. We ended up staying a few hours and were able to capture some of the images seen on this page.
HOW TO INCREASE YOUR CHANCES OF SEEING THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
Throughout this article you’ll notice that I use phrases such as “increase your chances”, or “it’s possible to …”. Even being fully prepared doesn’t always guarantee visible northern lights. When heading out, I do so knowing that the chances are slim to see them but I’ll have fun chasing them anyway.
So why are seeing the lights so difficult? First, it’s important to note that due to our southern location from the north pole, were far less likely to see them in New England.
The lights are more commonly seen above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres. Known as ‘Aurora Borealis in the north and ‘Aurora australis’ in the south, the lights are the result of collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere with charged particles released from the sun’s atmosphere. That said, I know little more about the phenomenon itself. If you would like a technical explanation about what causes the Aurora, check out this story on Soft Serve News.
GET THE APP
There are a bunch of aurora forecasting apps currently available however I’ve found that Soft Serve News (softservenews.com) offers a good middle-of-the-road option for amateur northern light hunters as myself. Soft Serve News provides an aurora alert subscription via phone application available for IPhones and Androids for about $5 per month. The alerts can be texted, emailed, or even called-in to you when the Kp level is expected to reach a level which you choose. If you don’t want to pay, search Google using “Aurora Forecast”, and you’ll find plenty of free apps. Solaham is a good source for additional information on the technical aspects of predicting auroras. This article is more about your camera settings.
Next, I should mention that not only are the northern lights difficult to predict, but there are a number of variables that exist which make viewing the lights quite difficult, especially from New England. Light pollution certainly doesn’t help so wherever you are hoping to view the lights from, be sure it’s as far away from city or town lights as possible. Since the lights are most visible closer to the far North, look to the north and try your best to put any light pollution behind you.
KNOW THE FORECAST
Weather is an obvious concern. The northern lights are easiest to see during clear skies and in cold crisp air. Yes, this means that the chances of catching them are higher in winter, but certainly not impossible during the warmer months. As a matter of fact, most of the photos on this page were taken during spring or fall. If the skies are cloudy then obviously seeing the lights will also be difficult. If the sky is bright due to the moon, you’re also less likely to be able to see the lights well. In our location, a full moon will simply drown out the small amount of color typically available.
Speaking of color, you may be disappointed if you plan to see the bright, magical colors of the northern lights you’ve seen in photos and video. Why? The simple answer is because our eyes have difficulty seeing saturated color at night; especially when compared to a modern-day DSLR camera.
Our modern camera sensors have a much more dynamic range of vision in the dark than we do and therefore can capture the amazing colors of the auroras. For us to see the lights and the color with naked eyes, look for the Kp index to be above 6 kp. For a technical explanation of how this works, check out this great video.
The bottom line is that the farther north your viewing location, the more color you may actually see because the auroras tend to be stronger. From our location in the Mt. Washington Valley, if the lights are visible, look for the horizon to be lit up in green. When the Kp levels rise, vertical curtains of faint reds and purples may be seen moving across the lower sky. Your DSLR camera on the other hand will likely pick up vibrant color.
The next step is finding the darkest area possible away from lights. The higher up—and more north—you can get, the lower on the northern horizon the lights may be visible. Here in the MWV the better locations can be up on the Kancamagus Highway (Route 112), the Bretton Woods area, parts of Fryeburg, and the southern areas around Tamworth and Sandwich. I try to find bodies of water to add a reflection or something interesting within the landscape to add to the photo. Old trees, big oddly-shaped rocks, etc.
Dress accordingly and bring a headlamp that also has a red light to keep things dark. It may be bright out and warm when you leave but it’ll obviously get cold and dark as the night goes on. Especially because you’ll be doing plenty of standing around. While on the subject of comfort, bring snacks and your favorite beverage as you will get hungry and you will get thirsty. Make it fun as you’ll be out there for a while. A headlamp will help you tremendously. If your headlamp has a red light option, this will be even better as your eyes will not need to readjust.
If you have a DSLR camera and a tripod, or a way to keep your camera still for up to 30 seconds, it’s quite possible to capture amazing color as seen on this page. So let’s talk about the gear which will increase your chances of capturing the northern lights.
Whether you have a high-end DSLR camera or an iPhone, with the right settings adjusted accordingly, you can increase your chances of capturing the lights with some of the info below. Newer smartphones can capture the aurora, just put your camera on manual settings (some phones call this the Pro setting). We’ll cover more about smartphones in the next article.
Any kind of tripod which will allow your camera to be still for up to 30 seconds is pretty much a must. Can you do without it? Well, yes. I have forgotten my tripod before. But it stinks. I have propped my pro DSLR up on a rock and—it works—it doesn’t work great. Best not to forget it.
BATTERIES AND MEMORY CARDS
There’s nothing worse than a dead battery or a full memory card. So yes, you need them, and more than one of each of them. That’s all I have to say about that.
For the best lens, think wide angle and “fast”. I like to capture the surrounding environment when shooting the lights and using a fast lens capable of aperture settings of f/2.8 can help expose dark skies allowing more light to reach your camera’s sensor.
Since the Northern lights are so far away, the first thing you want to do is set your camera’s lens to manual and then set the focus to infinity. The infinity symbol on the lens may look like little mountains, or a sideways number 8.
You can also try to focus on a far away object, like a star or a distant light. I know some photographers who will bring laser pointers with them to use for focusing.
If you still have trouble, try this: Set all your camera settings accordingly, as mentioned within this article. Set your lens on infinity. Compose your shot to the northern skies. Take a 20-second test shot. Review the photo by zooming into the image. Are the stars clear? Make a very slight adjustment to the focus ring and shoot again. Review the shot again and compare to the first shot. Repeat until you have pin-point stars and then leave the focus as is.
Whatever you do, take care not to bump the focus ring or you’ll need to readjust. ALWAYS recheck your focus as the night continues. Once I had the focus set perfectly and then later got home to find out that at some point I had accidentally bumped the focus and only a quarter of my shots were clear. Not good.
If your camera has a “Live View Mode”, this can be helpful as well. Turn it on and then use the zoom button on your camera to zoom in to a distant feature such as a light on the side of a mountain or a far-away street light. Using your focus ring, adjust it until the object is clear. Once focused, turn off Live View so you don’t kill the battery too quickly.
If you’re looking for quick settings, then try these:
- ISO between 800 and 3200,
- aperture between f/2.8 and f/5.6
- shutter speed between 15 seconds and 30 seconds
Set your camera to manual. Then, if you have the ability to shoot using the RAW format, do it. If you’re an inspiring photographer this should be at the top of your priority list. If you’re not sure, grab your manual and look it up. Can you shoot in the JPG format? Sure. But you can also shovel the snow from your driveway using a garden shovel. Do it right and shoot in RAW. Shooting in RAW gives you the ability to make critical post adjustments to your files. When you shoot in JPG, most of those potential post adjustments you can make on your computer get thrown out. That’s why JPG files are so small.
Next, choose the highest resolution that your camera has the ability to shoot at. Every camera is different, so look it up if you don’t know how. If you’re going to keep one manual of any product that you buy in your life, keep your camera manual and keep it handy at all times.
Adjust your white balance to Automatic with levels around 4000k. This will change how warm or cool your photos appear. Experiment and adjust to your liking. There is not one correct setting here, just the one you prefer. Again, if you shoot in RAW, you’ll be able to make adjustments later.
When it comes to night photography, setting the aperture is quite easy. A suitable level is the lowest which your lens is capable of … f/2.8 is good. Basically, use the lowest f-number you can get. Anything above this value will only make it harder for you to capture a good night shot. The aperture, or f-stop (f-2.8, f-4, f-5,6 etc) on your camera tells you how wide your lens is open—which in turn dictates the size of the opening letting light through the lens.
This can be adjusted by setting the f-stop. It’s a bit confusing, but the lower the f-number, the bigger the opening. When shooting the night skies, we want the biggest opening (the lowest f-number) possible. Remember, the more light your lens can take in—the lower the shutter speed you can use and the quicker you can capture your shot.
EXPOSURE AND ISO
These two go hand in hand together and they both depend on the speed and the brightness of lights. If the lights seem to be moving across the sky fast, a 10-15 second exposure may be best. Just remember that a shorter shutter length means less light will reach the sensor of your camera so you may need to increase the sensitivity of your sensor, or ISO. For typical northern lights visible from New England I’ve found that a 20-28 second exposure works well. I like to capture clear, pinpoint stars in my images so anything higher than 30 may produce star trails.
As far as the ISO is concerned, start at 800 and work your way up to 1500 or so. Depending on the capabilities of your camera, a higher ISO will produce what is called “noise” in your images and will begin to look grainy. Post processing can help to reduce noise however the less processing you have to do, the better.
The last thing you want to do is wait to do all this at night when the lights are out. Be prepared. Read other articles like this one and make notes. Put the notes in your camera bag. Plan your adventure. Where will you go? What will the landscape look like around the lights? How easy do you need this adventure to be?
Later when you recover from your night adventure, download the images to your computer and use one of the many post-processing applications available on the market. I prefer Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. I will cover post-processing in a future article. Until then. Google it and you’ll find lots of information.
If you’re trying to capture the lights with an iPhone or Android you’ll need a tripod or mount of some kind to keep your phone steady for a long exposure. Download an app like “Slow Shutter” or “Cortex Cam” to get a long exposure time.
Please leave comments and questions below. Happy hunting and good luck!