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How to find and photograph the Northern Lights

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Of all northern Minnesota’s outlandish natural wonders aside from Sasquatch himself, the ephemeral and elusive northern lights are the most spectacular.

In order to catch aurora borealis powerful enough to photograph, the conditions in space and on Earth have to be just so, and you’ve got to plant yourself in the right spot at the right time. Aurora may last less than an hour and peak for only a few minutes, so most of the work lies in the preparation.

To begin, it helps to have a basic notion of what the northern lights are. The science behind the phenomenon is intimidating, so here’s the popsci version: The sun is a mad fusion-powered star that occasionally hurls plasma particles at Earth. Those particles don’t fry us in the face (the way they sometimes wreck satellites) because Earth has a defensive magnetic field. At the north and south poles, the sun particles collect and collide with the oxygen and nitrogen of our atmosphere. That reaction results in photons, or light, in lots of different colors. Mostly green.

The hunt for aurora starts in space, with figuring out when the sun’s throwing stuff our way.

It’s a good thing we have satellites that stalk the sun’s every move and measure the speed and intensity of solar storms. All that information is provided for free online by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (swpc.noaa.gov), which offers a nifty aurora forecast.

The problem with NOAA data is it can be chunky and unwieldly for non-science people. A paid service that helpfully translates NOAA data into plain English is Soft Serve News, which you can set up to send text alerts when a badass aurora’s brewing in your area. Free Facebook pages that also monitor space weather are Great Lakes Aurora Hunters and SolarHam.

Once you know there’s an incoming show, you’ll want to make sure you’re looking up at the right time of night. You’ll want a sky that’s dark and clear, without clouds, or a large moon. Get to a place as far north as you can go with an unobstructed view of the northern horizon, such as on top of a hill or on the southern shore of a large lake or big field away from cities and feedlots with light pollution.

Lightpollutionmap.info is is a great dark sky finder It also shows that Solana State Forest is one of the darkest places in Minnesota that is public land and also relatively close to the Twin Cities.

Once you’ve found the perfect spot, throw your camera up on a tripod. Choose a lens with a wide open aperture, and crank up your ISO. Try to find a visually interesting foreground subject like an abandoned shack, a gnarly tree, a cool rock formation, or some reflective body of water.

Because it’s difficult to predict down to the hour exactly when a show will take place, you might have to either sit up and watch the sky for several hours, or program your camera to take a photo every 5-10 seconds and create a time lapse for you. Keep in mind that while your odds of seeing aurora are best in winter when the nights are dark and the skies are clear, you and your batteries can survive outside longer in the summer.

Do you have shelter? Are you that variety of Minnesotan who does winter camping? Are you starting in the cities, or are you already staying somewhere far north enough to be worth the chase? These are all important factors to consider. Everyone hunts differently.

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