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Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Chasing The Aurora Borealis


The Northern Lights are in a period of increased activity, and now is the ideal time to be out photographing this dance in the sky

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They're back! After five years of relative quiet, the Northern Lights—the Aurora Borealis—have been on fire lately. This past year has witnessed a dramatic spike in the solar activity that ignites auroras, and this winter may offer the best viewing, and photographic opportunities, in nearly a decade.

We're heading into an upswing in solar activity, and while it may wreak havoc on global communication systems, it also makes for some incredible aurora borealis photo opportunities. The Northern Lights can take up a huge swath of the sky, so be prepared with a variety of lenses and a thermos of warm coffee.
I should probably warn you at the outset—I'm an unapologetic aurora junkie. Over the past 10 years, I've made a dozen or more journeys north to see, and photograph, the Northern Lights in locations across the Arctic. Why the obsession? Simple: The aurora ranks among the most spectacular natural events anywhere. I guarantee, once you've seen it, you'll be hooked, as well.

I've had the aurora bug since a memorable trip to Arctic Canada in 2002 when we saw more clouds than we did Northern Lights. But, finally, after five days, the weather broke, revealing an all-night light show—shimmering curtains of light and color danced and skipped overhead, sometimes slow and undulating, while at other times snapping like a celestial whip. The lights were mostly emerald green, occasionally tipped with violet and utterly breathtaking. Beneath a dancing sky, we enjoyed a New Year's Eve I'll never forget; that night has lured me back north every chance I get.

For the past five years or so, however, things have been pretty quiet in the northern skies. Blame the sun; for reasons that baffle scientists, auroras run on an 11-year cycle, corresponding to the activity level on the solar surface. The low ebb of that cycle—the solar minimum—was in 2008, and activity, which is measured by the number of sunspots and accompanying solar flares, has been building since then. The good news is that there already have been dozens of spectacular aurora events since the beginning of 2011, and there are almost certainly more to come.

Needless to say, I'm pumped for the coming season, and I'm gearing up. So if seeing, and photographing, the aurora is on your Bucket List, this may be a great year to go. The following tutorial is designed to provide you with what you need to know, where to go and how to bring back some of the most amazing pictures you've ever taken. Just don't ask me to predict the weather!

ODDS AND ENDS

• ISO. Ideally, you'll want to choose the highest ISO that your camera can handle without excess noise. For some cameras, that's 400; for others, it may be as high as 2400. Good exposures are your best defense against noise, as well as the long-exposure noise reduction in your camera.
• Tripods. These should be steady in the wind, of course, but also tall enough for you to shoot straight up without having to get down on your knees! Metal legs should be covered with tape or foam, which makes life easier for your hands.
• Filters. Remove all lens filters when shooting the aurora—they can cause unwanted image patterning with these specific wavelengths of light.
• Shutter Release. You'll need either an electronic or cable release to reduce shake on long exposures.
• Condensation. Be careful if you're going in and out of a warm car or lodge with your camera. The change in temperature can cause condensation to form on your lens, which can freeze into ice when you step outside again. One idea is to leave the camera outside and simply carry the battery inside with you.

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