Chasing Aurora Borealis – Part 3 – We saw the lights!

“Guys! I think I caught the Northern Lights in my photo” yelled Tracy. Harshad, Elkan and I were making a snowman outside our cabin when we heard those words. We looked up in the dark sky, we saw nothing. I thought Tracy captured one of those many light pollutions from the nearby towns.

You can’t blame me for my skepticism. It has been a long and tough journey for all of us. It takes more than a clear sky to see the Aurora. Sighting the Aurora is like catching the rainbow or the shooting star; one cannot predict their appearance. One needs tons of luck to be at the right place and at the right time to capture it. We have been fruitlessly waiting and watching the dark sky at our mountain cabin for 2 long nights. Aurora forecast from Alaska has been disappointing too. We were told we were in the wrong time window to catch the lights. The staffs at the National Park told us that they haven’t seen the lights for a couple of days too. I told Harshad, we have done all the things we should do (picking the best possible location and the right season); now it’s in the hands of God.

Tracy showed me the photo in her digital camera. There was indeed a very faint green trail of cloud in her photo. It was blurry and it didn’t look like those light reflections from the nearby buildings. I quickly went into the cabin, setup the tripod and aimed my Canon DSLR at the direction where Tracy spotted the green trail.

Just before I fired off my first shot, Tracy ran to me excitedly with her second shot! It was a much clearer shot. It was the Aurora Borealis! And it was coming down from the mountain right in front of our cabin!

“We found it!!!!” I yelled frantically! “We finally found it!” I jumped like a little boy. The excitement was overwhelming. Elkan tailed me and kept shouting “Daddy, daddy, I want you to shoot one for my iPad wallpaper!”

I ran out of the cabin with my gears and set my tripod in the snow. And I fired away a series of long exposure shots to capture the lights. The first few shots came in beautifully! At that very moment, I thanked God and Mother Nature for answering our prayers. The Aurora flashed across the dark sky for almost a good 1 hour! There were a couple of minutes when it was very bright and illuminating. It was simply amazing!

We headed for the mountain, hoping to catch more of the lights. We took a 20-min chair-lift up to the 900m-peak. It was very cold out there in the mountain but the excitement of sighting the Aurora made us forgot about the coldness.

The moon cast a strange planetary-terrain at the top of the mountain. There, away from the town’s light pollution, the stars shined brightly in the clear dark sky. I took a couple of long exposure shots and they were out of this world. It was like hiking on the moon.

I posted a few photos online and they yielded over a hundred likes on Facebook. Many friends asked me about the Aurora Borealis and how to capture them. You still have lots of chances to catch the lights from now till March 2014.

Here is a list of tips for those who want to catch the lights:

1) It is all about location – We have read and researched on many publication. Iceland, Northern Alaska, Northern Norway and Northern Sweden were the best places to catch the Northern Lights. These places are within in the Artic Circle. We chose Abisko because it was the driest spot in the region. We want to be at a place with the least overcast and far away from the city light pollutions. Clouds are bad for Northern Lights sighting, it blocked out the phenomenon during a good Aurora night.

2) It is all about timing - 2013 Oct – 2014 Mar is cited to be the best time window (when the Aurora is in its most intense burst) in its 11-year cycle to sight the Northern Lights. In fact, the Aurora is there all the time. But during this period, the lights are so intense that you can see them clearly with your naked eyes.

3) Scanning the sky - It is difficult for the human eyes to detect them. Most of the time, the Aurora looks like a pale green mist in the sky. Scan the dark sky with your camera. From our experience, the camera sensor detected the Aurora much accurately than our human eyes.

4) Northern Lights Photography - To get a good clear shot, you need a steady tripod, a DSLR for manual bulb-setting, a remote control for shutter-release, extra camera batteries, a headlight (for navigating in the dark and to see the camera buttons) and a decent wide angle lens with an aperture of 4.0 and below.

I shot the Northern Lights using a 16-35mm lens with an aperture of 2.8 (shutter-speed of 15 – 20 seconds). To avoid having too much pixelated noises in the photographs, I selected ISO 200 and lower. As you will be shooting under Bulb setting, it is important to pre-set your lens to manual focus and adjust the lens’ focus on a foreground subject (be it a tree, a house or a tent). It will be very dark and your lens won’t be able to auto-focus on any object out there. If you don’t have a DSLR, you still can capture the Northern Lights with the point and shoot camera but those shots may be very faint and noisy – due to the camera’s auto-high ISO settings. And most importantly: REMOVE ALL LENS FILTERS FROM THE LENS AS THE GREEN LIGHTS WILL REVEAL FILTER RING-MARKS ON THE PHOTO. Many of my shots were spoilt by the filter marks. By the time I realised, it was too late. (For more tips, go to: http://www.alaskaphotographics.com/blog/how-to-photograph-the-northern-lights-with-a-digital-camera/)

Always include a foreground subject in the shot so it helps to illustrate the scale and enhance the perspective of the Aurora.

5) Dress Warmly - During the shoot, you may find yourself out in the open. The Aurora can last over an hour so you must be properly dressed to keep warm. Come with a good gloves, snow jacket /pants and a pair of snow boots

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