Chasing the Northern Lights!

Guest post by Aurorasaurus Ambassador Hugo Sanchez

One of the things we love about the Aurorasaurus community is the wealth and variety of experience in aurora chasing. Each chaser has unique expertise to share, and while with so many locations around the world no aurora chasing guide is one size fits all, each provides useful lessons. Don’t miss the very important safety tips below.

Hugo Sanchez is an avid aurora chaser based in Alberta, Canada. The story of his resilience and how he came to love and photograph the Northern Lights was published in Outside in January 2020. In this post, Hugo shares his aurora chasing expertise and makes recommendations for pursuing and photographing the beautiful aurora. Note: Hugo is located in Edmonton, where aurora can be seen frequently, and different methods may work better for different locations. We’d love to showcase the methods of other chasers in other locations as well.

 


A man photographs aurora in the snow. The graphic has the NASA and Aurorasaurus logos, and the quote "I do citizen science with Aurorasaurus because I am fascinated by nature and all of its wonders." - Hugo Sanchez

Hugo photographs aurora, 2018. Photo by Hugo Sanchez.

These are all the steps I take every night I go out chasing aurora. The rest is up to the sky to give me a beautiful dance. A few details that must be taken into consideration every time you chase the Northern Lights are:

1. Check the weather.

Clear skies are needed to enjoy and see any display of aurora. I use ClearDarkSky app to check the cloud coverage. There is nothing more disappointing than having KP5 (a good chance of aurora) and cloudy skies.

A chart shows several aspects of data related to clear skies

Chart from ClearDarkSky.com

2. Aurora app alert. 

There are many aurora apps out there, but the best and most reliable is the SpaceWeatherLive app with real-time readings. A very reliable and accurate app, I strongly recommend it. Make sure you press the alerts, so you don’t miss any aurora. 

A chart shows a low Kp Index

You can see and read solar activity on apps like SpaceWeatherLive. Screenshot by Hugo Sanchez.

3. Choose your location. 

Knowing where you are going to capture or see the aurora is very important. You must choose to drive away from light pollution for a better view. The darker the sky, the better the view. In my city, going north or east are the best locations to see it. Since the aurora dances on the north side of the sky, you need to keep looking at the northern horizon. Also, there are some towns and parks that are dark sky preserves. Choosing a place where other people are going for the same reason as you—to photograph the aurora—is strongly recommended for safety reasons. National parks are good places to go enjoy and photograph the aurora.

A map shows a route to Astotin Lake Area.

Google Maps screenshot by Hugo Sanchez

4. Dress appropriately for the weather. 

Aurora is usually visible in the northern or southern parts of the world, so having the proper clothing is extremely important. Usually you are out in the open for long periods of time, and not being dressed properly can cause frostbite. Here is a list of clothes I use when I go chase the aurora:

Gloves and mittens/ two pairs of socks/ winter boots/ ski pants/ parka/ shirt and long sleeve undershirt/ sweater/ pants and underpants/ neck warmer and hat/ hands and toes heat warmer if needed.

 

Hugo demonstrates the gear he uses to go aurora chasing in cold weather. Video: Hugo Sanchez

5. The right camera equipment.

A DSLR camera, a good tripod and a remote shutter are a must. Many people talk about cell phones taking great photos, but the cold weather will drain the battery in no time, so if you rely on your cell you might miss photographing the aurora. Using a DSLR in manual mode is required since long-exposure photos must be taken. A wide-angle lens is definitely needed, since aurora might cover the whole sky. (A super-wide-angle lens is recommended, but not necessary.) A 2.8 lens will help you take brighter photos, but a regular lens will still capture the aurora. The lens must be set to manual on infinity mode so you have a sharp photo every time. Since you are in the dark, there is nothing to focus on, so a manual lens is your only choice.

Camera settings change depending on the brand and the lens. Settings also change depending where you are taking the photos, because the brightness and intensity of the aurora is not the same in Alaska than in southern Canada. 

Here I will give you a ballpark setting of two different cameras and lenses and also two different aurora intensities. 

5-10 seconds f, 2.8 2000-3200 ISO 10-15 seconds f, 4.5-5.0 3200 IS0 high intensity (Alaska)
10-15 seconds f, 2.8 2000=4000 ISO 10-20 seconds f, 4.5-5.0 2000-5000 ISO less intensity. 

Other factors, such as the moon or light pollution, may affect your settings. Having a tripod is crucial in Northern Lights photography, since all photos are long exposures. The sturdier the tripod, the better, so buying a good tripod is a great investment for better photos. A remote shutter is as important as the tripod, since pressing the shutter every time you take a photo might cause camera shake on the camera and you might get blurry photos. Another way to avoid your camera shake is by setting your camera to 2 second remote, allowing you to use the shutter every time, but the camera will not shake since it has two seconds’ wait every time. 

6. Framing your subject. 

Aurora is the main subject of your photos, but having a good foreground will make a great photo composition—unless you live in the Arctic Circle, where any photo anywhere will be breathtaking. Adding barns, trees, or old cars will make a beautiful photo, but also remember not to steal the aurora’s stardom by having a big barn and a little aurora, for example.

A small red barn sits in the snow underneath the aurora.

A small barn framed against a wide aurora. Photo by Hugo Sanchez

7. Be safe. 

This step cannot be ignored, since chasing the aurora is at night, so visibility is always poor. The darker the sky, the better view we have, but also it is harder to see where you are driving, walking or standing. I always visit the area where I will be taking photos at night ahead of time, so I can scan for any danger such as holes, cliffs, water, ice and wildlife. Risking your life for a better photo is not worth it, so always be safe.

8. Extras. 

Always carry a light for two reasons: to check your surroundings, and also to help you see where you are walking. Keep an emergency kit in your car, since you are always outside of the city, and sometimes in remote areas. Have your cell phone with a full battery in case of emergency, and also have a small flashlight. Carry extra blankets, jackets, gloves and hats. Any of these items can actually save your life.

9. Don’t be that guy. 

Be respectful when it comes to flashlights in places where there are more photographers, since lights will ruin someone else’s photo. Imagine what your car lights can do to those photos: the photo will be so bright, that photo will be so washed out. Please be courteous and turn your lights off right away, and if you are inside your car, make sure your lights are off.

10. Editing your photos. 

Always take your photos on RAW files, since they are long exposure and they have high ISO. The high ISO will increase the noise in the photo. Having RAW files will make it easier to edit the photos, since the files have more information you can use to reduce the noise, increase the brightness, and enhance your usually green, red and violet colors. I use Lightroom or Photoshop to edit my photos, but there are other programs to edit your aurora photos.

11. Show your work. 

Now, after a safe trip from an aurora night, you can share your photos on social media, as well as to friends, and family, Aurorasaurus or work… 

There is nothing more magical than the Dancing Sky at night.

 

A green aurora dances against a purple night sky

Photo by Hugo Sanchez

 

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