It’s often said that photography is being in the right place in the right time and I couldn’t agree more. So much of taking “great” photos is simply being out there in nature time and time again for the sunrises, the sunsets, the storms, etc. Getting that perfect sunset shot is a matter of frequency. Sometimes the light really turns on, while other times it does nothing. The most important thing is that person simply be there in the first place.
Like many photographers, I’ve applied countless resources just trying to “be there” A photograph always starts with the initial decision to venture out. This might mean heading out of town during the magic hour for the hope the sky might do something beautiful. It might mean hiking up to that certain ridge on the trail and hopping around to find a unique perspective. All of this is especially true with capturing the Northern Lights.
Here in North Dakota, we are sitting on the cusp of the ideal aurora borealis viewing area. It takes a really strong solar storm for them to flare up enough to be visible. Making things even more complicated, a photographer has to be far enough away from light pollution to get a good picture, generally 10 or 15 miles outside of a highly populate area. Also, the lights are only visible late at night. All of this culminates into a pretty particular set of viewing conditions meaning a photographer has to either be on their game or very lucky. Ultimately, capturing the aurora borealis in North Dakota is not so much a technical challenge (high ISO, long shutter speed, wide open aperture, and a tripod), it’s a logistical challenge.
I’ve captured the Northern Lights a few times over the years. For me, it usually starts with a cell phone app notification. There are several good apps out there including Aurora Alerts Northern Lights and Northern Eye Aurora Forecast that will alert you when the KP Index (the KP Index is global geomagnetic storm index relative) spikes above a certain point. When I photographed the Northern Lights, previously to the pictures above, I received an app notification as I was brushing my teeth preparing to go to bed. The KP Index was high enough that I changed out of pajamas, grabbed my camera pack, and headed out into the night. I drove out of town and caught an hour or two of phenomenal aurora activity, the lights rippling across the horizon like a fiber optic curtain. It took a little bit of work, but it was well worth it.
The pictures above are from my most recent Norther Lights experience and a result of the pure luck of being in the right place at the right time. My wife and I decided to celebrate our 3rd anniversary at Cross Ranch State Park, the same place we held our reception. We spent the weekend in one of the park’s yurts, using it as our base camp for hiking and biking excursions. Our first night there, my phone beeped with a message that the Northern Lights were to be exceptionally active that night. This was being lucky, very few logistics required. We were already out of town. We were awake. I had all my camera gear ready. We and made our way down to the river, where we were greeted with the scenes below. Seeing the Norther Lights on that particular weekend felt like a little gift from the universe. To capture these pictures, I just had to be there.
Technical Specs: Canon T4i, 10-20mm lens, tripod, ISO 3200, F/4.5, 30sec exposure.
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One of the terrifying wonders of Nature.