One benefit of traveling on assignment is that you often find yourself in places that you might not otherwise have had the opportunity to visit. And whenever I find myself in these locations, I make it a point to take full advantage of all the photographic opportunities available.
Just to be clear, the assignment that I'm getting paid for always comes first, which means that I really have to muster the energy to do personal work. This was certainly the case on a recent trip to Fairbanks, Alaska, to document Navy-sponsored Arctic research.
Prior to any trip, I will conduct a web search looking for things to do and see at that location. Imagine my surprise when I kept seeing photographs of the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. Was it possible that I would get the chance to not only see this but photograph it? For some reason, I thought you had to be much farther north.
As you can see from the photographs accompanying this blog that I was treated to a spectacular sight. Some tips and a little more about what it took to take these photographs follow.
1. Getting the photograph means you might lose a little sleep. Rarely are the best outdoor or landscape photographs taken at mid-morning, just after a leisurely breakfast and before a long lunch. Most of the time getting the best means setting up before the sun rises and staying out after it sets. Of course, there is still time for that leisurely lunch, and maybe a nap in the middle of the day, unless you are getting paid to be there, then you have to make the extra effort. So to photograph the Northern Lights I had to set my alarm for midnight, and not just one night, but for three nights in a row until I finally found success.
2. Shooting something for the first time means experimentation. I had never photographed the Northern Lights, but I have photographed stars, so I knew that I first needed a location away from the city lights, which in Fairbanks meant about a ten-minute drive. Ideally, you would scout these locations during the day, but remember since I was on an assignment, I had to locate a safe and awesome location in the dark, which I fortunately did. On the second night, it was clear and the sky was filled with stars, but I didn't see signs of the Aurora Borealis. However, just because I didn't see what I was looking for, didn't mean I wasn't going to still take pictures.
3. Sometimes luck, even beginners luck, is your friend. If you asked me when I returned to the hotel that second night if I had any success, I would have said no. So imagine my surprise when I imported the images into Lightroom 5 and saw the subtle green and yellow hue in the sky. After some post-processing, I liked the images enough to share but still felt I missed out since I didn't actually see anything with my own eyes. Don't give up just because you don't see anything with your naked eye.
4. Persistence pays off. On the third night I once again woke up at midnight and headed back to the same location as the previous night, only this time as soon as I stepped out of the car, even before my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I could see streaks of green in the sky. By the time I set up my tripod and camera, the lights were sweeping across the night sky. I started with the same camera settings as I had the previous night and could tell right away that I wasn't even close. Remember tip two, experiment and don't get flustered. This time instead of a standard night star setup of a 15-20-second exposure at ISO 3200, I was at a two to four-second exposure at ISO 1600. Any longer on the exposure time and the lights were really soft because they were moving and "dancing" so fast. Given more time, I probably would have experimented more with that longer exposure.
5. Look 360 degrees. At first, I was really focused in one direction which had a good foreground of pine trees. It wasn't until I relaxed a bit, turned and started looking around, that I realized there were photo opportunities everywhere, even straight up. I just kept shooting with the Nikon 24-70mm and even though I did bring the 70-200mm with me, for some reason I left the 14-24mm lens in the room. In total, I spent close to an hour taking pictures and if it wasn't for that pesky aforementioned assignment, I would have stayed all night.
After seeing the Northern Lights with my own eyes, I don't regret any sleep I missed and even as I sit here in the Anchorage airport with a five-hour layover and another 16 hours before I'm back in Virginia, the lights are still bright in my eyes.
Many of the hotels in Fairbanks maintain a wake-up list if you wish to be notified whether the Aurora Borealis is active on a particular night. My advice, just head outside and shoot; you may discover more in your photograph than you expected.