Photographing Aurora Borealis not as easy as one would think

MARQUETTE – Living in the U.P. gives us the rare privilege to see the Aurora Borealis, but the question is how to capture it in a photograph?

It’s very difficult to find information about what supplies are needed or when to go out to try to see it because photographers from different parts of the world have differing opinions on what’s needed and when the best time to see it is. Most say a DSLR Camera is needed to take great photos, but an inexpensive point and shoot can capture the aurora if it’s on the right settings.

A camera with a lot of ISO choices is necessary from 200 – 1600. This is because all point and shoot cameras are not the same. If a camera is more expensive it will have features like noise reduction and a faster Lens which will allow for use of a higher ISO.

Also, to capture the aurora the camera needs to hold its shutter open for a long period of time, between 5 and 15 seconds depending on how bright the aurora is. The longer the shutter can stay open the more light it can collect and the more colors photo will have.

Another important aspect of the camera is F stops which controls how fast the lens is. The slower the lens the longer the shutter will have to stay open which means the pictures may come out blurry or grainy. Now faster cameras have F stops of f2.8 and lower, but a point and shoot may only go to f3.4 or f4. That means an increased exposure time is necessary.

“People make the mistake of holding it open too long and it tends to make the picture blurry,” USDA Meteorologist Jan Curtis said. “You only need to open it for 5 or 10 seconds 15 at maximum depending on how bright the northern lights are.”

It may take a few attempts to get the camera to the right settings, but with digital cameras it doesn’t cost anything to take another picture. When photographers were using film 20 years ago it was a far more daunting task to photograph the aurora. Imagine changing the settings on a camera and not knowing if the picture was any good. Film was very expensive back then, so failed attempts were costly.

Jan Curtis has been taking Aurora Borealis photos since 1995 and has a very large collection. His work is shown on the Aurora Page run by the Geological and Mining Engineering Sciences Department of Michigan Technical University

“You had to use trial and error to determine the exposure, which meant getting a lot of bad photos,” Curtis said. “With digital you can experiment more to get the best photo.”

Curtis moved from New York to Fairbanks, Alaska after he retired from the military back in 1994. He moved to Fairbanks, so he could observe the Northern Lights. He had only intended to stay for a year, but he landed a job at the University of Fairbanks and stayed for seven. This gave him many opportunities to see the aurora and experiment with settings to get the best photos.

“My northern lights photos were probably the first ones on the internet back in 1995,” Curtis said. “Over the years I acquired a very large collection of photographs.”

Now, auroras can happen at any time of the year. In the U.P. the best months seem to be March to April and September to October. To see the aurora at its best many photographers go out between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. Getting away from city light pollution is very imoporant because it dims the aurora if not drown it out all together. When going out to see the aurora bring a tripod to get steady shots, a blanket to sit on and extra batteries.

“One thing that is important when it’s cold is camera batteries can drain quickly,” Curtis said. “So it is always good to have a back up supply so you can stay out for long periods of time.”

Since auroras can happen at any time it’s a good idea to check websites or get an app that will give alerts when aurora activity is high. To see the aurora in the U.P. the aurora needs to be very strong. A good website is the Geophysical institute website at Set the page to the Alaska aurora forecast because the stronger it is in Alaska the better chance it can be seen in the U.P. The aurora is graded by intensity from 1 very weak to 9 very strong. The best chance for it to been seen here is when the intensity is at a 5 or higher.

Sylvia Stevens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 240. Her email address is