Experiencing and photographing the aurora borealis in New Hampshire’s White Mountains is on my bucket list. Also, I’d like to learn to play the piano. And jump off of a cliff in a flying squirrel suit, among other things.
Perhaps I should elaborate on each of those items a bit, though. For instance, I’d like to learn to be able to play the piano well enough so that others can stand listening to me. Jumping off of a cliff in a squirrel suit would be fun to talk about afterward, so the qualifier is to not only jump – but to jump and live. And the Northern Lights, well, my dream is to experience them here in my home state of New Hampshire against the foreground of the White Mountains.
As of this past weekend, I can finally say that I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing the Northern Lights, and I can cross it off my list! Sort of.
I’ve attempted a time or two before to catch a glimpse of the aurora here in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Typically, the aurora don’t show very well at this latitude unless the geomagnetic storm is particularly strong, making the lights a rare experience. This past weekend, a large coronal mass ejection (CME) was hurled from the sun straight toward the United States, which is the key ingredient needed for an auroral show. As exciting as this was, other things had to fall into place. Let’s take it from the beginning…
Auroras – What are they?
The Northern Lights (aurora borealis) are the result of collisions between charged particles from the sun (carried by the solar wind) and those of the Earth’s atmosphere (magnetosphere). Typically, the visibility of the aurora are directly correlated to viewer’s distance from the North Pole (or in the case of the aurora austrailis, the South Pole). However, a strong geomagnetic storm can expand the auroral zone significantly to lower latitudes. Finally, more geomagnetic storms take place during the so called solar maxima (a cycle of strong solar flare activity that occurs once every 11-12 years).
In addition, the lights are best viewed when there are no clouds in the sky, a minimal or new moon, and in areas void of heavy light poloution. Best viewing hours are roughly between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m..
How do we predict them?
Much like other highly sought-after atmospheric phenomena, predictions of aurora visibility are not always entirely reliable. However, many tools are in place to detect the arrival of the lights. Such tools include the NOAA’s POE satellite. Also, the NOAA has a great Facebook page dedicated to space weather prediction. Much to the dismay of landscape photographers, those detection systems were not put in place so that people like me have all sorts of lead time in shooting the lights. The reasons, besides research and general scientific intrigue are mostly to do with the potential for satellite and power grid disruption that occasionally result from solar activity.
How do you photograph them?
Fewer nightmares have left me as shaken as the one I occasionally experience where I’m surrounded by auroras and I fail to execute the shot. There are some basic pieces of equipment that one needs in addition to some basic photography skills.
-SLR Camera with a fast, wide lens (f/2.8 is a minimum best, and as wide as say 20 mm)
-Timer or cable release
-Open up your aperture – I recommend 2.8 or wider, but not narrower than 4.0
-Turn up the ISO – Count on 800-1600, but try to keep it low to reduce noise
-Turn on the long exposure noise elimination if your camera has that feature – check in the custom settings
-Pick the right white balance – cooler than daylight seems to work well
-Dim your LCD – keep your eyes adjusted to the dark of night
-Shoot in RAW – better dynamic range, plus the ability to make adjustments later
-Set the lens to manual focus – this eliminates focus finding, which won’t work anyway
-focus the lens – infinity won’t do – dial it in using the live view and picking a distant point on the horizon whenever possible
-Use the bulb setting – shoot beyond the camera’s typical 30 second capabilities. 40-60 seconds is a good place to start.
-Don’t forget about composition!
Once all of this is in place, it becomes purely about the luck of the auroral glow!
My experience with the auroras was not exactly as I’d imagined it. Having arrived at my spot at 9:30, I’d been in the single digit temps for over 5 hours before seeing anything. When the show started, I could barely see what appeared to be green and dark purple pulses of light along the edge of Chocorua’s silhouette. I exposed a few shots, maybe a couple dozen all together, and by 4:00 am I decided to call it a night (morning) as nothing more seemed to be materializing. I wrote it off as just another hyped up CME that didn’t live up. On my way home, I even checked my rear view mirror to make sure I wasn’t driving away from anything extraordinary.
I got roughly one hour of sleep by the time I crawled into bed after 5:00, and when I awoke I went to my PC to take a look at what other might have seen. I have to say, I was a bit heartbroken when I saw what had transpired in the one hour that I’d been lying in bed. Quite possibly the best aurora seen in NH in a decade had played out at the unlikely hour of 5:00 am, and continued until just before the sun came up. I decided to pull up my images to see if any of the pulses I thought I saw were actually exposed. In fact, what I’d captured was the leading edge of the auroral storm. Had I been able to better detect that color in the dimmed LCD, I might have opted to stay. The truth is, I didn’t get to see exactly what I’d expected, and I still have the item on my bucket list. I didn’t exactly bask in the glow of the glorious aurora; instead, I kept thinking that the pulses I was seeing was my eyes playing general tricks of fatigue on me. Even though the experienec was lacking, I’m pleased (more than pleased in fact) that I got to photograph the first lights of the aurora over Mount Chocorua – but I’m not going to check it off the bucket list entirely; because the experience is arguably more important to the photograph than the photograph is to the experience.
Thanks for stopping by and reading about my take on New Hampshire landscape photography. Hoping to see you again soon.