Northern Lights Viewing FAQ

 In Picture

northern lights over Devil Track LakeQ: When is the best time to see them?
A: It depends. They can appear at anytime and sometimes they only last a few minutes and other times they last from dawn to dusk. If it’s on your bucket list to see them, then you have to put in the time and stay out until (if) they show up.

Q: Can I narrow down the time I need to stay outside to see the northern lights?
A: Not sure why you would want to; being outside is awesome! Usually, 11pm to 1am is the best.

Q: When is the best time of year to see them?
A: It’s hard to say. The northern lights happen after the sun ejects a corona mass ejection (CME) and that CME hits earth. It’s like the weather. You can predict it like you can predict the weather, but you usually only have a few days warning. That said, for some reason they appear more often around the equinoxes.

Q: Where can I get the space weather report?
A: My favorite is Spaceweather.com. The aurora prediction is in the left column at the bottom. Look for the Kp index, the Auroral Oval and the Geomagnetic Storms chart. The Aurora Forecast from the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks is also great. It’s better for a layperson.

northern lights over Crescent LakeQ: What is Kp?
A: We use Kp to rate the strength of the aurora storm. It’s like rating a hurricane or tornado. The higher the number, the further south you can see them. Kp=4 means that the edge of the aurora is somewhere near Grand Marais. Kp=5 means Duluth is having them. Kp=6 puts the front near the Twin Cities. Kp-9 puts it way south almost to northern Texas. You can often see the northern lights low on the horizon even if the Kp is lower than it would need to be to put the front in your location. For example, in Grand Marais we can often see them at Kp=3ish. They’ll be either a band on the horizon or a green glow.

Q: Where should I go to see them?
A: Go out into the country as far away from city lights as you can get. Find a place with an open view to the north and look. You could use the Dark Sky Finder to help you out.

Q: Will they be out next week or next month when I visit Grand Marais?
A: Northern lights are literally weather. You know how wrong the weatherman usually is, right? Same thing.

Q: I looked at Spaceweather and saw the aurora oval. It looks like the northern lights are over Russia, so we won’t get them, right?
A: The aurora oval rotates as the day goes on. It usually is lowest on the globe during local midnight. So, if it’s really low in Russia and the storm continues, it may be low over North America.

northern lights over treesQ: Minnesota isn’t that high in latitude. Why does it get them often.
A: The aurora oval rotates around the magnetic north pole more than the true north pole. The magnetic north pole is closer to Minnesota than the true north pole, so we get the northern lights more often that you’d think we should. If there’s a storm, we will probably have them.

Q: Is there an app to get notifications?
A: Yes, it’s for Android and it’s amazing. It’s called Aurora Alert and it’s by Eagle’s Orbit. I don’t use an iPhone, but I heard that Aurora Forecast by Tinac Inc. is good.

Q: I heard about surprise auroras. What are those?
A: Around midnight, even when the auroras aren’t predicted, they sometimes appear for a brief time. So, if you’re out shooting night photos put yourself somewhere near a northern view around midnight. You never know. You might see northern lights.

Q: Should I bring a camping chair?
A: No. Maybe. Not if you are photographing the northern lights, because you’ll want to move around and recompose and try different angles. If you’re just watching them, it might be really nice to have one. I’d also bring a blanket. Even in summer, it gets cold in the north.

Q: I want to photograph the northern lights what gear should I bring?
A: A solid tripod. See my post on best inexpensive tripod for the money. A hot shoe bubble level [Amazon link] to make sure the lakes are level in your shot. A shutter release cord [Amazon link] to prevent camera shake.

Q: What settings should I use to photograph them?
A: This is a hard one, because when they’re bright you’ll use different settings than if they’re dull. The key concept is to capture lots of data and try to get as short of a shutter speed as possible. Usually, that means using a wide aperture. I always start with f/2.8. Then I push the ISO up until I can get shutter speeds near 2 to 4 seconds. My camera does well up to ISO of 6,400 to 8,000. I don’t got beyond that because it gets too noisy. You’ll need to figure out how high you can go with ISO before it gets too noisy. Ideally, your histogram will be pushed far to the right without going beyond the right side end of the graph. Sometime, you can’t get it there. If you can’t, increase your shutter speed until you can. When it’s really dull, sometimes the best you can get is the histogram about halfway across the graph. The goal in the field is to capture data — you want as much as you can get and data on the right side of the histogram is much better than data on the left. You will process your RAW file later. Always shoot RAW for night photos.

Q: How do I focus at night?
A: The easiest way is to find infinity on your lens and focus there. If you don’t know how to do that, go outside and autofocus on the far horizon. Then look for a distance scale on your lens. If your lens has a distance scale, note where it focused. At night, you can turn off your autofocus and set the distance scale at this same point. If you don’t have the distance scale, tape the focus ring and turn off focus. Always shoot a test shot or two and magnify the image review to make sure you are in focus.

Q: What camera should I use?
A: Ideally a camera of the latest generation. The newer sensors are so good at capturing the night that they blow older cameras away. Full frame cameras are best, but they are expensive. I use a latest generation full frame camera for all my shots. If you use a APS-C camera, make sure it’s one of the newer generations. Cameras that are 5 years old just don’t do a good job, but almost all the DSLRs and many mirrorless cameras from the last two years do well.

Q: What lens should I use?
A: Tough question. For full frame, you’ll want something in the 14 to 24mm range. The Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 [Amazon Link] is an excellent night lens and adapts to almost every camera system (you lose autofocus and aperture control through the body. Rokinon makes the 14 f/2.8 [Amazon Link] and Tamron makes a 15-30 f/2.8 [Amazon Link]. You could also use primes. You want a lens that has limited coma in the corners. For APS-C, the Rokinon 10mm f/2.8 [Amazon Link] or the 12mm f/2.8 (for mirrorless) [Amazon Link] is an excellent choice. The Tokina 11-16 or 11-20 f/2.8 [Amazon Link] is a great lens as well. The Sigma 18-35 f/1.8 [Amazon Link] would also work well for APS-C.

Q: How do you process your photos to get the consistent look?
A: I use Adobe Lightroom and a set of presets to help adjust my photos. It usually takes 30 seconds or less. You can buy my Night Sky Lightroom Presets if you like.

Got a question. Ask it below and I’ll try to answer it. If you get my newsletter via email just head to my website and leave a comment.


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Showing 3 comments
  • Lorrie
    Reply

    Bryan, you’re generous with your knowledge. Thank you. I learned a lot from this 6.25.15 post. I’m looking forward to meeting you and learning more at your Twilight Class next month.

  • Susan
    Reply

    9/16/16 Hi Bryan. Your pictures are wonderful. Have been checking the aurora forecast geophysical site and it looks like the last week of this month cook county will be having strong northern lights. What do you think, is it worth planning a trip there to see them?

    • Bryan Hansel
      Reply

      If you’re checking the forecast in the middle of the month for the end of the month, it won’t likely be accurate. The northern lights forecast is only accurate for a short period of time before the event.

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moon behind the lighthousestorm on Lake Superior