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7 Tips for Taking Photos of the Northern Lights

Ahhhh, the Northern Lights, Aurora, or as we locals say... "YAY! The lights are out!"

One of the MOST asked questions we get this time of year from guests or potential guests is "can you see the Northern Lights from your property?"

Our answer is always, "Northern Lights are a natural phenomenon, and we cannot always guarantee that they will be visible. However, on nights that they are 'out' they can be seen from the windows of either bedrooms in our property. If they are not visible enough from the property, I would be happy to suggest a few (close!) places you could drive to in town that would have a wider, less obscured view." If you are one of the lucky ones to get to see the Northern Lights, here are seven of my best tips for taking fantastic photos!

Tip #1: Northern Lights Photography is an ART that takes SO much practice, but you can take enjoyable photos for yourself with a little bit of learning!!

Don't get down on yourself if your first, second, or twentieth photos don't turn out how you thought they would. I started taking these photos around six or seven years ago and STILL find lots of ways to improve my photos. Bonus tip: many of the incredible photos you see online are heavily photoshopped or composite images.

Tip #2: Use THIS site from the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute to find out the daily Aurora Forecast.

YES an Aurora Forecast is a thing!! The website uses a KP index from 0 - 9 to let you know what the probability of seeing the Northern Lights is from various locations! The map is helpful to know if you're in a good spot or not. Of course, your local weather (or just look outside) will also need to be referenced as you might have a great aurora forecast, and a completely overcast day.

Tip #3: Check for the aurora various times throughout the night.

I've heard from several of our guests (and I think they're brilliant!) that because they only have a few nights worth of chances to see the Northern Lights, they set an alarm as much as every hour throughout the night. This gives them the best chance to see if the lights are out at some point during the night! If you stay with us and I happen to see the northern lights out, I'll be sure to message you!

Tip #4: Use the camera & gear that you have!!

If you only have an iPhone, you'll still be able to take A photo to prove to your family and friends that you saw the Northern Lights. But, to take better photos, a DSLR camera is always recommended! I use a Canon 6D Mark II and love it to pieces. Some of the other images you've seen on this post were taken with a Canon Rebel. Another important piece of equipment? A tripod! Never fear, if you don't have one, use a rock, the back of your rental car, a tree stump, whatever you have around you that's more stable than your shaky hand. (Yes, it's shaky!!)

Tip #5: Find a great location!

If you're staying with us, I'll let you know a few local spots near Denali National Park to get some great photos at! But, if you're in other places in Alaska, you'll have to look for yourself! Great locations have a clear view of the aurora, no light pollution from a town, and visually interesting landscape to keep your photo dynamic - such as trees, mountains, a cabin, etc.

Tip #6: Camera settings.

I could do a whole post about camera settings for aurora photos (and I will someday!) but for now here are the basics. Part of the beauty of photography is learning every single time you take a new shot, so use these settings fluidly as you try to get a great photo!

  1. Shoot in manual mode. If manual mode freaks you out, YOU WILL BE OKAY. :)

  2. Change your f-stop number to anywhere between 2.8 and 4.0. If this is your first time doing this, check your manual or mess around with your camera until you find the spot. This f-stop number tells your camera how open to have the sensor inside the lens.

  3. Set your ISO. This number tells your camera how sensitive it should be to the light you are letting in. You want this number to be as small as it still can be, while being effective. (If it's too low, it won't be sensitive enough to light, if it's too high, it will be too sensitive to light!)

  4. Set your shutter speed. This number will change drastically based on how bright the lights are, how much they are moving, what your weather factors are, etc. You need to have a longer exposure - sometimes at least a second to up to a full minute! This shutter speed tells your camera how long the sensor should stay open to take the photo.

Tip #7: Edit your photos but only a tiny bit!

This might be a spicy take, but I do NOT like overly edited Northern Lights photos. I enjoy photos that are more "true to the experience" and sometimes photographers bump their colors WAY more than what they actually were! A little bump in colors, a little straightening in your crop, a little touch of exposure is all you need.

Those are my 7 best tips for taking great Northern Lights photos! If you take photos based off our tips, I'd love to see them. Tag us at @denalihideaway on Instagram or at Denali Hideaway on Facebook.


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