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Seeing the beautiful Aurora Borealis was number one on my bucket list for as long as I can remember. I’d seen countless photos and videos of the gorgeous Northern Lights dancing across skies in the Nordics and even where we live in the UK, but I’d yet to see them for myself. We always thought we’d see them in the middle of winter, somewhere like Iceland.
We didn’t expect that we’d get our Aurora experience during summer in Alaska!
The Best Time to See the Northern Lights
The phenomenon that is the Aurora Borealis normally takes place in the winter months, your best chances of seeing them are from October to around March. The window can be a bit wider but you definitely won’t see them in June, July and most of August.
When we started planning a trip to Alaska for late August and early September I knew the chances were slim that we’d see them, but we were determined to give ourselves the best shot anyway.
We arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska in late August and ended up getting incredibly lucky.
Fairbanks is in the north of Alaska, around 200 miles from the Arctic Circle and provides a great base if you want to go Northern Lights spotting.
Our visit to Fairbanks was during a 2-week road trip of Alaska which started and finished in Anchorage. We decided to stay in Cleary Summit, about 40 minutes out of the city where there was virtually no light pollution.
Mount Aurora Lodge
Mount Aurora Lodge was built to house gold miners around 90 years ago. It’s a traditional bunkhouse with one huge open plan living and dining room on the ground floor and small, basic rooms upstairs. They also have cabins on the property for guests.
The charm of this place is in the history and the lovely people who manage it. It’s family run and everyone was incredibly welcoming. Paul also made a new bestie in the resident dog, Hank.
In the evening there is no white light, all rooms are equipped with red lights which don’t disturb Aurora viewing.
They have someone wait up during the night, monitoring the weather forecast and looking out for the Aurora.
The best conditions are very dark, clear skies – normally between Midnight and 3am. If the lights start appearing you get a knock at your door to let you know and a cup of hot chocolate to keep you warm outside.
Our Northern Lights Experience
We had booked to stay just 2 nights in this part of Alaska before heading south again. Our first night at Mount Aurora Lodge had very cloudy skies and warm temperatures, both meant that we wouldn’t get to see the Aurora.
On our second day in the area I did my usual thing of trying to manage Paul’s always optimistic and excitable expectations.
What was the chance of seeing the Northern Lights in August on this one particular night? Not great. But whatever the odds, the weather was on our side that night and it would be one we wouldn’t forget.
We’d gone to bed at around 10:30pm and some time after midnight there was a knock on our door – the lights were out! We threw on as many warm layers as we could and ran downstairs to have a look.
The Aurora was like most things, you can see as many photos as you like but until you see it with your own eyes you can’t appreciate it fully.
It started out quite sedately with a light splash of green across the sky, dancing around in various locations. It gradually increased in intensity until there was this definite, massive arc of light in bright green. It looked like photos I’d seen of Saturn’s rings but in this extraordinary green colour.
We must have spent an hour outside watching the lights and drinking hot chocolate, taking as many long exposed photos as we could. It was wonderful and we couldn’t believe our luck.
Tips for Photographing the Northern Lights
Tripod – When photographing the Aurora you definitely need a tripod. Shooting in the dark requires really long exposures and handheld won’t cut it. When we travel I take this mini tripod which takes up no room at all but gives the stability I need.
Remote shutter release cable – When you’re taking such long exposures you do not want to touch your camera at all. I always carry a shutter release cable which allows you to take the photo from a click on this remote button, having no contact with your camera. They cost next to nothing but can make your life a lot easier.
ISO – 400-800. In natural daylight your ISO will be 200-250. When photographing such bright lights on a dark sky you need to go much higher. This range seemed to work well for me.
Aperture – I used f 3.5. Your lens should be wide open to allow as much light in as possible. The recommended aperture is f 2.8 but I played around for a while before settling on f 3.5 for my best shots.
Exposure – 25-30 seconds. This will depend on how quickly the Aurora is moving. You can start lower and gradually increase before finding your sweet spot with the brightest colours.
All of the photos you see have had no post-production – no photoshop or other editing software has been used.
Spare batteries – It will probably be freezing conditions when you’re viewing the Aurora. Make sure to have a spare camera battery in case your equipment it struggling.
Make sure there is absolutely no white light whatsoever. When we were viewing the Aurora someone decided to try taking flash photographs which ruined a number of shots that the rest of us were taking.
Wear gloves that allow you to operate your camera without having to take them off. You are going to be cold, that’s a given – but make sure you’re extremities are protected.
Be patient and don’t forget to enjoy the experience. If you’re waiting around for a 30 second photograph make sure to enjoy the show with your own eyes!
Fairbanks is around 6-6.5 hours drive from Anchorage. There’s no way you’d want to miss out on all the jaw-dropping scenery between the two cities so if driving, plan for a few days.
Fairbanks also has an airport with frequent flights to Anchorage and Seattle. In the summer there is a weekly flight to Frankfurt in Germany.
We stayed at the Mount Aurora Lodge and would highly recommend it. Their Summer rate is $150 per night and in winter it’s $200 per night – most rooms accommodate up to 3 people. Rates include Wifi and breakfast.
Accommodation is expensive in Alaska but we felt like we got value for money here.
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