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Photographs and timelapse video of the northern lights in Fairbanks, Alaska

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The last three nights of photographing the aurora borealis / northern lights in Fairbanks, Alaska, have been tremendously educational. When I was planning this trip last month, I had never been on a night photography trip to such a cold place, and although there are many online resources with tips on what to do in such an environment, there is no replacement for actual experience.

Luckily, nature provided us with the perfect ramp up. Days 1 and 2 featured mild auroras, which gave us time to learn how to keep our cameras and bodies working for hours in the freezing cold (-5ºF to -15ºF) . On day 3, an absolutely epic aurora rocked our worlds, and photographer Julian Cohen and I ran around in the snow, yelling in excitement. From 1am to past 3:30am, the aurora borealis covered nearly the entire night sky, blanketing it with snaking ethereal ribbons of astral beauty. I have never experienced anything like it. I hope one day, you will get to see what we saw last night. Until then, please enjoy these photos, and this timelapse video that I put together. (read more »)

Fairbanks, Alaska | link | trackb | 4 comments » | Mar 24, 2012 09:59:26

Photographer and northern lights, Fairbanks, Alaska

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Photographer Julian Cohen braves the cold Alaskan night to photograph the northern lights.
Here’s his shot of me.

It’s 4:20am, and we’ve just returned from a full night shooting stars and the northern lights in Fairbanks, Alaska. The sky was incredibly clear tonight, and although we only saw obviously-visible aurora borealis for 15 minutes or so, it was an extremely productive night, photographically. I shot some timelapse sequences that I’m excited to process, and had to made some tough decisions (e.g., take timelapse of the aurora, or relocate camera to a place with good foreground subject?).

It’s way too late for me to process all of the pictures, now, but I suspect a good chunk of tomorrow afternoon will be spent on the computer. ;)

Fairbanks, Alaska | link | trackb | 1 comment » | Mar 22, 2012 12:32:00

Photographing the Northern Lights in Fairbanks, Night 1

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I arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska this late afternoon, picked up a rental SUV, and checked into the Hampton Inn, which is a fantastic (and inexpensive) little hotel. Julian and Ildi had arrived at 2am this morning, and after a day’s rest, they were ready to head out for our first night of looking for the aurora borealis (northern lights).

None of us have spent a lot of time in cold places, so we bundled up in a way that seemed like it would, theoretically, keep us warm in the freezing Alaskan night. After driving around for awhile, we ended up at Chatanika Peak, which is about 30 miles north of Fairbanks; it was our first night out, and we didn’t want to drive too far. The sun didn’t set until nearly 8pm, and by then the temperature had already dropped from 19º F to -1º F—freezing! By 10pm, it was completely dark, and the temperature had dropped further to -9º F. There was no sign of the northern lights, so Julian and I shot the sky and warm light pollution coming from Fairbanks. 30 miles away, the lights from Fairbanks still lit up a considerable portion of the sky.

The first picture in this post is the first aurora we saw. It was extremely faint, and there was a cloud obscuring most of it—we almost missed it! Strangely, there was also a green laser shining straight up into the sky, which also came out clearly in the picture. At around 11:30pm, the clouds had moved in, and we decided to call it a night. We packed up and started to head back. By then, the temperature had dropped even more, to -16º F, and Julian and Ildi were starting to really feel the cold. We have some work to do tomorrow to make sure we can make it through 6 hours of shooting in the extreme cold.

As we approached Fairbanks, we noticed a bright green stripe spanning the sky: aurora! We pulled over and took some more shots.

Northern lights over a random highway isn’t so exciting, but it was still pretty cool to see. A few minutes later, it was almost too dim to see any green. Also, when we pulled into the hotel parking lot, there was another bright aurora, just sitting there in the sky. Aurora is everywhere, here! (but we couldn’t shoot these effectively—clouds had moved in)

Equipment notes:

My 5D Mark II did very well at -16º F. I shot nearly 300 pictures in 3 hours, and the battery was still half full. By the end of the evening, the metal parts of the camera were too cold to touch without having gloves on. I packed all my freezing camera gear into a Pelican case and brought it into the warm hotel room sealed; the gear inside will warm up slowly (to avoid condensation). Per the advice of experienced cold-weather shooters, I kept batteries in my inner pockets and only put them in the camera when I was shooting.

I wore:

Head: synthetic, wind-proof beanie, parka hood
Top: capilene base layer, fleece pullover, Canada Goose Expedition parka
Bottom: capilene base layer, fleece pants, shell
Shoes: liner, wool socks, Sorel Caribou boots
Gloves: Thinsulate fingerless w/pull-over mit (these are magic)

For the most part, I was toasty warm during the 3 hours I spent outside. By the end of the evening, my toes were just starting to get cold, so I’ll probably throw a couple toe warmer heat packs in there tomorrow night. Hand warmers were useless when they were in contact with the outside air, but were very effective when sealed in insulated parka pockets (and would warm my hands when I stuck them in there).

Fairbanks, Alaska | link | trackb | 9 comments » | Mar 21, 2012 10:17:28

Off to Alaska

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I’m heading to Fairbanks, Alaska tomorrow with Julian Cohen to photograph the northern lights (I’ve only seen it once before). Land trips are so easy—there is so little gear to bring. I’m going to try to focus while I’m there, and am only bringing a few wide-angle lenses for my Canon SLRs. I will, however, bring a big zoom for the Sony NEX-5N. The goal is to shoot timelapse/stills with the Canon and stills with the Sony NEX-5N (no intervalometer for the Sony). (read more »)

San Francisco, CA | link | trackb | 1 comment » | Mar 20, 2012 07:17:23
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