Behind the Shutter – Aurora Ribbon


I decided that in order for this blog to actually be useful to people (i.e. get read) I am going to make daily posts breaking down images that I have taken and like.  The info covered is very experimental so feel free to leave comments about improvements.

The Photo: Aurora Ribbon Overhead

Aurora Ribbon Overhead

Why I Like it

First off, the Aurora Borealis (or Northern Lights for us simpler folks) is beautiful.  I have lived in Alaska my entire life and every time I see it, I stop what I am doing and watch for at least a few minutes.  There is just something so primal and unnatural about it at the same time.

This shot is one of my favorites because it because of the way it curves through the frame and the sharp contrast against the starry background.  The green to purple transitions of the aurora itself just make the shot.

Technical Junk – How to get a shot like this

You can’t, ha.

Just kidding but only a little.  Aurora changes so fast that I have been standing next to other photographers while it is going and we compare shots afterwards and sometimes it is hard to even tell we were there on the same night.

Equipment used

Canon 7D

Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8

Canon Remote Shutter

Manfrotto 322RC2 Ball Head

Slik Pro 700DX Tripod

Lexar 16GB Card

Note – if you buy any of this stuff from Amazon I do get some money.  But I promise I will never recommend anything that I would not personally use, in fact this is the stuff I use.  I buy all my stuff through either Amazon or B&H Photo, but not an affiliate member for them yet.  Enough business jibber jabber, back to the photo!

Camera Settings

ISO: 1600

F-Stop: 2.8

Exposure: 8 seconds

Camera angle: pointed nearly straight up

Time:  11:22 PM AKST 2011-03-01

Actually Helpful Tips

So you dream of making a shot like this?  Probably not but a lot of photographers would love to get some decent aurora in their portfolio so here is some stuff that will help.

First, Patrick Endres has a great article about how to shoot aurora that is way more detailed than what I am going to go into here, but seriously read his blog it is amazing.


You have to get away from city lights, period.  Also being really far North helps too.  Living in Fairbanks has that covered, all I have to do is drive away from town for less than an hour to capture these.  This particular shot was taken at Cleary Summit, or at least in the general vicinity of it anyways.


The best months for aurora are March and October.  The sun has cycles and we are currently in a low phase for a bit longer but solar flares will still put on a good show.  Any time after nautical twilight is your best bet as aurora is really really faint and will get blocked by any other light.  I usually have good luck anywhere from 10 pm to 2 am.  This means you should be there earlier than that, ideally set up during daylight so you can get foreground just right.

Check the Weather

You need to check the weather, and not just clouds but the aurora forecast.  Luckily Fairbanks is one of the worlds leading locations for aurora study.  Here are the three links that I use to figure out if it is worth it to go out.

GI Aurora Forecast – This is the several day out forecast for how good the aurora might be.  As accurate as normal weather forecasts in Alaska (not that great) but way better than nothing.  A link on the right side is the hour to hour update and that is much better.  I have it bookmarked on my smart phone so I can check it in the field.  Any number over 3 means visible to the naked eye and 4+ is when I grab my gear and head out.  For reference the scale is 0-9 where 0 is only visible in Barrow and 9 is visible in Texas.

Aurora Webcam – My secret weapon that apparently few people know about.  Oh well not secret now.  They have a North facing camera set up at the Poker Flats launch site that takes photos every five minutes.  Awesome for seeing if the aurora is visible at all.  Note: if you can’t see anything but stars and the snow is glowing bright green the aurora is overhead.

Fairbanks Clear Sky Chart – Props to Attilla Danko for making this site that pulls star gazing weather data and puts it into a nice picture so at a glance you can see the sky visibility for the next three days.  Cloud cover radar is often not available on the main weather sites so I use this instead.  It is more accurate than I would have guessed.  But it is for the Fairbanks area so the further you get from town the less accurate it gets.

The Shot

I arrived late, swearing much of the trip there as the aurora was ripping overhead while I was driving.  The night before the public pull offs had seven tour buses and about a half dozen private cars.  Since the aurora was supposed to be better this night I expected a zoo but there was no one their comparatively.  Which was fine by me.  Beautiful golden ribbons carved across the sky to the North and I have several decent photos of that too, saved for another post.  After ten minutes or so the gold faded and the green and purple started moving overhead.  Much of the sky from slightly South to North was covered with moderately bright glow.  Note, long exposures pick up light way better than your eyes so often the photos look better than being there in person.

I took a few shots straight up.  They were nicely framed with the aurora and various bright constellations as the moon was nearly invisible.  Then I cursed some more as I realized that I was standing directly underneath power lines.  After relocating about fifty feet I captured several shots but this is my favorite of this angle, mostly because of the amazing curvature that captures my eye.

After much less than thirty minutes it faded to nearly nothing and I drove on to one of my backup spots further along the Steese Highway to scout for future shoots and caught another flurry of activity an hour later on the way home.  That one only lasted about fifteen minutes then that was it for the night.  Aurora is as fleeting as it is amazing.

That’s it

You want to read more?  Jeez like this post wasn’t already four times longer than what I planned it to be.

If you have any questions put them in the comments or send me an email at: brian at this

Shameless Plug

I am trying to make photography my full time job and as such would really appreciate it if you like my work and helped spread the word.  Or better yet just buy some of my stuff at

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