Tips for Seeing the Northern Lights in Washington and Idaho

I've had quite a few questions about my recent Northern Lights photos so here's a response to some of the most common questions:

Can you see the Lights with the naked eye?
Yes, the glow of the lights along with the structures and shapes are visible. The more intense they are the more visible the colors become, but the sensor of the camera is able to gather up the intensity of the colors in a way that the human eye cannot. I do very little color saturation adjustment on these shots, so the colors are there. We have a tendency to think that what is nakedly visible to the human eye is the most true portrayal of a scene, but in the case of the the Aurora Borealis, we get more of the beautiful truth from the camera than we do with our own eyes. 

When can I see the Aurora? 
It takes a rare combination of events to see the Aurora in Washington and Idaho. You need clear skies, low light pollution (including lights from cities and the moon), and most of all, you need a large Coronal Mass Ejection or sun flare that directs gases and magnetic forces at the earths atmosphere. Softserve News is my favorite source of Aurora forecasting. Sign up for the free email alerts and that helps, but be warned that it's spotty on it's accuracy. The arrival of material from the sun is hard to forecast and predict. They usually arrive earlier or later than predicted, or not at all. You need a four or five on the scale of intensity to get a good showing in Washington and Idaho. To give you an idea of how uncommon it is to get all these factors to work together, this week's shots mark six months since the last time I had a good opportunity, and I actively monitor the situation. 

One lesson I learned from last summer is that when there is a large solar storm it tends to linger for a couple days afterward, with lower intensity. This week's storm peaked on Tuesday during the day over cloudy skies. But Wednesday night the skies opened up and my hopes for a remnant of the previous day's storm were fulfilled.

What time is best? 
The darker the skies the better, but if they are present you can see them starting an hour after sunset up to an hour before sunrise.

Where can I see them?
The map of their visibility is like a disc shape laid over the north pole. The more intense the lights the more the bulging edge of the disc will push out towards the U.S. The further you move to the west, the further up north the disc of visibility moves, and the further east you go the further south the disc dips. 

What camera settings should I use?
It depends on your camera and your lens. The ideal is to have a tripod, a fast lens that goes to 2.8 or lower on the F-stop, a long shutter speed of anywhere between 5-25 seconds, and a high ISO sensitivity setting of 1500 to 4000. A full-frame camera allows you to go higher on the ISO without getting too much noise in the image. 

Is it worth going to all the trouble to see them?
Yes! It's a magical and mystical encounter unlike anything I've experienced in the natural world.

An example of this was an encounter I had with a herd of deer on Wednesday night. I was driving to a destination north of Davenport when I came upon a bunch of deer feeding in the fields. I noticed their silhouettes against the sky and had an idea for a photo. I pulled over and walked on the road toward the deer. I forgot to adjust my camera settings, so after getting in position I turned on my headlamp and looked down. When I looked up from newly-tuned camera, the dozens of deer that had been right in front of me were gone. Not a sign or sound or trace.

I had a hunch they might move north so I hiked up a road that opened into a sweeping hill. The glow of the Aurora hovered on the horizon and, looking up the slope, I could now see my herd of deer silhouetted against the electric sky. Most of them skittered away in the silence, but I could see them leaping and running, shadow dancers on waves of light. A few were willing to stick around for a photo, but my favorite part of the night was witnessing their shadows leap into the distance in total silence.

I was thinking that next time I'll use a different lens and shorter shutter speed, but the truth is that there probably will never be a next time for such an encounter. The Aurora is like that, always offering up once-in-a-lifetime moments.