On August 4th a large group of sunspots threw off a giant cloud of charged particles known as a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) that headed towards Earth. Two days later a geomagnetic storm – the strongest in years- buffeted our planet’s magnetic field resulting in auroras visible down into mid latitude locations across the globe.
I received an aurora alert from Spaceweather.com on my iPod early in the day on August 6th that there was a better than average chance of seeing a display that night so I made plans to do a stake out from my backyard balcony and see if I could capture an image of them from the city – something I wasn’t sure was possible because of all the light pollution.
Starting around midnight, above the rooftops of my Montreal suburb, there were faint but distinct horizontal, grey bands of auroras visible low in the northern horizon. They would strengthen and fade with 30 second intervals and spread out covering as much as 60 degrees of the horizon. The entire show lasted for approximately an hour before fading away for good.
After a few test shots where I experimented with the optimum exposure time that would maximize the aurora appearance while dampening the brightness from all the porch and street lamps, I was able to capture the faint greenish glows above my very light polluted neighborhood with my DSLR through a 10 second exposure. While it’s not an impressive photo by any means I guess the really cool thing about it is, it proves that you really don’t have to be out in the dark countryside to see Northern Lights – all you have to do is just look up at the right time.
While the August 6th display was a very minor one they might be a good omen of things to come. Solar scientists are saying that with the 11 year solar cycle just beginning to ramp up it looks like we are heading out of the doldrums we’ve been experiencing and are bound to see more and more sunspot activity and resulting solar flares appearing every week.
If you want to try your hand at snapping your own souvenirs of these ghostly glows, it’s not rocket science but you have to have the right kind of equipment, an eye for framing your shots, and some patience. Some of the most beautiful photos of auroras are when foreground objects like buildings, trees and mountains can be placed into your view at just the time auroras are really active.
In terms of cameras, look for a digital DSLR camera that has a wide angle lens, 55mm or less, to capture as much of the sky and landscape as possible. Mounting your camera on a sturdy tripod is also a must so that you have a stable platform that doesn’t shake if a sudden gust of wind blows in as you take long exposure photos.
Your camera should have a manual (M) setting where you can not only manually focus but also set the exposure rates up to 20 to 30 seconds. Also look to be able to boost the sensitivity (ISO) of your camera sensor to 400 ISO or higher. Both long exposures and higher ISOs will allow you to pick up hidden details and colors of auroras you just can’t see with your naked eye. A self timer release is indispensable too, allowing you to remotely trigger your shots without imparting any shakes to your camera system.
Remember to be patient because auroras can take anywhere from minutes to hours to unfold – and you never know when you may get that awesome colorful curtain of light to appear. Finally don’t be afraid to experiment with your camera settings and expect to take scores of snapshots to get that one keeper.
Forecasting auroras is still in its infancy, but if you don’t want to miss the next round of auroras I highly recommend signing up for web alerts you can get emailed to you from Spaceweather.com or get the free NASA app 3DSun from the iTunes store.I expect throughout this Autumn and well into Spring next year we should get many more chances to witness these great cosmic fireworks shows. I know I will have my camera ready!
Andrew Fazekas, aka The Night Sky Guy, is a science writer, broadcaster, and lecturer who loves to share his passion for the wonders of the universe through all media. He is a regular contributor to National Geographic News and is the national cosmic correspondent for Canada’s Weather Network TV channel, space columnist for CBC Radio network, and a consultant for the Canadian Space Agency. As a member of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Andrew has been observing the heavens from Montreal for over a quarter century and has never met a clear night sky he didn’t like.