Dark Skies

Minnesota Features

January 10, 2017

Christina|Lake Time Magazine

"Northern Minnesota boasts some of the purest dark viewing spots in the U.S."

Residents and visitors of Cook County, Minn. (home to the communities of Lutsen, Tofte, Schroeder, Grand Marais, the Gunflint Trail, and Grand Portage) embrace winter for all it has to offer. When the sun is rising later and setting sooner, the extended nights create an ideal opportunity to view the northern lights and the thousands of visible stars. True northerners know that winter is the opportune time to layer up and head outside. Winter boots and a warm thermos of cocoa should always be at the ready because one never knows when the perfect opportunity will present itself. 

"You don't need to travel to Finland, Alaska, or northern Canada to experience the darkest skies and northern lights," says Linda Jurek, executive director of Visit Cook County, "they can be viewed here in our backyard many nights of the year." 

Throughout history, the indigenous people have described the phenomenon of the northern lights as the great spirits painting the sky. The natural event is actually the earth's magnetic field dancing with the charged particles from the sun. While sometimes tricky to predict,
the aurora borealis can be enjoyed year-round in northern Minnesota. "Part of the magic of the northern lights is that they are
 unpredictable," says Bryan Hansel, professional photographer and workshop director based in Grand Marais.

"There are a few great resources that can be used to check for predictions such as www.spaceweather.com as well as the "Aurora Alert" app for my phone. It alerts me when the aurora will be overhead. If the alarm goes off, I head out to a lake with a northern view."

Fellow professional photographer Travis Novitsky, who lives in Grand Portage, agrees. "This website is great for anything going on in space (meteor showers, comets, auroras, etc.).  When it comes to northern lights, forecasters have gotten very good at estimating when aurora activity might be possible.  Sometimes they even know two or three days ahead of time.  So, it's a good idea to check the web site every day to see if there may be something interesting happening in the days ahead." 

Exploring the dark side of Cook County, Minn. 

According to Jurek, one of the reasons that the area is so terrific for stargazing is that it is so far from the distracting lights of the city. Cook County area businesses and community members take pride in the fact that they are based in a remote wilderness region with little to no light pollution. They work together and take protective measures to sustain the "purity" of the darkness. According to www.darkskyfinder.com, roughly 80 percent of the U.S. population cannot see the Milky Way.  Incredibly, however, the majority of the communities in Cook County are rated above-average for darkness. At the end of the Gunflint Trail in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, it gets even darker. This makes the area one of the purest dark skies east of the Mississippi. 

There are many photographers who live in Cook County and are dedicated to capturing the vivid, pulsating colors of the northern lights. Locals and visitors put in countless nights chasing the auroras.

  Where do photographers go to shoot the northern lights?

"The best locations to view and photograph the northern lights are flat places with an open view to the north, such as along the southern edge of a meadow or field," recommends Novitsky. "Looking to the north over a lake or river is my personal favorite, that way you can also get the lights reflecting in the water." Check out www.visitcookcounty.com/northernlights to find some promising northern lights driving routes. 

"The possibilities for creative compositions are endless. Use your imagination, and don't be afraid to experiment. Look for something interesting in the foreground to make for a stronger composition (such as a dock protruding into the lake or a section of shoreline along a lake that has rocks sticking up out of the water.  Interesting tree lines are attractive, too." 

Learn from the pros. A few photographers like Bryan Hansel offer several popular night sky photography workshops each year. "Participants can learn how to capture the northern lights and the Milky Way, as well as whatever else is going on in the sky," says Hansel. Hansel recommends using a DSLR camera to photograph the northern lights. "Cell phones are useful tools for navigation and aurora apps but the camera technology is not advanced enough yet to be used to capture the majesty of the auroras."

Learn more about Bryan Hansel's classes and his pro tips by visiting bryanhansel.com

"Nights spent in the woods photographing the northern lights are some of the best memories that I have," says Novitsky. "I've heard wolves howling, loons singing, and owls hooting while standing under a sky filled with dancing aurora.  Talk about memory burn!  These experiences stick with you and increase your appreciation for the outdoors as few other experiences can." 

For viewing the Aurora Borealis in Cook County, Minn. Check the forecast. The best viewing is during clear nights with little to no moonlight.

Stay up late. Night owls have the best chance of catching this incredible phenomenon. The best times to see northern lights is often between 9 p.m. - 4 a.m.

Bundle up. Bring blankets and a thermos of hot chocolate. Northern nights get chilly.

Look to the North. Grab a compass and find a spot with a good view to the north, without hills or trees blocking your line of sight.

Turn off lights. Artificial light will make it more difficult to see the northern lights. Be sure to turn off car lights, house lights, flashlights, and keep your cell phone screen dim.

Be patient. Part of their mystic is the unpredictability of occurrence. Catching a glimpse of the northern lights takes dedication, patience, and a good friend to keep you company.

Know what to look for. Aurora Borealis appears in a broad spectrum of colors. Most typically seen is a faint green-yellow or white-gray display. However, purples and reds can also be seen.

Tell a friend. When venturing into the woods to find that perfect spot, be sure to let someone know where you are going and when you expect to return. Also, letting someone else know the northern lights are out will increase your chance of them returning the favor in the future.

  

What do amateur photographers need to know about capturing the northern lights?
- By Travis Novitsky - www.travisnovitsky.com
  

Here is my basic advice for amateur photographers:

Use a good tripod if one is available, or in a pinch you could set the camera on a stationary object such as a deck railing or the roof of your car. 

Also a bean bag can be helpful for composing and recording a shot if a tripod is unavailable. A bean bag will hold the camera still, and you can position the camera on the bag the way you want, therefore allowing for a bit more freedom in your composition.

Be sure to not have filters covering the front of your lens. The first time I shot the aurora, I couldn't figure out why the images weren't turning out the way I was hoping... well, it was because I had a polarizer filter attached to the front of the lens! 

Generally, you want to shoot the aurora with your lens as wide open as possible. On most camera lenses this will likely be either an aperture of f4 or f3.5. Some lenses have an aperture of f2.8, which will let even more light in.  

These days just about any camera is capable of capturing a decent photo of the northern lights.  However, a DSLR camera with a full-frame sensor is going to give you the best image quality available.  Cell phone cameras simply don't cut it for aurora photography.  

I usually shoot the aurora with my camera in Manual mode, and when I start shooting I start off with the ISO set at 800 and an exposure time of 20 to 30 seconds. Depending on the intensity of the lights, I can either increase the ISO or decrease the shutter speed, depending on the look that I am going for. 

Most of the time a camera's autofocus will not be able to focus on the lights, as usually they are too faint for the camera to detect. A strong flashlight is a must in some situations. If there are other lights in the scene (such as the moon, or city lights, for example) you can use those lights to focus your camera. 

If you have a strong foreground element, you can use a strong flashlight to shine light onto the foreground element, so your camera can "see" it; then use your autofocus to focus on the foreground element. Once you've obtained focus, turn your autofocus OFF, otherwise when you go to press the shutter button the camera will try to focus again.