You don’t have to go to Canada or Alaska to see them! Here’s a nature photographer’s guide to capturing the aurora borealis in the dark skies above Washington, Idaho, and Montana
– October 14, 2016
The aurora and the nature photographer
Like a giant ray gun pointed at Earth, the sun blasts our planet with gusts of solar wind, creating ethereal flares of light as solar particles hit oxygen and nitrogen in our atmosphere. In the northern hemisphere, this natural phenomenon is called the northern lights or aurora borealis.
If experiencing them is on your bucket list, you can start saving for an epic trip to Alaska or Canada … or you can ditch the tour group and go on a DIY aurora-photo quest in Eastern Washington and northern Idaho and Montana.
Spokane-based photographer Craig Goodwin is obsessed with tracking the northern lights. Here, he shares his photos, favorite locations for aurora watching, and tips on how to photograph the night sky.
Spokane: Gateway to the northern lights
“Spokane is a wonderful gateway to exploring the night sky, with ready access to locations that are free of light pollution,” Goodwin says. The aurora is typically visible in Eastern Washington (and in northern Idaho and Montana) on a monthly basis. To check for a strong solar wind that you can plan your trip around, monitor aurora-projection sites such as the popular volunteer-run spaceweatherlive.com and softservenews.com, and keep an eye on NOAA.gov’s three-day aurora forecast.
Or download a free app such as Aurora Tonight, which lets you choose a location (like Spokane, Washington) and get alerts when the northern lights are likely to be visible in that area. Pay particular attention to the week before and after a new moon (aka no moon) and check local weather forecasts for clouds.
When a good showing is predicted, grab your DSLR camera and tripod and hop on a flight to Spokane (even when booked at the last minute, flights to Spokane typically cost less than $250 round-trip from many cities in the West), where you can rent a car and start exploring.
Road trip from Spokane to Idaho
To capture the aurora, Goodwin recommends that fellow photo buffs try a five-night road trip from Spokane to northern Idaho and Montana, then back to Washington State. “If were writing up a travel brochure for aurora hunters coming to Spokane,” Goodwin says, “I would recommend a loop drive from Spokane to Priest Lake, Idaho, and then to Lake McDonald at Glacier National Park in Montana. And then back to Spokane via Idaho’s quaint St. Maries and Heyburn State Park, at the southern end of Lake Coeur d’Alene.”
The places along this route “all offer wide views and open vistas for aurora viewing, especially Priest Lake at Hill's Resort and the southern end of Lake McDonald,” Goodwin says. “Those are the best I've seen, and the reflections of the water make for dramatic photographs.”
Road trip: Reflect in Glacier
“The most awe-inspiring part of a northern lights experience is seeing the movement and shifting shapes of light pillars and waves as they pulsate in the sky,” Goodwin says. “It’s the most exhilarating phenomenon I’ve witnessed in nature.”
To see the northern lights in action, check out this time-lapse video that Goodwin shot at Glacier National Park’s Lake McDonald, the third stop on this loop route.
Back to Idaho and on to Spokane
“Heyburn State Park, at the southern end of Lake Coeur d’Alene, offers some interesting views,” Goodwin says. “Foreground objects [such as this bridge] are always helpful for creating compelling compositions, and those locations have led to good photographs for me.”
Photo tips from an aurora pro
To capture the aurora with his DSLR (digital single-lens reflex camera), Goodwin says, “It helps to have a wide-angle lens with a wide aperture of f2.8 or bigger. With my 14mm lens, I usually shoot at f2.8, ISO 2000–4000, and shutter speed of 15–25 seconds. With my 24mm, I shoot at f1.8, ISO 2000–4000, and a shutter speed of 8–13 seconds.”
“If the northern lights are particularly strong, you can actually overexpose them,” Goodwin explains, “so I usually experiment with different settings until I get it dialed in.”
“One additional challenge of photographing at night is setting the focus to infinity: Without any light, the auto-focus doesn’t work, so some familiarity with setting the focus on a lens to infinity is helpful for getting sharp images.”
More Videos From Sunset
“If you overexpose an aurora, that means you let in so much light that you lose the detail in the different shades of the vibrant colors, and they just become a blob of solid color. For example, the above photos are the same shot of the aurora—the one [on top] is overexposed, and the other is properly exposed. Most photographers would assume that it's so dark at night that you don't have to worry about that, even though we are very mindful to not overexpose an image during the daytime.”
Elusive, unpredictable, and addictive
“I have found that the lights ebb and flow as the night goes on,” Goodwin says. “They may be very strong early in the evening, and then start to wane, but then come roaring back. I have also found that when the northern lights make a strong showing, they usually stick around for a couple days.”
“The elusiveness and unpredictable nature of the northern lights is part of what makes seeing them so special.”
Beyond ghostly green and yellow
“The most common aurora colors are green and yellow,” Goodwin says. “But when the aurora is strong, there are red and purple tones that will appear high in the sky—not as visible to the human eye, but easily captured by a camera with a long exposure.”
Be bear aware
For aurora hunting in the wilderness—which is grizzly country this far north—Goodwin recommends bringing “a DSLR camera, a sturdy tripod, a headlamp, a chair, bear spray, patience, and a warm jacket. A smartphone also comes in handy, which will provide real-time aurora reports if cell service is available.”
Let your aurora quest begin
“I started to get into night photography about four years ago and discovered the northern lights by mistake,” Goodwin says. “I was taking pictures of the Milky Way galaxy and was confused by the pink and yellow colors that appeared on my camera’s review screen. It was only later that I discovered it was the aurora borealis. I’ve been slightly obsessed with capturing them ever since.”