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Dancing in the Dark Where to see — and how to capture — the northern lights BY NANCY MONSON PHOTO BY BEN HATTENBACH

WINTER IS THE optimal time to view the spectacular aurora borealis — the electrically charged particles from the sun that skitter colorfully across the night sky, more commonly known as the northern lights. Great viewing sites in North America include Alaska (particularly Fairbanks) and northern Canada, although you can sometimes get lucky and see the lights in Vermont, Maine, Minnesota and other northern states. If you happen to be in Europe, Iceland, Scandinavia and Russia are also prime viewing spots. The aurora borealis is best viewed on clear, moonless nights in dark, isolated areas. But its appearance is not a guarantee. The lights can hide one night, while putting on a show that lasts minutes to hours on other nights. (Scientists track the development of auroras; see box at left for information on forecasts.) The gorgeous sight is an obvious inspiration for frameable photos; unfortunately, most cellphone and automatic cameras aren’t equipped to catch the lights in a dark sky. “It’s just basic physics,” says Ben Hattenbach, a wilderness photographer.


“You need to collect a lot of light, and cellphone camera sensors are just too small to produce highquality, low-light images of something that’s moving.” And there’s no app to help with that either, he says, in case you were wondering. So if you’re serious about getting some shots, says Ajit Menon, a New York City-based photographer, you’ll want to use a 35mm digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera that you can focus manually. You’ll also want a wide-angle lens (anywhere from 14mm to 24mm wide) with an aperture of at least f/2.8. Set the camera to increase its sensitivity to light — that means you’ll need to use a film speed of 1600 or higher (the ISO setting) and a shutter speed that allows the lens to stay open for 10 to 15 seconds. (Consult your camera manual for specific directions on how to accomplish this.) To avoid a blurry image, it’s also great to have a tripod, since the camera needs to remain still for several seconds while shooting. Beyond that, you just need warm clothes and the patience to shoot for the stars (or in this case, the lights). ●

Brooks Range, northern Alaska

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