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Grimm's Tales: Even in the north, Aurora is elusive to photography

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I remember once seeing the aurora borealis from our yard in Backus glowing brightly beneath the two tails of the Hale-Bopp Comet. Just a perk of living in Minnesota.

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For the life of me, I have never been able to get photos of the borealis. Every time a chance to catch the lights on camera presents itself, there seems to be some sort of coincidence that puts me in the wrong place at the wrong time, robs me of the proper photographic equipment, or draws in cloud cover just before nightfall.

While I was teaching in China the news was abuzz with what was supposed to be an historical solar storm, but my camera was not good enough to take photos of the night sky. Worse yet, in our city of 7-8 million, the smog light pollution made it nearly impossible to see even a full moon.

To make my job easier, once I got home to Backus I bought an app to predict the northern lights. Lo and behold, my phone began giving me alerts, beeping and buzzing all throughout the weekend of March 9-10. That Saturday my phone said the lights would be strong. That Sunday it said they would be high, even that Monday there was a chance that they would be visible.

I’m sure I don’t need to remind you, but it snowed that weekend.

That Monday night the channel 4 news exclaimed, “Oh, what beautiful northern lights this weekend.” That was just rude. Shame on you, channel 4 news, shame.

It was just adding insult to injury that the lights were, again, predicted to be strong March 23, but again, hidden behind clouds.

I guess you might have better luck than me, so I’ll give you a little advice. If you ever want to snap a shot of the northern lights, or just go watch them, they are predictable.

The best resource is probably http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/. Once you figure out how to read the prediction it is usually way more accurate than the groundhog or meteorologist.

If you wish to photograph the lights, for best results without breaking the bank, gather a tripod, a cable release for your camera, a single lens reflex camera, a high ISO and a lens with aperture f/2.8 or wider. You will likely need to keep the shutter open manually for a period of time. One online site suggested the formula: 600/lens focal length=maximum exposure limit in seconds.

Basically, if you have a 24mm lens you will need to hold the shutter open for 25 seconds. I don’t know how well it works, I am never able to get to this point, but digital cameras give you the chance to experiment to your heart’s content and know whether you have succeeded or not immediately.

Oh, don’t forget — bring warm clothes, drinks or bodies, it’s cold out there.

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