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How to See the Northern Lights in Alaska

With a new book out, Alaska-based photographers Daryl Pederson and Calvin Hall share tips on seeing and photographing the Aurora Borealis.

If you want to see or photograph the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, photographers Daryl Pederson and Calvin Hall say Alaska is the place to be.

Living in Anchorage even gives them an advantage, Pederson says. "Helping set us apart is that we live in a part of the world that is stunningly beautiful. This is the Mecca for people wanting to shoot the lights."

In fact, the photographers are releasing their second book of photographs of Alaska's Northern Lights, "The Northern Lights: Celestial Performances of the Aurora Borealis." Their first book was released in 2001.

Below, the two share some of their tips on seeing the Northern Lights.

How to See the Northern Lights

TIP: It's like the real estate business: location, location, location.

To get the perfect shot, Pederson says he scouts all year long.

These Alaskans have been "hard-core Aurora chasers," says Pederson, since before there were computers to tell you the best spots for viewing the Northern Lights.

"You pretty much had to go out on a clear night and hope for the best," he says. "But we were the ones doing that, getting the shots, sacrificing warmth and sleep." Hall calls it an "Aurora addiction."

Hall says technology can be helpful—to an extent. "We use NASA and NOAA websites, but they're not always accurate. So we're doing a lot of forecasting ourselves," Hall says. 

The Northern Lights
One of Calvin Hall's photographs depicts the Aurora Borealis at its most intense. (©Calvin Hall)

TIP: Look in the right direction.

"I look north and northeast, the typical direction the lights are coming from," says Pederson. "A lot of times, especially in the fall, we're working in the dark. I have a compass in my truck, so I'm always looking northeast and know what I’m working with."

The photographer has even had one of his pictures on the cover of National Geographic and has also shot time-lapse video of the night sky and Northern Lights in 3D and for IMAX.

Being a lifelong Alaskan helps Pederson because he knows most of the places well. Hall said that's an understatement, claiming Pederson has an "encyclopedic knowledge" of the state.

TIP: Be careful.

Working at night in Alaska doesn't come without peril.

Pederson said he once got out of his truck to the sound of a bear nearby. It had been eating a moose carcass. Luckily, though, the bear ran away. But he said you always have to be on the lookout for bears and moose, especially in remote locations. 

Hall says, "Most people cannot relate to what we're doing very well—out at 2 a.m. with potentially dangerous animals. It's a very different world." But, he continues, "Getting the photos is the fun part."

The Northern Lights
Go prepared and be careful advises longtime Northern Lights photographer Daryl Pederson. (©Daryl Pederson)

TIP: Be prepared to leave on short notice.

Hall said that seeing and getting just the right photograph of the Auroras call for a lot of road trips and short-notice gambles based on Northern Lights forecasts.

"I had heard that there were some red Northern Lights one night in central California," he said. So Hall called a lodge he knew of about 100 miles in that direction and asked what it looked like, because it was overcast in Anchorage. The lodge confirmed good viewing of red lights.

"So I'm in my truck, and it's raining on a frozen road with black ice," he recalls. "There was hardly anyone on the road, and most the of ones that were out were in the ditch. I got into Palmer [Alaska], and weather is nice, so I'm driving faster." Hall wound up hitting a patch of black ice.

"The truck went sideways, but I somehow recovered it. About 5 miles up, I found a hole in the clouds and got great shots of lights most people in Alaska didn't get to see. Then it got cloudy again, and the lights weren't visible."

Northern Lights
One of Calvin Hall's photos from the new book (©Calvin Hall)

TIP: "Stop looking at your stupid phone."

"It takes a while for your eyes to adjust to night vision, so turn off anything with light, put up the phone and let them adjust. You'll see much more," says Hall.

Get the Book

The Northern Lights
Celestial Performances of the Aurora Borealis." (Courtesy Sasquatch Books)

"The Northern Lights: Celestial Performances of the Aurora Borealis": Photographs by Daryl Pederson and Calvin Hall. Essay by Ned Rozell. Sasquatch Books, 2015. $15.55 in paperback on Amazon

The book has many "once-in-lifetime shots," Pederson says. "It shows people how beautiful Alaska is. As far as easy access in the U.S., there are scenes you can see in Alaska that you can't see anywhere else on Earth. The book is just a great thing for anyone who can't travel to Alaska to see the lights for themselves."

Hall likes that the book is a high-profile way for people to see thier photography. But, to him, "Northern Lights" represents more. "God does stunning, amazing work, and the Aurora is one of the best examples of that. To have those examples out there for the world to see is wonderful." 

What are the Northern Lights?

According to www.northernlightscentre.ca:

  • The Aurora are collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the Earth's atmosphere.
  • The lights are seen above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres. They are known as Aurora Borealis in the north and Aurora Australis in the south. 
  • Auroral displays appear in many colors, although pale green and pink are the most common.
  • The lights appear in many forms, from patches or scattered clouds of light to streamers, arcs, rippling curtains or shooting rays that light up the sky.
  • Variations in color are a result of the type of gas particles that are colliding.
  • The most common auroral color, a pale yellowish-green, is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the Earth. Rare, all-red Auroras are produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles. Nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red aurora. 

Northern Lights in Alaska
A dramatic image of the Northern Lights, as shot in Alaska by Daryl Pederson (©Daryl Pederson)