Images and Text by Gordon and Cathy Illg
It’s not that one or two things or even a hundred things are beautiful – every single aspect of the natural world is beautiful, even the very air around us. Using high-energy particles from the sun as brushes and electrons orbiting atoms in our upper atmosphere as a canvas, impossible abstracts are painted across the night sky in neon colors. Of all the astral phenomena that draw our eyes to the heavens, the aurora is the most spectacular. And, it requires no special equipment to view it, only a willingness to stay out when most people are asleep (and to endure some cold temperatures).
The Cree called it the “Dance of the Spirits,” and in the Middle Ages it was regarded as a sign from God. Today we call it aurora borealis after the Roman goddess of the dawn and the Greek name for the north wind. Its most basic form is a static green band, usually stretching across the northern horizon. As it becomes more active, pink, red and even violet are added to the palette. These colors can fall down in curtains or dance across the heavens in twisting waves, as if responding to music we cannot hear. A photographer could point a lens at the same spot all night, taking one photo after another, and never repeat an image.
The Earth is a gigantic magnet, and the charged particles that help to create the aurora have the easiest access to our atmosphere at the magnetic poles. Because the magnetic North Pole is currently near Canada’s Ellesmere Island, hundreds of miles south of the geographic North Pole, the band of intense aurora activity is actually further south in Alaska and Canada than it is in Europe and Asia. This will not always be the case, for the magnetic poles are always moving. Since the aurora is most active at high latitudes, it is pretty much invisible any time near the summer solstice–the sun is up too long, and the nights do not get dark enough to see the Northern Lights.
There are locations scattered all across the high latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere that make good possibilities for photographing the aurora. I’ve seen great Northern Lights photos from Finland, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Canada. But, for me, there is no place like Fairbanks, Alaska. The ease of access and the sheer amount of aurora activity make it an incredible spot to view and photograph the Northern Lights. For one thing, the skies tend to be clear over the interior of Alaska during March, the prime time for the aurora (skies rarely tend to be clear over northern Europe). And, around Fairbanks, you never need to drive more than an hour to leave the lights of civilization behind.
Photographing the aurora was possible during the film days, but the results hardly did the display justice. Because it was necessary to leave the shutter open for minutes rather than seconds, most film images simply showed a wash of color over the sky, rather than the playful patterns the phenomenon is known for. Today, using high ISOs and fast lenses, enthusiasts can take advantage of shutter speeds of less than ten seconds, which pretty much stops the aurora in mid swirl. The photographer has only to choose a pleasing foreground and let the big artist in the sky do its work.
Whether you look at the Northern Lights as a chemical reaction or as dancing spirits, and regardless of how many items you’ve checked off your bucket list, this spectacle will always rank as one of the most exciting and mesmerizing natural displays you’ve ever witnessed. I still consider the aurora to be a sign or an omen – a sign the universe is more complex and more beautiful than we can possibly imagine. While watching it, I sometimes put my camera down because it seems most appropriate to simply gaze at it in wonder.
Cathy and Gordon Illg have been specializing in wildlife and nature photography for more than 20 years, and their images have appeared in nearly every major nature and travel publication, as well as numerous books and calendars. They have earned many awards in photo contests, the highlight of which was being flown to London to accept awards in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest. They lead photo tours under the name Adventure Photography, and coincidentally, they are leading two Northern Lights photo tours in March of 2015.