Chasing the northern lights has been a passion of mine ever since I moved to Alaska in 2017. I have captured some incredible night skies over the past four years and began dabbling in aurora videos too. I’m writing this post to help you chase the aurora yourself and also to share what I’ve learned while photographing the northern lights in Alaska.
Photos make the aurora look more dazzling and yet somehow don’t compare to watching a strong aurora dance across the sky. Some nights aurora borealis dances wonderfully across the sky, but other nights she is silent. Forecasts are often wrong and all aurora chasers have had high Kp hopes dashed by cloudy weather. Even if the weather plays along, the space weather forecast is barely accurate anyway, just like your local weather forecast.
Pictures of the Northern Lights in Alaska
On nights when the aurora doesn’t show or if Lady A takes her time to turn the lights on, I like to look for constellations and the Milkyway galaxy. It’s good to be ready for a long night when aurora chasing, some nights it’s too cloudy during a good forecast but your camera might pick up a hint of green anyway. Try to find reflective surfaces to play with and you can still capture a beautiful night shot.
Since I live in Anchorage, this post will highlight the best places to see northern lights in Anchorage (and the best places to see northern lights near Anchorage.). But I’ve also enjoyed aurora hunting in other parts of Alaska and you’ll find Google Maps location suggestions, photography tips, and forecast websites below!
Best Aurora Borealis App
I use the Space Weather Forecast from NOAA’s Space weather prediction center when looking for the aurora borealis. The 3-day forecast shows predicted Kp-index and is the closest thing you can call “accurate” as far as forecasting goes. Global geomagnetic activity index can be found as far out as 3 weeks but, much like other weather, should only be trusted about 72 hours out. Take note that the times are in UTC.
KP-index ranges from 0 to 9 but the baseline that we have on a typical night is a KP of 2. The photos and videos in this post are on nights ranging from KP 2-6. Most aurora chasers in Anchorage wait for the KP to be above 4 or 5 to head out but solar activity is altogether unpredictable.
6 hour timelapse at Glen Alps Trailhead, Anchorage, Alaska April 16th, 2021
Always check the basic weather forecast before you look into an Alaska northern lights tours or embark on your own aurora chase. A clear, cloudless sky is best since the northern lights are hidden by clouds. I like to use the stargazing website, ClearDarkSky.com where you can find a very detailed 72-hour forecast. Many aurora chasers also check the moon phase, moonrise, and moonset since the moon can dampen aurora displays. But other aurora photographers like the moon because it illuminates trees, mountains, and any foreground.
My favorite spot for aurora hunting is the Knik River, but you can certainly see the aurora borealis in Anchorage! Elizabeth and I have seen the northern lights from our driveway near many lights and just a few miles from downtown. There are plenty of places to see the northern lights in Anchorage and many more great places to see the northern lights in Alaska.
Be patient if you are aurora hunting! The northern lights are often referred to as a shy lady dancing across the sky. I enjoy looking for constellations, the milky way galaxy and shooting stars while I wait for the aurora to come out. Be prepared to stay out for a few hours under the night sky.
It’s good for all aurora chasers to realize that solar storms don’t produce as vibrant colors as these photos reveal. The aurora borealis are gorgeous and can be colorful as it dances across the sky, but cameras pull more color out of the light spectrum than your eyes can see.
3 hour timelapse at Christiansen Lake in Talkeetna, Alaska.
It would actually require photographers to edit night shots and remove color in order to mimic what your naked eyes see. Photos will appear more green, red, blue, and purple than what you actually see, but that doesn’t make the aurora any less dazzling to watch!
Best Place to See Northern Lights in Anchorage
Knik River, Palmer, Alaska
The Knik River is my favorite place to chase the northern lights from Anchorage. You get far enough away from the city lights and have an incredible northern view above a river and mountains. The river often provides a reflection in the foreground of photos too. Notice the full moon is out illuminating more of the foreground but not hiding the aurora borealis.
There are countless pullouts on Knik River Road with one of the most popular being right at the Old Glenn Highway Knik River Bridge. You can also use any of the Knik River access points to drive along the riverbank to find a perfect view.
Elizabeth and I have chased aurora many times at the Knik River. An acrylic print of this photo hangs in our bedroom. Nights like this are common while aurora chasing. A high forecast and clear sky may just end up with what can easily be mistaken for clouds low on the horizon. The naked eye doesn’t see any color at this stage of aurora but cameras pull green wavelengths with a long exposure.
Stargaze and be patient if you see a band on the horizon, your aurora chase may yet prove fruitful!
On a different night, the green band began to dance and put on a show at the Knik River Lodge in Palmer, Alaska. The illumination on the lodge was from a passing car and somehow timed perfectly on a 6-second exposure. I don’t think I could have light-painted this better if it was done on purpose!
A strong band on the horizon may in fact mean the aurora is coming your way. I’m still learning the exact science but if you can see a faint band then look for the KP’s Bz to drop negative and she might start seeing dancing across the sky.
Pin this picture on Pinterest by clicking the red save button on the top left. Save it now and keep reading to pick your location when the aurora forecast looks good!
Hatcher Pass, Palmer, Alaska
Hatcher Pass was one of the first places that I went aurora hunting. This mountain vista is great because you can drive most of the way up the mountain to see a vast open sky at the Independence Mine State Historical Park. Mountains block city lights from Anchorage and Palmer giving you a great chance to see the aurora.
In the late summer and fall months, you can drive to the top of the pass along the Hatcher Pass Road (aka Fishook Road.) This is a great scenic drive and can easily turn your northern lights hunt into an all-day and all-night adventure.
Glen Alps Trailhead, Anchorage, Alaska
The Glen Alps Trailhead is my favorite spot that is actually within the Anchorage city limits. You can drive high up into the mountains to get away from the city and see the aurora from the parking lot or head out on the trails. The Overlook Trail is perfect for most aurora hunters and you can see the aurora above downtown Anchorage also giving you a mountain view to the east. I’ve photographed the aurora both above the city and above O’Malley Peak with the rest of the Chugach below. The parking lot can get busy on a strong aurora night so carpooling is a great idea! My favorite photos from the Glen Alps trailhead actually come from further down the trail towards Powerline or Blueberry Hill.
Mount Baldy, Eagle River, Alaska
Mount Baldy has a similar setup to the Glen Alps Trailhead with a great northern viewpoint from the parking lot. It’s just a hair north of Anchorage so you’ll have fewer city lights but the lot is MUCH smaller. I’ve only photographed the aurora from the Mount Baldy parking lot but imagine that you’ll get an excellent view if you hike a short way up the trail. I’ve heard of many car break-ins at this parking lot so don’t leave valuables in the car!
Earthquake Park, Anchorage, Alaska
Earthquake Park has a great northern view along the Knik Arm with a view of downtown Anchorage too. The parking lot has north-facing spots but they fill up quickly if there is a high KP forecast. Avoid lights from passing or parking cars by walking a mile or so down the trail to one of the lookouts.
Point Woronzof, Anchorage, Alaska
Point Woronzof is a popular spot for aurora hunting, especially on a stronger night when the aurora might cover the sky all the way to the west too. The rocky beach provides lots of protection from light pollution but you will have to contend with airplanes flying overhead. Some photographers capture planes with the aurora adding an incredible dimension to each photo, but the long exposure might create long light trails along the plane’s path. The good news is the planes launch at regular intervals and if the aurora is strong you won’t care in the slightest.
Best Place to See Northern Lights in Alaska
There are countless spots to see the Northern lights in Alaska. For many families, the best place is their family cabin. But if you don’t have access to a cabin and you’re excited to see the northern lights, I recommend heading to either Fairbanks or Talkeetna. Just because I didn’t put it on this list of places to see the northern lights in Anchorage doesn’t mean you won’t see the dancing lights. Camping just about anywhere in Alaska will surely provide a beautiful night sky if the conditions are right.
I went on an aurora hunt to Fairbanks on New Years Eve in 2019. The aurora borealis appear in Fairbanks almost every night and can be seen even at a lower KP because of Fairbank’s northern location. Most people will agree that Fairbanks is the best place to see the northern lights in Alaska and my recommendations are to fly to Fairbanks and head to Murphy Dome. Chena Lakes Recreation Area and Chena Hot Springs are some other great places to see the aurora borealis near Fairbanks.
Talkeetna has some incredible aurora shows and is just about the furthest I’m willing to drive from Anchorage to look for the northern lights in a single night. When I first moved here I made the trip up to the Denali lookout on the Talkeetna Spur Road and now I enjoy aurora hunting from the our family cabin on Christiansen Lake.
Talkeetna is far enough north that they have aurora more frequently than Anchorage. The northern lights might come out in Talkeetna at a lower Kp value in addition to having much less light pollution.
This summer, Elizabeth and I got married at the Family Cabin on Christensen Lake! We enjoying taking our nordic skis out for a spin when the lights are out and have had more than one occasion where we arrived and watched the lights while carrying gear or letting the cabin heat up. We’re excited for the aurora to come back this season so we can chase the northern lights as a married couple!
Tips for Photographing the Aurora Borealis in Alaska
Now that you’ve checked the aurora borealis Alaska forecast and figured out where you want to go to see the aurora it’s time to get those camera settings right. Modern phone cameras can capture the aurora but a DSLR like my Nikon is sure to produce a more professional-looking image. Whatever camera you use, you’ll want to test out a few settings in your warm, bright house before you drive out on a cold, dark night.
Best Gear for Photographing the Aurora Borealis
Almost any camera will work! You need to be able to take a long exposure photo. Older Android phones may need to download an app while newer smartphones have a long exposure setting built-in. My iPhone 12 Pro takes great photos and even videos of the aurora but I still prefer to use my Nikon d7500.
Use a tripod. Any tripod will work as long as it is able to keep your camera in one spot for a few seconds. Smartphone tripods are great but be sure that the platform you’re putting it on isn’t moving! Cars are fine as long as you don’t have kids jumping around on the inside.
Best Tripods for photographing the aurora
The best cold weather tripods for the aurora borealis have rotating leg locks instead of snaps. Every moving piece is a spot that risks breaking when temperatures plummet. Professional photographers recommend a cold-weather carbon-fiber tripod that can cost upwards of $1,000 and still might break in extreme cold! I’ve settled for knock-offs that I find on Amazon that are in the $100 dollar range work great. I’m currently using a Neewar and will likely buy another one when it dies.
Best Lenses for Photographing the Aurora
My favorite lens for the aurora is the Tokina f/2.8 11mm-16mm. They make it for Nikon, Canon, and Fuji.
The wider the angle the more night sky you will capture. Wide-angle lenses for DSLR cameras have a low focal length, listed in millimeters (mm). Most standard DSLRs come with an 18mm – 55mm and will do just fine at 18mm. If you are willing to shell out a few hundred dollars then I recommend finding something smaller than 18mm but don’t go past 10mm unless you prefer a fisheye warping the edges of your photo.
Use a lens with a large aperture and low f/stop. The aperture is shown as a fraction with f/2.8 being better than f/3.5 for low light. The lower the number that your camera is displaying, the more light that will come in and the easier it will be for you to photograph the northern lights. My Tokina 11-16 has a f/stop of 2.8. You can find lenses that go down to a f/stop of 2, 1.8, or even 1.4 too.
Best Camera Settings for Aurora Borealis
Now that you have the gear it’s time to check your camera settings and get ready to take a long exposure photo. If you’ve taken any long exposure photos of the stars or other night scenes then you should be ready to go. If you haven’t then I HIGHLY recommend practicing with these settings beforehand. You can check most settings for a long exposure in your room with the lights off but it’s worth finding somewhere to practice manual focusing at night too.
1) Use the manual setting for shutter and aperture.
Set your aperture as low as you can and start with our shutter speed at about 3-5” (3-5 seconds). Your camera likely displays seconds as a quotation mark (“). Your actual aurora photos will probably be taken anywhere in the 1-30” range depending on the aurora’s strength and your camera’s other settings but you’ll keep the aperture low the whole time.
2) Turn off autofocus.
This is usually a simple switch on the lens, camera, or both. Once you are in manual mode, you will want to focus all the way out to infinity ∞. From there each lens has a slightly different sweet spot for perfect focus. Step 6 tells you how to get the perfect focus.
3) Turn OFF Vibration Reduction (VR, VC, OS, IS)
VR is the Nikon version and is common on zoom lenses. Other brands call this vibration correction or image stabilization and not all lenses or cameras have this function. If you have VR, make sure you turn it off or your photos will likely come out blurry.
4) Turn ON exposure delay mode or use a remote.
It might seem trivial but the act of pushing your camera button causes enough vibration that your photo will appear blurry. We solve this problem with an exposure delay mode or by using a remote control to activate your shutter.
5) Set your ISO near it’s maximum to help us set the frame and find our focus.
A general rule of thumb is to keep your ISO below half of your camera’s maximum but the lower the better! ISO is your camera’s (or film’s) sensitivity to light. Increasing the ISO will brighten your photos but add what we call “noise.” Noise appears as off-color pixels or graininess. For example, my camera ISO goes to 51,200 but I try not to use it past 16,000. The highest ISO in any of the photos on this page is 20,000 but most are closer to 2,000. The higher the ISO the lower quality print you will end up with.
6) Find your frame and the perfect focus. Scan the horizon for any neat features like mountains or trees that you want to include. Objects on the landscape should generally take up ⅓ or less of your photo.
7) Set your focus to infinity with a maximum ISO and a shorter shutter speed. Once the photo is taken, zoom in on a single star and use that for reference. Make a slight adjustment to your focus and take another photo. Repeat this step zooming in until your reference star appears as a perfect circle.
12) Now put your ISO down lower and bring your shutter speed up to your desired length. When the aurora is very faint I often shoot at 30 seconds and get a nice starry background. When the aurora is strong I might shoot as short as a second or less. The cover photo for this page was shot at 1.6 seconds with an incredibly bright aurora.
My last piece of advice for aurora chasing is to join the Aurora Borealis Notifications Facebook group! You can talk to other aurora chasers and learn more. Most of what I learned was through trial and error with many suggestions from people in that group.
If the forecast is good and you’re in a cold, remote spot, you might magically have internet and be told when to go outside. You’ll also be able to check the aurora Facebook group to see what time zones before you are seeing to help decide if you should head out on a late drive!
That’s it! Okay, so maybe this guide ended up being longer than either of us planned but I hope you find it helpful. Comment below with any questions or suggestions that you think I should add and feel free to tag me @LiveTravelTeach on any photos you take. I’d love to see what you capture!