The Great One, as Denali is known to Alaska Natives, often hides behind a patchwork of clouds — Denali National Park estimates that only one in three visitors to Alaska see the peak fully on their trip. The mountain’s only local rival in terms of rarity and showstopping beauty is the northern lights, the astronomical occurrence that causes a cavalcade of colors to pirouette across the night sky near Earth's polar regions.
I’ve been a card-carrying Alaskan for nearly six years and have seen Denali hundreds of times. However, I can count the number of times I’ve borne witness to the northern lights, more properly known as the aurora borealis, on one hand. They’re so elusive it’s almost mythical, particularly if, as I do, you dwell in Anchorage, a city just a bit too far south and entirely too bright. On the few occasions I did see the aurora, the photo evidence looked more like a spectral fog than ribbons of luminescence.
Talkeetna, though, is known for having impressive aurora displays on nights as clear as this one. It sits on the southern edge of the auroral oval, which is a band hugging the northernmost latitudes where the aurora is most common. According to the tourism board of Fairbanks, visitors have a 90 percent chance of catching at least a glimpse of the northern lights as long as they stay a minimum of three nights within the auroral oval, it’s not cloudy and there isn’t light pollution at their chosen viewing spot.
Not only do I have a promising location, I have a secret weapon to aid me on my quest: Dora Redman, a professional photographer who offers lessons in capturing the lights.
Full of optimism, I bounce into Redman’s log cabin studio just after 10 p.m. that January night only to be immediately brought up short.
“We’re not going to see the aurora borealis tonight,” Redman says matter-of-factly. She pulls out her phone and cycles through auroral apps that all say the same thing: “probability: 0 percent.” Though the sky might be clear, there’s no solar activity happening.
But all is not lost, Redman assures me. “Don’t worry,” she says. “We can make our own lights. And, more importantly, you will learn.”
Redman is one of the 49th state’s best-known northern lights photographers, having dedicated the past 20 years to chasing the aurora.
“There’s just so much that goes into capturing a single trophy aurora image. It’s challenging being out in the cold and getting the exposure, composition and focus just right,” said Michael Shaw, astrophotographer, author and host of the annual Aurora Summit workshop. “The fact that she’s been able to build the portfolio that she has is really just incredibly impressive.”
One of Redman’s photos of the northern lights above Denali was featured in Shaw’s book “The Complete Guide to Landscape Astrophotography.”
“Her work is just spectacular,” Shaw said, adding that because Redman has been involved in northern lights photography for so long, she’s often credited as “one of the pioneers of aurora photography, especially in Alaska.”
Originally from Sao Paulo, Brazil, Redman had never even heard of the aurora borealis before moving to the small Alaskan town in the spring of 2001. All summer long, her new neighbors trumpeted the beauty of a phenomenon she couldn’t wrap her head around, telling her: “Just wait.” When she finally saw the cosmic show, with undulating streamers of emerald, fuchsia and violet shimmering across the ether, she was awestruck.
“I just fell in love,” said Redman, 57. “And I decided I needed to share it.” The relationship that brought her to Alaska didn’t last, but the lights convinced her to stay.
Though Redman had worked as a fashion photographer in Brazil, she hadn’t done much night photography. She taught herself to capture the elusive lights, first on film and then on a digital camera, landing her work in countless homes and multiple publications, such as Nature Photographer Magazine and NASA.com. More recently, she has devoted herself to teaching others how to snap celestial photos of their own, holding a number of workshops each winter.
Michigan resident Johnny Laws has been one of her students. Because he wanted to make sure he didn’t squander any opportunity to capture the astral illuminations, he booked three nights with Redman a couple of winters ago.
“It was really wonderful. She helped me maximize what that camera could do in a way that was totally unexpected,” Laws said, adding that 15 minutes after being taken to one of Redman’s favorite spots, he had his “very first photo of a lovely green aurora amid the stars in an Alaska sky.”
“She gives a lot of attention to detail, making sure you really understand everything about the auroras,” said Xanthoula “Cindy” Nafpliotis who visited Alaska from Florida last fall.
Though she wasn’t able to catch the lights, she learned how to shoot at night and hopes to return in 2023 to try again. In the meantime, she has six of Redman’s prints hanging in her home to serve as inspiration.
Redman’s lessons often begin with an education on the science behind the multicolored, swirling opus. Simply put, auroras start when solar storms send electrically charged protons and electrons toward Earth on a solar wind. When that wind hits our planet's magnetic shield, it’s attracted to the poles, which excites the gases in our atmosphere. The mixing of charged particles and gases causes the light display (when the lights are visible in the southern hemisphere, they’re called aurora australis). The oxygen in the atmosphere gives off more green and red colors, while the nitrogen glows blue and purple. This same phenomenon is at work in neon signs, which are tubes of gases such as neon, helium and argon. When electricity flows through the tubes it excites the gases, causing them to emit a bright glow. Different gases produce different colors.
There’s no pattern for the aurora, and the magnitude varies. Scientists measure the general likelihood of visibility on a scale of zero to nine known as the Kp Index, based on measurement of geomagnetic activity. As the number rises, the swath of the hemisphere that could potentially see the aurora increases. The scale slides hour by hour. On the day of our class, the Kp Index had gotten up to a solid five, but that was at midday when there was no chance of seeing the lights. By the time it was dark, the index had taken a hard left.
Statistically, that number is higher near the fall and spring equinoxes. There is also an 11-year cycle that traditionally has predicted when the lights are at their most active: They’re more riotous in the years closest to solar maximum, when solar activity is at its peak and sunspots are at their most abundant, and more languorous during the years surrounding solar minimum.
“You just wait, in two years it’s going to be ‘wow,’ ” Redman said.
But much like it’s impossible to predict the exact moment it’s going to start raining, it’s just not possible to anticipate what time the northern lights will ignite Earth’s upper atmosphere or how long the kaleidoscopic display will last, even if there is a high probability of a showing. Often, it’s a waiting game.
This winter, all classes are private, masked and socially distant, so I was the only disappointed student in attendance. On off nights, such as this, Redman puts on a one-woman spectacle crafting her own northern lights with several flexible aurora-hued LED light ropes that might be otherwise used as party decorations.
After walking students through the finer points of shutter speed, aperture and ISO (and how those functions relate to one another), Redman has her pupils practice photographing her faux lights.
At an overlook a few miles outside of town, Redman pulls two cords of LED lights, one green and one purple, from her bag. Standing before the camera, she alternately whips the wires overhead like a lasso and then rotates them like she’s playing a solo game of double Dutch.
It looks silly, so as I push the shutter, I anticipate being left with a photo of a snowsuit- clad wannabe rhythmic gymnast performing on a snow pile. Instead, during the 15-second exposure, the camera only picked up, and subsequently froze, the light trails, leaving a shot of innumerable green and purple ribbons snaking through a field of stars. It looks deceptively like the real deal.
The long exposure, Redman explains, is the same process as shooting the real, always moving, northern lights. If you can capture one, you can capture the other. You just need to know the right settings.
So even if the ethereal fête doesn’t come into focus during her course, she has given her guests the tools they will need to do night photography down the road.
“I’m teaching how to photograph in low light, how to capture the stars, how to capture a night cityscape,” Redman said. “I try to give a broad aspect, because . . . they will have other opportunities to shoot at night.”
And they’ve taken those opportunities. Since starting her classes, Redman has received myriad emailed images from her students. Some indeed are radiant beams strewn across the sky elsewhere in Alaska, but others depict hometown skylines or star trails in their own backyards. When Laws shoots a particularly good picture of a super moon or the Milky Way, he makes sure to tag her if he posts it on social media.
It’s almost 2 a.m. when we retreat to the mercifully heated seats of Redman’s car. My memory card isn’t full of the galactic majesty of the northern lights, but my notepad is crammed with tips about how to capture them, and I feel newfound confidence in my ability to photograph the stellar show down the road.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC's travel health notice webpage.
If you go
22229 Talkeetna Spur Rd., Talkeetna
The Aurora Dora gallery is open daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. May to September, and 1 to 6 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday from October to April. Northern lights photography courses generally run from October to April, with some exception. Private classes are three to four hours long and cost $400 per person.
Tips for capturing
the northern lights
1. Go hunting on a night when the sky is clear of clouds and the Kp Index is at least a four or five. Download an app such as Aurora Forecast. (period included) or Northern Light Aurora Forecast to get a better idea of the probability of seeing the aurora. The Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks operates a 27-day aurora forecast online.
2. Set the ISO on your camera somewhere between 800 and 3200; play around with it until test photos don’t look overexposed. Then set your aperture, or f-stop, as wide as possible (Remember: the lower the number, the larger the opening). This lets the most possible light into your camera. Also make sure to set your shutter speed for between 10 to 30 seconds (shorter if the lights are moving fast, longer if they’re moving slowly) for a long exposure. Don’t forget to turn off your flash.
3. Any little movement will cause the photo to be blurry, so invest in a sturdy tripod heavy enough to stand tall in the elements. A remote trigger also helps reduce jiggling, because you don’t need to press the shutter.
4. Have patience and wear layers.