New cameras capture northern lights with ease

Photographing the northern lights once was something only people with $5,000 film cameras could do, but things have changed. With film, most people were lucky to come away with a decent photo or two from days spent trying. Early digital equipment also wasn't easy. But today, whether it's a top-of-the-line camera or a point-and-shoot, you can get decent to amazing shots.

And though the northern lights actually are "out" year round, you need a dark sky and stamina, because the best lights seem to come in the wee hours of the coldest mornings, especially in late February and early March. Closer to the North Pole is better, so temperatures likely will be below zero. Be prepared.

Where: Typically you need to travel; mostly within a ring about 1,500 miles from the North Pole (the South too). In North America, this means Fairbanks, Alaska; Churchill, Manitoba; and Yellowknife, Northwest Territories; though during peak solar activity, even the upper American South.

Equipment: You need a camera that lets you open the shutter for at least 30 seconds, or a bulb setting; a way to turn off auto focus, then set your manual focus for infinity; a cable release to trip the shutter; well charged batteries; hand warmers for the batteries, your feet and hands; a sturdy tripod; and a small flashlight.

Clothing: Warm clothing, including long underwear and seriously insulated boots.

Technique: Your ISO (speed of capture) depends on how bright the lights are. But higher ISOs mean more digital noise (such as grain). So try different settings, starting with ISO 400 and going to 3200, if your camera can.

Open your shutter to its widest setting. Start with a 20-second exposure, then more or less as needed. Turn on noise reduction if your camera has it.

Know your camera before you go. At 40 below zero in dead dark, wearing gloves, you forget where everything is on your camera. You need to practice, grope, memorize. Once out there, find something to frame the shot: trees, a building, even people.

And when you go inside, put your camera in plastic or your camera bag to keep condensation off. Then go home and make all your friends jealous.

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