Aurora chasing with MPR News

MPR News Photojournalist Ben Hovland searches for northern lights

The northern lights appear over a lake
The aurora is seen over Graces Lake in Wilma Township, Minn. on July 22.
Courtesy of Ben Hovland

The aurora borealis is high on my list of the most fabled natural phenomenon you can witness in Minnesota. Seasoned outdoors people may casually recall seeing the northern lights during a trip to the Boundary Waters, but for many, catching a glimpse can be a challenging task. 

I love the chase. As a new photojournalist at MPR News, one of my goals is to share my love for the state’s natural wonders. A potent solar storm is forecast to crash into the Earth Wednesday and there is significant potential for aurora displays to be seen as far south as Iowa.

MPR News editor Andrew Krueger is an experienced aurora-chaser (and excellent photographer in his own right). He shared some terrific advice on how to spot the northern lights in 2019

Here are Andrew’s main tips:

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  • Identify a few trusted sources who can provide alerts when auroras are possible

  • Do some scouting in advance for north-facing locations away from bright lights

  • Check the weather conditions

  • Get out there!

He also stresses that the aurora is notoriously hard to predict. 

Tonight, I’m gearing up to chase the aurora in southern Minnesota. I’ll walk you through my preparations, the equipment I’m bringing and what sources I use to pinpoint my target chase area.

First, and not to be too self-referential here, Andrew is one of the sources that tipped me off to the upcoming aurora display potential. Here’s a tweet he shared yesterday:

Knowing rain has been in the forecast for most of the week, I used the weather models at Pivotal Weather to check for potential cloud cover. Here’s a look at the forecast cloud cover at 11 p.m. tonight based on the HRRR’s modeling.

A forecast display of future cloud cover over the midwest
This screenshot from Pivotal Weather shows the forecast cloud cover over Minnesota at 11pm on Wednesday.
HRRR via Pivotal Weather

Now that I know where I can go to (hopefully) avoid clouds, I pull up the Dark Site Finder website and cross-reference the darkest locations displayed on the map. This helps me locate a spot with the least amounts of light pollution from nearby towns. 

Lastly, here’s a quick breakdown of the primary camera gear I’m using:

  • Canon EOS R6: a full frame mirrorless digital camera.

  • Canon 16-35mm f/2.8 lens: a wide angle-of-view helps capture as much of the sky as possible. 

  • Benro tripod: This tripod has a hook at the base to attach a weight, which helps keep the entire setup stable.

Generally, I set my exposure to keep the shutter speed as short as possible. This means opening up the aperture and raising the ISO, or digital sensitivity. 

I find that shorter exposures help freeze the transient features of the aurora — the pillars, rays, and sweeping arcs. Longer exposures tend to blur the lights together into an amorphous blob of color.

For the July aurora display, I used the following settings: lens set to 16mm, aperture at f/2.8, ISO 6400, and a 6” shutter speed.

In addition to the camera equipment, I also make sure to pack a headlight, bugspray, warm layers, camp chair and a notebook for recording exposure settings. 

Not convinced you’re ready to photograph the aurora on your own? You can follow me on Twitter as I document my chase — but remember, a forecasted display isn’t a certainty! It takes planning, diligence, and luck to catch a glimpse of the magical lights.