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Tips for photographing the aurora

By KTVA CBS 11 News 6:46 AM December 12, 2013

Alaskan photographer Dave Parkhurst offers advice on how to capture the northern lights.

ANCHORAGE – Have you tried — unsucessfully — to take a picture of the aurora with your iPhone or iPad?

Dave Parkhurst is an Alaskan photographer who has spent his life capturing one of nature’s best light shows.

On Thursday, he was a guest on KTVA 11’s Daybreak and offered tips on how to photograph the aurora.

1)   Safety first. Parkhurst said it’s the most obvious tip he must insist on. He said just getting a shot is not worth frostbite or possibly losing a body part. “I’ve been out under the stars in some dangerously serious sub-zero temps over the decades and ultimately the rule is safety first,” Parkhurst said.

2)   Films cameras still work. “When I first began chasing aurora in 1980, I shot slow-speed, high resolution 35mm films,” Parkhurst said. “Manual film cameras were and are still tough as nails and endured the extreme cold very well.” He said the cameras could be extremely cold for hours and still shoot.

3)   Pamper your digital camera equipment. The cold is hard on digital cameras, laptops, cell phones and tablets, according to Parkhurst.  “I’ve seen digital displays completely freeze up, “ he said. “I couldn’t see what the camera settings were or do anything internally. It was time to find some warmth.”

Also, going digital means being dependent on batteries. Parkhurst recommends bringing many batteries or a power pack.

4)   Little post-processing. “All digital images require some post-processing. Sadly, the majority of digital photographers out there over-process their images,” he said.  “It renders them unrealistic to what the eye actually saw.” Parkhurst said the smaller the amount of post-processing, the closer the picture is to what the eye actually saw.

5)   Don’t be fooled by the aurora forecast.  “The aurora forecast has a far lower success rate than the Alaska weather forecasts,” he said. “The aurora occurs anywhere around the world when it decides to occur. There is no scheduled time or set date.”

6)   Dress smart. Parkhurst recommends dressing in layers, have inside pockets and wear good insulated footwear with dry socks. He said don’t wear tennis shoes, cotton socks, jeans, t-shirts or thin coats. He also stressed protecting the head with a hat and hands with gloves.

7)   Stay hydrated without alcohol and eat. “You are burning more energy than you think being out in the cold, especially in sub-zero temps,” he said. “Bring a thermos of hot tea or coffee, as warm liquids can often take the edge off the cold and warm your core.”

8)   Be alert. Parkhurst said to watch out for wildlife — especially moose — in the winter. “A moose that is stressed from searching for  food and surviving in the deep snow is not something you want to cross paths to struggle with,” he said.

9)   Experiment and enjoy. Parkhurst suggests to experiment with your camera under many different settings.  “Remember the aurora is a fast-moving, constantly brightening and dimming source of light that is 60 to 200 miles above the earth in differing spectrums, “ he said. “So experimenting with a variety of exposures will teach you to become comfortable with your equipment.”

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