I have decided that between September and February we are going to head to North Dakota. Yes we will leave the warmth and sun of Florida and head to the cold of North Dakota.
Back on the night of May 12 going into May 13 I got bit. Bit with the Aurora Borealis bug that is.
We were visiting my in-laws in Northern Nebraska and I had decided to head out to shoot some astrophotography for the first time. Well I got quite the surprise when I started shooting and discovered I was capturing the Aurora Borealis. It was such a thrilling and exhilarating experience that I have been obsessed with finding the perfect US locations to get even better pictures and time lapses.
So through my searches I have found that North Dakota has some amazing opportunities for capturing the northern lights and I have been putting together a little roadtrip guide to shooting the Northern Lights from North Dakota for myself when we finally roadtrip up there. I thought a few of you might be interested in learning how and where to shoot the Aurora Borealis from North Dakota as well, so I am sharing.
How to Shoot the Aurora Borealis
I am not going to go into too much detail on this as there are MANY sites that can give you specifics on this, but I will go through the basics. Which is enough to get you started on taking amazing night shots with the borealis.
- You need to be in a DARK location. I mean so dark that it is difficult to see your own hands. The darker the better.
- Equipment you will need: Tripod, Shutter Release (or at the very least you will use the 2 second delay setting), a Camera that will allow you to manually set your settings, flashlight or head lamp, a Lens with a wide f stop (best f/1.4 but at least f/2.8)
- You should know the KP readings for the night so you will know if you can capture any of the gorgeous colors of the Northern Lights – http://www.softservenews.com/ & http://www.aurora-service.org/aurora-forecast/ are two good links to watch the forecast – For North Dakota you want KP readings of 4 or higher for some color, a KP5 or higher (Kp5 level is classed as a geomagnetic storm) would be ideal
- Math – Yes you will need math, if you are shooting at night you will need to know how long to leave your shutter open without creating star trails. if you are using a crop sensor, you will need to determine your true focal length first. The Formula: 600 / true focal length = exposure time – True Focal Length of a full frame is the actual length of the lens you are using, but if you are shooting with a crop sensor, like me, then you will need to determine your focal length. For example, if I shoot with a Canon 7D with a has a crop factor of 1.6. If I am shooting with my Tokina 11-16mm lens at 11mm, my true focal length would be 11 x 1.6, which is equivalent to 17.6 field of view on a full frame camera – so I would round up to 18mm an divide that by 600 to find my exposure time of 33 seconds before I would start to see star trails. I typically never shoot longer than 30 seconds though.
- Ideally you want to shoot as wide open as you can when shoot astrophotography. The darker your location the more wide open you want to be. If you are in a location where there is some light pollution, you will want to close your shot up a bit. Play with your settings to get what you need, but anything below a f/8 will close it down too much.
Now that we have the basics covered, let’s discuss the locations in North Dakota that allow for some amazing astro and Aurora Borealis photography.
Based on my research, I have put together a list of places I want to shoot from in order to get cool foregrounds with my northern light and astro images. I think of this list as a roadtrip wish list through North Dakota. My thought would be to spend a night or two in each location shooting the night sky.
1 – Mapleton, ND – Since our roadtrip would bring us into ND from MN, I would drive through Fargo (probably get a hotel there for the family) and head just West of town to Mapleton and set up somewhere near the banks of the River.
One of the things I like about doing a night or two in Fargo is that we can also hit Bonanzaville USA. I think the kiddos would like that and I can do some day time shots as well.
2 – Bismarck, ND – I would head just out of town and shoot near the Missouri River one night and the for a second night I would head north of Bismarck and head to
3 – Washburn, ND – for some daytime shooting and finding a place for the family to spend the night (if we don’t have an RV) so I could head over to
4 – Knife River Indian Villages – Because this is a national park, I can’t do over night shooting in the park, but I would find a nice view point just outside the park that would allow for me to get a great foreground for the night images I want to get
5 – Tolley, ND – or North. I would love to be situated in Tolley or a town North of there with a Kp5 storm. The lights would be in just the right location for some really great over head shots.
6 – Medora, ND: Chateau de Mores State Historical Site – I would end the North Dakota Roadtrip with a two night stay in Medora, ND for shooting the Chateau de Mores State Historical Site at sunrise, sunset and overnight.
I am sure there will be more stops along the way, and other spots I see that will cause me to deter our route, but I figure this is good start for planning a week of night shooting through North Dakota. What do you think?
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