Photos: Stunning Northern Lights dance over Seattle — here are tips for catching the next one

Aurora Borealis over the peak of Mount Baker near Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

The Northern Lights are a mesmerizing but infrequent occurrence at our latitude in Seattle. Stargazers got a treat Monday night if they were looking northwards, as a moderate G2 geomagnetic storm from the sun produced a solar flare that pushed the Aurora Borealis southwards to us.

Unlike in the Arctic where the Aurora often fill the sky, this far south they are usually restricted to the horizon in the north. They are also easier to see and photograph when you get away from light pollution in the city.

After checking the NOAA space weather forecast, I ventured out to the North Mountain Lookout in Darrington, Wash., which affords an unobstructed view northwards toward Mount Baker. The clouds rolled in quickly, and I only got a few shots, but the Aurora activity was stunning, with changing patterns clearly visible to the eye. There were even some red Aurora caused by the reaction of solar particles with oxygen at higher altitudes.

Aurora Borealis over the North Mountain Fire Lookout in Darrington, Wash. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)Aurora Borealis over the North Mountain Fire Lookout in Darrington, WA (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Photographers in the city were able to spot the Aurora dancing over the Seattle skyline as well.

With cloud cover in the forecast and diminishing effects of the geomagnetic storm, you’ll have to wait for the next Aurora opportunity in Seattle. For the photographers out there who want to be prepared, here are a few tips for capturing Aurora Borealis.

Check the space weather forecasts from NOAA.
Seek out dark areas away from city light pollution. When the Aurora Borealis reach the lower 48 states, look to the horizon in the north.
Keep your shutter speed fast enough to prevent star trails. Typically this is 20 seconds or less, depending on your focal length and sensor size. When the Aurora are “dancing,” with lots of visible movement, use faster shutter speeds of 3-to-5 seconds for better definition in the lights. At these shutter speeds, a tripod is a requirement.
If you are photographing very bright Aurora, pay attention to your histogram and make sure that you do not blow out the bright green colors by lowering your exposure settings. Last night’s Aurora were moderate in brightness but they can be surprisingly bright, and typical settings for capturing stars will be too bright.
Use your camera to see and locate very faint Aurora. There are times when the Aurora appear as a light haze to your eyes. Digital cameras capture the night sky better than your eyes and you can often detect the faintest Aurora by taking test shots with your camera or even your phone.

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