If you have a Nikon camera with a detachable lens but you do not know know the difference between a full frame and crop sensor, chances are you have a Nikon DX or cropped sensor camera. All of these cameras work fine for the aurora and there is not a substantial low light performance gap from the cheapest to the most expensive. Therefor, if you are planning on picking one up, your best value will be in getting an inexpensive DX sensor camera and spend your money on a lens where you can meaningfully improve your low light performance.
Nikon DX Cameras with January 2019 Amazon Pricing
Most of the 3000 and 5000 series cameras come with a kit lens, the 18-55mm F3.5 lens like seen in the photo above. The kit lens can work for the aurora but it is difficult to manually focus in the dark due to no focus markings on the focus ring and it is at best moderately capable for low light. You will have a vastly improved experience and photos by pairing one of the suggested lenses below with your Nikon DX camera.
If you are in the market for a new DX Nikon camera for aurora photography, I would suggest you get the D3500 based on today's prices and pair it with the Tokina 11-16mm F2.8. If that lens is too expensive I would instead sift through the used market and get a Tamron 17-50mm F2.8. If you already have a DX Nikon camera I still suggest the same lens pairings as I did for a new one. Don’t forget to bring a tripod and an extra battery (3000 and 5000 series battery).
The most important etiquette tip for aurora viewing and photography is do not make light. If you make light, make as little as possible, make red light, and be as discreet as possible.
The aurora can be extremely bright and easy to see and at other times it can be at so dim that it is at the edge of detectability to the human eye. Having the best natural night vision that you can have will help you see the northern light more vibrantly when it is bright and make the difference between you seeing it and it being invisible to you when it is on the dim side. Secondly, shining lights is extremely disruptive to night time photography and to people around you and their night vision. Even just looking at your cellphone screen can damage your night vision.
Our eyes have rod and cone light receptors in them. The cones help us see color vision and the rods help us see black and white or night vision. From personal experience it takes at least 10-15 minutes to really get good natural night vision but the science measures increases to our night vision up to a few hours after our eyes are in a very dark environment! It is known that the time this takes increases with age so if you are older it could take even longer. Unfortunately, our eyes adapt to brightness far more rapidly than they do darkness so it will take you far longer to regain your night vision that the time spend looking at light sources like flash lights.. Looking at your smart phone will also have a damaging effect on your night vision as will your cameras LCD screen. It is best to reduce your cameras screen brightness to the minimum possible in part for this reason. Even just looking at your cellphone screen can damage your night vision. We had a tour where a group you three people just couldn't help them selves from looking at their cellphone screens most of the night. The aurora was dim that night and everyone on the tour could see it but the three that constantly looked at their cellphones, it was invisible to them because the looking at their cellphones damaged their night vision just enough. Most night the aurora is brighter than this but you never know just what it might do or how spectacular it may be so it's just best to have your eyes ready.
Our tour is mobile so that we can select the best viewing location for the aurora on any night but there are actually many criteria that go into that and one of them is how well known the area is. Unfortunately a far to large portion of visitors to the Fairbanks area practice terrible aurora viewing etiquette not limited to using bright headlights, leaving them on for long periods of time while parked, shining flashlights all over, using flashes on the camera continuously, etc. Quite frankly it has destroyed the potential of many well known aurora viewing locations near Fairbanks. Rather than attempting to educate everyone we run in to it is far easier to just avoid other people so we intentional go for spots that are unknown and we do not advertise areas we may frequent as to keep them more private and free of localized light pollution.
Photo taken April 9th, 2017.
The hard truth is nobody knows for sure exactly when the best day will be. I've seen breath taking aurora displays during every single month of the season but my favorite time of all is April. Read to the end to find out why.
Within a roughly 3 day time horizon there are some forecasts that are reasonably accurate for predicting the northern lights like NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center's forecast. Beyond that timeline forecasts are all highly inaccurate. Asking what day is going to be the best, weeks or months out, is like asking for advise on which lottery ticket you should buy (except with Fairbanks Aurora Tours odds are stacked in your favor, not against you).
The aurora has a high degree of variation from night to night and ultimately watching it is like fishing, you need to put your line or dip net in the water and be patient. For aurora viewing, that means going outside around solar midnight, away from light pollution, to look and wait. Therefore, the best time to come is anytime between August 21st and April 21st when you have time and the means to. Nobody is getting any younger. Seize the day. Summer nights are too bright to see the aurora, only the moon and Venus can be seen near the summer solstice.
Scientists have identified, in general, that there is better alignment of the polarity of the solar wind with earth's geomagnetic field around the equinoxes. This should result in, on average 20-30%, more induction of the solar wind at that time and a increased chance of active aurora. Therefor, with respect to solar activity alone, the months close to the equinox (that is September, October, March, and April) have better odds of active aurora.
For example, in this scientific article from Geophysical Research Letters, it is stated that "Global geomagnetic activity show a dominant annual variation with equinoctial maxima alternating between Spring ... and Fall."
What about weather patterns?
This is something that people rarely ask about but is far more important than any solar trend. From my perspective the worst weather conditions are that in which it is raining or snowing. Dry is better. Based on the data the driest time of the entire aurora season is from April 11th to April 20th where on average there is 0.00 inches of precipitation! It is also very close to the Spring Equinox, hint hint. Unfortunately there is a pervasive myth that the aurora magically and suddenly disappears April 1st so few travelers come up to enjoy this time. Generally though, as the aurora season progresses the historic average precipitation falls. Our summer is our wet season and August / September catch the tail end of it.
The best time to come is when you are able to August 21- April 21. Should you have the luxury of picking your time and not having it dictated by practice life considerations, I suggest April for the following reasons.
1. It is close to the Spring Equinox when aurora is more likely to be active.
2. It has the driest streak of historical weather during the entire season and as a month is the driest of them all.
3. It is far warmer than the other months (except August and September but they get a lot more precipitation)
4. Since there is a myth that the aurora magically disappears April 1st, far fewer people come to enjoy the lights and due to less demand:
A. Flights are less crowded and cheaper.
B. Hotels are less crowded and cheaper.
5. Lastly, did I mention it is likely to be warmer, dryer, less expensive, less crowded, and have increased odds of active aurora?
Having a base layer of insulation all across your body will greatly aid in keeping you warm and comfortable while out viewing Aurora. You can add this to clothing you already have for additional warmth.
Socks: I suggest a high quality wool sock in addition to your warmest boot.
Snow Pants: This one here can often be found for $15-20, I personalty own a pair and the insulation is light to moderate. For a better insulated and more expensive type look at Columbia's snow pants, they are a bit warmer.
Long Underwear: For the depths of winter wear men's or women's long underwear under your snow pants for extra warmth. For late August and September you could get away with just long underwear and jeans for most nights.
Long Sleeve Wicking Shirt: You will want a quick drying long sleeve shirt for a base layer like this Hanes men's or woman's shirt.
Long Sleeve Warm Shirt: After your base layer when it is very cold you want to wear a shirt with insulation. My favorite is a men's or woman's Woolrich wool shirt, they are very warm. They aren't as warm as wool but a men's flannel or woman's flannel shirt are warm and a lot cheaper.
Insulated Mid-Layer: I personally prefer Columbia's insulated jackets for men. When it is really cold you will need a winter coat outside of this.
Gloves: My strategy for photography is to wear light gloves like this for men or women that I can operate the camera with and put my hands in warm coat pockets the rest of the time.
Hat: You should bring your warmest hat, if you don't have a winter hat and want a relatively inexpensive one look into the trapper hats. No matter what hat you bring getting a good Turtle Fur Fleece will make it that much warmer, it is highly recommended.
Hand warmers are nice to have too.
I hate spending tons of money on equipment for photographing the Northern Lights / Aurora but it is also frustrating when shooting the lights with sub-par equipment. To take the best shots you really need a full frame DSLR camera but even for a great used one with a used lens, you are looking at over $1000 so here is the best sub $1000 option on the market right now.
This camera has a cropped sensor, that is, it is the second best sensor size to have, only falling behind the full frame sensors. This camera has fully manual mode, a must for Aurora shooting, plenty of mega pixels with 24.2, and ISO levels from 100-25,600. It also has the new EXPEED 4 image processor which helps deduce noise and allow for cleaner high ISO shots (important for shooting the Northern Lights).
One of the huge advantages of getting this camera is that lens can be bought that are also compatible with Nikon full frame cameras so when you decide to upgrade you can take your lens with you. Speaking of which, you can buy this camera with the kit lens, and that lens should serve you well for day to day use for about $500 here but check the other sellers because as of writing this you can get the body and kit lens refurbished for under $400, with a variety of used Nikon D3400s for around that price point.
Now here is where things get tricky, you need to get a lens that is compatible with the D3400 but if you want an easy upgrade path, you need one that is also compatible with Nikon's full frames. I would suggest starting with something like the Rokinon 14mm F/2.8 lens. It does several things right, first, it is a wide angle lends at 14mm so you can capture a large portion of the night sky. Next, its aperture gets as large as F/2.8, which is large enough to let in enough light for good Aurora and astrophotography shots. You should be able to pick one up for under $400 and a used/ open box one for about $300.
Don't forget extra batteries, a nice case to protect your investment, and a sturdy tripod, preferable with something that is not metal to hold onto because you can frost bite your hands quickly if you grab on to -40F metal!