Aurora Viewing Etiquette
The most important etiquette tip for aurora viewing and photography is do not make light. If you must make some 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 than the time spent 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 of three people just couldn't help themselves 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 looking at their cellphones damaged their night vision just enough. Most nights the aurora is brighter than this but you never know just what it might do or how spectacular it may be. It's best to have your eyes ready for whatever might occur.
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 this. One of them is how well known the area is. Unfortunately, a fare 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 on this issue, it is far easier to avoid other people and their localized light pollution. 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.
Aaron Lojewski is a long time Fairbanks resident, Tour Guide, and Aurora / Northern Lights photographer.