It’s the darkest time of the year in Alaska. This, of course, means enough time to hunt aurora if the weather is nice.
And among the night owls who look to heaven every night is the professional aurora photographer Todd Salat.
Sarah spent a lot of winter on the opposite schedule from most people and woke up at night hoping to get a glimpse of the green, purple, and even red of the northern lights on the horizon.
Sarah says that what was an amateur’s passion for aurora photography became a real job 25 years ago.
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The following transcript has been slightly edited for clarity.
Todd Salat: So I was in the moonlight as an aurora hunter. During that time, I stayed up all night, fell asleep for a few hours, then went to work during my day and was looking for oil. And I really enjoyed my time as a geologist. However, the oil industry can experience layoff sessions, booms, and bust cycles. At that time, I took the plunge and quit my job. I traveled the world for a year, grew my hair and returned in 1997 as a full-time aurora hunter.
Casey Gloves: How is it actually? So what does this look like to you every day? I think I should call it a night out. How would you approach it? How do you take these shots?
TS: It’s a lifestyle, I would have to say. I can’t sleep until 3 or 4 am. But I just get up and lie there. So I only see every night of my life. Looking north. And check the weather, you know. Check if the weather on the earth is sunny. And I need to pay a little more attention. Especially if I’m here in the town of Anchorage, it’s much more difficult when I’m in town. But when I’m there, when I’m hunting for aurora, I have a camper, a pop-up camper on my truck. And I’m completely in the zone. If you do, I’m in a natural rhythm. So I just live with the stars, the moon and the mountains, and the lights and the weather. And that’s my favorite place. But after all, to actually see and experience the aurora, you need to look at the sky. I could see a small green band coming in. Perhaps it’s 11 pm or midnight. And watch it all night. They are aurora borealis, so if you’re not on it, you can miss the spectacular moments of the night that may last only 15 minutes.
CG: How are Aurora photos technically different from other types of photos?
TS: It is important to have a tripod. So it’s not really autofocus. That said, modern smartphones can take pretty decent shots with just the handheld and night mode. However, if you try to blow the photo beyond anything other than an 8×10 print, it can be noisy or grainy. Therefore, it is important to use a tripod. In that case, the camera will always be in manual mode. Therefore, the F stop and aperture can be brought very close to full throttle. That is, allow as much light as possible to pass through the lens. Next, raise the ISO of the digital camera. Ten or fifteen years ago, I moved from film to digital. Therefore, these days, we raise the ISO to 1600, and in some cases 3200, and use a very sensitive sensor to record the aurora. And the third main component is to have an exposure time of a few seconds. If the aurora is really bright, it could be a 1-2 second exposure if the moon is out, but if there is no moon and the aurora is dark, just do a 15 second exposure and burn the light. To your camera. So this is a big experiment, and it’s been digitized these days, and you can look at the back of the camera to see if the aurora is saved, captured, or recorded by the camera. This is great feedback. And you need to make all your adjustments to make it known, just right.
CG: I’ve been asking a lot of people over the last few years, so one of the things I wanted to ask you was, did the pandemic affect your work?
TS: The good thing about being an Aurora Hunter is that at midnight, social distance is literally my specialty. In a good year, I went out for a week and didn’t talk to anyone. So, you know, I pull to a gas station at midnight and then continue to see no one for days. Well, last summer’s market, the Anchorage Market and Festival in downtown at the time, was pretty badly hit because it wasn’t happening. However, last year’s holiday, people began to get used to wearing the masks that were required at the mall at the time. And last year was Christmas 2020, one of the best holiday seasons of the decade. So the way people came out of woodwork and supported us was great. It was enlightening, in this lifestyle where you are self-employed, and because I want to say you start with goose eggs every day, it’s very rewarding.