It’s the darkest time of year in Alaska, which means plenty of hours for aurora hunting, weather permitting of course.
And among those night owls who cast their gaze skyward every night is professional aurora photographer Todd Salat.
Salat has spent many winters with most people’s reversed schedules, waking up at night hoping to see the green, purple, or even red Northern Lights on the horizon.
Salat says what had been an amateur’s passion for aurora photography turned into real work 25 years ago.
The following transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.
Todd salat: So I was moonlighting as an aurora hunter, while staying awake all night, then falling asleep for a few hours, then going to my day job, looking for oil. And I have enjoyed my time as a geologist immensely. But then, what happens in the oil industry, sometimes you have layoff sessions and boom and bust cycles, and that’s when I decided to take the plunge. not, and I quit my day job. I traveled the world for a year, grew my hair out, then in ’97 I came back as a full time Aurora hunter.
Casey grove: How is it really? I mean, what does it look like to you day in and day out? I guess I should say night after night. How do you approach it? You know, how do you get these shots?
ST: It’s a lifestyle, I have to say. I can’t go to bed before 3 or 4 in the morning, I can try. But I’m going to lie there awake. So I just watch every night of my life. I look north. And, you know, check the weather. See if we have a clear day on Earth. And then I have to be a little more careful, especially if I’m here in town in Anchorage, it’s a lot more difficult when I’m in town. But when I’m out there hunting for the aurora, I have a camper van, a pop-up camper van on top of my truck. And then I’m just totally in the zone. I follow the rhythm of nature, if you will. So I just live with the stars and the moon and the mountains, and the lighting and the weather. And this is my favorite place. But in the end, I always say, you have to have your eyes on the sky to really see and experience the Northern Lights. You got to see a little green bunch come in, you know, maybe it’s 11 o’clock or midnight, and then watch it all night. Because it is the aurora that sometimes arrives with such a burst that if you are not at the top, you can just miss the awe-inspiring moment of the night, which can only last 15 minutes.
CG: How is aurora photography technically different from other types of photography?
ST: It is essential to have a tripod. So it’s not really a point and shoot. Although nowadays with smartphones you can get a pretty decent photo just with a handheld, you know, and in night mode. But when you zoom this image beyond an 8×10 print, it can probably get noisy or grainy. So having a tripod is essential, so I always switch to manual mode on my camera. So I can set my iris and aperture pretty close to the large aperture, which means I want as much light as possible to pass through my lens. Then I’m going to raise the ISO on my digital camera, you know 10, 15 years ago I went from film to digital. So these days I’m going to crank up my ISO to 1600, maybe even 3200, which is a very sensitive sensor for recording auroras. And then the third main ingredient has an exposure time of several seconds. If the aurora is really bright, it might be a one or two second exposure, if the moon is off, but if there is no moon and the aurora is weak, you can do a 15 second exposure and just let that light burn on your camera. So it’s a great experience and going digital these days where you can look at the back of your camera and see if the auroras are preserved, captured, recorded with your camera, that’s great feedback. instant information. And then you just have to make all your adjustments to make everything perfect, you know that.
CG: Something I wanted to ask you, because we’ve asked a lot of people in recent years, has the pandemic affected your work?
ST: The fun part of being an aurora hunter, in the middle of the night, IS social distancing is literally my forte. I would go out for a week and not talk to anyone, have a good year. So you know I pull up at a gas station in the middle of the night and then go on and see no one for days. Now, the summer markets of last year, the Anchorage market and the festival that was going on downtown, you know, it took a hell of a beating because it just wasn’t happening. But then, during the vacation of last year, people started to get used to wearing their, you know, the masks and things, which was mandatory in the mall back then. And we had one of the best holiday periods last year, Christmas 2020, in 10 years. So it was mind blowing, the way people came out of the woods and supported us. It was instructive. In this way of life where you are self-employed, and as I like to say, you start every day with a goose egg, it’s very rewarding.