The Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights is a phenomenon that almost everyone wants to experience at some point in their lives.
It is usually only visible in the top end of the northern hemisphere, and rarely so to the naked eye any further south. It is however, possible to capture it on camera and many professional and amateur photographers spend hours scouring the forecast for the conditions which will create the perfect photo.
During the recent magnetic activity we took the opportunity to venture out into the cold of the night in the hope of a chance sighting.
When to look for the lights
The best time to view the aurora is generally from late August to mid-April when the sky is darkest however, in Whistler the lights are actually visible year round.
In terms of actually forecasting the lights, luckily there is plenty of warning. The aurora is created by plasma spat out from the sun interacting with the earth’s magnetic field. As the plasma takes 2-5 days to reach the earth, by monitoring the sun’s activity it is possible to know when there is likely to be a sighting.
For monitoring the aurora possibilities near Whistler and Pemberton you can subscribe to updates on the University of Edmonton’s Aurora Watch website, which will provide you with a warning email when chances are high.
However, knowing when activity is strong is just half the battle. Viewing the aurora relies on clear skies, darkness and low light pollution. You must also monitor the night forecast to see when the conditions are perfect.
What to bring
As you won’t be out in summer, you need to really wrap up warm! Photographing the aurora involves a lot of standing around so you are bound to get a little chilly.
A good photo relies on a long exposure so (aside from a camera) you will need a sturdy tripod. It is also worth bringing spare batteries as the cold can quickly drain your power.
Here is a list of things to bring:
- Warm clothes, gloves (fingerless), hat, extra layers
- Food, water, whiskey (optional, but it will help with the cold!)
- Torch (but be sure not to ruin anyone’s shots!)
Taking the perfect photo
So you have all your equipment, the conditions are perfect, now you want to head out and take the perfect photo.
First you need to find a place to go. Luckily Whistler and Pemberton have very low light pollution so any secluded spot where you can look north will work. Many people head to the lakes as they are wide open and create beautiful reflections with the water.
For the photo itself you will have to play around with your camera to find the best settings. Having a good DSLR will help a lot.
Focus: Taking a photo at night means that you must use manual focus as the camera cannot focus itself. In order to get everything focussed properly you should focus to infinity. Some lenses have this marked, but if not you should turn the focus all the way round then back about a millimetre.
Be sure to check the images and tweak it until it is right.
ISO: ISO in digital photography refers to the sensitivity to light of the image sensor. Coupled with the length of exposure this determines what can be seen in your photo. High sensitivity is used for low light, low sensitivity for high light.
For photographing the Northern Lights you should use either 800 or 1600 for the best results.
Exposure: Exposure is the amount of time the shutter is open and the image is exposed to light. The longer the exposure the more light is let in. You should experiment with different lengths of exposure and ISO to see what works best for you.
Aperture: Aperture or the “f-numbers” on your camera is the hole through which light travels. The smaller the f-number the more light is let in. Again, you should experiment with different combinations of aperture, ISO and exposure to see what works best for you.
In general for capturing the aurora somewhere between f/2.8 and f/4 is a good starting point. But be sure to compensate lower f-numbers with shorter exposures.
Focal length: The focal length of your lens determines how much can be seen in the photo. The shorter the length (sometimes referred to as wide angle) the more can be seen. When photographing the aurora you generally want a shorter focal length to capture the most scenery and sky.
So there you have it, now you’re ready to capture the perfect photo. Go out and have fun, but remember to wrap up warm!