By Naomi Witherick
If you live below a certain latitude, seeing the Northern Lights can be a once in a lifetime experience. No matter where you discover them, those dancing green streaks are awesome. But witnessing them in Canadian Rockies – where majestic snow-capped peaks and frozen lakes lie in the foreground – is the most incredible experience of all.
And though it’s easy to lose yourself in their beauty, make a point of taking some epic photos. It’s the best way to keep the memory alive and will make for some impressive wall art when you get home.
Capturing the perfect shot of the Aurora Borealis isn’t easy, but here are some tips to help even amateurs get the best snaps possible. Cameras at the ready…
Check the Forecast
You’ll need clear skies and high aurora activity for the best chance of seeing and shooting the Northern Lights. So, start by checking the forecasts.
Apps like My Aurora Forecast and Aurora Alerts Northern Lights provide details of the Kp-index (the level of geomagnetic activity in the sky) and predict the likelihood of the lights being visible in the week ahead. Cloud coverage needs to be less than 20 per cent at peak viewing time (usually after midnight) for the best photos.
It’s a good idea to check the forecasts at the start of your vacation. That way you can plan your trip around possible sightings and schedule an unforgettable nighttime photoshoot.
Pick a Location
Jasper’s Dark Sky Preserve means there are loads of places free from light pollution that are ideal for Aurora-watching. Choose from Maligne Lake, Medicine Lake or Pyramid Lake where you can stroll across the snowy boardwalk to Pyramid Island.
In Banff, go to Vermillion Lakes for an iconic shot of Mount Rundle in the foreground. Or drive the Minnewanka Loop, stopping at Two Jack Lake and Lake Minnewanka. Spray Lakes in Canmore is a prime spot, too.
Get the Gear Right
For the best photos, you’ll need a digital SLR camera with a manual setting and a wide lens, if possible. Avoid blur with a sturdy tripod that will stay still on uneven ground for up to 30 seconds. Also, pack a red headlamp if you have one; the soft light won’t burn out your vision between shots, keeping your eyes adjusted to the dark conditions.
Time to Focus
Your camera will need to be focused at infinity to pick up the details in the Northern Lights’ streaks. It’s easier to set this during the day by focusing on a distant point on the horizon with an aperture of f/8 or f/11. Mark the barrel and rotating part of the lens so it’s easy to find again that night, and position stars at the centre of your lens for the sharpest outcome.
Set for the Shoot
Shoot in RAW mode. This will ensure your images have the largest amount of data possible, which is better for editing at a later stage. Set the metering mode to ‘evaluative metering’ and use an aperture of f/2.8 (f/3.5 or f/4 should work too) for a large depth of field that captures detail. Choose a shutter speed of five to seven seconds if the Aurora is moving quickly, and 10 to 30 seconds if it’s moving slowly. And start with an ISO of 800, increasing gradually until the image is bright enough and the lights, stars and other details are clear.
Try, and Try Again
Take a test shot and examine the outcome. If the image is too dark, gradually elongate the exposure and increase the ISO until the Aurora and surrounding scenery are nicely illuminated. If the Aurora looks over-exposed, reduce the ISO until it has clearer detail and colour.
Shop for Shots
Photos still not turning out well? Enjoy the moment. You can always buy prints from the professionals at photography and gift shops in Canmore, Banff and Jasper; the perfect way to remember the awesome beauty of the Northern Lights in the Canadian Rockies.