“You are booked for the Aurora Tour tonight. We will pick you up between 9:45 and 10 p. m.” read the confirmation email from earlier today. I am dressed as warmly as possible, but – 19 C translates to – 29 C with the windchill, an unrealistic temperature when only two weeks earlier I was walking the Santa Cruz Beach barefoot watching pelicans soar over my head. It is nearly 10 p. m. and, knapsack with camera and tripod slung over my shoulder, I am standing outside my apartment building looking for… I don’t really know what I am looking for. The online booking with Beck’s Kennels was simple and quick, but nowhere did it provide the information on who might pick me up and what vehicle to look out for.
There is no real traffic on a Saturday night in Yellowknife at that hour. I see two headlights coming toward me. A white mid-size bus that has seen better days stops. “Hi. Anna?” a young Japanese woman emerges with a list in her hand. “Hi, yes I’m Anna.” She waves me onto the bus. It is dark and we are moving before I can squeeze myself between two bodies and claim a seat.
Dark silhouettes outlining faceless bodies of various heights occupy the benches. The quiet conversations are muffled. The street lights illuminate the occupants. I recognize Asian features and suddenly realize that the conversations were in Japanese.
“Hi there,” to my right a female voice with Australian accent addresses me. We engage in idle chatter. Jane is here with her husband to explore the Northern Lights and take a few pictures. The bus is traveling toward the outskirts of city when suddenly we turn down a lane and stop at a small building. We are asked to disembark and enter the addition via a deck. I find myself in a room lined with hooks and coat racks filled with Canada Goose parkas, snow pants, boots, mittens and hats.
“You can rent warm clothes here. $ 20 a night. Please have your credit card ready.” I make my decision without hesitation. Only a few short minutes in the cold earlier informed me that I need a warm jacket and wind proof pants to augment my boots, mittens and hat from home. Not everyone from the bus takes advantage of this wardrobe augmentation. The young Japanese women and men decide that skin tight jeans and little bomber jackets will keep the cold at bay. I was this young once…
We board the bus once more and within minutes we are in the countryside without light pollution. Less than fifteen minutes we pull off the highway and park our bus next to an identical model. Everyone spills from the bus and blends with more Japanese tourists. I count thirty and then there is Jane, her husband and me. The driver points to an extra long Atco trailer adjacent to the parking space. “This is where you can warm up. We have soup, hot chocolate, cookies and bannock for you. The back of the trailer has the toilets. We leave here at 2:30. Make sure you are on the bus!” He turns and enters the trailer.
It is dark and there are no guidelines as to where the best part might be to set up a my camera. “I am here now. I might as well set up and see if the Aurora predictions are true.” goes through my mind. I carefully make my way across the undulating terrain. Australian voices following me, asking for hints on photography and wondering what to look for in the sky.” I set up my camera on the tripod and wish I had invested in the wide-angle lens on my wish list.
I look up. The sky appears overcast and mysteriously illuminated from behind the cloud cover. A test image confirms my suspicion of Aurora activity behind the cloud cover. All we need now is time, patience and the clouds to move out of the way.
My Australian companions are looking for color in the sky.
“There is nothing! The woman at the hotel front desk told us we would see green and red tonight.”
I pull up my test image on the camera and the sky is green.
“How did you do that?”
I provide detailed background information on how I I adjusted my camera settings but quickly realize that the point-and-shoot model this couple carries does not have a manual option.
They soon grow cold and look for shelter and hot chocolate. I see flash firing near the trailer and smile. Flash photographers are everywhere, even up here in the middle of nowhere trying to capture the Northern Lights.
The sky is changing as I assess my environment. I turn my attention to my camera and the ever-changing sky. It is midnight and the cold is hardly noticeable. The show begins…
Did you like the slideshow of forty-nine images above? Interested in trying this yourself? Here are a few basic pointers on how to capture the Aurora Borealis with your camera.
I have captured Aurora images closer to home. The images here will be difficult to imitate, depending on where you live. I was in Yellowknife in mid-November 2013 and was treated to this spectacular show.
A word on Aurora Tours: When visiting Yellowknife, make sure to compare your tour options. My suggestion is to check with the Northern Frontier Visitor Center. A white board conveniently located in the entrance of the center lists various companies that offer anything from Aurora to dog sled tours. I booked mine via the internet and must say I was not impressed. The tour was relatively expensive ($ 120 for about 4 hours of viewing plus $ 20 for jacket and pant rental). I expected a little guidance as to where to set up and how far we could venture on the property. It was not provided or easily obtained as the guides and drivers were busy cooking soup, hot chocolate, and bannock.
In retrospect, inquire if you can borrow a car (by yourself or with friends) and head out of town. The landscape is vast, and no matter where you set up your camera you don’t have to worry about light pollution from the city and car traffic.
And now to the camera info: Ensure your camera is firmly set on a tripod, or a stable surface, such as a table or flat rock. Your camera must have a manual option. Use the widest angle lens you own. Familiarize yourself with the camera so you can turn dials and push buttons in the dark. Carry a small flashlight in case you are not sure of your camera knowledge. This flashlight will also help in illuminating the path you walk on.
Set the Aperture anywhere between f/4 and f/8. I(f you have a faster lens, open the aperture and try f/2.8 to f3.5)
Set your ISO anywhere from 200 – 800. Higher numbers may result in digital noise.
With your camera on “manual” turn the exposure dial to long exposure times. Try to take test images on 15 sec., 20 sec., 25 sec. and 30 second exposures. If your camera has a build setting, try this and time several images for 31 seconds to several minutes. Decide which result you like best. Each camera will capture light differently – experimentation is key.
Another little hint: Bring a second battery (fully charged) and ensure you have plenty of memory on your SD card. It might be a good idea to invest in an external shutter release to avoid camera/lens shake.
The images in the slideshow today were taken with a Nikon D600 with Sigma 24 – 70 mm lens (set to 24 mm and focused on infinity), ISO 400, f/2.8, in bulb setting and timed anywhere from 31 to 90 seconds. I used an external shutter release.