Northern Lights Saskatchewan – preparing to photograph

Northern Lights Saskatchewan (part 1)

We all know that the Northern Lights (aurora borealis) are best viewed from some of the Northern most areas in the world but did you know that Northern Lights can be seen in Saskatchewan? As I have worked towards mastering (loosely stated) the fine art of photographing the Northern Lights, I soon realized that I could work on this skill right here at home.  I have always been amazed by some of the beautiful shots I have seen from Norway, Iceland, Yukon and the North West Territories but I knew that the odds of travelling to some of these remote locations would be slim.  Instead I started spending more time researching information about Northern Lights in Saskatchewan and found a lot of good information on the internet.  Luck has it the Canadian government website has some awesome information, predictions, measurements forecasting and those great cameras that they use to watch the aurora live!  All you have to do is spend a little time seeking out information and you can become better at “chasing the aurora”. My first attempts at photographing the Northern Lights in Saskatchewan were . . . let’s just say “not great” but as I practiced more, I was able to get the right settings on my camera for what I was trying to accomplish.

Things I have learned (the essentials):

  •  Northern Lights are best photographed away from ambient light.  What this means is get away from city lights.  Here in Saskatchewan, there are many places to photograph the Northern Lights and we even have some designated “Dark Sky Preserves”.  Grasslands National Park and Cypress Hills, Saskatchewan are two places that are considered “Dark Sky Preserves” (these are both in the Southern part of the province). I prefer to travel North in the province to photograph the Northern Lights.
  • Hope for clear skies – if there is cloud cover, fog or haze, chances are your photographs are not going to turn out the best.  One thing I have learned is a Winter sky is often the most clear.  In the Summer you could be dealing with haze that is created from the warmth on the ground and the temperature dropping in the evening.  You will definitely notice this in your photographs.  The closer the temperature is to the dew point, the greater the chance of fog or haze.
  • You need to have a lot of patience.  The Northern Lights’ strength or brilliance changes and the patterns change as you view them, they are not static.  The activity can be greater in one location of the sky for a few minutes and then they will shift/move, they will intensify and then dissipate.  There have been times when we have watched the “dance of the lights” without photographing them.  During a strong geomagnetic storm the movement can be dizzying.
  • Be prepared.  It is always good to prepare for a long evening and . . .  a late evening if you plan to photograph the Northern Lights.  I have found the best displays usually occur from 11:00 p.m. until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m.  We pack like we are packing for a mini trip.  Charged batteries, cell phone, food, warm drinks, warm clothing, blanket and yes . . . toilet paper!  There are no bathrooms where we travel which means that sometimes you have to do the unthinkable and use the side of the road or a bush as your toilet.
  • Check the phases of the moon and moon rise/moon set times.  Why?? you ask . . . because the light of the moon can affect your photographs.  The moon’s light is considered ambient light which I explained earlier in this post – you will want to avoid photographing the Northern Lights when the moon is full or in a position in the sky which is going to cast unwanted light in your photos.
  • Check and double check your information.  Here are a few of the websites I like to use to get my information from:
    • www.aurorawatch.ca (this site is my favorite)  you can sign up for email notifications on this site – I like to watch the bar graph which shows the magnetic field and the % chance of seeing the aurora.  It is based out of Edmonton, Alberta and also includes a camera in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan from the University of Saskatchewan.
    • http://www.asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/astronomy/auroramax/connect.asp – real time viewing of the aurora from Yellowknife/NWT in Canada.  Alerts and information about the Northern Lights.
    • http://www.softservenews.com/Aurora.htm – shows the North American Kp Map which aids in identifying the chances of seeing the aurora in your area.  It also produces a “real time” forecast of activity levels.

There is a lot of information written about this topic on the web to assist you.  I recommend researching as much as possible.  I have listed 3 websites that I use but I do use many more to gather information. The best way to understand the Northern Lights is by doing your research . . . find out what causes them, when is the best time to view them and what is the chance that you will be able to view them in your location.  These are all important steps to becoming successful at photographing the Northern Lights.  Knowledge is power and the more educated you become, the better your chances will be of viewing and photographing the beautiful Northern Lights.

(part 2 of this post will be posted shortly)

Lori Bote/Prairie Pixel Photography & Design/a.k.a. theprairiepixeladdict