Dark skies, cold nights and a lack of light pollution mean you’ve got a great chance of seeing northern lights, or aurora, in the Canadian Rockies. If you’ve ever been wondering how to capture them, here are some tips from local photographer, Paul Zizka, who has photographed the northern lights throughout Canada. – Highline
With the solar maximum of an 11-year cycle approaching fast, viewing the Aurora will undoubtedly be on many people’s bucket list. Some of the lucky, sleepless ones won’t be happy just looking; they’ll try to freeze the rare moment in-camera. Here are some things to keep in mind when you’re trying to photograph this elusive subject.
1. Check the Forecasts. Yes, there are forecasts for northern lights activity and this one (from the Edmonton area) is my favourite. You might as well check the weather forecast while you’re at it because there’s no point going out if the cloud cover won’t let you see anything.
2. Location, Location, Location. Finding a spot that is free from light pollution and that offers an open view to the North is key.
3. Got Your Gear? For lenses, use the fastest, widest lens you can get your hands on. If possible, it is best to use a body that deals well with noise at higher ISOs, such as the Canon 5D Mark II.
4. Quick, There It Is! Now, Which Settings? Shooting the aurora requires surprisingly short exposures. Anything beyond 30 seconds is likely to blur the detail of the curtains. A good place to start is to use your widest aperture, an ISO of 400 or 800, and an exposure time of 10-15 seconds and to readjust from there.
5. Composition is Key. Anybody can go out on a clear night, set up a tripod, aim at the sky and come home with a colourful shot. However, it is often the composition that makes a northern lights image stand out. Find one that is pleasing to the eye while waiting for the lights to show up.
6. Stick Around. Even when they’re in the forecast, the lights are unpredictable and can come and go suddenly several times within an hour. It’s well worth staying at your chosen location for at least an hour.
7. Bundle Up. Attempting to photograph northern lights often means a lot of standing around and waiting. Brings some extra layers to keep warm as you enjoy the show.
8. Focus It Right. It is not always easy to get sharp aurora images due to focus problems in low-light environments. This is an instance where being familiar with hyperfocal distances can be very helpful. Otherwise, try manually focusing on infinity.
9. Use the Moon. If the lights are strong enough, you don’t necessarily need a moon-free sky to go shooting. In fact, a moon that is 25% full can provide just enough light to beautifully illuminate the foreground without getting in the way of the aurora.