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SHOOT THE NORTHERN LIGHTS

Far from city lights, the mountain plateaus and rolling hills surrounding Crowsnest Pass make the area an ideal spot for seeing the Aurora Borealis (also known as the Northern Lights).

Local photographer and outdoor enthusiast Lisa Kinear shares how to capture the Lights and the Milky Way at their best and brightest with these tips:

Q:

Why is Crowsnest Pass a great place for night photography?

A:

A dark sky is essential for night photography, and the landscape surrounding Crowsnest Pass has low levels of development and very few sources of light pollution.

You can capture the galactic core of the Milky Way in single exposure from locations nearby the five communities. The combination of mountains, lakes, rivers and partial ruins of mining buildings are readily accessible as interesting foreground elements to include in night captures.

Q:

What are your tips for capturing the Northern Lights?

A:

The first, and maybe the hardest part, is getting outside on a night when the Aurora is active.

Although the Northern Lights are more visible from northern latitudes, you can clearly see them from Crowsnest Pass during stronger geomagnetic storms (i.e., KP values of 5 or greater).

Chasing the Aurora is similar to chasing other types of storms – sometimes you miss, but that makes it so much more rewarding when you do catch them.

The second most important element needed is a clear, dark sky. I frequently check weather forecasts to predict cloud coverage for the upcoming days.

Sometimes these clouds can add interesting visual elements to the photos, so I will often head out even if there are some clouds and the predictions indicate a high probability of the Aurora.

Applications and websites can provide weather forecasts, geomagnetic readings and cloud cover notifications for the Northern Lights, based on solar data. Like most weather forecasts, these predictions may not be perfectly accurate.

Q:

What type of cameras and lenses are best for shooting the Aurora?

A:

For camera gear, there are some basic requirements:

  • A DSLR or mirrorless camera with manual shooting mode and manual focusing modes.
  • A cable release (or shutter delay mode in-camera works).
  • Stable tripod: sturdy enough for your camera and lens (some lenses are heavy and cause the camera on the tripod to drop slowly).
  • Lens of choice: most kit lenses will work, but most photographers prefer ‘fast’ and ‘wide’ lenses for night photography and the Aurora.

Lenses with a maximum aperture of f/4 or more or less are generally considered ‘fast.’ Lenses with a focal length 35 mm or less are generally considered to be ‘wide angle.’ I often use a Rokinon 24 mm F/1.4 lens with my Nikon D750 camera.

Q:

What camera settings do you use?

A:

The settings you choose for shooting the Northern Lights will depend on the ambient light (e.g., moonlight, light pollution) and the intensity of the Aurora.

Once you have your location picked out and you are set up, run a few test shots. I usually run test shots at very high ISO values (e.g., 128,000) even though I know the ISO value will produce a very noisy and grainy image, I keep it this high to test out compositions, then turn it down to shoot.

If I am happy with the composition based on the high ISO test shots, I dial the ISO down, and usually stay within ISO values of 800 – 4200, depending on how bright the Aurora is.

Use the lowest aperture that your lens will allow for a clear image. Shutter speeds should be at 15 seconds or less (this number varies depending on the lens you are using) or the star movement will begin to show in the picture.

Q:

What are the best places in Crowsnest Pass to take pictures of the Northern Lights?

A:

The Aurora appears in the northern skies at latitudes this far south, although, in rarer stronger geomagnetic storms, it may be visible throughout the sky.

I am always on the lookout for a good spot with a northern view when I am in town or hiking.

I have photographed the Northern Lights from my back doorstep, the Burmis Tree and Leitch Collieries, Crowsnest River and Crowsnest Lake, as well as the fields to the east of Highway 22 and Highway 507.

I look for water features, be it a pond or a river, to include in the shot, as the water will reflect the Aurora.

So far, Lundbreck Falls and Ma Butte are two of my favourite locations for night photography. Other spots that can produce great images are the windmills out by Cowley and historic buildings throughout the towns.

Be sure to not trespass or have permission if you are entering onto private property.

Q:

What tips do you have for someone shooting the Aurora for the first time?

A:

The Aurora changes rapidly in intensity, general location in the sky, and the speed at which the individual ‘pillars’ move.

When I am shooting stronger geomagnetic storms, I am constantly adjusting settings to account for variances in the light from the Aurora.

You can use topographic elements (like trees and mountains) to obscure light pollution, so do not be afraid to attempt to shoot from within town or near town.

I was recently able to capture the Northern Lights dancing above the Frank Slide debris field by using the rocks within the field itself to block out light pollution from Frank and Hillcrest.

Most importantly, capturing the Northern Lights requires a willingness to get outside at night. Warm clothes, wind breaking layers, gloves and a toque are necessary, even in summer months.

It is a good idea to bring a partner or friend for safety, as with any outdoor pursuit, but if it is just me, I bring my dogs for company.

Lisa was born and raised in Coleman and returned to her hometown after pursuing a career in biology. She returned in 2013 after completing a science degree at the University of Alberta and working in Edmonton as a Professional Biologist.

When travelling through northern Alberta for work, she gained an appreciation for the Aurora Borealis. Since returning home, Lisa continues to chase the Northern Lights in The Pass. She shares her images on both Instagram and Twitter.

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