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Northern lights still hold a fascination for a lot of us ordinary mortals. Since the dawn of time, these flamboyant beams painting the Arctic sky a bright green and sometimes crimson are the source of many popular beliefs and legends. Known as arsaniit to Inuit, their magnetic appeal attracts people from all around the globe to travel North just to witness and photograph this spectacle of heavenly beauty.

As a photographer, I decided it was about time I did my homework to be ready, come winter, to get my own take on this free open-air performance waiting outside my door in the dark of the night. So I reached out to a few of my fellow shutterbugs, whose works are featured here, who kindly shared their secrets with me.

Like paparazzi always in search of their target celebrity, we might have to do a bit of research to hunt down our northern act before they can become the focus of our lens’ attention. Sure, we can always go out the door and just look up to the sky in hopes of finding the aurora borealis lurking in the night. With a bit of luck, that might do the trick. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way.

For self-taught northern lights hunter Gilles Boutin, who has published two lavishly illustrated books and regularly gives conferences on the subject throughout Quebec, photographing the aurora borealis is serious business. For this now retired cop from Lévis, who has made the trip to Nunavik several times to indulge his passion for the striking lights, planning is everything. Thus, to make the most of his journeys North, he often prepares months in advance, making sure he books his travel during the most favourable months, sometimes in the fall, but preferably in the depths of winter, when night takes over the Arctic sky for hours, or in March when northern lights activity is at its peak, not to mention the milder weather.

Though Boutin is knowledgeable enough to go out on his own, some who, like him, live far from the aurora borealis realm, may prefer to leave the planning to an experienced northern tour operator. A lot of providers even offer the services of a professional photographer to teach you how to photograph northern lights as part of their travel package, which will help ensure you return home with great memories for your photo album.

That being said, a little planning won’t hurt to ensure a successful photographic mission, even for those of us who have the chance to live in Canada’s North, whether in the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, Nunavik, Nunatsiavut-Labrador or James Bay. Since the aurora borealis are caused by charged particles carried by solar winds, conducted from the sun by Earth’s magnetic fields to the dark side of the planet and filling the night sky with colourful glows as they collide in our upper atmosphere at high speed, scientists have found ways to predict them. Various websites exist, providing forecasts and alerts that will ensure you are on the look out when the odds of seeing northern lights are at their best. Gilles Boutin’s personal favourite is NASA’s www.spaceweather.com, but as seen in above&beyond (2015, Issue 6), the Canadian Space Agency’s AuroraMAX (www.asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/astronomy/auroramax) also provides valuable information.

Iqalumiut Kelly Belair (left), Aaju Peter (centre) and Richard Coates (right) take part in an open-air performance by the northern lights. © Michelle Valberg
Iqalumiut Kelly Belair (left), Aaju Peter (centre) and Richard Coates (right) take part in an open-air performance by the northern lights. © Michelle Valberg

Aside from space weather and aurora alerts, Gilles Boutin recommends to check your local weather forecast too, as clouds could render your outing completely hopeless, hiding even the most active auroras behind their thick cover. To make the most of your experience, the experts also advise to get out of town, away from the light pollution of street lamps, which make it more difficult to see the colourful streaks swaying overhead. Beware of the full moon as well, which can steal the spotlight just the same.

Over the years, I’ve learned that though northern lights can come out to play as soon as darkness falls, more often than not, they like to play hide and seek for a while before they finally decide to show themselves, sometimes way past my bedtime. So if you want to make sure to catch them, be prepared to stay up late, otherwise they might just go out dancing without you.

Tips from the pros

Photographing the aurora borealis is not a simple point and shoot affair. Since these elusive celestial parades don’t always last forever, if you don’t want to miss your chance to seize the moment, you need to prep yourself and your equipment. Here are a few tips from some of above&beyond’s favourite photographers that will help make your night memorable.

First, you need to have the right camera, “one that you can adjust manually yourself, even the focus,” says Michelle Valberg. “When it comes to shooting northern lights, you can’t just use it on automatic mode, as even the best cameras won’t know what to do,” she explains. And since auroras tend to spread their drapes across the sky, “you’ll want to use a wide angle lens,” adds colleague Lee Narraway, to make sure you can fit the whole scene in your frame.

For the long exposures required to capture the northern lights swaying in the dark, every experienced photographer will also tell you that using a tripod is a must. This essential stand will support your camera and, paired with a remote shutter release cable, will ensure your camera is still at all times. “If you don’t have that kind of equipment, you’ll have to find a way to settle your camera on something solid and use the self-timer to trigger the camera to make sure it doesn’t move,” suggests Pierre Dunnigan as an alternative.

Dunnigan also recommends having a couple spare batteries, as they will quickly be drained by the prolonged exposures, not to mention the cold. “And make sure they’re all charged before you go out,” insists Narraway.

“Having a little flashlight (or headlamp) so that you can look at your dial to adjust the settings on your camera will prove very useful in the dark,” adds Valberg, even if she prefers to preset them before heading out whenever possible. Either way, it’s best to have one handy since, as Narraway points out, “photographing auroras is an experimental thing with a lot of hit-and-miss that always requires adjustments along the way”. For Inuk photographer David Kilabuk based in the High Arctic, in Pangnirtung, Nunavut, having a flashlight is also a question of personal safety, as polar bears roam the area. “Obviously, I can’t leave it on while I’m taking a picture,” he explains, “but in between shots, I constantly scan around me for eyes in the distance, always trying to listen for any wildlife nearby.”

Aside from all the photography gear, all agree that keeping warm is also a must if you want to last long enough in the cold and dark winter night. Unless he can stay in his truck while his camera does the work, Kilabuk makes sure he’s dressed to face the biting cold. “I usually dress up the same as if I was going out by skidoo, especially if I’m going on the sea ice,” he declares. Both he and Dunnigan also mention the importance of wearing small gloves, to enable them to handle the camera without freezing their fingers at temperatures often way below zero. Of course, their big mitts are never far behind to warm up their hands while waiting for their next shot. I always kept my spare batteries
in there too, to keep them from draining in the cold, but I might try Pierre Dunnigan’s trick this winter and keep them in my camera bag with HotShots air-activated pads, which
I carry with me as emergency hand and feet warmers.

The lights are out, you’ve got your camera ready, it’s now time for action! First, you’ll want to set your focus. If you’re lucky to have something in your line-of-sight, such as town lights, a mountaintop, trees, a tent or igloo, you can focus on them, using your flashlight, if necessary. Using such scenery can give your photos some perspective, making them more interesting, maintain Kilabuk and Valberg. Valberg even likes to use people in her shots, sometimes using a small flash or light source that she pops for a mere second during exposure time, keeping a certain distance to light up their face just right. But if there’s nothing but northern lights in the horizon, all agree it’s best to set the focus manually on infinity. Either way, “once you have your focus set, be sure not to move the camera,” reiterates Dunnigan.

Next, Dunnigan likes to apply the 8:8:8 method as a base, starting with an ISO of 800 and a f8 aperture at a speed of 8 seconds. From then on, he says, “you can play with the
settings, increasing the aperture one stop at a time to f5.6, then f4,” or better yet, as Narraway suggests, “opening as wide as f2.8 to let the light come in faster”.

“If the auroras are very active and bright, you might need less time with the shutter open,” continues Valberg. “But on the contrary, if they’re a bit dim, you’ll want to leave your shutter open longer, up to 15, 20 or 30 seconds,” she adds.

Dunnigan points out that a longer exposure also increases processing time, as it will take your camera as much time to render the photo once the shutter closes. “For example, if you leave the shutter open for 15 seconds, it will take another 15 seconds to process before you can see the image on your screen,” clarifies Dunnigan. “This not only uses up more battery, but can also waste precious time,” adds Kilabuk, who prefers to turn off this noise reduction treatment and do his own later at home, adjusting it to his own taste on his computer, as many photo software programs now offer that option. That way, he can also set his camera on self-timer to take nine shots in a row, making the most of his time.

Known to Inuit as Allaniq, Mount Duval is no stranger to the appeal of northern lights. © David Kilabuk
Known to Inuit as Allaniq, Mount Duval is no stranger to the appeal of northern lights. © David Kilabuk

And since time is of the essence when shooting northern lights, even if they sometimes
seem too dim for the effort, both Valberg and Narraway insist it’s worthwhile shooting anyway. As Valberg explains, “since the camera picks up more than the human eye can, even the faintest aurora can get you surprisingly nice results”.

“You might even get more stars than you can see out there,” adds Narraway. “But don’t leave your shutter open too long, otherwise stars will start to streak,” she advises.

You can of course adjust your ISO higher to get even more light in. “But be careful: the higher the ISO, the more there will be noise on your picture,” warns Narraway, “although some cameras can handle it well nowadays,” she mentions.

You can always follow the Inuit’s advice and try to whistle to awaken the arsaniit and lure them closer. But beware: should you decide to summon them this way, you should also be prepared to rub your fingernails together or run your zipper up and down to create a clicking sound to make them go away again. If they come too near, they could try to take you away, according to Inuit superstition.

However you find the aurora, just being out there to watch these mesmerizing lights ignite the night will be worth every moment, as they will definitely take your breath away.

Isabelle Dubois