Aurora borealis. The Cree call them the dance of the spirits. It’s not difficult to see why. The northern lights are a natural phenomenon flooding dark starlit skies with spectacular, vibrant colour. Mother Nature’s light show is usually on display from September through April – and sometimes into May.
Northern Lights Hot Spots
Alberta is one of the best places on earth to view the aurora. In northern Alberta, Fort McMurray operators offer guided tours. Or, if you’re visiting the Canadian Rockies, these locations provide the best chances to view the northern lights:
- Lake Minnewanka, Banff National Park
- Peyto Lake Lookout, Banff National Park
- Pyramid Lake, Jasper National Park
- Abraham Lake, off Highway 11 near Nordegg
- Mt. Yamnuska, Bow Valley Provincial Park
- Spray Lakes, Kananaskis Country
Aurora Photography Tips
Professional and recreational photographers from around the world travel to Alberta to capture the northern lights on film. While you don’t have to be a pro to photograph the aurora borealis, it isn’t simply a matter of point and shoot. Banff photographer Paul Zizka, who has chased the northern lights for years, offers his top photography tips:
- Look for a clear sky with low light pollution.
- Dress warmly, bring a thermos of hot cocoa, and be patient! Photographing this phenomenon requires a lot of waiting.
- Use a tripod (your camera must be stationary) and wide-angle lens.
- Learn to use your manual settings.
- Shoot wide open to let in as much light as possible (your lowest f-stop).
- Let the shutter speed go long enough to expose properly, but not so long that you lose the structure of the lights as they move.
- For starters, try to use the following settings: f4, ISO 1600, 30-second exposure. Adjust accordingly.
- Include a foreground in order to add interest to your photos, and focus on the closest element of interest to the camera.
Professional photographers rely on more than camera equipment to capture the northern lights. Paul recommends these web resources to maximize your aurora watching:
- Aurorawatch.ca is a free aurora email alert system from the University of Alberta
- Spaceweather.com is a one-stop reference site for all celestial events
- Solarham.net provides raw data and summaries forecasting the sun’s activities
- Cleardarksky.com forecasts accurate cloud cover for much of Alberta