Shooting the Northern Lights

It's on many a bucket list and last night I checked it off mine. I have wanted to see the Aurora Borealis for years and when I stepped off the Tundra Buggy onto the frozen location near Churchill, Manitoba I was feeling distinctly nervous. Not because I was afraid of the polar bears (they are all away hunting at the moment) but because I was afraid of not being able to capture them on my camera.

Fortunately this Frontiers North Adventures trip includes a photography 101 on the Northern Lights courtesy of Sean Workman at Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg. I have never known my camera so well. Of course you not only have to think about exposure time, ISO and your F stop but also the fact that your hand may stick to your camera with the cold (It was minus 29C with windchill.) One of the hardest things about shooting the Aurora is the cold at this time of year will stop your battery working. We have also driven out over the Churchill river away from the city lights so you must operate your camera in darkness.

Regular shouts could be heard from us photographers on ice as someone shone a flash light into their shot, trying to find their camera settings.  The lights started quietly for us when we arrived on the tundra around 10pm. A faint grey movement in the sky - it takes a while for your eyes to get used to the dark and see the green colour. Northern Lights can also look red and purple depending on the gases involved.

But by the end of the night, at around 2am when both of my camera batteries had died, we saw the most spectacular display of the night - the lights were leaping about the sky all around us. Hard to believe it is a completely natural phenomenon caused by particles from the sun entering the earth's atmosphere. It felt humbling and I thought how lucky the locals here in Churchill are to have this as well as polar bears and beluga whales. January to March is one of the best times to see the lights and 2013 is even better than usual because of increased solar activity.

For most of the evening we stumbled around on the ice and snow finding good spots to shoot them. Green swirls rose above the tundra buggy and the faint red of the city in the distance added another dimension. The ribbons of light might join up above your head and it's hard to know where to look. A photographer confessed to us he cried the first time he saw them. I can believe it. Perhaps it was the temperature, so frigid we regularly returned to the buggy to thaw out, but I found myself slightly hysterical at having witnessed the lights at last. Or perhaps it was because I actually managed to capture some pictures of them. I hope to go back tomorrow night to do better.

Day 2 in Churchill: Beards, dogs and tundra

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  1. Well done, Anne! I'm envious, having lived in Canada my whole life but never lucky enough to see the display.

  2. I'm so glad to have seen them. Our guide last night was saying he has something like a 66pc success rate with groups. We saw them 2 nights out of 3 and we are all very happy. Now I want to come back with better camera equipment oh and warmer gloves and boots!


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