About Aurora Viewing
About Aurora Viewing and Photography in Yukon Canada
We get numerous questions including: When is the best time to come and see the northern lights? Can you take photos or video of the aurora? If so, how? Can you see the aurora every night?
Our jobs as guides have given us multiple opportunities to see and photograph the northern lights. We have answered the above questions and included more information on the following pages to give you the best chance to see and/or photograph the aurora too.
1. The Value of Seeing the Aurora Borealis
The aurora borealis, occurs when charged particles are emitted from the Sun in solar wind. These particles travel along magnetic field lines to wells in the Earth's magnetic field, north and south, simultaneously giving rise to the aurora borealis in the Northern Hemisphere, and the aurora australis in the Southern Hemisphere (the southern lights). They then enter the Earth's upper atmosphere and collide with its gases. These collisions result in countless little bursts of light, called photons, which make up the aurora. When you see northern lights, all of the technical explanations seems not to matter anymore as you can feel the mystery of the universe and the existence of the Earth as a planet within it.
2. When the Aurora Borealis can be Seen
3. Seasons of the Aurora -Spring and Fall are a Good Time
Spring -April until 1st week of May:
- In April and even in the first week of May, aurora is still visible near and around Whitehorse. At this time of year the midnight sun is approaching and along with the light comes warmer weather. This is a good time of the year for those who don't want to be in the extreme cold winter weather conditions as well as for those wanting to take unique photographs of the aurora along with a blue sky.
Fall -mid August to end of September:
- This is the time of year when lakes, rivers and streams are not frozen and you can see the reflection of the Northern Lights in these open waters. To have the aurora above and below with you in the middle is a really amazing experience. The weather at this time of year is also relatively warmer and you can see beautiful colourful fall leaves.
Winter -beginning of December to end of March:
- This is the darkest time of the year. Due to colder weather, the black sky in this season is generally clearer and it is possible for you to see sparkling stars and bright northern lights. This is also an ideal time to see the aurora in a snowy landscape as well as enjoy other winter activities including dog sledding, cross country skiing, snowshoeing and ice fishing. Imagine curling up beside a crackling wood stove in a cozy lodge while you view the aurora dancing just outside your window.
4. Colour and Shape of the Aurora
Colour of the Aurora
- The colours of the aurora depends on the what gases are involved and how high in the atmosphere the reaction takes place. When solar particles collide with oxygen in the atmosphere, green lights form at lower altitudes, while red lights happen at higher altitudes. The most common colour of the aurora borealis is pale to vivid green. Due to an increase in nitrogen gas in the atmosphere you can sometimes see hints of pink or magenta. A deep red hue can occasionally be seen via naked eyes when a particularly intense solar wind interacts with a different type of oxygen which exists at altitudes above 200 km. Fainter red aurora will often appear on time exposures without being seen visually, since human eyes are not sensitive to low levels of red light.
Shape of the Aurora
- The most common shape of aurora is a rainbow like arch. Sometimes this arch will move like a dancing curtain or swirl in the night sky. The auroral form know as a corona occurs when the aurora is descending from directly above the viewer. Shows of northern lights are always different...this is the appeal of the aurora borealis.
For more detailed
For more detailed information about the mechanism of the Northern Lights and photos of aurora, please check out this video and these books :
- Alaska's Dynamic Aurora: 2009 by University of Alaska Museum of the North (Video)
- Aurora Watcher's Handbook - Mar 1 1992 by Neil Davis (Author)
- Northern Lights: The Science, Myth, and Wonder of Aurora Borealis - Nov 6 2001 by Calvin Hall (Photographer), Daryl Pederson (Photographer)
- The Northern Lights: Celestial Performances of the Aurora Borealis - Sep 1 2015 by Daryl Peterson and Calvin Hall (Authors)
- The Northern Lights: Secrets of the Aurora Borealis - April 2009 by Syun-Ichi Akasofu (Author), Alaska Geographic
5. How to See the Aurora and Viewing Conditions
In order for the aurora borealis to appear these three conditions need to be satisfied:
- 1. The night sky is dark:When the sky is bright, the Aurora Borealis cannot be seen. This is the reason why during the Midnight Sun in June and July, you won't see any Northern Lights.
- 2. The sky is clear: the aurora occurs at the same altitude at which the Space Shuttle flies. For this reason, when the night sky is covered with clouds, the aurora will be hidden from sight. If the clouds are faint, or there are gaps in the clouds, the aurora can be seen.
Note: There have been instances when we have started aurora viewing and the sky was completely cloud covered, and later in the night, the clouds parted, and we were able to see the aurora.
- 3. The aurora forecast is active:At times the sky can be completely dark and clear, but if the aurora conditions are weak, you will not see the aurora. To see aurora, the aurora conditions need to be strong.
Aurora HuntingNorthern lights are a natural phenomenon and are unpredictable. Even though it may be cloudy early in the night, the sky may open and you could have a chance to view the aurora. The northern lights can appear once or a few times throughout the night, come and go quickly or last for hours. If you are serious about seeing the aurora, here are some suggestions on how you can increase your chances:
- 1. Move to a dark and open space. Get away from city lights as they wash out northern lights.
- 2. Get your camera prepared. Set up your camera (see steps in Aurora Photography section) and tripod as soon as you arrive just in case the aurora appears immediately. As it is dark, it is possible for you or other viewers to kick your tripod. If your camera is set on the tripod in this situation, it could fall and get damaged. Keep your camera in hand until actual shooting.
- 3. Check the northern sky as the aurora usually occurs to the north from this location. If it is cloudy, don't be discouraged. The weather could change.
- 4. Capture first signs of the aurora. Northern lights often appear weak in the north sky. As your camera lens takes in more light than the human eye, you can see green light on your camera images better than you can by viewing the sky with your eyes alone. The weak green light is a sign that the aurora is present and with time it could grow stronger.
- 5. Wait for the aurora to breakup. When the aurora is very strong and appears to be dancing or falling from above, this is called breakup. An experienced guide may be able to sense when breakup may happen from their past experiences or their ability to analyze real time solar data from satellites when available. Breakup can occur more than once in an evening and is a spectacle you don't want to miss.
6. What about the Moon?
At half moon, the sky is still pretty dark at this time of the moon's cycle and it is also a good time to see the aurora.
A lot of people think full moon is not a good time to view the aurora because the colours appear faint with the extra light in the night sky. If the northern lights activity is strong their colours will override the moonlight and you will be able to see them clearly. If you wish to see and/or photograph the surrounding landscape, such as mountains, forests, lakes along with the northern lights, full moon is a great time to capture both the lights and the landscape. Some professional photographers choose to photograph aurora during full moon specifically for this purpose.
In the Whitehorse area, the aurora often appears after midnight. If you wish to see the aurora with or without moonlight, you will need to check the moon chart.
7. Suggested Clothing for Aurora Viewing
Suggested Winter Wear:
- thick long johns and a thick long-sleeved undershirt made of wool or synthetic material
- fleece jacket
- thick outdoor pants like ski pants
- thick down outdoor jacket like a ski jacket
- thick winter boots one size bigger than your normal size so warm air can enter the boot. If it fits just right, your toes will get cold.
- thick wool socks -don't layer them because once again you loose that warm gap of air
- wool hat
- neck warmer
- balaclava to protect your cheeks
- liner gloves to wear under your winter mittens
mittens keep your fingers together and keep them much warmer than if you wear gloves
- Some people like to wear foot and hand warmers
Suggested Fall and Spring Wear:
- long johns and long sleeved shirt made of synthetic material or wool
- outdoor down jacket
- windbreaker jacket
- ski pants
- trekking boots and insulated rubber boots
- wool socks
- winter hat
- neck warmer
- thin layer of gloves with thicker gloves or mittens on top
Chart of Average Temperatures and hours of light in the Whitehorse Area:
Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Average High(C) -13 -9 -1 6 13 19 21 19 12 4 -6 -11 Average Low(C) -22 -19 -12 -5 1 5 8 6 2 -3 -13 -19 Average Hours of Daylight(h) 6 8 11 14 16 18 19 17 14 12 9 6
8. AURORA PHOTOGRAPHY
- camera:digital SLR or mirrorless camera
- a few extra batteries
- sturdy tripod and ball head mount
- memory cards
- wide angled lens with bright aperture
- release cable(if you don't have one, you can use the camera timer setting)
- large ziplock plastic bags
DSLR or Mirrorless Camera and Tripod
- In order to capture aurora the most suited camera are the DSLR (digital single reflex) or mirrorless cameras. In most cases smartphones are not suitable for capturing aurora. In order to avoid camera shake, a tripod and mount is mandatory no matter what camera you use.
Compact cameras such as some models of Panasonic and Sony, can be used.
Lenses with aperture F2.8 or brighter
- In order to capture aurora, you need "bright" lenses. This means a lens that can collect a lot of light. The ability to collect light for the lens is called aperture and is expressed as F numbers such as F2.8 or F4. The lower the number, the brighter it gets (F2.8 is brighter than F4). This means F2.8 lens is better suited for aurora photography because it collects more light under the given condition. Lenses such as F2 and F1.8 or better are even more suited for aurora photography. Dark lenses such as F3.5 or F4 are not generally suited for aurora photography.
Super Wide Angle Lens or Wide Angle Lens
- In order to capture beautiful aurora with landscape behind it, you need a wide angled lens such as 24mm (in 35mm or "full-size" sensor format)
If you want to have a wider perspective, you will need lenses that can cover 14mm to 18mm or a fisheye lens. The smaller the number, the wider the angle.
Examples of lenses tNt use:
For Sony α7s camera= Zeiss Batis 18mm f2.8 and Zeiss Baits 25mm f2.0
For Olympus E-M1 Mark II = Olympus 12mm f2.0
9. Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO
1. Shutter speed control
- Even though strong aurora is visible, the light of the aurora itself is generally weak for photography. In order to capture enough light of aurora, you will need to adjust the shutter speed on your camera. The shutter speed is the amount of time you collect light. In general, you will need about 15 seconds of shutter speed to make a beautiful image of the aurora.
2. Aperture Control
- In order to collect aurora light, you need a bright lens. The brighter lens can collect more light than a darker lens using the same shutter speed. For example an F2 lens is brighter than an F4 lens, therefore F2 lens is better suited for aurora photography.
3. ISO control
- Cameras have sensors onto which light is collected and images are formed. In the old days, the sensor was film. Just as film had different sensitivities (such as ISO 100 or 400), the sensor can change its ISO setting in the digital camera. The higher the ISO number, the more sensitive the sensor becomes. This means that the sensor can collect more light given the same shutter speed and aperture.
For example, ISO 400 is more sensitive than ISO 100. Given the same shutter speed and aperture, ISO 400 setting is able to collect more light than ISO 100. Therefore, when you take a photo of the aurora, you will need to bring up the ISO setting high enough to form an image of aurora. With today's advanced cameras, ideal ISO setting is generally between ISO 800 and 3200.
Generally speaking, we need lowest possible ISO (to avoid grainy image), shortest possible shutter speed (to avoid movement of stars and dancing aurora) and brightest aperture (to collect as much aurora light possible). In the real world setting, one such example setting would be ISO 1600, 15 seconds shutter speed and F2.8 aperture setting.
ADVICE FOR ADVANCED PHOTOGRAPHERS:
When the aurora light is weak and not dancing, you can set the ISO lower and set the shutter speed longer. On the contrary, when the aurora starts dancing, bring up the ISO and make the shutter speed as short as possible. This is because the longer the shutter speed, dancing aurora will be washed out and will not make the vivid image you see through your eyes. With today's full-size sensor camera, you can bring the ISO between 3200 and 6400 depending on the camera.
1. White Balance
- You can adjust the colour of a photograph by changing the white balance. Depending on the actual environmental condition, you can set your camera to a certain setting (For example, AUTO, SUNNY, or CLOUDY) so that your photos will have more "accurate" colour. However, photography is also an art form, so you may wish to change your white balance to change the colour of the photograph to suit your style. With today's camera technology, there is usually no problem to set the white balance to AUTO. If you are not happy with the outcome, try the SUNNY setting to see which your prefer.
2. Manual Focus Setting
- When you take photos of the aurora, the auto focus will not work anymore because it is too dark. You will need to switch the focus mode to MANUAL FOCUS and then set the focus to INFINITY (symbolized as ∞ on certain lenses) by turning the focus ring on your lens. This is such a critical process before shooting because if your focus setting is slightly off, you will not notice during the photo shooting and end up having ALL of your photos out of focus.
For some autofocus lenses being used manually, actual infinity focus is usually at the small "L" mark just to the left of the infinity symbol.
Here are steps to set your lens to infinity:
- 1. Turn on the LIVE VIEW setting so you can see the live view image on your screen.
- 2. Choose the brightest star in the sky to focus on using the magnification mode.
- 3. Turn the focus ring on your lens and stop where the star is perfectly focused -the star will be the smallest size.
- 4. Once focused, DO NOT touch the focus ring. Some people put duct tape on the focus ring to avoid any accidental movement from this spot.
- 5. Take photos of the star to ensure the image is perfectly focussed.
- 6. Check your photos once in a while to make sure that the images are sharp.
3. Using Your Camera in the Cold
- In cold weather, camera batteries drain quickly. Have 2 or more spare batteries close to your body to keep them warm so that when the aurora suddenly appears, you will be ready.
If you are going in and out of a warm room, condensation can get trapped in your camera and lens. This condensation can make photographing the aurora impossible and may even cause damage to your equipment. In order to prevent this from happening, leave your camera outside until you have finished photographing. It is a good idea to take out your camera battery and keep it warm in your pocket.
Once your photography session has ended, while you are still out in the cold, put your camera into 2 air tight sealed plastic bags (ziplock work well). Bring the camera inside and leave it as it is until it has warmed gradually for several hours. This will help prevent frost formation on your equipment.
Filming Aurora Movies
- Even with today's technology, it is generally not possible to film an aurora movie unless you use extremely low-light capable camera systems. This is because the aurora light is too weak to be captured on movie. Unlike still photography, you will need to bring up the ISO really high (around 80,000!) in order to capture faint aurora in the movie format. One of the cameras with an extremely high ISO is the SONY α7s Mark I or II. Combined with a bright lens such as F2 or even brighter, you can film aurora movies! Set your shutter speed at 1/60, your lens at F2 or brighter, and your ISO at 80,000 or higher.
Here is an example of an aurora movie we took in Dawson City, Yukon, Canada with our SONY α7s with Zeiss Batis 25mm f2
It is easier to take time-lapse photography of the aurora. Time-lapse is a whole bunch of still aurora photos put together, making it look like the aurora is actually moving from one image to another. These time-lapse movies are not as realistic as aurora movies, but they are fun to make and watch. Some modern cameras conveniently allow you to make a time-laps movie within the camera.
Here is a combination of aurora time-lapse movies we took over the years in the Yukon.