Waterfalls of Light – The Aurora


Once again, the skies over Churchill, Manitoba delivered a wonderful show of Northern Lights during the 2018 aurora season.

As I do each year, in February I visited the Churchill Northern Studies Centre on the frozen shore of Hudson Bay in Manitoba, Canada to help present aurora watching sessions to tourists from around the world.

I shot these images and the time-lapses for the music video during my two-week stay February 7 to 18.


The music video incorporates sequences shot on three nights: February 15, 16, and 18. Visit the video’s Vimeo page where the description below the video contains all the details and tech information. I won’t repeat that all here.

It is viewable in up to 6K resolution, almost IMAX™ grade!

The music is by the British composer and musician Alexis Ffrench, and is used by kind permission. Visit his website to hear and learn more.

This year, finding clear skies was not a problem. We had clouds on only 2 nights of the 11 I stayed in Churchill. However, temperatures were typically -35° C with a brisk wind at times. There were extreme cold warnings out which, for Churchill, means EXTREME COLD! But that gave us very clear skies.

Often, tour participants are just as excited about seeing the stars and Milky Way as they are about checking the Lights off their lifetime bucket list.

The other challenge was on a couple of nights there was no significant aurora which, for Churchill under the auroral oval, was unusual. On other nights the Lights didn’t appear until about 3 a.m.

But on some nights the aurora danced as expected in the evening or midnight sky, covering the sky in a jaw-dropping display, and sometimes with vivid pinks fringing the curtains.

Here are some of my favourite still images from my 2018 stay.

First, a panorama selfie!

Auroral Oval in Twilight Panorama
A 180° panorama of the auroral oval across the northern horizon in the twilight sky on February 18, 2018. The aurora was active right at the start of the evening this night, the final night of my stay in Churchill for 2018, here at the Northern Studies Centre. The panorama is from the upper floor deck. The aurora appeared so early we had not had a chance yet to turn off the building lights – programs were still happening inside. The temperature was -35° C. Up from low of -40 earlier in the day. The wind had also died down, mercifully! Orion is rising at right. This is a 9-segment panorama stitched with Adobe Camera Raw. The lens is the 14mm Sigma Art lens wide open at f/1.8 and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200. Exposures were 4 seconds each. For the last one, with the self-timer I got into the last frame for a selfie.

 

All-Sky Aurora with Pink Curtains #2
A fish-eye lens view of an all-sky aurora on February 16, 2018, over the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, in Churchill, Manitoba, and caught during a short-lived bright outburst when the bottom fringe of the auroral curtains turned brilliant pink for a minute or so, due to energetic electrons exciting lower altitude nitrogen molecules. This was with the 8mm Sigma fish-eye lens at f/3.5 and the Canon 6D MkII at ISO 3200. The sky is one exposure while the ground is a mean combined stack of 4 exposures to smooth noise. The exposures were part of a 925-frame time-lapse.

 

Selfie with Aurora at Churchill Northern Studies Centre (Feb 11,
A reasonably bright display of Northern Lights appears and performs for the first aurora group of the season at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Churchill, Manitoba, on the night of February 11/12, 2018. The Kp Index was still low, only 0 to 1, and the Bz was often still North, but for some reason we got a decent display this night. Here, I pose for my own selfie, gazing at the Lights. This is a single shot with the Rokinon 12mm lens and Nikon D750.

 

Feathered-Edge All-Sky Aurora #4
An all-sky aurora display in the early morning hours (between 3 and 4 am) on February 10, 2018, shot from the upper deck of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Churchill, Manitoba. The main arc had an ususual feathered lower edge with protruding patches. Visually, the aurora was dim and colourless. Kp Index was 1. This is looking east with Jupiter rising at centre. This is a single exposure with the 12mm Rokinon full-frame fish-eye lens on the Nikon D750.

 

Dipper and Polaris in Aurora
The Big and Little Dippers, and Polaris over the boreal forest amid subtly coloured aurora at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. Taken on Feb 11, 2018 on a night with a decent display of Northern Lights. Arcturus is at right. Cassiopeia is at left.

 

Orion and Auroral Swirl over CNSC
Orion and the winter sky, at left, and a swirl of colourful aurora over the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, in a display on February 11, 2018. People from the first Learning Vacations group of the season are shooting the Lights. This is a single image with the 12mm Rokinon full-frame fish-eye lens and Nikon D750.

 

Auroral Curtains in Twilight (Feb 18, 2018) #2
Curtains of aurora during an active storm on February 18, 2018 from the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, in the early evening in the last of the twilight. This night the aurora was brightest early in the evening. The Big Dipper is at left. This is a single frame from a 725-frame time-lapse with the Nikon D750 at ISO 3200 and Sigma 14mm Art lens at f/1.8. Exposures were 2 seconds.

 

Snaking Auroral Serpent
An auroral curtain with dramatic snaking curls and twists like a serpent, as auroras were sometimes seen and depicted in medieval times. This is a frame from a time-lapse sequence taken February 16, 2018 from the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Churchill, Manitoba, using the 14mm Sigma Art lens at f/1.8 and Nikon D750.

 

Kp0 Aurora from Churchill
A Kp 0 (lowest level reading of the 0 to 9 Kp Index) aurora at 3:30 am on February 11, 2018, from the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, in Churchill, Manitoba. Earlier in the night there was no aurora visible at all, but by 3:30 there was a faint arc and patches, but very dim. The Bz Index had turned south, so the aurora picked up a little, but very litttle! The colours and contrast have been enhanced here. This is an example of the lowest level aurora from a site under the auroral zone. This is a stitch of 4 segments to make a small vertical panorama to take in the horizon and the Big Dipper at the zenith at top. Gemini and Auriga are at left; the star Vega is right of centre. Polaris is above centre. We are looking nearly due north. All frames with the 12mm Rokinon full-frame fish-eye lens, for 25 seconds at f/2.8 and ISO 3200. Stitched with PTGui.

Thanks for looking!

— Alan, February 25, 2018 / © 2018 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com 

 

The Sky Was Dancing


Aurora Panorama from Northern Studies Centre #2 (January 29, 201

The Northern Lights once again performed beautifully from Churchill, Manitoba, making the sky dance with colours. 

As I do each winter, I spent time in Churchill, Manitoba at the wonderful Churchill Northern Studies Centre, attending to groups of “aurora tourists” there to check an item off their bucket list – seeing the Northern Lights.

Auroral Arcs over Boreal Forest #2

In the 30 years the courses have been presented only one group has ever come away not seeing the Lights. Well, make that two now. A bout of unseasonably warm weather in my first week brought clouds every night. Mild temperatures to be sure. But we want it to be -25° C! That’s when it is clear.

Winter Star and Milky Way from Churchill Manitoba

Our first clear night was very clear, affording us a wonderful view of the winter Milky Way before the Lights came out. Such a view is unusual from the North, as the Lights usually wash out the sky, which they did later this night. Even here, you can see some wisps of green aurora.

Orion over Snow Inukshuk

Normal temperatures didn’t return until week 2 of my stay. The second group fared much better, getting good displays on 4 of their 5 nights there, more typical of Churchill.

Photographers Under the Northern Lights

A few determined die-hards from Group 1 (here shooting the Lights) stayed on a couple of more nights, and were rewarded with the views they had come for. They were happy!

All-Sky Aurora from Churchill #2 (January 29, 2017)

In the images here, at no time did the auroral activity exceed a level of Kp 3 (on a scale of 0 to 9) and was often just Kp 1 or 2. Farther south no one would see anything. But at latitude 58° N Churchill lies under the auroral oval where even on quiet nights the aurora is active and often spectacular.

Aurora Panorama from Northern Studies Centre #3 (January 29, 201

In speaking to a Dene elder who presents a cultural talk to each of the CNSC groups, Caroline said that to the Dene of northern Canada their word for the Lights translates to “the sky is dancing.” Wonderful! It did for us.

The Auroras of Churchill from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.

This music video presents a montage of time-lapse movies I shot over four nights, from January 25 to 29, 2017. They provide an idea of what we saw under the dancing sky.

As usual, choose HD and enlarge to full screen to view the movie. Or go to Vimeo with the V button.

— Alan, February 3, 2017 / © 2017 Alan Dyer/AmazingSky.com 

 

The Beauty of the Northern Lights


Beauty of Northern Lights Title

My latest music video includes images, time-lapses and real-time videos of the Northern Lights shot in February and March 2016 in Churchill. 

While I’ve posted my recent images of the aurora here and at many social media sites, all the videos I shoot take more work before they are ready to unveil to the public. Videos work best when set to music.

In this case, I’m very pleased to have received permission from EverSound Music to incorporate the music of one of my favourite artists, John Adorney, in my latest music video montage. The selection is If a Rose Could Speak, from his 2013 album The Wonder Well. It features vocals by Daya.

The video incorporates still images, as well as time-lapse sequences, and real-time videos of the Northern Lights.

The all-sky time-lapses are intended to be projected in digital planetarium theatres, recreating the scene on their 360° domes.

Please click on the V for Vimeo button to really see the video well. And select 1080p HD for the best image quality. And do share! 

ABOUT THE VIDEO

I shot all scenes at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, near Churchill, Manitoba, on the shore of Hudson Bay at a latitude of 58° North. Churchill’s location places it under the usual location of the auroral oval, providing spectacular displays of Northern Lights even on nights when locations to the south are seeing nothing.

I was at the CNSC to present sets of 5-night aurora viewing programs to guests from across North America. Click the link above for more details on their programs. The 2016 aurora season is over, but we’ll have more aurora programs in January and February of next year.

TECHNICAL

I shot all images with Canon 6D and Nikon D750 DSLR cameras, usually at ISO 3200. The fish-eye all-sky sequences were with a Sigma 8mm lens on the Canon, while most of the still images and other full-frame time-lapses were with the Sigma 20mm Art lens on the Nikon. For the “rapid-cadence” time-lapses I used 1- to 2-second exposures at an interval of one second.

The real-time video clips were with the Nikon – set to ISO 25600 – and the Sigma wide open at f/1.4. While these clips are prone to digital noise, they do record the fast movement and subtle colour of the aurora much as the eye saw it. See my earlier music video with real-time clips shot February 12 for more examples of these.

The all-sky sequences were processed through LRTimelapse v4 software, to handle the huge range in brightness of the Lights. Real-time video clips were processed in Photoshop with the Camera Raw filter.

Temperatures ranged from a bitter -35° C to just (!) -15° C on most nights.

I kept the long-duration, all-sky, time-lapse camera going by placing it in a Camera Parka (www.atfrostedlens.com) and inserting disposable hand warmer packs inside the insulated parka. It worked very well, making it possible to shoot for up to 3 hours. Without it, the battery died after an hour.

— Alan, March 18, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / AmazingSky.com

An Amazing Night of Northern Lights


Aurora Panorama over Northern Studies Centre

It was a night to remember, when the sky exploded with a jaw-dropping display of Northern Lights.

Warnings went out around the world and the aurora meters were hitting high numbers. By sunset we were charged up with high expectations of seeing the aurora in high gear dancing in the twilight. We were not disappointed.

From our location at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre near Churchill, Manitoba (latitude 58° North), we see aurora almost every clear night, even when indicators are low.

But this night, the Index was reading 7 on the scale of 0 to 9. I was afraid, after all the effort to come north to see the Lights, the Lights would abandon us and head south. Not so!

The night did start with the Lights in the south, as shown in the panorama image at top. It takes in a full 360°, with the aurora arcing from east to west across the southern sky in Orion. The north over the Centre is clear.

But the curtains soon moved back north and engulfed most of our sky for most of the rest of the night.

Participants in our aurora tour group took their aurora “selfies,” and just looked up in awe at one of nature’s great sky shows. When the last of the group turned in at 2:30 a.m. the Lights were still going.

What follows is a selection — just a few! — of the still shots I took. I also shot time-lapse sequences and real-time videos. All those will take more editing to turn them into a music video, still to come.

Enjoy!

Aurora Watcher with Twilight Curtains (March 6, 2016)
A lone observer gazes skyward at the start of a wonderful aurora display on March 6, 2016, as the curtains begin to appear and dance in the deep blue twilight. This was at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Churchill, Manitoba.
Gazing at a Colourful Twilight Aurora
A lone observer gazes at an array of colourful curtains of aurora during an active display, March 6, 2016, with curtains in the evening twilight adding blue tints to the sky and tops of the curtains, as well as the greens and reds from oxygen. Curtains toward the horizon are more yellow due to atmospheric extinction. Jupiter is rising at left, then near opposition.
Converging Colourful Curtains of Aurora
Auroral curtains converge at the zenith in the evening twilight during a Kp Index 7 night of aurora in Churchill, Manitoba. Blue twilight adds the blue tints to the sky and curtains.
CNSC Group with Purple Aurora (March 6, 2016)
Our group of Learning Vacations tourists enjoy the start of a fine display of Northern Lights at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, March 6, 2016. As curtains appear to the east, another array of curtains shines to the west behind them with a strong purple tint lighting the sky and ground. The Andromeda Galaxy sits amid the curtains.
Aurora Watchers at CNSC (March 6, 2016)
Aurora watchers looking south to a bright curtain of Northern Lights while other curtains rippled behind them to the north. This was a fabulous all-sky display, March 6, 2016. The temperature was about -25° C.
Green Aurora over Green Snow
The green aurora lights the ground and snow green in a spectacular display March 6, 2016. This is looking northeast from the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Churchill, Manitoba.
Multiple Curtains of Aurora
A series of curtains of aurora, in a layered series across the sky, from the March 6, 2016 display in Churchill, Manitoba,
Aurora over CNSC (March 6, 2016)
The aurora over the Churchill Northern Studies Centre building, home to Arctic research and to many programs for tourists about northern ecology and science. The March Learning Vacations aurora tour group experienced a fabulous display this night, March 6, 2016.
Aurora Group Outside CNSC (March 6, 2016)
Some of our group of Learning Vacations aurora tourists outside the Churchill Northern Studies Centre enjoying the sky show on March 6, 2016 on a night with a Level 5 to 7 aurora.
Abstract Patterns in a Zenith Aurora
What do you see in the swirling patterns of aurora curtains at the zenith? They rapidly take many forms as they move about. This was the wonderful display of March 6, 2016.

— Alan, March 9, 2016 / © 2016 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com

The Northern Lights … As They Appeared


Aurora As It Appeared Title

My 10-minute video captures the Northern Lights in real-time video – no time-lapses here!

I hadn’t tried this before but the display of February 12, 2016 from Churchill, Manitoba was so active it was worth trying to shoot it with actual video, not time-lapse still frames.

I used very high ISO speeds resulting in very noisy frames. But I think the motion and colours of the curtains as they ripple and swirl more than overpower the technical limitations. And there’s live commentary!

 

Select HD and Enter Full Screen for the best quality.

Scenes have been edited for length, and I did not use all the scenes I shot in the final edit. So the scenes you see in the 10-minute video actually took place over about 20 minutes. But each scene is real-time. They show the incredibly rapid motion and fine structure in the auroral curtains, detail blurred in long multi-second exposures.

I used a Nikon D750 camera at ISO speeds from 12,800 to 51,200. While it is certainly very capable of shooting low-light video, the D750 is not optimized for it. A Sony a7s, with its larger pixels and lower noise, would have been a better camera. Next time!

The lens, however, was key. I used the new Sigma 20mm Art lens which, at f/1.4, is the fastest lens in its focal length class. And optical quality, even wide open, is superb.

The temperature was about -30 degrees C, with a windchill factor of about -45 C. It was cold! But no one in the aurora tour group of 22 people I was instructing was complaining. Everyone was outside, bundled up, and enjoying the show.

It was what they had traveled north to see, to fulfill a life-long desire to stand under the Northern Lights. Everyone could well and truly check seeing the aurora off their personal bucket lists this night.

For more information about aurora and other northern eco-tourism tours offered by the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, see churchillscience.ca 

— Alan, February 17, 2016 / www.amazingsky.com 

Scenes from Under the Auroral Oval


Classic Curtains of the Auroral Oval

From Churchill, Manitoba the Northern Lights dance almost every night over the boreal forest.

This year, as in the last two years, I have traveled to the shores of a frozen Hudson Bay and to the town of Churchill, Manitoba to view and photograph the aurora borealis.

I’m instructing two tour groups at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, one this week and one last week, in the science and sagas of the aurora and on how to shoot the Lights. The participants in the groups are fabulous, keenly interested and unfazed by the cold and wind.

From Churchill’s latitude of 58° N, we are under the main auroral oval almost every night. Even on nights with low official activity levels, as they were on all the nights I shot these images, we still get sky-filling displays.

Here’s a selection of still images from the last week of shooting, with clear skies on all but a couple of nights. There’s still room in our March sessions!

Circumpolar Star Trails and Aurora (Feb 9, 2016)
Circumpolar star trails and aurora over the boreal forest at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Churchill, Manitoba, on Feb 9, 2016. This is a stack of 250 frames shot over one hour (until the battery died) for a time-lapse but here stacked for a single image star trail using the Advanced Stacker Plus actions and Long Streaks effect. Each exposure was 15 seconds at f/2.8 with the 15mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 6400.
All-Sky Aurora from Churchill (Feb 5, 2016)
An all-sky aurora display of multiple curtains of aurora borealis over the boreal forest at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, in Churchill, Manitoba, taken on Feb 5, 2016. The view is looking almost due north. Jupiter is at right. The Big Dipper is at centre frame. This is one frame from a 380-frame time-lapse sequence shot for digital dome projection in planetariums. This is a 20-second exposure at f/5 (stopped down by accident — should have been f/3.5) with the 8mm Sigma fish-eye lens and Canon 6D at ISO 3200. Temperature was -35° C. But no wind!
Observing the Aurora on Deck at CNSC
Participants in the Arctic Skies tour and course observe and photograph the Northern Lights from the upper level observing deck at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Churchill, Manitoba on Feb 10, 2016, the first night of their tour. A Level 1 to 2 display provided a good first night show though with bitterly cold temperatures and wind chills of near -50° C. This is a single exposure of 8 seconds at f/1.4 with the 20mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200.
Aurora over Churchill Northern Studies Centre #1 (Feb 8, 2016)
The Northern Lights over the Churchill Northern Studies Centre on Feb 8/9, 2016 during a weak all-sky display. The arcs lay primarily in the south when the display was at its best this night. Orion and the Pleiades are just setting in the west over the town of Churchill. This is a 20 second exposure at f/2.8 with the 15mm full-frame fish-eye lens and Canon 6D at ISO 3200.
Northern Lights Panorama #2 from CNSC Deck
A panorama across the northern horizon of the sweeping curtains of the aurora, taken from the observation deck of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Manitoba. I shot this on Feb 10, 2016 on the first night of the Arctic Skies tour group week. Vega is low in the north at left of centre, Arcturus is the bright star at right of centre. This is a 4-segment panorama, stitched with Adobe Camera Raw, with each segment 5 seconds at f/1.4 with the 20mm Sigma lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200.
Aurora with Leo and Jupiter Rising (Feb 5, 2016)
Curtains of the aurora looking northeast and east toward Leo rising (at upper right) and Jupiter (at right), over the boreal forest of the Hudson Bay Lowlands near Churchill, Manitoba, on Feb 5, 2016. This is a single frame from a 680-frame time-lapse. This is a 4-second exposure at f/1.4 with the Sigma 20mm Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 3200.
Vertical Curtains of Aurora over the Boreal Forest
Vertical curtains of aurora converging to the zenith overhead over the snowy boreal forest at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Churchill, Manitoba. I shot this Feb 4, 2016 on a night with temperatures of -35° C with a slight wind. The Big Dpper is at right. Exposure was 10 seconds at f/2.8 with the 15mm lens anf Canon 6D at ISO 3200.
Gazing at the Aurora from Churchill
A lone figure gazes skyward at the aurora over the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, Churchill, Manitoba. I shot this Feb 4, 2016 on a night with temperatures of -35° C with a slight wind. Exposure was 13 seconds at f/2.8 with the 15mm lens anf Canon 6D at ISO 3200.
Aurora, Big Dipper and Polaris
A wide vertical portrait of the Northern Lights in the northern sky, with the stars of the Big Dipper and Polaris above centre. Shot from the upper deck of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre on a very windy night with wind chills of -50°, so standing in the wind to take this image was bitter! You grab a few images and retreat! This is a single 15-second exposure at f/2.8 with the 15mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 3200.
Arctic Skies Group Under the Aurora
The February Arctic Skies tour group watching and photographing the aurora from the second floor deck of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, where it is out of the wind, which this night was producing -50° C wind chills. This is a single 6-second exposure at f/2.8 with the 15mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 6400.
Watching the Aurora in the Winter Stars
A self-portrait of me watching the Northern Lights from the upper deck of the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, looking south to the winter stars of Orion, Gemini and Auriga. This was Feb 11, 2016, a very windy, almost blizzard night with blowing snow and reduced visibility. However the aurora did appear through the haze and clouds. In the distance are the buildings of the old Churchill Rocket Range. This is a single 15-second exposure at f/2.8 with the 15mm lens and Canon 6D at ISO 3200.

— Alan, February 12, 2016 / www.amazingsky.com 

 

Dance of the Northern Lights



My new 3-minute music video compiles still and time-lapse imagery of the aurora I shot in February 2015 from Churchill, Manitoba.

Churchill’s location at 58° North on the shore of Hudson Bay puts it directly under the main auroral oval, the zone of greatest auroral activity. Over the 9 nights, 2 were cloudy, with a roaring blizzard.

But on the 8 clear nights we saw aurora every night. I shot time-lapses on 6 of those nights, shooting about 3,500 frames, most of which appear in the final cut of this movie.

Despite the amazing displays we saw, on no night was the auroral activity index (on a scale of 0 to 9) higher than 2 or 3. These were all “normal” quiet nights for auroras in Churchill. Anyone farther south would have seen little in their sky on most of these nights.

I shot many of the time-lapses with an 8mm spherical fish-eye lens, to create sequences suitable for projection in digital planetarium domes. One other time-lapse sequence (the last in this movie) I shot with a 15mm full-frame fish-eye. Even it is not wide enough to take in the entire display when the Lights fill the sky.

Exposures were typically 10 to 15 seconds at f/3.5 and ISO 1600 to 4000, all with the Canon 6D. I powered it from its lone internal battery. Amazingly, despite temperatures that were considered extreme even for Churchill (often -32° C at night) the batteries lasted 90 to 150 minutes allowing me to take lots of frames with no battery change or perhaps just one battery change. Churchill is very dry and only on one night did I have an issue with the lens frosting up.

Music is by Dan Phillipson, his composition “Into the Unknown,” purchased for royalty-free use through Triple Scoop Music. I edited the movie in Apple Aperture, with a title sequence created in Photoshop. Processing of the original images was with Adobe Camera Raw, Photoshop, and LRTimelapse, with assembly of movie frames done with Sequence for MacOS.

I hope you enjoy it! Do click on the Enlarge button to watch it full screen. It may take a while to start playing.

— Alan, March 6, 2015 / © 2015 Alan Dyer / www.amazingsky.com