It was a fabulous week of clear skies and dancing auroras in and around Yellowknife in Canada’s North.
For the second year in a row I traveled due north from home in Alberta to visit Yellowknife, capitol of Canada’s Northwest Territories. At a latitude of 62° North, Yellowknife lies directly under the auroral oval and so enjoys views of the Northern Lights on almost every clear night.
During my 8-night stay from September 3 to 10 almost every night was clear and filled with auroras.
Somba K’e Park
The Lights can be seen even from within the downtown core, as the opening image shows, taken from the urban Sombe K’e Park looking over Frame Lake and the Prince of Wales Museum.
The Museum is lit with rippling bands of coloured light that emulate the aurora borealis.
A favourite urban site for viewing the Lights is the Pilot’s Monument lookout in the middle of Yellowknife’s Oldtown district. This panorama sweeps from northeast at left to west at far right, looking mostly south over the downtown core.
This night even the urban lights were not enough to wash out the Lights as they brightened during a brief substorm.
Another good urban site that gets you away from immediate lights is the open spaces of Rotary Park overlooking the houseboats anchored in Yellowknife Bay. This panorama again sweeps from east to west, looking toward to the waxing Moon low in the south.
Again, despite the urban lights and moonlight, the Lights were spectacular.
The main viewing sites for the Northern Lights are down Highway 4, the Ingraham Trail east of the city away from urban lights.. One of the closest stops is a parking lot on the shore of a backwater bay of Prosperous Lake. It’s where many tourist buses stop and unload their passengers, mostly to get their selfies under the Lights.
But with patience you can get your own photos unencumbered by other lights and people, as I show below.
On one of my nights I stopped at Prosperous on the way to sites farther down Ingraham Trail to catch the twilight colours in the stunningly clear sky.
This small lake and picnic site farther along the Trail serves as a great place to shoot the Lights reflected in the calm waters and looking north. I spent one of my nights at Madeline Lake, a popular spot for local residents to have a campfire under the Lights.
And it’s popular for tour buses, whose headlights shine out across the lake as they arrive through the night, in this case casting my long shadow across the misty lake.
However, again with patience it is possible to get clean images of the aurora and its reflections in the lake.
Reflections of the Northern Lights in the calm and misty waters of Madeline Lake on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife, NWT on Sept 7, 2019. This is one of a series of “reflection” images. The Big Dipper is at left. Capella is at right. This is a single 13-second exposure with the 15mm Laowa lens at f/2 and Sony a7III at ISO 1600.
Reflections of the Northern Lights in the calm waters of Madeline Lake on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife, NWT on Sept 7, 2019. This is one of a series of “reflection” images. The Big Dipper is at left; Capella at far right. This is a single 8-second exposure with the 15mm Laowa lens at f/2 and Sony a7III at ISO 1600.
Farther down the Trail is a spot the tour buses will not go to as a visit to the Ramparts waterfall on the Cameron River requires a hike down a wooded trail, in the dark with bears about. Luckily, my astrophoto colleague, amateur astronomer, and local resident Stephen Bedingfield joined me for a superb shoot with us the only ones present at this stunning location.
The view looking the other way north over the river was equally wonderful. What a place for viewing the Northern Lights!
The view from a viewpoint early on the trail down to the Ramparts and overlooking the Cameron River yielded a superb scene with the low Moon and twilight providing the illumination as the Lights kicked up early in the evening.
A favourite spot is the major camping and boat launch area of Prelude Lake Territorial Park. But to avoid the crowds down by the shoreline, Stephen and I hiked up to the overlook above the lake looking north. A few other ardent photographers joined us. This was another spectacular and perfect night.
September is a superb time to visit as the lakes are still open and the autumn colours make for a good contrast with the sky colours.
The panorama below takes in the Big Dipper at left, Capella at centre, and with the Pleiades and Hyades rising at right of centre.
I used the 8mm fish-eye lens to capture the entire sky, the only way you can really take in the whole scene on camera. When the Lights fill the sky you don’t know which way to look or aim your camera!
A 360° fish-eye view of the Northern Lights over Prelude Lake near Yellowknife, NWT, Canada, on September 9, 2019, with photographers in the foreground shooting the Lights from the viewpoint above the lake. Polaris is near the centre; the Big Dipper and Ursa Major are at lower left; Cassiopeia is at upper right. Andromeda and Pegasus are rising at far right. Arcturus is setting at far left. This is a single shot with the 8mm Sigma lens at f/3.5 on the Sony a7III for 10 seconds at ISO 3200. Moonlight also provides some of the illumination. Accent AI filter applied to the ground with Topaz Studio 2.0
A 360° fish-eye view of the Northern Lights over Prelude Lake near Yellowknife, NWT, Canada, on September 9, 2019. Polaris is near the centre; the Big Dipper and Ursa Major are at lower left; Cassiopeia is at upper right. Andromeda and Pegasus are rising at far right. Arcturus is setting at far left. This is a single shot with the 8mm Sigma lens at f/3.5 on the Sony a7III for 20 seconds at ISO 1000. Moonlight also provides some of the illumination. Accent AI filter applied to the ground with Topaz Studio 2.0
There are many other scenic spots along the Trail, such as Pontoon Lake, Reid Lake, and Tibbitt Lake at the very end of Ingraham Trail. For images and movies I shot last year at Tibbitt Lake, see my blog post at Aurora Reflections in Yellowknife.
But in my 8 nights in Yellowknife this year I managed to hit many of the key aurora spots for photography and viewing. I recommend a visit, especially in September before autumn clouds roll in later in the season, and while the lakes are not frozen and nighttime temperatures are mild.
Here’s a 3-minute music video of clips I shot from all these sites showing the motion of the Lights as it appeared to the eye in “real-time,” not sped up or in time-lapse.
The Northern Lights of Yellowknife from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
As I do a couple of times a year, earlier this month I was cruising the coast of Norway chasing the Northern Lights – successfully!
One of my “retirement gigs” is to serve as a lecturer for the educational travel company Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) on some of their aurora cruises along the Norwegian coast on one of the Hurtigruten ferry ships.
This time, as I was last autumn, I was on Hurtigruten’s flagship coastal ferry, the m/s Trollfjord.
Our tour group was treated to five fine nights with auroras, an unusually good take out of the 12-day round trip cruise from Bergen to Kirkenes and back to Bergen. Our first look, above, was on February 27, but through cloud.
But after we reached the top end at Kirkenes and turned around for the southbound voyage, skies cleared remarkably. We had a wonderful four clear days and nights in a row, all with Northern Lights.
The best show was March 1, and when we were in port in the northern coastal village of Båtsfjord. The Lights danced overhead in the best show I had seen from Norway.
The next night we got a good show while we were in the port of Skjervøy.
As we continued south we emerged out from under the auroral oval zone, placing the Lights to the north, back in the direction we had come from.
A self-portrait on the back deck of the ms Trollfjord, southbound out of Berlevag this night and under the Northern Lights.
Aurora photographers and observers on the rear deck 9 area of the Hurtigruten ferry ship the ms Trollfjord on the southbound voyage along the Norwegian coast, on March 2, 2019. This is a single 1.6-second exposure at f/2 with the 15mm Venus Optics lens and Sony a7III at ISO 6400.
Curtains of Northern Lights over the Hurtigruten ferry ship the ms Trollfjord on March 1, 2019. This is a single 1.6-second exposure at f/2 with the 15mm Venus Optics lens and Sony a7III at ISO 10000.
A low arc of aurora late in the voyage south on March 4, 2019, our last sighting for the cruise, after we crossed the Arctic Circle. A single exposure at ISO 10000 due to the large motion of the ship. The smoke from the ship is at top, illuminated by the funnel lights that were not turned off this night.
An example of multiple concentric auroral curtains, here over the Norwegian coast on the southbound Hurtigruten ship ms Trollfjord on March 2, 2019. This is a single 1.6-second exposure at f/2 with the Venus Optics 15mm lens and Sony a7III at ISO 10000.
Equally spectacular in my mind were some of the sunsets and twilight skies we enjoyed as we sailed through the Lofoten Islands, including on our visit to the narrow Trollfjord fjord for which the ship is named.
On our aurora nights I mostly shot “real-time” video of the Lights, using the low-light capability and 4K functions of the Sony a7III camera. The result is a music video linked to below.
The Northern Lights At Sea from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
I hope you enjoy it. Do view it full-screen and at 4K resolution.
For 11 non-stop nights in February we had clear skies and Northern Lights in Churchill.
Every year in winter I visit Churchill, Manitoba to attend to groups of aurora tourists at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. Few groups (indeed only two over the 35 years the program has been offered) go away having not seen the Lights during the 5-night program.
But this year was the opposite exception. Even locals were impressed by the run of clear nights and displays in early February. It was non-stop Northern Lights!
Having auroras in Churchill isn’t unusual. It is located right under the auroral oval, so if it’s clear it would be unusual not to have some level of auroral activity.
But particles from a coronal hole at the Sun fired up the lights and gave us good shows every night, often starting early in evening, rather than at midnight as is typically the case. The shows pre-empted my evening lectures!
With shows every night, people soon got pretty fussy about what they’d get excited about. Some nights people viewed displays just from their bedroom windows!
Displays that on night one they would be thrilled with, by night four they were going back to bed awaiting a call later when “it gets really good!”
While auroras were active every night, the Lights showed little in the way of varied colours. Notably absent was any of the deep red from high altitude oxygen. The aurora particles were just not energetic enough I presume, a characteristic of solar minimum displays.
Increasingly, as we enter into the depths of solar minimum, with a prolonged lull expected for the next few years, aurora chasers will have to travel north to the Arctic and to the auroral oval to see displays on demand. The Lights won’t come to us!
We did see fringes of pink at times along the bottom of the auroral curtains from glowing nitrogen molecules, but even this was subtle to the eye, though obvious to the camera.
The nitrogen pinks are usually accompanied by rapid dancing motions that are amazing to watch.
The music video linked to below provides the best view of what we saw. It is made entirely of real-time video, not time-lapses, of the Lights as seen over several nights from the Studies Centre.
The video is in 4K, so do click through for the best viewing. And the Vimeo page provides more details about the video and the techniques.
The Northern Lights are amazing from Yellowknife, in Canada’s Northwest Territories.
A handful of locations in the world are meccas for aurora chasers. Yellowknife is one of them and, for me, surprisingly accessible with daily flights north.
In a two-hour flight from Calgary you can be at latitude 62° North and standing under the auroral oval with the lights dancing overhead every clear night.
The attraction of going in early September, as I did, is that the more persistent clouds of late autumn have not set in, and the many lakes and rivers are not yet frozen, making for superb photo opportunities.
A single image from a time-lapse sequence, of the auroral curtains converging toward the zenith during the display on September 8/9, 2018, from near Yellowknife, NWT. This is 2.5 seconds at f/2.8 with the 12mm Rokinon full-frame fish-eye lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.
A faint green and red auroral curtain to the northwest over Tibbitt Lake on the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife, NWT. The Big Dipper is right of centre; Arcturus setting on the horizon. This was September 8, 2018. This is a mean-combined stack of 8 exposures for the ground and water to smooth noise, and a single exposure for the sky, all 25 seconds at f/2 with the 15mm Laoawa lens and Sony A7III at ISO 1600.
A single image from a time-lapse sequence, of the auroral curtains converging toward the zenith during the display on September 8/9, 2018, from near Yellowknife, NWT. The curtains show some fringes of pink from nitrogen. This is 2.5 seconds at f/2.8 with the 12mm Rokinon full-frame fish-eye lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.
A display of Northern Lights starting up in the twilight, over the river leading out of Tibbitt Lake, at the end of the Ingraham Trail near Yellowknife NWT, on September 8, 2018. This was the start of a fabulous display this night. Capella and Auriga are at left; the Pleiades is rising left of centre; the Andromeda Galaxy is at top. This is a mean-combined stack of 7 exposures for the ground to smooth noise and one exposure for the sky and partially for the reflection, all 25 seconds at f/2.5 with the 14mm Sigma Art lens and Nikon D750 at ISO 1600.
Lakes down Highway 4, the Ingraham Trail, such as Prosperous, Prelude, and Pontoon are popular spots for the busloads of tourists who fly in every year from around the world.
On one magical night I and my local host and guide, Stephen Bedingfield, went to the end of the Trail, to where the Ice Road begins, to Tibbitt Lake, and had the site to ourselves. The aurora was jaw-dropping that night.
On other nights with less certain prospects I stayed in town, and still got a fine show on several nights, the Lights so bright they show up well even from within urban Yellowknife.
A curtain of aurora sweeps over the houseboats moored on Yellowknife Bay in Yellowknife, NWT, on September 11, 2018. The Pleiades and Hyades star clusters in Taurus are rising at left. This is a mean-combined stack of 8 images to smooth noise for the ground and water, and a single exposure for the sky and houseboats themselves (as they were moving slightly from exposure to exposure). Each was 13 seconds at f/2 with the Venus Optics 15mm lens and Sony a7III at ISO 3200.
A selfie portrait under an all-sky display of Northern Lights in the city of Yellowknife, from the boardwalk at Rotary Park. This was on the night of Sept. 10/11, 2018 during a major solar storm, but in the subsiding hours after the sky cleared at about 2 am. The Big Dipper is at right. The Summer Triangle is at left. Cassiopeia is at the zenith. The view is looking northwest at centre. This is a mean stack of 6 exposures smoothed to reduce noise for the ground and one exposure for the sky and me, all 6 seconds at f/3.5 with the Sigma 8mm lens and Sony a7III at ISO 3200. The focus is soft.
The Northern Lights over the “United in Celebration” sculpture at the Somba K’e Civic Plaza on Frame Lake in downtown Yellowknife, NWT, on September 14, 2018. The Prince of Wales Museum is at far right. This is a stack of 5 images for the ground to smooth noise and one image for the sky, all 6 seconds at f/2 with the 15mm Laoawa lens and Sony a7III at ISO 400.
An all-sky display of Northern Lights in the city of Yellowknife, from the end of the boardwalk at Rotary Park looking over the bay. This was on the night of Sept. 10/11, 2018 during a major solar storm, but in the subsiding hours after the sky cleared at about 2 am. The winter stars of Taurus and Gemini are rising. The Big Dipper is at far left. Cassiopeia is at the zenith. The view is looking east at centre. This is a mean stack of 8 exposures smoothed to reduce noise for the ground and one exposure for the sky, all 6 seconds at f/3.5 with the Sigma 8mm lens and Sony a7III at ISO 3200. The focus is soft.
On another night we chased into clear skies down Highway 3 to the west, to a rocky plateau on the Canadian Precambrian Shield. Even amid the clouds, the aurora was impressive.
But it was the night at Tibbitt that was the highlight.
Here is the finale music video from movies shot that night, September 8, 2018, with two cameras: the Sony a7III used to take “real-time” 4K videos of the aurora motion, and the Nikon D750 used to take time-lapses.
The movie is in 4K. The music, Eternal Hope, is by Steven Gutheinz and is used by permission of West One Music.
Aurora Reflections from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
Click through to Vimeo for more technical info about the video.
Enjoy! And do share!
And make Yellowknife one of your bucket-list locations.
The strange aurora named Steve put on a show on Sunday, May 6.
The past weekend was a good one for Northern Lights here in Alberta and across western Canada.
A decent display lit the northern sky on Saturday, May 5, on a warm spring evening. I took in that show from a favorite spot along the Red Deer River.
The next night, Sunday, May 6, we were hoping for a better show, but the main aurora never amounted to much across the north.
Instead, we got a fine showing of Steve, an unusual isolated arc of light across the sky, that was widely observed across western Canada and the northern U.S. I caught his performance from my backyard.
Popularized by the Alberta Aurora Chasers Facebook group, Steve is the fanciful name applied to what still remains a partly unexplained phenomenon. It might not even be a true aurora (and it is NOT a “proton arc!”) from electrons streaming down, but a stream of hot gas flowing east to west and always well south of the main aurora.
Thus Steve is “backronymed” as Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.
To the eye he appears as a grey arc, not doing much, but fading in, slowly shifting, then fading away after 30 to 60 minutes. He doesn’t stick around long.
The camera reveals his true colours.
This is Steve to the west, displaying his characteristic pink and white tints.
But overhead, in a fish-eye lens view, he displayed ever so briefly another of his talents – slowly moving fingers of green, called a picket fence aurora.
It was appropriate for Steve to appear on cue, as NASA scientists and local researchers who are working on Steve research were gathered in Calgary to discuss future aurora space missions. Some of the researchers had not yet seen Steve in person, but all got a good look Sunday night as they, too, chased Steve!
I shot a time-lapse and real-time videos of Steve, the latter using the new Sony a7III camera which can shoot 4K videos of night sky scenes very well.
The final video is here on Vimeo.
Steve Aurora – May 6, 2018 (4K) from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
It is in 4K, if you choose to stream it at full resolution.
With summer approaching, the nights are getting shorter and brighter, but we here in western Canada can still see auroras, while aurora destinations farther north are too bright and lack any night skies.
Plus our latitude south of the main auroral oval makes western Canada Steve country!
The skies of Norway provided superb nights of Northern Lights as I sailed the coast.
As I did last autumn, I was able to join a cruise along the Norwegian coast, instructing an aurora tour group from Road Scholar. We were on one of the Hurtigruten ferry ships that ply the coast each day, the m/s Nordnorge, on a 12-day trip from Bergen to Kirkenes at the top end of Norway, then back again to Bergen.
In all, we had three very clear nights, with good auroras on two of those nights. Several other nights had bright auroras but seen through broken cloud.
All observing and photography is done from the ship deck as we sailed among the fjords and sounds along the coast.
The best night was an all-sky display on March 14 seen from north of Tromsø as we sailed back south from our farthest north of 71° latitude.
Earlier, on the trip north, we had a great night as the aurora danced over the Lofoten Islands and we entered the Trollfjord. There is no finer scenery on Earth for framing the Lights.
As is the custom, the captain enters the fjord by searchlight, a scene depicted below.
I shot very few time-lapses on this trip (unlike my trip in October 2017, which you can see in a music video at a previous blog post).
However, here’s a short music video of two clips I did shoot, including a time-lapse of us approaching the Trollfjord entrance.
As we sailed south, we left the aurora behind. Our last look was of the arc of the auroral oval across the north, seen from south of Rorvik.
However, for several nights prior we had been under the auroral oval and the Lights had danced for us over the sky.
Norway is one of the world’s best sites for seeing the Northern Lights – the “nordlys” – and taking a Hurtigruten cruise along the coast is a great way to see the Lights and incredible scenery that changes by the minute.
I present a music video of time-lapses of the Northern Lights from Norway, shot from the ship the aptly named m/s Nordlys.
The Nordlys is one of many ferry ships in the Hurtigruten cruise line (the name means “fast route”) that ply the Norwegian coast, with daily departures from Bergen (at latitude 60° N) to Kirkenes at the top of Norway (at 71° N). At the top end of Norway you are under the auroral oval and almost always see some level of auroral activity, if skies cooperate.
This 11-day cruise was blessed with five clear nights with active auroras. I was serving as an instructor for a tour group of 30 from the U.S.-based Road Scholar tour company.
Sailing to the Northern Lights from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
The final sequence is of the ship entering the Trollfjorden – a narrow fjord often entered in darkness under searchlight. This was a dramatic sight with the aurora dancing overhead.
For a selection of still images from this trip and from the second cruise I did immediately following, see my previous blog post, The Nordlys of Norway.
All exposures were about 1 to 1.3 seconds only, to minimize blurring during each exposure, shot with the Nikon D750 at ISO 6400, and with mostly the Sigma 14mm Art lens at f/1.8.
One sequence is with the Rokinon 12mm full-frame fish-eye at f/2.8. Intervals were 1 to 2 seconds, providing a rapid cadence.
In assembly I applied a 4-frame blur to smooth the frame-to-frame motion. All processing with Adobe Camera Raw and assembly with the Mac app Time-Lapse from MicroProjects.ca (an app no longer available – a pity).
Music is by the Hollywood soundtrack artists AudioMachine, and is used with permission under “social media” licence. It is the track “Above and Beyond” from their album Tree of Life.
For the past three weeks I chased the “nordlys” – the Northern Lights – along the coast of Norway up to a latitude of 71° North.
As I type this blog our ship, the Hurtigruten ferry the m/s Nordlys, is rocking and rolling as we cross the Froy Sea off the southern coast of Norway on the way south to Bergen.
We’re completing a cruise up and down the Norwegian coast, the second of two consecutive 11-day cruises I took this autumn as an enrichment lecturer on aurora cruise tour packages offered by the U.S.-based Road Scholar tour company.
It’s been a superb chase up and down the coast – twice! – to catch the Lights. We got a total of 8 clear nights of aurora out of 22, not a bad tally for this time of year.
Here’s a gallery of images, all shot from the ship using a fast lens and high ISO speeds to keep exposures down to about 1 second to minimize blurring from the ship movement.
A participant in the Road Scholar aurora tour in October 2017 watches the Northern Lights from the aft deck of the m/s Nordlys on the Norway coast. The Big Dipper is at centre
Aurora tourists watch and photograph the Northern Lights from the deck of the m/s Nordlys in October 2017 on the coast of Norway.
Watching the Northern Lights from the deck of the m/s Nordlys on October 24, 2017 from the coast of Norway. This is a single exposure of 1 second with the 14mm Sigma Art lens at f/1.8 and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.
The Northern Lights exhibiting the classic pink colour on the lower edge of the curtains from glowing nitrogen molecules, in addition to the main green tint from oxygen. Taken from the Hurigruten ship the m/s Nordlys north of Tromsø on October 24, 2017. This is a single 1-second exposure with the Sigma 14mm Art lens at f/1.8 and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400. Taken as part of a time-lapse sequence.
The aurora boralis over a bridge in Norway, as per the legend of “Bifrost,” the bridge between heaven and Earth in Norse mythology. Taken from the Hurtigruten ship the m/s Nordlys on October 23, 2017, on the journey between Svolvaer and Tromsø. Taken with the Sigma 14mm Art lens at f/1.8 and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400 for 1.6 seconds, as part of a 450-frame time-lapse.
The sweep of the auroral oval from a latitude of 70° north in the Barent’s Sea off the north coast of Norway, on October 26, 2017. The curtains exhibit a lower pink fringe from nitrogen. Taken from the forward deck of the m/s Nordlys This is a single 2-second exposure with the 12mm Rokinon full-frame fish-eye lens at f/2.8 and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.
Auroral curtains from the deck of the m/s Nordlys on October 25, 2017, looking northeast toward the Big Dipper at centre. Arcturus is setting at left.
Auroral curtains from the deck of the m/s Nordlys on October 25, 2017, looking northeast toward the Big Dipper at right. Arcturus is setting a left of centre.
The Hurtigruten ship the m/s Kong Harold sailing south and apparently into the aurora, on the Norwegian coast, as we passed the ship as we sailed north.
The scene as the m/s Nordlys exits the narrow Trollfjorden fjord, with the ship’s spotlights lighting the walls of the narrow fjord and with the aurora dancing. Ahead lies the winter sky with Taurus and the Pleiades rising. This was a magical moment indeed, one of the best of the Norway cruise. This is a single 0.8 sec exposure with the 14mm Sigma Art lens at f/1.8 and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.
Aurora in the moonlight from a nearly Full Moon over the Barent’s Sea off the north coast of Norway, November 5, 2017. This was a very weak Kp 0 to Kp 1 display, yet still showed up in the moonlight. The Moon was in Taurus, with the Pleiades at above the Moon and the Aldebaran to the left of the Moon. This is a single 0.5-second exposure with the 14mm Sigma Art lens at f/1.8 and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400. Taken from the Hurtigruten ship the m/s Nordlys.
A dim but photogenic aurora on November 7, from the coast of Norway on the Hurtigruten ship the m/s Nordlys, in a view looking south to Pegasus and Andromeda, and over off-shore islands. The rising waning Moon off frame to the left illuminates the sky and landscape. This is a single 1-second exposure with the Sigma 14mm Art lens at f/1.8 and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.
Aurora in the moonlight from a nearly Full Moon over the Barent’s Sea off the north coast of Norway, November 5, 2017. This was a very weak Kp 0 to Kp 1 display, yet still showed up in the moonlight. The Moon is off frame to the right. The Big Dipper is left of centre — we are looking almost due north. Taken from Deck 5, port side, of the Hurtigruten ship the m/s Nordlys This is a single 0.5-second exposure with the 14mm Sigma Art lens at f/1.8 and Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.
A wisp of aurora appears in a break in the clouds as the m/s Nordlys enters Trollfjorden fjord in the Lofoten Islands in Norway, on November 8, 2017. It was actually raining when I took this shot but a major auroral storm was underway and we got a brief glimpse of a curtain as we entered this spectacular and narrow fjord. Then the rain clouds closed in. The bright lights are the ship’s searchlights lighting the walls of the narrow fjord. The white at top is the ship’s smoke. This was from the aft deck looking astern. This was with the 12mm Rokinon fish-eye lens at f/2.8 for 1.6 seconds with the Nikon D750 at ISO 6400.
One of the most memorable nights was on the first cruise when we sailed into the narrow Trollfjorden fjord in the dark with just the ship’s spotlights lighting the fjord walls only metres away from the ship. Above us, the Northern Lights danced. Unforgettable!
The Hurtigruten line operates daily sailings up and down the coast, from Bergen to Kirkenes, up into the auroral oval, which in this part of the world lies at a high latitude above the Arctic Circle. However, the warm gulf stream current keeps the water from freezing and the coast far milder than would be expected for such a high latitude.
This is a trip that should be on the bucket list for all aurora chasers.
October has brought clear skies and some fine celestial sights. Here’s a potpourri of what was up from home.
We’ve enjoyed some lovely early autumn weather here in southern Alberta, providing great opportunities to see and shoot a series of astronomical events.
On October 5, Venus and Mars appeared a fraction of a degree apart in the dawn twilight. Venus is the brightest object, just above dimmer but red Mars. This was one of the closest planet conjunctions of 2017. Mars will appear much brighter in July and August 2018 when it makes its closest approach to Earth since 2003.
Satellites: The Space Station
The Space Station made a series of ideal evening passes in early October, flying right overhead from my site at latitude 51° N. I captured it in a series of stacked still images, so it appears as a dashed line across the sky. In reality it looks like a very bright star, outshining any other natural star. Here, it appears to fly toward the rising Moon.
Often appearing brighter than even the ISS, Iridium satellite flares can blaze brighter than even Venus at its best. One did so here, above, in another time-lapse of a pair of Iridium satellites that traveled in parallel and flared at almost the same time. But the orientation of the reflective antennas that create these flares must have been better on the left Iridium as it really shot up in brilliance for a few seconds.
Little in the sky beats a fine aurora display and we’ve had several of late, despite the Sun being spotless and nearing a low ebb in its activity. The above shot is a composite stack of 200 images, showing the stars circling the celestial pole above the main auroral arc, and taken on Friday the 13th.
This frame, from some 1300 I shot this night, October 13, captures the main auroral arc and a diffuse patch of green above that pulsed on and off.
You can see the time-lapse here in my short music video on Vimeo.
Friday the 13th Aurora from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
It’s in 4K if your monitor and computer are capable. It nicely shows the development of the aurora this night, from a quiescent arc, through a brief sub-storm outburst, then into pulsing and flickering patches. Enjoy!
What all these scenes have in common is that they were all shot from home, in my backyard. It is wonderful to live in a rural area and to be able to step outside and see these sites easily by just looking up!
I’ve assembled a music video of time-lapse clips and still images of the fine aurora of September 27, with Steve making a cameo appearance.
The indicators this night didn’t point to a particularly great display, but the sky really performed.
The Northern Lights started low across the north, in a very active classic arc. The display then quietened.
But as it did so, and as is his wont, the isolated arc that has become known as Steve appeared across the south in a sweeping arc. The Steve arc always defines the most southerly extent of the aurora.
Steve faded, but then the main display kicked up again and began to fill the sky with a post-sub-storm display of pulsing rays and curtains shooting up to the zenith. Only real-time video can really capture the scene as the eye sees it, but the fast time-lapses I shot do a decent job of recording the effect of whole patches of sky turning on and off.
The display ended with odd pulsing arcs in the south.
Here’s the video, available in 4K resolution.
Alberta Aurora (Sept. 27, 2017) from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
The Northern Lights dance in the solstice sky over a prairie lake.
This was a surprise display. Forecasts called for a chance of Lights on Saturday, June 24, but I wasn’t expecting much.
Nevertheless, I headed to a nearby lake (Crawling Lake) to shoot north over the water, not of the Lights, but of noctilucent clouds, a phenomenon unique to the summer solstice sky and our latitudes here on the Canadian prairies.
But as the night darkened (quite late at solstice time) the aurora began to appear in the deepening twilight.
I started shooting and kept shooting over the next four hours. I took a break from the time-lapses to shoot some panoramas, such as the headline image at top, capturing the sweep of the auroral oval over the lake waters.
Just on the horizon you can see some noctilucent clouds (NLCs) as well – clouds so high they are lit by the Sun all night long. NLCs sit at the same height as the bottom of the auroral curtains. But they appear here lower and much farther away, which they likely were, sitting farther north than the auroral band.
I also shot this 360° panorama (above) capturing the arc of the aurora and of the Milky Way. This is a stitch of 8 segments with a 14mm lens mounted in portrait mode.
I’ve assembled the several time-lapse sequences I shot into a short music video. Check it out on Vimeo here. Click through to the Vimeo page for more technical information on the video sequences.
As always click HD, and relax and enjoy the dancing lights over the calm waters of a prairie lake on a summer evening.
No one predicted this spectacle. But on May 27 the last-minute warnings went out to look for a fabulous show as night fell.
And what a show it was! As darkness fell the sky was lit with green curtains. After midnight the curtains converged at the zenith for that most spectacular of sky sights, a coronal burst.
As the night began I was at the Rothney Observatory helping out with the public stargazing night.
We saw the Space Station rise out of the west over the Rockies and pass through the Northern Lights.
It then headed off east, appearing here as the streak amid the Lights and light pollution of Calgary.
To continue to shoot the display I, too, decided to head east, to home. I should have gone west, to the mountains.
I drove through rain to get home, and missed the peak of the display, judging by images from others in the Rockies, and those to the north.
But as I got home clouds began to clear enough for a glimpse of the Space Station, on its next pass, flying overhead, again through the aurora. I wonder what the astronauts might have been seeing looking down.
From home, I caught another bright sub-storm outburst to the north, as the curtains suddenly exploded in brightness and rapid motion, with characteristic pink fringes at the bottoms, from nitrogen molecules.
What impressed me about this display was the smell! Yes, you see auroras and some claim to hear them. But this display is one I’ll remember for the springtime scent of lilacs in the night air as the Lights danced.
The Great Aurora of May 27 from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
Here is a short music video of several time-lapse sequences I shot, of the sub-storm then post-storm subsidence into the patchy flaming and flickering effect that we often see at the end of a great display. And this was certainly one of them.
We southerners were treated to the class of display you usually have to travel north the Arctic and auroral oval to see.
The arch of the Milky Way mirrors the sweep of the Red Deer River on a magical night in the Alberta Badlands.
Images of the Milky Way arching across the sky are now iconic. They are almost always assembled from individual frames stitched together to make a seamless panorama.
From the northern hemisphere, spring is the best season to shoot such a panorama as the Milky Way then remains confined to the eastern sky.
Later in summer, when the Milky Way passes directly overhead, panoramas are still possible, but the Milky Way looks distorted. The process of mapping a round sky onto a rectangular image, as I show here, inevitably stretches out the Milky Way near the zenith.
Last Saturday, in search of the Milky Way during prime panorama season, I set up for the night at Orkney Viewpoint overlooking the Red Deer River in the Alberta Badlands north of Drumheller. There, the river performs a grand curve through the valley below.
Above, the Milky Way, often described as a river of stars, sweeps in mirror-image fashion above the earthly river.
The panorama above contains the reflection of stars – of the constellation of Delphinus in particular – in the smooth water on a windless night.
To the north at left, the Northern Lights put on a subtle show. While never spectacular to the eye, the camera records the aurora’s colour and forms that often elude the naked eye.
The display was brightest early in the evening – that’s 11 p.m. now in May at my latitude.
The display then faded in intensity before I shot the two panoramas about 1 a.m., but the last few frames of the time-lapse show a final burst of colour from a lone curtain reflected in the river.
This was a magical night indeed. And a rare one this spring with clouds more often the norm at night.
The next dark of the Moon coincides with summer solstice. So while the moonlight won’t interfere, critical for shooting the Milky Way, the glow of perpetual twilight at my latitude will. The Milky Way will be set in a deep blue sky.
By July’s dark of the Moon the Milky Way will be high overhead, making panorama arches tough to assemble. It looks like this might have been my one best night to capture such a scene this year. But it was a good one.
Stargazers in western Canada will have seen him – Steve, the odd auroral arc.
There’s been a lot of publicity lately about an unusual form of aurora that appears as a stationary arc across the sky, isolated from the main aurora to the north. It usually just sits there – motionless, featureless, and colourless to the eye, though the camera can pick up magenta and green tints.
We often see these strange auroral arcs from western Canada.
In lieu of a better name, and lacking a good explanation as to their cause, these isolated arcs have become labelled simply as “Steve” by the aurora chasing community (the Alberta Aurora Chasers Facebook group) here in Alberta.
In a gathering of aurora chasers at Calgary’s Kilkenny Pub, aurora photographer extraordinaire and AAC Facebook group administrator Chris Ratzlaff suggested the name. It comes from the children’s movie Over the Hedge, where a character calls anything he doesn’t understand “Steve.” The name has stuck!
The 270° panorama from March 2, 2017 shows Steve to the west (right) and east (left) here, and well isolated from the main aurora to the north.
This is the view of that same March 2, 2017 arc looking straight up, showing Steve’s characteristic gradient from pink at top though white, then to subtle “picket-fence” fingers of green that are usually very short-lived.
The view above is Steve from exactly 6 months earlier, on September 2, 2016. Same features. I get the impression we’re looking up along a very tall but thin curtain.
Another view of the September 2, 2016 Steve shows his classic thin curtain and gradation of colours, here looking southeast.
Looking southwest on September 2, 2016, Steve takes on more rippled forms. But these are very transient. Indeed, Steve rarely lasts more than 30 minutes to an hour, and might get bright for only a few minutes. But even at his brightest, he usually looks white or grey to the eye, and moves very slowly.
Here’s a classic Steve, from October 1, 2006 – a white featureless arc even to the camera in this case.
So what is Steve?
He is often erroneously called a “proton arc,” but he isn’t. True auroral proton arcs are invisible to the eye and camera, emitting in wavelengths the eye cannot see. Proton auroras are also diffuse, not tightly confined like Steve.
Above is Steve from August 5, 2005, when he crashed the Saskatchewan Summer Star Party, appearing as a ghostly white band across the sky. But, again, the camera revealed his true colours.
Steve Auroras in 2015 from Alan Dyer on Vimeo.
Here are a couple of time-lapses from 2015 of the phenomenon, appearing as an isolated arc overhead in the sky far from the main auroral activity to the north. I shot these from my backyard in southern Alberta. In both clips the camera faces north, but takes in most of the sky with a fish-eye lens.
In the first video clip, note the east-to-west flow of structure, as in classic auroras. In the second clip, Steve is not so well-defined. Indeed, his usual magenta band appears only briefly for a minute or so. So I’m not sure this second clip does show the classic Steve arc.
The origin and nature of Steve are subjects of investigation, aided by “citizen science” contributors of photos and videos.
Local aurora researcher Dr. Eric Donovan from the University of Calgary has satellite data from the ESA Swarm mission to suggest Steve is made of intensely hot thermal currents, and not classic electrons raining down as in normal auroras. He has back-acronymed Steve to mean Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.
Learning more about Steve will require a unique combination of professional and amateur astronomers working together.
Now that he has a name, Steve won’t be escaping our attention any longer. We’ll be looking for him!
The solar winds blew some fine auroras our way this past week.
Oh, that I had been in the North last week, where the sky erupted with jaw-dropping displays. I could only watch those vicariously via webcams, such as the Explore.org Northern Lights Cam at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre.
But here in southern Alberta we were still treated to some fine displays across our northern sky. The image below is from March 1, from my rural backyard.
The Sun wasn’t particularly active and there were no coronal mass ejections per se. But a hole in the corona let a wind of solar particles through to buffet our magnetosphere, stirring up geomagnetic storms of Level 4 to 5 scale. That’s good enough to light our skies in western Canada.
Above is the display from March 2, taken over a frozen pond near home. I like how the Lights reflect in the ice.
This night, for about 30 minutes, an odd auroral form appeared that we see from time to time at our latitudes. A wider panorama shows this isolated arc well south of the main auroral oval and forming a thin arc stretching across the sky from west to east.
The panorama above shows just the western and eastern portion of the arc. Overhead (image below) it looked like this briefly.
Visually, it appeared colourless. But the camera picks up this isolated arc’s usual pink color, with a fringe of white and sometimes (here very briefly) a “picket-fence” effect of green rays.
This is the view of the isolated arc to the west. Erroneously called “proton arcs,” these are not caused by incoming protons. Those produce a very diffuse, usually sub-visual glow. But the exact nature of these isolated arcs remains a mystery.
As we head into solar minimum in the nest few years, displays of Northern Lights at lower latitudes will become less frequent. But even without major solar activity, last week’s displays demonstrated we can still get good shows.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
It was a perfect night at a dark site in southern Alberta. The Milky Way shone to the south and aurora danced to the north.
I had scouted out this location in June and marked it on my calendar to return in the fall when the centre of the Milky Way would be well-placed to the southwest.
The site is Police Outpost Provincial Park, named for the North West Mounted Police fort that once occupied the site, guarding Canada’s sovereignty in the late 1800s.
One result from the night of shooting is the opening image, the first frame from a time-lapse taken while deep blue twilight still coloured the sky. The main peak is Chief Mountain in Montana.
To the north an aurora display kicked up over the lake. While it never got very bright, it still provided a photogenic show over the still waters.
The waters were calm on this windless night (rare for southern Alberta), and so reflected the stars and Northern Lights beautifully.
Here, the Big Dipper reflects in the lake as we look north to the Lights. The movie below compiles still images and two time-lapse sequences, of the Lights and Milky Way. The sounds are the natural sounds I recorded on site, as flocks of geese were getting ready to migrate and the owls hooted.
Enjoy! — As always, for the best view, enlarge to full screen or click through to Vimeo with the V button.
With the harvest in full swing, the aurora and Moon lit the fields on a clear September evening.
This night, September 19, showed prospects for a good display of Northern Lights, and sure enough as it got dark a bright, well-defined arc of Lights danced to the north.
I headed off to some photogenic spots near home, on the prairies of southern Alberta. By the time I got in place, the aurora had already faded.
However, the arc still photographed well and provided a great backdrop to these rural scenes. The rising Moon, then 3 days past full, lit the foreground. In the lead image, lights from combines and trucks working the field behind the bins are at left.
The image above was from later in the night, just down the road at a favourite and photogenic grand old barn.
Note the Big Dipper above the barn. A waning and rising Moon like this is great for providing warm illumination.
The time around equinox is usually good for auroras, as the interplanetary and terrestrial magnetic fields line up better to let in the electrons from the Sun. So perhaps we’ll see more Lights, with the Moon now gradually departing the evening sky.
The aurora has been lighting up our skies a lot in recent nights, in a great sweeping arc across the northern sky.
It’s been a good week or so for Northern Lights, with several nights in a row of fine displays. These images are from one night, taken near home in southern Alberta, on September 2.
The lead image at top shows the display at its best, with the arc of curtains reflected in a nearby pond. The green curtains fade to shades of magenta as they tower into the high atmosphere, as one process of glowing oxygen giving off green light transitions to another emitting red light.
A little later the curtains had changed form, into a more homogenous arc above a set of sharper curtains below that are farthest north. People in northern Alberta or the Northwest Territories would have been seeing these curtains dancing above them.
What we are seeing is the classic curving arc of the auroral oval, the ring of light created by electrons raining down into our atmosphere in roughly an oval sweeping across the continent and centred on the magnetic pole in the Canadian Arctic.
However, at right, you can see a odd detached bit of more southerly aurora, with a dominant red colour.
This is a closeup, showing the characteristic form of these odd “isolated arcs” — usually featureless, often thin, without much motion, and often red.
Later, the arc had brightened and expanded to cross the sky. The above view is looking west from home, with the arc now displaying a mix of pink, white and green.
Here, we are looking up the isolated arc, with the impression of it being a thin sheet seen at an angle, with the bottom green component being closest and the red top being highest and farthest away.
This is the view looking southeast to the strange aurora. For a time it broke up and displayed a “picket fence” formation. And it moved!
Just what these isolated arcs are is a mystery. They have been called “proton arcs,” under the assumption they are caused by incoming protons, not electrons. But while there are such things as proton arcs and auroras, they are diffuse and invisible to the eye and camera in normal visible light. So these features are not proton arcs.
Nevertheless, these odd arcs are not like the usual auroral curtains, and likely have a different origin. But just what is still the object of research. Images by amateur astronomers such as these can help in the study.
The sky presented a pyrotechnic display of light and colour in the sunset sky.
What a show tonight, July 18, as a thunderstorm lit the sky with bolts of lightning. As the storm retreated, the Sun broke through, ideal lighting for a rainbow. In this case I was able to capture the rainbow pierced by bolts of lightning. See below for tech details.
A little later, the sunlight got stronger and the rainbow grew to span the sky, in a beautiful display of a double rainbow lit by the red light of the setting Sun.
As the beams of sunlight lit the clouds, it looked like the rainbow was on fire.
It has been a stormy start to summer in Alberta, but at times the sky has put on a stunning show. That was certainly the case tonight.
Technical on the Lightning and Rainbow shot at top:
This is a stack of 35 consecutive video frames taken with HD (1920 x 1080) resolution at 30 frames per second with the Canon 6D, and extracted as an image sequence with Photoshop, then processed in Adobe Camera Raw, then stacked with Russell Brown’s Stack-A-Matic into a smart object with maximum stack mode, to accumulate the frames taken over about 1 second into one still frame.
So I could have got this with a single 1-second exposure with the lens stopped way down and a ND filter, but my timing would have had to have been very, very lucky!
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
The New Year’s sky was filled with Northern Lights, a panorama of stars, and a comet at dawn.
It was a busy night for stargazing as 2015 turned to 2016. A fine display of Northern Lights kicked off the celebrations, as curtains danced in the east as Orion rose (below).
Toward midnight the Lights kicked up again, now with Jupiter (on the horizon) and Leo rising in the east (below).
I shot hundreds of frames for time-lapse sequences, and assembled them into a short music video. Click on the buttons to enlarge it to HD.
Just before midnight, while the second time-lapse was going and the aurora was still active, but before the Last Quarter Moon rose to light the sky, I shot a set of tracked images taking in the entire winter sky from horizon to well past the zenith.
That image is at top. It takes in the winter sky and northern winter Milky Way, from Canis Major just above the horizon, up past Orion, then on up to Perseus and Cassiopeia at top right.
It shows how Orion and Sirius, the night sky’s brightest star, stand nearly due south at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
The final show of the night, now before dawn on New Year’s Day 2016, was Comet Catalina sitting right next to the bright spring star Arcturus. The comet was visible in the moonlight as a fuzzy object next to brilliant Arcturus, but the photo begins to show its faint tails, just standing out in the moonlit sky.
The comet will become more visible later this month once the waning Moon exits the dawn sky, as Catalina is expected to remain a nice binocular comet for most of the month as it heads high into northern sky.
Learn the basics of shooting nightscape and time-lapse images with my three new video tutorials.
In these comprehensive and free tutorials I take you from “field to final,” to illustrate tips and techniques for shooting the sky at night.
At sites in southern Alberta I first explain how to shoot the images. Then back at the computer I step you through how to process non-destructively, using images I shot that night in the field.
Tutorial #1 – The Northern Lights
This 24-minute tutorial takes you from a shoot at a lakeside site in southern Alberta on a night with a fine aurora display, through to the steps to processing a still image and assembling a time-lapse movie.
Tutorial #2 – Moonlit Nightscapes
This 28-minute tutorial takes you from a shoot at Waterton Lakes National Park on a bright moonlit night, to the steps for processing nightscapes using Camera Raw and Photoshop, with smart filters, adjustment layers and masks.
Tutorial #3 – Star Trails
This 35-minute tutorial takes you from a shoot at summer solstice at Dinosaur Provincial Park, then through the steps for stacking star trail stills and assembling star trail time-lapse movies, using specialized programs such as StarStaX and the Advanced Stacker Plus actions for Photoshop.
As always, enlarge to full screen for the HD versions. These are also viewable at my Vimeo channel.
The Moon, planets and Northern lights provided a wonderful show in the dawn sky.
What a superb scene this was. On October 8 the waning crescent Moon shone near Venus (brightest) and Regulus, with red Mars and bright Jupiter paired below.
If that wasn’t enough, as the wide-angle panorama below shows, the Northern Lights were also ending a night of performance, with an arc along the horizon and pulsing waves rising up the sky to the northeast near the planet grouping.
The panorama also sweeps right, to the south, to take in the winter Milky Way and constellations of Orion and Canis Major. Click on the image to bring it up full screen.
The Moon will appear near Mars and Jupiter on the morning of October 9, and then the three planets will begin to converge for a tight gathering for a few mornings around October 25.
Be sure to wake early for the dawn sky show that continues all this month!
The Northern Lights dance over the badlands of Dinosaur Provincial Park, a World Heritage Site.
Aurora alerts called for a fine display on Friday, September 11. Forewarned, I headed to one of my favourite shooting spots at Dinosaur Provincial Park, and aimed three cameras at the sky. It didn’t take long before the lights appeared, right on cue.
The display started out with lots of promise, but did fade after 12:30 a.m., just when it was supposed to be peaking in intensity. I let the cameras run for a while but eventually stopped the shutters and packed it in…
…But not before I captured this odd bit of aurora in the east, shown below, that appeared as an isolated and stationary band pulsing up and down in brightness, but with little movement.
I’ve seen these before and have never heard a good explanation of what process creates such an effect, with a patch of sky appearing to “turn on” and off.
You can see the effect at the end of the time-lapse compilation, linked below from Vimeo.
As usual, please enlarge to full-screen and watch in HD for the best quality.
Unfortunately, a patrolling park official checking on things, spoiled some frames with her truck’s headlights. It’s one of the hazards of time-lapse imaging.
As a final image, here are all the fish-eye lens frames stacked into one image, to create a single star trail showing the sky rotating about the celestial pole.
It’s been a good week for auroras, with a promise of more to come perhaps, as we approach equinox, traditionally a good time for magnetic field lines to align, funnelling solar storm particles into our magnetosphere.
The lights came out and danced in my sky in the early morning hours.
The early warning signs weren’t calling for anything too impressive for a display last night, September 8/9, but the sky surprised us with a fantastic display of Northern lights.
I shot with one camera – it was very late, or very early! – but shot enough frames to create this short 1.5-minute music video.
I photographed the sequence with a single fixed-camera aimed east toward a bright auroral curtain, showing fast pulsing forms common to the later stages of a substorm. But then a new bright curtain sweeps in from the north and the display brightens even more in a new substorm. The display then fades.
The exposures were taken over an hour from 1:30 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. MDT. Each was a 2-second exposure with an interval of 2 seconds, shot with the Nikon D750 at ISO 3200 and Sigma 24mm lens at f/2, for a total of just over 850 frames.
The summer Milky Way shines over the Milk River and the sandstone formations of Writing-on-Stone Provincial Park.
Earlier this week I spent two nights shooting at a favourite site in southern Alberta, near the U.S. border. Here, the Milk River winds through a small canyon and coulees lined with eroded sandstone formations called hoodoos. Carved on those hoodoos are ancient graffiti – petroglyphs dating back hundreds of years recording life on the plains. Thus the name: Writing-on-Stone.
It’s a beautiful place, especially so at night. I was there to shoot video scenes for an upcoming “How to Photograph the Milky Way” tutorial. And to collect images for the tutorial.
Above is a shot that is one frame from a time-lapse sequence, one that captures a meteor and the Milky Way over the Milk River, with the Sweetgrass Hills of Montana in the distance.
This image is from a set of exposures I took with the camera and ultra-wide 15mm lens tracking the turning sky, to prevent the stars from trailing in long exposures. A set of images with the tracker motor turned off supplied the sharp ground.
It shows the sweep of the summer Milky Way, with some clouds and forest fire smoke intruding to the south.
In both images the ground is green because, in part, it is being lit by an aurora display going on behind the camera to the north.
Here’s the view looking east, with a green aurora fringed with red lighting the northern sky.
The display on the night of July 22/23 formed a classic arc across the north. This was my panoramic view of the vast auroral oval that was wrapping around the planet at far northern latitudes. Here, I was at 49° north, almost on the Canada-U.S. border, and well south of the main oval.
In all, it was a magical two nights at a scenic and sacred site.
On June 22 I shot the great all-sky aurora with three cameras all shooting time-lapse frames. Here’s the result!
The rapidly moving and astonishing patterns of the aurora are ideal for time-lapse photography. Except for a total eclipse of the Sun, nothing else in the sky changes with such dramatic and jaw-dropping intensity.
For the June 22 outbreak of Northern Lights across the sky, I shot some 2,200 frames, and assembled them into the time-lapse compilation here.
One sequence records the entire sky and the complete development of the display, from when it first appeared in twilight about 11:15 p.m., to when it faded into a diffuse glow across the sky by 1:15 a.m. I shot that sequence with an 8mm fish-eye lens, to capture a scene suitable for projection in a digital planetarium theatre.
I shot the other sequences with 15mm and 24mm lenses. All total, the 3-minute movie comes from about 50 gigabytes of images.
Aurora watchers were on alert! Look up after sunset on June 22 and the sky should be alive with dancing lights.
And the predictions were right.
I headed out to a nearby lake in preparation for seeing and shooting the show. And as soon as the sky got dark enough the Lights were there, despite the bright solstice twilight.
The display reached up to the zenith, as seen in my fish-eye images, like the one below. I shot with three cameras, all shooting time-lapses, with the fish-eye camera recording the scene suitable for projection in a digital planetarium.
However, it was apparent we here in western Canada were seeing the end of the display that had been going on for hours during an intense geomagnetic storm. The aurora was most intense early in the evening, with a minor outburst about 11:30 to 11:45 pm MDT.
The aurora then subsided in structure and turned into a more chaotic pulsating display, typical of the end of a sub-storm.
However, an attraction of this display was its juxtaposition over another storm, an earthly one, flashing lightning to the northwest of me.
By 1 a.m. MDT the display, while still widespread over a large area of the northern sky, had turned into a diffuse glow.
But 60 gigabytes of images later, I headed home. The time-lapse compilation will come later!
The summer solstice sky was filled with twilight glows, planets, and dancing Northern Lights.
What a magical night this was. The evening started with the beautiful sight of the waxing crescent Moon lined up to the left of the star Regulus, and the planets Jupiter and Venus (the brightest of the trio), all set in the late evening twilight.
They are all reflected in the calm waters of a prairie lake.
I shot the above photo about 11 p.m., as late a twilight as we’ll get. From here on, after solstice, the Sun sets sooner and the sky darkens earlier.
Later, about 12:30 a.m., as predicted by aurora apps and alert services, a display of Northern Lights appeared on cue to the north. It was never very bright to the eye, but the camera nicely picks up the wonderful colours of a solstice aurora.
At this time of year the tall curtains reaching up into space catch the sunlight, with blue tints adding to the usual reds fringing the curtain tops, creating subtle shades of magenta and purple.
The display made for a photogenic subject reflected in the lake waters.
The northern lights returned to our prairie sky in a colourful display near solstice.
Last night, Sunday, June 7, I headed out to a nearby abandoned farmyard to shoot the planets setting into the western twilight. But as the sky darkened the faint arc of an aurora appeared to the northeast, promising a fine show after midnight.
Sure enough, as the sky got dark, which doesn’t happen until very late now at 50° north in mid-June, the aurora began to dance.
The top image is a frame from the display at its best. It is one of 400 frames I shot for a time-lapse sequence.
This image is from the start of the sequence, just as the aurora was beginning to get good, with curtains of green laced with tints of magenta and purple. At this time of year the tops of the curtains often look blue, as they scatter direct sunlight streaming over the pole.
However, the colours were not visible to the unaided eye — only the camera brought out the colours, as this display never got intensely bright to the eye.
Toward the end of the sequence the display began to spread out, becoming patchy and less colourful, a typical behaviour after a substorm outburst.
More activity may be in store this week. So keep looking up! And check Spaceweather.com for alerts.
A strange red arc of aurora moved slowly across the sky on May 10.
All indicators looked favourable early in the evening on May 10 for a good auroral display later that night, and sure enough we got one. But it was an unusual display.
From my site in southern Alberta, the northern sky did have a diffuse glow of “normal” green aurora that never did take much form or structure.
But overhead the aurora took the form of an arc across the sky, starting as an isolated ray in the southeast initially, then reaching up to arch across the sky with what looked to the eye like a colourless band.
But the camera showed it as a red arc, with just a fringe of green curtains appearing for a few minutes.
Be sure to click HD and enlarge the video to fill your screen.
The time-lapse movie shows the sequence, over about 90 minutes, with 170 frames playing back at 12 frames per second. You can see the red arc develop, then become more narrow, then exhibit a few green curtains. Then it fades away.
Large-scale pulses also brighten the whole sky momentarily.
The other images are individual frames taken during the evening, showing snapshots of the red arc development, as it became more narrow in structure and gained green curtain-like fringes.
Presumably the red structure was very high in the atmosphere while the green curtains attached to it that did appear hung down from the high-altitude red arc.
I shot all images with an 8mm fish-eye lens to capture most of the sky. The camera is looking north toward Polaris, with the Big Dipper almost directly overhead near the centre of the frames.
The main image at top is a star-trail stack of 80 frames showing the sky’s circumpolar motion around Polaris and the aurora blurred and blended over 45 minutes of motion. I stacked the frames with the Advanced Stacker Actions from StarCircleAcademy.com
The aurora dances behind a pioneer homestead on the Alberta prairies.
After a stay of five months in New Mexico I arrived back in Alberta earlier this week, and was greeted tonight, April 15, with a display of Northern Lights. They’ve been very active in the last month, but I’ve seen nothing of them from where I was in New Mexico.
But here in southern Alberta, I just walk out onto my back deck and there they are! An email alert prompted me to have a look, after predictions earlier in the day called for little activity tonight. But indicators picked up nicely late in the evening.
I headed to an abandoned pioneer homestead near my acreage. A photogenic foreground always adds to the scene.
A little further down the road is a prairie pond, ruffled a little by wind tonight, blurring the reflection I was hoping to capture.
It’s nice to be back under the Northern Lights. Bring them on!
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.
Last night the sky exploded with waves of green and pink as the Northern Lights danced in the bitter cold.
With blizzard conditions forecast for the next two days, last night might have been our last for viewing the aurora from Churchill. But if so, we ended on a high note.
The aurora appeared on schedule again at about 9 to 9:30 p.m., following my evening lecture, as it has done every clear night for the last couple of weeks. It began as a sweeping arc to the north, as above, then moved south to encompass the entire sky.
About 11 p.m. the sky burst open with waves of green arcs, but with generous tints of red and magenta that the camera picks up easily. To the eye, the reds are barely visible unless the aurora gets very bright.
Despite the bitterly cold temperatures of -34° C with a -50° wind chill, everyone in the tour group braved the night to take in the sight. And many managed to work their cameras and tripods, no small feat under such conditions, to get great shots.
The groups this week and last saw aurora every clear night, with clear nights on at least 3 out of the 5 nights of each course. Not a bad take, fulfilling everyone’s “bucket list” dream of standing under the aurora borealis.
It was a bitterly cold night for watching the dancing Northern Lights.
When Environment Canada issues Extreme Cold warnings for Churchill, you know its cold! With temperatures at -32° C and with high winds last night, the wind chill equivalent was -50° C.
But that didn’t stop us from watching the Lights!
I nicely finished my evening lecture at 9 pm when the Lights appeared on cue. They were faint at first, but then brightened nicely by 10 pm. The show was over by midnight, a well-timed and convenient display.
The 22 participants in this week’s course all bundled up and headed out, onto the second floor viewing deck and out onto the ground for views and photos of the aurora.
This was not a brilliant display – the official activity level was still reading only 1 or 2 on scale of 0 to 9. But it provided us with some beautiful curtains and lovely colours. The hazy appearance is from high clouds and local blowing snow.
The views from the Deck overlooking the boreal forest make for some nice photo opportunities, from a spot largely out of the constant westerly winds.
We have three more nights here, though snow is forecast for the last two. Tonight may be our last night to enjoy the Northern Lights. But all are happy with what they have seen and shot so far.
The Northern Lights have performed beautifully the last few nights, presenting curtains of light dancing across the sky.
Two nights ago in Churchill, Manitoba we were treated to a “storm level” show of aurora, with the Lights all across the sky in green curtains waving and curling before our eyes.
The curtains tower several hundred kilometres up into the atmosphere, from the lower edge at about 80 km up (still high above the stratosphere) to the curtain tops at about 400 km altitude at the edge of space.
The camera picks up the colours far better than the eye can, recording not only the predominant green hues but also shades of pink, magenta and red.
The magentas and reds come from the sections of the curtains at the highest altitudes, from the top of the auroral curtains. Here, where the atmosphere is a near vacuum, sparse oxygen atoms can glow with a red emission line.
However, there must be a blue component as well, leading to the magenta or pink tones, as in my photos here. Nitrogen can glow in blues and purples and might be contributing to the colours.
The top two photos are from Tuesday night, Feb 17, when storm levels of 5 were in effect worldwide.
Lower down, at about 100 km altitude, the air is denser and oxygen glows with a brighter green hue, which the eye can detect more easily.
The photo above from last night, with an activity level of just 2, also shows most of the sky covered with a faint emission, with a patchy appearance, with dark “holes” also moving and flowing in the time-lapse movies I shot.
Closer to the horizon, and far to the north, the aurora brightens into the more characteristic green snaking curtains.
This image from three nights ago shows an usually coloured aurora at the start of the night, glowing mostly a deeper red and orange.
The green was still off in the distance far to the east. It arrived a few minutes later as green curtains swept in over us.
But the initial red was from low-energy electrons lighting up just high-altitude oxygen. Only when the higher energy particles arrived did the sky light up green.
I shot all these images with an 8mm fish-eye lens as frames in time-lapse sequences intended for use projected in digital planetarium domes, where the 360° “all-sky” scene would be recreated on the dome as it was in real life.
If you are with a planetarium, contact me if you’d like to get aurora clips.
Our second group of aurora tourists has arrived today at the Churchill Northern Studies Centre, and the weather is warming to a high of -20° C. Balmy!
We’re hoping for more fine displays, though the space weather forecast calls for a quiet magnetic field in the next few days.