Based in Edmonton, Canada, guest contributor Jon Reaves is a travel and nature photographer who blogs at Maps & Cameras. Here, he shares his (uncomfortable!) experience of photographing the Northern Lights in Alberta.
Shooting the northern lights in Alberta
Most people imagine a Northern Lights experience going something like this: A chilly winter night, cuddled up under a warm blanket beneath the stars, drinking hot cocoa and watching the aurora dance and ripple in magnificent shades of blue and green across the sky, with subtle reflections of color on a frozen lake surrounded by snowy hills.
Sounds great doesn’t it?
I’ve yet to have such an experience.
I tried taking northern lights photos in Iceland several times – and failed.
Elk Island National Park
It took moving to the Canadian north before I saw the aurora borealis for the first time, where I caught the Northern Lights in Alberta.
And, ironically, my first experience was in high summer in July.
It was a hot night, the air was thick, and I was ravaged by mosquitos the whole time. Welcome to the north, eh? That isn’t to say it wasn’t a magical experience. I’ll remember it forever, even if I (and I assume I will) have more experiences with stronger aurora activity in the future.
That night, I checked the Northern Lights forecast online and decided conditions were promising. So I headed out to Elk Island National Park (a place I love to go to photograph bison), where I hung around for a few hours, hiding from mosquitoes in my car until well after midnight.
A dark-sky preserve
Elk Island National Park is part of a Dark-Sky Preserve – one of the few designated “dark sky” places in the world where artificial lighting is prohibited. Goodbye light pollution, hello stargazing!
Photographing the Northern Lights
I was just about to head home when the lights came.
At first, it was as a faint, pale, greenish band that almost looked like a cloud. Then it got brighter and brighter until there was no mistaking it – the aurora had arrived.
I grabbed my tripod and camera (already preset for the occasion) and sprinted down the beach of Astotin Lake until I found a composition.
The aurora actually became stronger after I took the photo shown here. I was trying different compositions in the forest by that time, but those images aren’t great because a heavy breeze was swaying the trees – thus blurring them during the long exposure time necessary to capture the Northern Lights. The orange light on the horizon is actually from downtown Edmonton, 40 minutes to the west. The small dots of light in the lower right corner of my Northern Lights photo are from a small dock on the lake.
This is a classic view of Astotin Lake. And I’m happy the Northern Lights in Alberta, showing up here at this lake, happened to be my first sighting of them – despite all the mosquito bites.