‘The Aurora Borealis’, otherwise known as ‘The Northern Lights’, is a phenomenon that features on bucket lists all around the world, mine included.
If you are unfamiliar with the aurora or you are unaware of what this spectacle is, then let me try and put it into words for you. Imagine a powerful glow of green light that dances across the sky then, just as you think it can’t get any better, the sky erupts as though an electric pulse has moved through the atmosphere. Bursts of purples and pinks shine above, creating a force so powerful it leaves a lasting impression on all who gaze.
You might be wondering what causes this and where can you see it? The aurora are the result of collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth's atmosphere and charged particles released from the sun's atmosphere. The display usually takes place over magnetic poles hence why they are also known up here as the ‘Northern Lights’.
Aurora Borealis over Banff
When I first arrived in the Rockies two years ago, I had heard through word of mouth that the aurora can occasionally be seen up in the skies in Canada. Little to my knowledge was that they light up the skies rather frequently and what better place to view this wonderful spectacle than here in Banff National Park! With endless mountain ranges, reflective lakes and contrasting seasons, the park itself creates a beautiful setting for such a show.
Best time of the year
I had been told that the best time of year to view the aurora is during winter, and up until this summer, I would have agreed. However, much to my surprise the lights have been very active over the summer months here in Banff, so it is hard to determine when mother nature will put on her show. While living in Banff I have had the opportunity to see the aurora during all four seasons. From my experience, they have shined their brightest during the months of February through to April.
How to know when they are active
I signed up to a website called Aurora Watch (@aurorawatch on twitter) where I receive alerts once the aurora becomes active. The website focuses on the geomagnetic activity in the Edmonton area but usually, if it’s active there, the night sky also lights up here in Banff (especially during red alerts). I also use another website called the Aurora Service which predicts KP numbers on the hour (KP is a system used to measure the strength of the aurora). The higher the KP number the stronger the light. Lastly, if I am out and about with no Wi-Fi or 3G I do the good old fashioned ‘look up to the sky’ - if there appears to be a green tinge then I’ll prepare for what could be a show.
Best places in Banff National Park to view Aurora
Out of town and away from light pollution is a must if you want to see them clearly. Although having said that, on strong KP nights I have seen them glow above Banff town itself. A couple of my favourite locations which are easily accessible by vehicle are Lake Minnewanka (ten-minute drive outside of Banff’s town centre), Castle Junction (half way between Banff & Lake Louise on the Bow Valley Parkway) and Peyto Lake (located along the Icefields Parkway).
Photographing the Aurora
I am by no means a professional photographer, but since living in the Rockies and having so much beauty in my backyard I invested in a basic DSLR. When I first started photographing the Northern Lights, I used the standard lens that came with the camera but I eventually replaced it with a wide angle (Tokina 11-16mm) and this is what I use to capture the night sky. With regards to the camera settings-they change depending on how dark the night is and the amount of light pollution in the area (especially if the moon is present).
The three important things when shooting the aurora are shutter speed (how long will light enter the camera), aperture/F-stop (how much light will come into the camera) and ISO (how well the camera will use the incoming light). If it is a dark night and the aurora are active, I usually use the following settings; shutter speed anywhere up to 30 seconds, ISO anywhere between 400-1600 and the F-stop set to the lowest it can go. Depending on the intensity of the aurora the camera settings change. Lastly, a tripod is essential to keep the camera still resulting in a sharp picture. I also make sure my battery is fully charged too, as some displays can last all night. (If you are in need of any last minute gear, be sure to visit Banff Photography. They carry a wide range of professional cameras, lenses, tripods and accessories.)
So let’s hope Mother Nature puts on a performance this winter. Enjoy everyone and see you out there!