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A Beginner's Guide To The Northern Lights

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NORTHERN LIGHTS
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Saskatchewan, my home province, has a reputation for being flat and boring. Now, don't get me wrong. I've lived here almost my entire life and I love it. I'm proud of my prairie heritage. We're friendly and welcoming people, and we're surrounded by natural beauty: wide open skies, 100,000 lakes, an amazing amount of sunshine, and surprising landscape variations, like the Athabasca sand dunes. Still, we don't have the same kind of breathtaking natural wonders as some other provinces. No orca whales like those off Vancouver Island, no Rockies, no Group-of-Seven-esque Canadian Shield, no Niagara Falls, no icebergs.

I've been well steeped in the notion that Saskatchewan is beautiful but, compared to other places, it's nothing special. And so, it honestly came as a surprise to me when far-flung friends posted on social media that seeing the northern lights (aka the aurora borealis) is a bucket list item.

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Photo credit: Colin Chatfield, Chatfield Photographics. Used by permission.

True to Saskatchewan stereotypes, I grew up on a farm. It was not unusual to see the auroras out dancing over the fields at night, particularly in the winter. Now that I live right in Saskatoon, I don't see them as often, but I have caught them over my backyard a time or two. To me, the auroras are akin to rainbows. The lights aren't a daily occurrence, and although they are always majestic when you see them, they're just part of life in Saskatchewan. Yep, I took them for granted.

But once I realized that seeing the aurora borealis is, for some people, a bucket list item, I started paying more attention. And here I was in for another surprise. If you search Google for images of the aurora borealis, and you'll see a beautiful array of colours lighting up the night sky in the photos. I assumed these were images were photoshopped because the auroras I've seen have been primarily green.

In fact, digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras pick up colours in the auroras that are too faint for the human eye to see. As well, as Mike Taylor explains, the long exposure times and high ISO settings available on today's digital cameras also help boost the colours captured in aurora photographs.

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Photo credit: Colin Chatfield, Chatfield Photographics. Used by permission.

Before you start planning your aurora hunting trip, keep in mind that what you've been seeing in recent photos is likely not what you will see with your naked eye. The lights are always majestic, though, and with the right camera equipment, you can see and capture the amazing colours too. If this hasn't deterred you, read on.

What to expect
Each aurora display is unique: their intensity, the colours, the duration, and how the lights shift and dance will vary every time. I've seen the auroras mostly as sinuous green shapes. But they might appear as horizontal bands, or as vertical spikes; and depending on your own eyes and where you are in the world, you might see any colours of the rainbow. The show might last anywhere from a few minutes to pretty much all night.

When to seek them out
Auroras occur year round - but they are easier to spot during the winter months when the nights are longer and the darkness gets more intense. In the far north, polar night lasts from mid-November to the end of January, and in that lengthy darkness, there are more opportunities to spot the lights. Further south, your best chances to spot them are around the midnight hours, year round.

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Photo credit: Colin Chatfield, Chatfield Photographics. Used by permission.

Where to find them
While the northern nights have been spotted as far south as New Mexico and Georgia in the USA, your best chances to see them are in the regions under or near the auroral oval. One caveat: do not attempt to visit the auroral oval in the high summer months. The region isn't referred to "Land of the Midnight Sun" for nothing.

In Alaska, Fairbanks is the best destination choice, but tour companies offer excursions out of other Alaskan locations.

Canada offers several prime locations for viewing the northern lights. While it's no surprise that the lights dance in the Yukon, the Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, the aurora also puts on a show in more southern locations like Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, and southern Ontario.

The Scandinavian countries of Norway, Sweden, and Finland are also under the auroral oval, and each offers unique opportunities to view the aurora borealis. Even though I can occasionally spot the northern lights in my own backyard, I wouldn't say no to a night or two in one of the glass igloos at Finland's Kakslauttanen Resort.

One of the best places in Greenland to catch the lights is in stunning Kangerlussuaq, which boasts 300 clear nights every year. And opportunities to view the aurora borealis in Iceland are plentiful, with several destinations and tours geared towards aurora hunters.

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Photo credit: Colin Chatfield, Chatfield Photographics. Used by permission.

How to prepare
There are certain things that you can do to increase your chances of spotting the aurora borealis - the timing of your trip, the location you choose, and the duration of your stay will all impact your odds. Do your research. Long-term aurora forecasts are not terribly accurate, but you can track aurora activity at sites such as auroraforecast.com. There are also groups of people dedicated to tracking and photographing the aurora. I belong to the Saskatchewan Aurora Hunters group on facebook, where the regulars are extremely helpful and knowledgeable.

Shooting the Northern Lights
While you can photograph the aurora borealis with some point-and-shoot cameras, a good DSLR camera and some basic accessories will dramatically improve your captures. Colin Chatfield, a prolific aurora photographer based in Saskatchewan, has honed a list of equipment suggestions. You'll want a camera that is good for long-exposure night photography, and there are several models by Canon, Nikon, and Sony that fit that bill. A sturdy tripod (strong enough to keep steady in the wind) is essential to keeping your camera shake-free during the long exposure times; and a remote shutter release cable can improve your camera's stability as well. Of all your equipment, the lens is the most important. A wide-angled, fast lens is ideal, but also pricy. The best are around 11mm and with a speed of f/3.5 and faster, and may cost $800 and up. If you are purchasing a lens specifically for an aurora hunting trip, just buy the best you can afford.

If you are planning to photograph the lights, try to scout out good locations during the daylight hours. Dedicated aurora photographers often capture the aurora borealis in photos with grain elevators, abandoned barns, bridges, or lonely rural churches, or a beach, reflected against the water.

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Photo credit: Colin Chatfield, Chatfield Photographics. Used by permission.

Be patient
Sit back and be patient, and be prepared to be awed by the aurora borealis dancing across the big night sky.

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