How to Photograph the Aurora This Winter

We spoke with Calgary photographers to get some tips for capturing this natural light display.

Photograph by Neil Zeller

The aurora borealis, a spectacular natural display of lights in the sky, is usually associated with the far north, but armed with a little knowledge, Calgarians can often catch a view of this night-sky phenomenon close to home.

Where should you go?

There’s no such thing as a “best” aurora viewing spot. You can see a display from your backyard, city parks, the highway – anywhere the sky is overhead. Neil Zeller, an aurora chaser and professional photographer, recommends heading north or northeast of the city, where Calgary’s lights are least likely to interrupt your view. The aurora starts at the horizon, so flat places (almost anywhere in Alberta) make good viewing points. However, photographers seeking beautiful foregrounds and water reflections appreciate mountain spots like Lake Minnewanka and Forget Me Not Pond in the Elbow Valley.

When is the best time?

Aurora displays happen year-round – you’re just more likely to see them during the darker months. Zeller says, “People always ask what time to go and I always tell them ‘Go at dark o’clock.'”

How do you know when aurora will happen?

Calgary photographer Chris Ratzlaff says having some basic knowledge of the science of the aurora borealis improves your chance of seeing it, and also enriches the experience. He co-founded the Alberta Aurora Chasers Facebook group, a local community that shares information and updates about aurora events in the region. Ratzlaff says aurora-prediction apps exist, but updates from the Facebook group or aurora “forecasts” provided by the U.S. Space Weather Prediction Centre are more reliable.

What you need to photograph the aurora

This is no job for a smartphone or point-and-shoot camera. You’ll need:

A good camera, such as a DSLR.

Manual wide lens with a low maximum aperture (Zeller recommends f/2.8).

Tripod to stabilize long exposure shots.

Warm clothing (think hunting gear, not ski gear).

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