Photographing Northern Lights in Churchill, Manitoba

Our group with northern lights in Churchill, Manitoba. Photo by Dan Harper

Our group with northern lights in Churchill, Manitoba. Photo by Dan Harper

So there we were, trying not to freeze our various body parts off at minus 40, which is about the same whether it’s Fahrenheit or Celsius. We were in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, to photograph northern lights since now and the next couple of years are supposed to be incredible. Our group was a varied lot, ranging from folks with point and shoot cameras to the guy with the $6,000 Nikon.

And astoundingly, ALL of us got decent pictures. That’s how far camera technology has come.

In Your Bucket Because…

    • You REALLY like winter and cold temperatures.
    • You like nature and the out of doors.
    • You want to try something new with your camera.

The first two times I tried this many years ago, I was using film and got a single decent photograph from each trip. Then one day I tried digital and … WOW. Film seems to capture less than you see. Digital captures so very much more.

Northern lights seen from just outside Churchill, Manitoba. The bright light on the horizon is lights from the town. Northern lights happen when electrically charged particles from the sun interact with the earth's magnetic field and various gasses in the atmosphere. The energy from this is released as colored light. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

Northern lights seen from just outside Churchill, Manitoba. The bright light on the horizon is lights from the town. Northern lights happen when electrically charged particles from the sun interact with the earth’s magnetic field and various gasses in the atmosphere. The energy from this is released as colored light. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

And I was eager to try it again in Churchill, better known as Polar Bear Central. Each fall, 10,000 people stomp through this town of 850 on the southwest rim of Hudson Bay during bear season, another few thousand come for beluga whales in summer and now, there’s a thriving winter season whose main feature is predictable, absolutely breathtaking northern lights.

Our trip north came via Frontiers North, which has a tricked out tundra buggy (think bus on giant wheels) with sofas, tables, snacks, heaters and, yes, a bathroom. Each year, the company offers at least two northern lights tours.

And though bears pour through here in October and November, by March, they’re mostly gone, so it’s safe to stand around with your tripod on a frozen river.

Inside the Tundra Buggy heading out to see the landscape during winter in Churchill, Manitoba. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

Inside the Tundra Buggy heading out to see the landscape during winter in Churchill, Manitoba. Photo by Yvette Cardozo

But first, in Winnipeg (gateway to Churchill) we got a clinic on technique and a chance to practice shooting the lights in the Manitoba Museum planetarium, where it was warm and comfy.

We learned the lights happen when sun spots send electrically charged particles that interact with the earth’s magnetic field and various gasses in the atmosphere. The energy from this is released as colored light — green/red for oxygen, purple/blue for nitrogen.

When and Where to See Northern Lights

Though northern lights occur year round, you need a dark sky and, sigh, stamina since the best lights seem to come in the wee hours of the coldest mornings. Temperatures below zero, sometimes well below, are common. So to photograph the aurora, you need to be prepared for cold and sleepless nights.

As for the where: Northern lights (and, in the southern hemisphere, the Aurora Australis) occur most often in a ring about 1,500 miles from the North (and South) Poles. In North America, this means near Arctic Circle latitudes such as Fairbanks,Alaska; Churchill, Manitoba; and Yellowknife, the Northwest Territories.

Equipment

The aurora (northern lights) folds in the sky above Chena Hot Springs, north of Fairbanks, Alaska while temperature dips to minus 45 F (minus 43C). Photograph by Yvette Cardozo

The aurora (northern lights) folds in the sky above Chena Hot Springs, north of Fairbanks, Alaska while temperature dips to minus 45 F (minus 43C). Photograph by Yvette Cardozo

Hardware:  A camera that lets you open the shutter for at least 30 seconds or a bulb setting. A way to turn off auto focus (you won’t be able to focus on anything at night; just set it for infinity). A cable release to trip the shutter (but beware that anything vinyl or rubber becomes very rigid in extreme cold). Lots of well charged batteries and memory cards. Lots of handwarmers for the batteries, your feet and hands. A sturdy (very sturdy) tripod. A small flashlight or even better, a headlamp.

Software: Warm underwear, sweater, thick insulated pants and parka, balaclava to cover your entire head and a neck gaiter, plus a hat, thin inner gloves and thick outer gloves. And if you are in someplace like Churchill, Manitoba or Fairbanks, Alaska, go rent a pair of seriously insulated boots. So-called Bunny boots (Military boots used in the Arctic) are not overkill — and will keep your feet warm in seriously double-digit below zero temps.

Technique for Photographing Northern Lights

Northern lights above a tent in arctic Alaska near the Brooks Range. Shot with film by Yvette Cardozo

Northern lights above a tent in arctic Alaska near the Brooks Range. Shot with film by Yvette Cardozo

Your ISO (speed of capture) depends on how bright the lights are. But higher ISOs mean more digital noise (like grain). So try a bunch of different settings, starting with ISO 400 and going up even to 3200 if your camera will do that.

Open your shutter to its widest setting. Set your shutter speed for, say, 20 seconds to start. Turn down your LCD screen so it won’t blind you but you can still tell what you are getting.Turn on noise reduction if your camera has it.

Read the manual BEFORE you go. Let me tell you, when you are standing out there in minus 40 in dead dark, wearing gloves, you totally forget where everything is on your camera. You really need to practice, grope, memorize.

Once out there, find something to frame … trees, a building, even people.

And when you go inside (there’s usually a yurt, building or snowcoach for warming people), do NOT bring your camera in unless you have it wrapped in plastic or in a bag to keep condensation off.

Practicalities

  • Though northern lights are there year round, you need dark skies to see them. Best time of year here is late February and early March when the conditions moderate from lethal to merely ridiculous.
  • Ski clothes will NOT do the job. Clothing rental (parka, pants, boots) runs about $45 a day through the Polar Inn.
  • Don’t miss the apple fritters and peanut butter tarts at Gypsy’s Bakery.

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Comments

  1. Fran Folsom says

    I have not been to Churchill in years reading this makes me want to go back next season for the polar bears. Thanks for the great article.

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  2. says

    Thanks for the pictures and the advice, Yvette. Such beautiful views you’ve captured.
    I’d add Fort McMurray, Alberta to the list of viewing locations. I was on a guided viewing night there a few years ago. Fantastic.
    Another tip: Northern Lights appear in summer too. Just make sure to pick a time and place where the sun goes down at night.

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  3. says

    Yvette, thanks for the great tips and the Adventure Stories! Your photo with film of the tent in arctic Alaska and brilliant aurora borealis is stunning! Thanks for sharing.

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