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Capturing the magic of the Aurora

The Northern Lights dance in the night sky over a lake in the Northwest Territories.  Photo Credit Bill Braden

Capturing the Magic of The Aurora

Bill Braden has seen the Northern Lights dancing in the skies above Yellowknife thousands of times. But when he's with eager newcomers watching as the first flickers of the Aurora begin to grow in intensity and energy, soon filling up the night sky with glowing green and pink swirls, it's like experiencing the magic again for the first time.

"You can't escape their enthusiasm and their sense of wonder as they're taking this all in," says the well-known local photographer, who guides guests travelling to Yellowknife from across the world to witness the Northern Lights. 

Sometimes they holler and dance around; sometimes they're very still and contemplative. Either way, they come away thoroughly moved by the spectacle. "They've seen the promotions, they've seen the videos and the TV shows, but it cannot duplicate actually being there on the ice, in the dark, and watching this magic, enthralling show appear before their eyes."

Photo Credit: Bill Braden

Aurora streaming through the sky over Great Slave Lake in the NWT

With My Backyard Tours, a Yellowknife-based tourism company, Braden brings small groups of between 6 and 10 out to a comfortable wilderness cabin at Prosperous Lake, outside the city. Here, Margaret Peterson - co-owner of My Backyard Tours - bakes bannock for guests as they await the Aurora. Braden will give a quick tutorial, getting guests familiar with their relevant camera settings to help them capture the moment of euphoria and wonder for themselves. Then, when the Aurora appear as a glimmer on the horizon, the group gets bundled up ("like Michelin people," says Braden) to watch the Northern Lights atop a frozen lake. "We're generally out for about four hours and it's not very often that we get skunked," says Braden. "When they actually see an image coming up on their camera that records what they see, it's another magic moment. They're just so happy with it."

Braden has also partnered with Sundog Adventures to provide dedicated Northern Lights photography workshops to teach locals and visitors alike how to effectively shoot the Aurora in the sky.

Braden is one of many local photographers who find inspiration in the Northern Lights - and share that feeling with others.

Photo Credit: Bill Braden

Billing colours of the Aurora in the sky along the Dempster highway in the Northwest Territoires. photo credit Kristian Binder

Kristian Binder grew up in Inuvik, 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, but he admits he used to take the Northern Lights for granted. "Some mornings when I was walking to school, there would be green lights up in the sky," he says."It was just something that was always there." Maybe his relative disinterest stemmed from missing the really impressive Aurora shows when he was a kid, because it would be too late and he'd already be in bed.

Binder always had an interest in photography and, in 2012, he began reading up and watching videos online to learn how to best capture the Northern Lights. "The most important thing is to be able to know what settings you need to change and how it's going to affect your photos" he says. "A 15-second exposure can become a two-second exposure in a matter of seconds." Luckily, photographers in the Northwest Territories are blessed with the world's most reliable and vibrant Northern Lights, allowing them to go out to practice whenever the skies are clear.

Photo Credit: Kristian Binder

Billing colours of the Aurora in the sky along the Dempster highway in the Northwest Territoires. photo credit Kristian Binder

Binder has held three Aurora photography workshops in Inuvik. "People ask me all the time for advice," he says. Some quick tips: don't underestimate the importance of a tripod, dress warmly, and make sure you bring a flashlight with a really good throw distance. This allows you to focus on an interesting object, which helps frame the lights in the sky. "I like to have foreground objects, whether it's trees or a boat or a person," he says. "It's nice to just get flat tundra with Aurora too, but I prefer to have something else in the photo as well."

Photo Credit: Kristian Binder

Purple and pink aurora in the night sky in the Northwest Territories, photo credit Yuichi Takasaka

Binder likes to get away from Inuvik's light pollution by driving down the Dempster Highway and spending the evening with a friend at a scenic landscape until the Aurora show up. "The best nights are when you're with someone you don't mind killing hours with," he says. There's no cell service and no fiddling around on phones, which makes for rich conversation.  "You can just enjoy each other's company while you sit somewhere in the vehicle and wait." Soon enough, the Aurora will begin to brighten up the sky.

It's one of the benefits of being visited so regularly by the Northern Lights, living in a land located right underneath what Braden calls "the Earth's magnetic halo." 

"As long as there are clear skies, it's almost a given that we are going to see Aurora here," he says. "Other parts of the world that don't have our really favourable geomagnetic location, they aren't so lucky.” 

Photo Credit: Yuichi Takasaka

Northern Lights in the night sky above a placid lake in the Northwest Territories, photo credit Aurora Village

Binder is always ready to shoot at a moment's notice. While it can sometimes feel like a panic to snap that perfect photo of the ephemeral Northern Lights, he is calmed by the knowledge that the opportunity will present itself again.

"I mean, sometimes, if it's particularly dazzling, I just put everything down and I'm like, you know what? I'm just going to enjoy it."

Photo Credit: Aurora Village

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