When you check in to your room at Blachford Lake Lodge, you can't miss the “Wake me in case of Aurora” and “Let me sleep” signs to hang on your door. They are an indication that the staff at Blachford Lake Lodge take their Aurora viewing very seriously. And if you haven’t already checked the evening’s forecast (you need clear skies to see the Northern Lights), lodge staff have posted the weather and the predicted intensity of that evening's Northern Lights display on a chalkboard by the lodge’s main entrance, along with the day’s other activities.
If you let the staff know that you’re keen to view the Aurora, they will even provide you with a thermos of hot chocolate and some snacks to fuel the adventure.
The Aurora could appear at any time if the sky is dark enough for the brilliant colours to stand out. In the Northwest Territories, where summer days are especially long, late summer Aurora hunters must wait until at least 11 pm in August before the sky is dark enough for the stars to appear, but winter Aurora hunters could glimpse the Northern Lights as early as 7 pm or earlier. Typically the Aurora lights up around midnight.
At Blachford Lake Lodge, once you’re armed with hot cocoa and a promising forecast, it’s time to check out the Lights! A headlamp or camping lantern is helpful to light your way to the best viewing point. And, since the Aurora will be the one moving around – not you – it’s imperative to dress warmly
To photograph the Aurora, you’ll need a single lens reflex or a viewfinder camera that allows you to adjust the shutter speed, aperture and ISO. Shutter speed refers to how long the shutter is open. Because it’s dark out when you’re viewing the Aurora, you’ll need a long shutter speed to let in as much light as possible. But because a long shutter speed means the camera is taking up to 20 seconds to capture the image, you’ll want to mount the camera on a tripod to keep it steady. A remote shutter release is also helpful to ensure the camera doesn't move.
There are two additional adjustments you can make on most cameras that help ensure crisp photos. A long shutter speed sacrifices detail - the earth will turn and the stars will appear to move during a 20 second exposure, contributing to what looks like blur. Your tripod is one thing that helps prevent blur in photos, but you’ll also want to adjust the camera’s lens aperture and ISO number.
Aperture controls how much light reaches the camera's image sensor. A wide aperture (low number) lets in the most light. You’ll want to let in as much light as possible, without sacrificing what's in focus (depth of field).
The ISO indicates how sensitive the camera is to light. A high ISO number means greater sensitivity to faint light, but it could also result in a grainy or "noisy" photo. To capture the perfect Aurora photo, you might need to adjust the ISO. Using a high ISO reduces the need for a long shutter speed.
To start your Aurora photographic adventure, set your ISO to 1600, your aperture to f3.5 or f2.8 or as wide as possible, and try a shutter speed of 5 seconds. Then, try longer or shorter exposure times, different apertures or f-stops, and finally try setting the ISO to 800.
Each of these settings will provide different results, as will the conditions on the night you want to capture the Aurora. How bright the moon is, whether there is still some light on the horizon, and how close you are to any other light sources, such as the lodge, or even a bonfire, will have an impact on your image.
But Aurora chasers headed to Blachford Lake Lodge are in luck. The staff can help locate a tripod to borrow and they have experience assisting with settings on most common camera types. Happy shooting!