Northern Lights In The Yukon + Aurora Borealis Photography Tips From Pro Jeff Bartlett

Northern Lights Dawson City Yukon

Last summer I experienced one of my biggest travel dreams when I saw the Northern Lights in Dawson City, Yukon. It was a big surprise because I was told not to expect them due to long summer days and very few hours of darkness. My travel group and I had just come back to our hotel after a fun night at Diamond Tooth Gertie’s Gambling Hall and I received a call that the Northern Lights were out. After scrambling around my room to collect my gear, I ran to where everyone else in my group was already shooting photos. 

We set up shop by the Yukon River since it is best to take photos without city lights. Since I did not travel with a tripod, I rested my small mirrorless camera on a boulder. To be honest, I do not know much about photography so I was just taking a big stab in the dark and also admiring this gift of nature at the same time. Luckily I was able to take a few amateur photos. 

 

Northern Lights Dawson City Yukon

My photo fluke of the Yukon’s aurora borealis

So that I can do better during future aurora borealis sitings and to help you, my reader, I enlisted my professional photographer friend Jeff Bartlett who teaches night photography courses all around the world!

 

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5 Tips From Photographer Jeff Bartlett For Photographing The Northern Lights

1. Bring the right gear: you’ll need three pieces of gear to successfully photograph the northern lights: 
    • a DSLRor mirrorless camera with full manual control.
    • A fast aperture wide angle lens, ideally between 14-24 mm and  f1.4 and f2.8 apertures.
    • A tripod used to keep the camera steady during long exposures.
2. Use the right camera settings:
The best Northern Lights arc across the sky; they’re constantly moving. To capture a strong image, you’ll need a faster shutter speed than you might expect. If the shutter speed is too long, the movement will blur the edges of the northern lights and rather than capturing their dramatic pillars and shapes, it’ll just look like a green coloured sky.
I always recommend these camera settings as the ideal starting point:
  • ISO 1600-3200
  • Shutter: 2-5 seconds
  • Aperture: f1.4 to f2.8
Depending on the intensity of the northern lights, these settings will need to be adjusted. If they’re really bright, avoid the temptation to lower your ISO or stop down the aperture. Always start with the shutter speed, as the faster it is, the sharper the northern lights will appear.
Pro tip – When triggering the shutter, always use a remote trigger or a 2-second self-timer, to avoid shaking the camera.
3. Re-learn how to focus: 
Focusing at night needs to be done manually and it can be tricky. It’s important to focus at infinity, to guarantee that distant objects are in focus. 
Most camera lenses should have an infinity symbol or small L shape on the focusing ring. Use that as a guide; however, remember that it’s not always entirely accurate. Make sure to double check the focus while reviewing images. It takes time to learn each lens, but with more experience, it becomes much easier. 
Sometimes, it’s easier to practice this technique during the day, when it’s easier to manually focus on distant objects.
4. Go at the right time:

The northern lights occur year round and Kp storms can happen at any hour of the day. We just can’t see them if it’s too light outside, so planning is an important step to consider. 

Summer isn’t ideal, as the nights are too short – or non-existent – depending on how far north you travel. I always recommend following the calendar and travelling between the equinoxes – Sept 21 to March 21

It’s also critically important to watch the moon cycle. A full moon is too bright and will make it difficult to see both stars and northern lights. The best images, almost without exception, are made close to the new moon phase when moonlight is at a minimum.
5. Go to the right places:
They’re called the Northern Lights, so it’s important to head north to view them.
I grew up in northern British Columbia and was lucky enough to see northern lights frequently. Now that I am a photographer, I live 400 km further south and rarely have the opportunity. But just heading north isn’t enough. It’s about going to the right places, too, so that you avoid cloud coverage and light pollution.
Cloud coverage isn’t easy to predict, but there are geographical differences that yield more clear skies. Because of regular weather systems, both the Yukon and Northwest Territories, in Canada, enjoy countless more clear days than other popular destinations, like Iceland or Norway.
The territories are also sparsely populated, which makes a big difference. Light pollution is the orange haze caused by ambient lights – street lights, house lights, etc – that are left on overnight. It’s easy to see, just drive towards a major city at night and you’ll almost always see an orange haze surrounding the city. Very rarely, the northern lights can be so bright that they’ll overpower an entire city’s light pollution. It’s far easier to plan to head away from populated areas to find clear views towards the northern horizon. 
To better plan, use forecasting apps like Aurora (android and apple) or Aurora Forecast, from the University of Alaska, to see where and when they’ll be visible. (http://auroraforecast.gi.alaska.edu/)
Check out Jeff’s photos below. Amazing! These are not in the Yukon but I wanted to share some examples of his Northern Lights photography! 
Northern Lights by Jeff Bartlett
Northern Lights above Maligne Lake in Northern Alberta by Jeff Bartlett
Northern Lights by Jeff Bartlett
Northern Lights above Maligne Lake in Northern Alberta by Jeff Bartlett
Thank you so much, Jeff, for your help! Before I went to the Yukon, I wish I asked him for help. But I did not expect to see the Northern Lights since there is so much daylight in August. 

If you are interested in learning more about photography, be sure to check out Jeff’s website here or his awesome Instagram here. He puts on photography workshops in different locations and he just so happens to be doing a dark sky photography workshop this October in Northern Alberta. 

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Seeing Northern Lights In The Yukon And Helpful Tips From Photographer Jeff Bartlett
 

**Disclaimer: Many thanks to Travel Yukon for their support. As always all opinions and views are my own. This post contains affiliate links. There is no additional cost to you, if you click through an affiliate link and make a purchase, I may make a commission.**

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