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Northern lights – viewing and photographing

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Current estimated Northern Lights
extent and intesity

The long cold winter nights here in the north are regularly lit up but spectacular northern lights.
The normal winter essentials and guidelines for northern Ontario should be followed as the nights get cold in a hurry. This means good gloves/mittens, winter jacket and insulated pants are a must. Cold metal of the tripod is particularly hard on your hands when moving stuff around.
The Cold kills batteries fast so bring extra batteries in a warm place. A flashlight or head lamp with red filter (cellophane or red-LED) will give you light without taking away your night vision.
Did I mention to dress warm!
Any digital or film camera (yes they do exist) is useable as long as you have access to manual settings or advanced features. Wide angle lenses are the best overall and never use a filter lens as they will slow down the exposure. Zoom lenses will also have a detrimental affect on picture taking.
You are taking pictures in the dark at night in the cold and as simple a setup you can use, the better.
Also handy would be a remote control to eliminate vibrations when taking pictures, although the camera timer should suffice.
A good sturdy tripod is a must as even the slightest wind vibration can blur the pictures. Hanging weight from the center hook will help stabilize lighter tripods as well. Quick connects for the camera are a must as you want everything to be as easy as can be when out at night.
Manual settings on the camera should be played with in the comfort of your home to familiarize yourself with them.
You will need to know how to control your cameras timer, change the ISO, F Ratio and adjust the shutter speed.
f-ratio: The maximum light a lens will allow in. f/2 will allow more light than f/4.0
ISO: Higher the number, brighter the picture however with more noise.
Shutter speed: How long to leave the shutter open on the lens. Normal photography is a fraction of a second, northern lights will require up to 20 seconds.

Chart showing some testing parameters to try for optimal picture taking. Shutter speed is listed in seconds, try to keep exposure times minimal to limit blurriness.
These numbers are considered a base starting point. If the picture is to bright/grainy, turn down the ISO and corresponding F/Ratio and shutter speed.
F Ratio                  400 iso                  800 iso                  1600 iso
2                              15 sec                   7 sec                      4 sec
2.8                          30 sec                   15 sec                   7 sec
4                              60 sec                   30 sec                   15 sec

Preparing for the Northern Lights
So you have a nice clear night to view/photograph the lights. During the daylight hours its always good to scout out an area to view/photograph. A ridge overlooking a valley, a frozen lake, somewhere comfortable where you are away from the human lights of our towns and cities but can stay close to your vehicle/shelter.  A northerly view is preferable however east/west and even south are good during peak displays.
Typically, NW Ontario needs a Kp number of 3 or more to be able to see the lights. Northern States need a Kp of 5 or more. Of course that changes as you go north, as the lights get brighter and more intense even within a few hundred km of the US border.
Predicting the northern lights
An easy   website to use is the Aurora forecast. It combines government data and extrapolates it into a current and three-day forecast for viewing the lights in north America. The Higher the Kp number the better the show /chances to see the lights. Solar storms provide the best viewing opportunities and a Kp value of 5 or more is considered a storm.
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Glenn Hart [ NW Ontario Outdoors]

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This article is from Northwest Ontario Outdoors Magazine. Free downloads and outdoors resources.



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