Aurora Hunting

So some of you may have heard that the aurora borealis, or northern lights, are predicted to be epic over the next few nights. The Weather Network says:

The best nights to watch, based on the forecasts from NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center, are Wednesday and Thursday. Space weather conditions are expected to reach at least G1 geomagnetic storm levels for both nights, with periods of G2 storm levels between sunset and midnight, EDT, and some potential for isolated G3 storm levels during those peaks. Adjust the timing according to your local time zone.

If all those terms don’t make sense to you, never fear! All you need to know is that the next few nights are going to be wild. If you have ever dreamed of staring up into a sky of dancing lights, now is a great opportunity. It’s always nice to catch the Lights before it gets too cold.

I’m going to give you a quick run down on the northern lights, i.e. what they are and how to photograph them.

Aurora Borealis: Science or Magic?

Honestly, the aurora is a little bit of both. In technical terms, the aurora is caused by electrically charged particles from the sun hitting the earths atmosphere. This is why ‘solar storms’ cause amazing displays of aurora, more particles are flying from the sun towards the earth. Different kinds of particles create different colours of light. The typical green colour is caused by particles colliding with low altitude oxygen particles; reds come from high altitude oxygen particles and purples come from nitrogen particles.*

The aurora has entranced many different people from many different cultures, for as long as humans have written down history. There are so many incredible myths and legends in which the aurora plays a part. I had always enjoyed these stories, but it was not until last May that I truly understood them.

Last May, I saw a phoenix. Seeing this shape in the sky over me, I can 100% understand where the old Norse/Inuit/Maori legends of gods and mythical creatures come from.

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It was the night of May 7th (morning of May 8th) that I saw the best aurora that I have ever seen in my life.

I could see the lights starting to dance at about 10pm, as I was getting home from visiting with friends in Banff, so I headed down to Barrier Lake to see if I could get some good shots. Within minutes of arriving at Barrier, the lights were no longer a hint on the horizon, the whole sky was dancing!

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As I was getting ready to leave, I happened to notice that the lights seemed to be making shapes directly overhead, and lo and behold: a phoenix!

Full disclosure: the aurora does not always look like this. It is much more common, especially as far south as  we are in the YYC/Kananaskis area, to see the aurora as an arc on the horizon.

Examples of arcs:

 

Overhead auroral formations are known as coronas:

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So you want to photograph the aurora?

It’s not as hard as you may think but there are a couple things that you definitely need:

  • Camera with manual settings
  • Spare camera batteries (long exposures drain batteries. So does the cold)
  • Wide angle lens. No zoom lens, although kit lenses will work.
  • Tripod
  • A clear view to the North/North-East
  • Dark skies
  • An Aurora forecasting app/website
  • Lots of patience

Before going out, check the aurora forecast. A simple google search will bring up lots of options for aurora forecasts and all will give you the same basic data: forecasted levels of geomagnetic activity and what the aurora is doing right now.

The best time to catch the aurora is when the sun is on the opposite side of the planet. This is why it’s easier to catch the aurora in the winter, there are more hours of true darkness. It’s still possible to catch the aurora in the summer, there is just a much smaller window for viewing. It also helps if there is no moon. A full moon cast so much light, that it will interfere with your ability to see the lights.

So now that you are set up in a dark area with a clear view of the skies, what do you do with your camera? Cleary shooting on auto isn’t going to cut.

There are so many ways to set your camera to catch the lights, and no one way is right or wrong, however, there are some basics to keep in mind.

  • Focus your camera to infinity. Some lens’ have an infinity symbol, but if yours doesn’t, zoom in on a distant light (like as far away as possible, I will use stars or planets) and manually adjust the focus of your lens until that distant point is clear. Remember to switch your camera to manual focus or as soon as you hit the shutter button, you will need to re-focus your camera.
  • Use a tripod. It takes a long exposure to catch the northern lights, longer than you can stand still. A tripod will guarantee a crisp, in focus shot (if you followed the first step correctly 😉 ). It’s also a good idea to use a remote, or the self-timer function to fire off the shutter so as to eliminate hand shake from pressing the shutter.
  • Turn your ISO up. ISO adjusts the light sensitivity of the sensor in your camera. The higher the ISO, the more light sensitive it is. Some cameras handle higher ISOs better than others. The higher the ISO, the grainier the photo will get. You need to find balance between aperture, shutter speed and ISO to get a well-lit photo that retains high quality.
  • Shutter speed: If the aurora is bright, you can get away with a shorter shutter speed. Short in night photography terms being <10 seconds. If the aurora is faint, or not really dancing, I like to do a ~20-second exposure. If your exposure is too long, all the lights will blur together and you will lose the definition of the movement. If you do an exposure of longer than 30 seconds, you will actually start to see the stars move in the shot. More on star trails another time…
  • Aperture: this is the f/ value on your camera. It adjusts how much light is let into the lens. The lower the number, the more you can adjust your plane of focus. The higher the number, the more of your shot will be in focus. At f/22, everything will be in good focus, where as at f/2.8 you will have a very shallow depth of field. When shooting the night sky, you obviously want as much of everything in focus as possible, so aim for a higher f/.
  • Play with your settings! Remember, there is no right or wrong, there is just creative freedom 😉 Start out at something like f/11, ISO 1600 for 10 seconds and see what it looks like. If it’s too dark or too light, adjust. Keep playing until you get it right.
  • Composition: I like to make sure I have some earthly aspect in my photos of the night sky: a mountain or a treeline gives perspective. Once you have it down pat, start throwing in new challenges, like posing people, etc.

I would love to hear your best aurora photography tips or favourite location for aurora viewing, leave them in the comments below!

 

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Looking for Larches

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In the Rockies, fall is about much more than pumpkin spiced lattes; fall is for getting outside and enjoying the sunshine/snow combo of higher elevations, getting days off now that it is shoulder season and enjoying the gold that is to be found in the mountains.

Did I say gold? Why yes, yes I did.

The larches are at their peak for colour right now and the weekend weather has been awesome, which makes this a great time to get out for a hike at high altitude to bask in the golden colour of these beautiful trees.

Larches are the only coniferous tree (cone bearing, has needles instead of leaves) that we have here that drops its needles every fall; and it does do with a flourish of colour! These trees are prevalent around 7000 feet above sea level, which means to really take them in, you are looking at a solid hike.

Or are you…

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The Highwood Pass in Kananaskis, running through Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, is the highest paved road in Canada, with the road running at about 7000 feet above sea level. Do you see where I am getting with this? 😉

There are numerous fantastic hikes along this highway corridor, and all of them put the alpine zone in easy reach, even for families with small children. Some suggestions for hikes along the Highwood where you will get some great larch viewing are:

  • Pocaterra Ridge
  • Elbow Lake
  • Ptarmigan Cirque

Some other great larch hikes in KCountry are:

  • Rawson Lake
  • Chester Lake
  • Burstall Pass

All of these hikes offer spectacular views, but to take in the larches in all their glory, you have to hurry up and get hiking! The season for colour is a very brief one out here. You can also expect to encounter snow at higher elevations, so definitely bring an extra layer to throw on, and you will probably be thankful for light gloves and a buff or toque to cover your ears.

Here are some photos from my hike yesterday up Ptarmigan Cirque:

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Camp Yoga – Canmore

I found out about Camp Yoga entirely by accident. I was wandering down Whyte avenue in Edmonton with my mother in July and we swung into YEG Cycle to take a peek at their gear. As we were checking out, I noticed a postcard on the counter advertising Camp Yoga, in three different locations all across Canada: Parry Sound – Ontario, Gibsons – BC, and Canmore – Alberta, a.k.a. basically my back yard.

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I carried that postcard around in my purse for a couple of weeks, and came across it again when looking for something else. I decided to check it out online, and once I got to the website, I saw that they were looking for photographers for the event. A couple of emails later, and I was in!

The camp itself was last weekend, and what an experience. I have always been a casual yogi. I’ve practiced yoga off and on since I went to my first class at the age of 12 with my mom but am by no means very good at it. I will openly admit that I don’t know all the names of all the poses, I don’t know what all the yoga vocab means and I had no idea what to expect from the weekend, but there were so many different things to try, way more than just yoga, so I was pretty excited for the weekend.

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Friday dawned bright and sunny; I double and triple checked all my camera gear and then headed out to YMCA Camp Chief Hector, where Camp Yoga was being hosted. All the yogis started rolling in around 11:00 and the opening ceremonies were at 11:30 on the lawn. All the different instructors took a few minutes to welcome the participants, putting them through a quick workout routine, showing off their individual teaching style. Everyone hugged, fist bumped, burpee-d and danced before heading off to lunch.

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Lunch was served very much camp style: picnic tables in a giant mess hall and everyone made new friends. After lunch, the activities were into full swing: The weekend was jam packed with archery, climbing, dance classes, horse yoga, whitewater rafting, mala workshops, smoothie workshops and, of course, yoga. There truly was something for everyone. Each evening was capped off with music, craft beer and a campfire.

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As a photographer at an event of this scale and diversity, I was faced with some interesting challenges. There was a lot of running around since the different events were all over the massive camp property. Photographing white water rafting requires a different skill set than photographing yoga or dance. I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge and the chance to photograph so many awesome activities in such a short period of time. The Visual Story Telling team consisted of myself and lovely girl named Des as photographers and Adam, a videographer from Vancouver. You can see some of our work on the Camp Yoga, LululemonYEG and LululemonYYC instagram feeds. If you want to see more of what I shot, keep scrolling 🙂

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My home for the weekend

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KCountry: Snow and Gold

Autumn has hit hard here in Kananaskis; it seems to have come out of nowhere and swept over the valley like wildfire. Barely 2 weeks ago, everything was green and now, the leaves are definitely at their peak for fall colour: The entire valley glows gold in the autumn sunshine.

Except this morning. This morning everything was white. I knew it had snowed the minute I woke up. There is a certain kind of hushed silence that falls over the world after a fresh snow and the sunlight almost seems to change in quality.

Today was definitely the most beautiful day I have experienced in a long time, and I spent several hours of this afternoon/evening out photographing.

 

Fall At Lake Louise Ski Resort

On Friday, I was incredibly lucky to get invited out to Lake Louise Ski Resort. In the summer and through until Thanksgiving, the resort operates the ski lift as a sightseeing gondola (definitely the easiest way to get to the top of a mountain!). I got an awesome behind the scenes tour of what goes into running a ski resort of that caliber and was then sent off and up the mountain to take photos. Here are some of my favourite shots from the day:

 

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Boundary Ranch

I got out to Boundary Ranch last week for some more photos; I will admit it: I am hooked on that place! It is so beautiful and there is so much to photograph. Now if only the rain would hold off…I have been trying to get out there for a couple of evenings now and the rain always comes in right as I am planning to go!

Until I get out there again, here is some of what I shot last week:

Combining Passions

Some people find it hard to balance work with what they love, but I am pretty lucky in that I love what I do and am finding ways to combine my passions. I have recently been working on putting together my professional photography portfolio and was looking through what I have shot over the last year and breaking it down into categories and unsurprisingly, I have photographed a lot of firefighting (training days and courses, etc). Obviously I am not photographing when out on calls, but a lot of what we do, even in training is pretty spectacular. I am also moving into photographing more rescue academy training (stay tuned to see what September brings 😉 ) and would love to keep the momentum rolling by lining up some photography work with different departments.

Do you, or someone you know, work on a fire department that would like to have some photos done? Photos taken will be shared with the department for use on their website, social media, or however they like. 

Send me a message on the bottom of this post to chat about photography opportunities with your department!

Monday Morning Only Sucks If You Let It

When most people (myself included some weeks…) think of Monday morning, they are thinking of it grudgingly, and they are definitely not dreaming about setting their alarms a couple hours early in order to squeeze in an early morning paddle.

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This morning, the gold aspen were starting to make an appearance

But I am here to tell you that that is exactly what you should do. You don’t paddle? No problem! Get up a bit early and go for a walk, or a run or a bike ride. Get outside, get yourself a little bit of pre-workweek serenity.

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My friend Jenn introduced me to an every changing group of people who meet up in Canmore dark and early almost every Monday morning; they meet up at Rocky Mountain Bagel around 6:30am-7:00am, grab coffee and bagels and then head out to the Canmore Resevoir to stand up paddleboard.

I have made it out for a handful of Monday morning paddles, and each one leaves me feeling happy, relaxed and ready to take on the week. The water is always stunningly calm, the views are fantastic and everything is made better by the fact that the rest of the world is still asleep.There is just something so special about getting to experience such a magical moment, all because you got up that much earlier than everyone else.

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I need to make a point of doing this more often; it can be a struggle to drag my butt out of a warm cozy bed (that snooze button is awfully tempting!) but it is so worth it in the end.

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Marble Canyon – Kootenay National Park

Just a hop-skip-and-a-jump from Banff National Park is its twin, Kootenay National Park. Last Sunday I found myself off work early, so I decided to take a drive out to Lake Louise for pictures, but found myself distracted by the possibility of going to BC. It was literally right there in front of me, so at the last minute I found myself on the off-ramp and headed to Kootenay.

Marble Canyon is only a few minutes over the BC border and is well worth the drive. Its like a shorter but more dramatic version of Johnston Canyon, with significantly less people. Any time that I have been there, there hasn’t been an overwhelming number of people. Sure, its busy. Anywhere out here is busy in the summer on the weekend, but compared to the tour buses that show up at Johnston Canyon, Marble Canyon was a relief from the masses.

Getting High In Canmore

Hah! Bet I got your attention there… No, I am not talking about substance use or abuse, I am talking about something WAY more fun.

Helicopters.

If you know me, you know I love flying (click here to see my last flight experience) and last Thursday, September 1st, I had the opportunity to fly with Alpine Helicopters out of Canmore. While I have worked on some of the same rescue calls as Alpine in the back country of Kananaskis, I have never had the chance to personally fly over the Kananaskis/Canmore area so I was pretty excited to finally get to go!

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Spray Lake from Above

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You can see Ha Ling and the 742 highway in this photo from above.

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The Bow Valley from above

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This ridge line is just begging to be hiked…

It was pretty incredible to everything from so far above, and to feel the changing air currents around the different mountain ranges. There were a couple good bumps, but the ride was absolutely spectacular.