It was a moonless February night in Hudson Bay, Saskatchewan, Canada, when the temperatures plummeted to -30c and the sky cleared off revealing a crystal clear view of the stars. There wasn’t much in the forecast for Northern Lights so when I seen the haze begin I was pleasantly surprised. Little did I know, as I bundled up to head outside with my camera gear, I was about to begin a 5 night Aurora Marathon!
The first night was bright and active as the band of light reached across the sky. Breaking apart and dancing in spikes as it would move and change, eventually settling back into a band. I watched the show while I set up for a timelapse of the action.
The Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, are an amazing wonder of the world. They are highly unpredictable and the magic of seeing them explode and light up the night is truly indescribable. You really never know what the night may bring, they can be visible for minutes or hours, it constantly changes.
The fact that the sky was clear and the lights were active for 5 nights in a row was a new personal record! I live just south of 53 degrees latitude so the lights have to be a fair bit active for me to see in the first place, never mind avoiding cloud cover as well. I wouldn’t really consider it an aurora chase only because I never had to leave home! Driving only for compositional sake.
Night two was even colder than the first. The temperature hovered around -30c but a brutal wind made it feel closer to -40c. However, this also meant the sky was totally clear and as the last light faded over the horizon and darkness took over, there was a distinct haze of aurora building high up into the sky. I could tell despite the temperatures, the way it was building up so early in the night, I had to plan to check out the show. Due to the extreme weather I stayed closer to home, bundled up and braving the conditions. To say this determination was worth it, is an understatement. The aurora put on an unbelievable show! It was by far the best night of the marathon, the entire sky lit up with northern lights dancing in bright vivid greens, purples and blues right overhead!
The third night was almost a bust. Since the Northern Lights were on such a steady and strong roll, I decided to set up a night portrait session with a couple that had been asking me to get a photo of them. Later in the day the weather changed and slight cloud cover moved in during the evening. I watched 4 different weather forecasts and felt like there still might be a possible opening in the clouds near midnight. I got some rest and postponed the night portraits session for a couple hours later than planned. I’m so glad I did. When I went outside just after 11, I could see the stars appearing and the clouds moving off, I finalized our plans and we set out to the location. This plan was probably what made me even go out this night, considering I was also working my day job all week I was fairly tired. However I already made plans so I took the opportunity to get some night portraits and other shots for a couple hours under the northern lights!
Night 4 started out with high hopes, the Aurora forecast was looking favourable for a decent show, the temperatures drastically warmed up and the sky had cleared again! This meant I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to head out for night 4. This would be a new personal record for me, having only shot a record of 3 consecutive nights in the past, it was exciting. Even though the data seemed to be good, the show did not produce as I had hoped. I had travelled to a local lake near some open water, but the northern lights didn’t get strong enough for the shot I wanted. The glow stayed fairly low to the northern horizon for most of the night. When I started to head home, a bit disappointed, the band of light intensified! I didn’t get the shots I had planned for but instead I practiced taking some panos of the immense band of light. The show wasn’t as active as I would have like to see, but the sky was clear, the stars were shining and the hazy band of light stood strong in the north.
The final night of the marathon I had previously made other plans but still managed to sneak in a mini Aurora shoot. Since I was on such a lucky streak I had kept my eye on the cloud forecast and the aurora predictions even though I would be busy most of the night. I didn’t have much time but thankfully early in the night I was able to catch some interesting lights! I got a few shots before the clouds moved in and eventually covered what looked to be another developing show.
What an incredible 5 days. It was exhausting and exhilarating all at the same time. If I knew what I know now I would have taken holidays from work to allow more time to be out all night long. Aurora is so unpredictable and often involves more luck than anything else. Timing. Location. It all needs to come together perfect. I’m so grateful and lucky to have had this amazing experience!
Camera Gear Used: Canon 6D, Rokinon 14mm, Slik 724CF tripod & remote shutter release.
My February 2020 Aurora Marathon in Numbers:
- 5 Consecutive Moonless nights
- -40 to +2 Temperatures
- 175 km Driving
- 30 hours of Sleep
- 28 hours working
- 15 hours outside after dark
- 1011 photos taken
- 2 Timelapses & 2 Panos
- 2 models for night portraits
- 10 travel mugs of hot chocolate
- 1 happy photographer
Photography Tip: An active aurora storm can be very bright and fast moving, sometimes you need to be changing settings with each shot. When shooting active and bright aurora, keep the shutter speed low (1-5 seconds) to capture the movement without blowing out the highlights.
Have you been on an Aurora Marathon of your own? I’d love to hear about other experiences! I will be following up with posts regarding all the techniques I practiced while I was out shooting the Aurora. Until then – Keep your eye on the Sky!