Elk Island Aurora

The skies over Alberta were overcast, except for one small spot 4 hours away.

Camera Settings | KP Scale & Range

On September 15, 2023, lady aurora came to town. Near Edmonton’s eastern bedroom community of Fort Saskatchewan, lies Elk Island Provincial Park and a potential spot to set up my camera. Normally a long three to four hour drive away (assuming light traffic and minimal coffee stops), Fort Saskatchewan and the park aren’t among my typical destinations. Yet there it sat, the only area reporting clear skies across the province when the aurora forecast came in. I’d been to the park decades earlier to see buffalo grazing in its forests and fields. Time having long ago erased memories of where to go once I’d arrived, I relied on Google Maps to guide me. Considering the length of the drive, finding a shoot location, setting up, along with the likelihood that the skies would close up on me, the trip was a pretty big gamble. I was not deterred. Rather, I felt compelled to go. Compelled to capture the aurora. Compelled to share her with you.

green curtain
reflecting pond

At the time, I had only the Nikon D780 so considered time lapses, video, and shooting single frames. Given the intensity of the aurora, how fast it was moving, and how incredibly low it was, I decided to shoot time lapses.

Having wound my way past other aurora watchers to less busy spots, I eventually found an area where forested paths wove through ponds and marshes. As I walked deep into the wetlands I could hear animals both near and far. The bugles of elk in the rut. The snorts of buffalo laying down for the night. And the oddest sound of all, a chorus of beavers chewing on wood while chirping at one another in concert.

As I stood in the dark ankle deep in swampy wetlands with nothing more than crocs on my feet, I swear the aurora reached out and touched me. Its undulating movement pulsating and bursting shot over my head and past me, and perhaps also through me. The sensation of it all was a bit odd – eerie even – making me uneasy at times. Between time lapses, I snapped single shots. In all, the aurora stayed with me for 5 hours…throughout the night until the sun began to rise in the morning causing her to fade.

aurora camera settings

Manual settings for shooting the Aurora. Start here and adjust for the intensity of light and speed of the aurora’s movement. Some people recommend Auto ISO when light intensity varies a lot. Finally, set the white point to how warm/cool you prefer. Mine is 5000k.

havoc

I did encounter one challenge that was quite annoying. Being wetlands, dew (condensation) formed on my lens. Fortunately, I had some pocket warmers on my bag. I was able to get them heated and wrapped onto my lens as a way to counter the dew. It worked, but not perfectly. I now have lens warmers that plug into my power bricks. No more dew, condensation, or frost on my lenses.

Aurora Scale & Visibility Range

While many know the aurora borealis as the Northern Lights (northern hemisphere), in reality, they aren’t bright lights unless you’re located very far north. That said, you can still see them through a camera and with your eyes depending on the aurora’s strength. Below are some aurora captures with the approximate kp score (kp scale is 1-9, 1 being faint and 9 being incredibly strong).

aurora over ice kp1
kp 1-2
kp4
kp 3-4
aurora pillars over dinosaur park
kp 4
kp4
kp 4-5
kp6
kp 6-7
kp7
kp 7+
_coronal-dancer-twoDSC_5399-800
kp 8
Curtains
kp 8

View more aurora photos by Randy Milanovic

Check out the FAQs at Aurora Forecast (Iceland)

north america
North America
south
Southern Hemisphere
asia europe
Europe/Asia

Technical aspects of this aurora shoot.

Foreground: Nikon D780, Sigma 14-24mm wide-angle lens, Tripod. The D780’s 24.5 megapixel sensor captures light exceptionally well. Its viewfinder features touch controls, peak banding display for accurate focus, and adjusted angle preview screen. For time lapse, I chose to 900 second (15 minutes) utilizing Bulb setting, f/2.8 – time lapses configured in camera. Stills shot in RAW format (NEF), all images captured were lightly edited in Photoshop and videos processed in iMovie.