Thursday, October 3, 2013

Northern Lights above Regina, SK: October 1, 2013

Northern Lights © 2013, Shelley Banks, all rights reserved.
Looking south at Regina's orange tungsten glow,
 past grain bins and a field...
with Aurora Borealis sheeting through the sky above. © SB 
Yes, you can see Northern Lights in Regina! Links within this story go to other Aurora Borealis photos taken in Saskatchewan. 

The winter 2013-14 Aurora Borealis season began in Regina, Saskatchewan with a stunning display late evening on October 1, with northern lights arcing across the entire bowl of the sky... Lights so bright we stood in awe in the backyard to watch...

And then we realized we'd see these Northern Lights even better outside of town, beyond the orange glare of tungsten street lights. But it was late, and among us in the car were very early risers... And the lights had already begun to fade. So when we found a turnoff to a field a short way from the city (not as dark as our usual spot), we pulled over.

Magnificent! (See end for technical details, re: photographing northern lights.) 

The Aurora Borealis was so bright that even full-on headlights from passing pick-up trucks didn't dim the show. Mega-bright.

This was a major storm for us — for anywhere, in fact.

(Canada's national Space Weather site ranked this as a bright red 9, top of the scale for the Southern Prairies region. And suggested an at least 96 per cent chance of seeing the Auroras... If the sky was clear... And it was!)

Since I've moved to the Prairies and started watching for Northern Lights, I've been in awe of the fact that the stars remain so visible behind the streaks. The Aurora often looks like a cloud, a coloured mistiness that washes across the sky. And clouds — but not these lights! — block stars from view.

Look closely at this picture below... On the left half, you can see (brightly sparkling) the stars that comprise Ursa Major — not just the Big Dipper, but all of the bear, from its head through legs, missing only the tip of its tail. Above, is Ursa Minor, with a twist of Draco between these two bears. On the bottom right, Auriga, the chariot or chariotteer, with the hero Perseus in the cluster of stars above. (We are so lucky to have semi-dark skies here!)

Northern Lights © 2013, Shelley Banks, all rights reserved.
Yes, there are clouds in this picture - there is a low, thin bank, at the very bottom left.
The rest of the sky is crystal clear, with pale green and soft pink Northern Lights. 
© SB

I am always enchanted when these magical displays splash out from the top of the bowl of the sky, and from there, sheet down to the horizon. Many displays are limited to just the northern horizon, so these full-sky shows are a treat. Below are two shots taken with the camera set to face straight up, to capture whatever was happening during these three-second exposures.

Northern Lights © 2013, Shelley Banks, all rights reserved.
Northern Lights across the bowl of the sky...
This looks like an eagle's head/beak in the centre, to me! 
© SB

Northern Lights © 2013, Shelley Banks, all rights reserved.
Again, the Northern Lights explode from the centre of the sky. © SB 

The Big Dipper/Ursa Major is clear in the northern part of our skies at this time of year, and in the image below, you can see it above the lights of a distant farmyard, as the Aurora Borealis sheets above and across the sky. (Draco and Ursa Minor are pretty clear, there, too.)

Northern Lights © 2013, Shelley Banks, all rights reserved.
Aurora Borealis falls in waves across the sky, above fields a few minutes north of Regina, Saskatchewan.
Note the Big Dipper, clear above the distant farm complex. 
© SB 

And the next image looks straight west, showing how much stronger the lights were in the Northern half of the sky...

Northern Lights © 2013, Shelley Banks, all rights reserved.
The lights were slow moving, but at times seemed to fall like rain. This image was taken facing west (with north at right).
The power poles from the grid road can be seen tipping (wide angle distortion) gently rightward,
while lights of an oncoming car glow brightly down the road. 
© SB 

At one point, a car pulled out of the field across the road, lighting the field where we were parked, watching the show. Its full-on lights provided unexpectedly great lighting for the portrait I had in progress... I'd thought I'd have to retake because of its effect on my timed exposure, but it was fine! (And besides, everyone was cold by then, and wanted to go home, and my model was the early riser with the 6 a.m. shift...) You can see that shot (soon!) on my Photography blog.

Technical details, re: Photographing Northern Lights:

  • All photographs were taken using a tripod and remote; all with my Tokina DX 11-16mm f/2.8 lens (the older version, which is an excellent match with my Nikon D7000 for night sky photography); 
  • All at f/2.8 and ISO 800, with a shutter speed of three seconds, to capture the most light. (So yes, pictures of Northern Lights will be often be brighter than what our eyes see, because the lens stays open longer... and, yes, photographers may tweak the white or highlights a bit...) 
  • All at 11 mm, though some were later cropped to removed distractions and distortions. (My camera has a cropped sensor, so that's somewhat akin to 16 mm on a full frame.) 
  • I left the white balance at Auto, though Daylight is often recommended. (In post-production, Daylight's temperature at 5500 was too green, so I reset to 5200 from Auto's 5050...) 
  • I also removed the lens filter, as I've read that can create distortion... I've no idea if that's really the case! 
  • These Aurora Borealis weren't moving quickly; if they had been, I'd have raised the ISO a few stops for a faster shutter speed. (1.6 seconds at 1600 ISO would allow the sensor to capture the same amount of light, for a slightly grainier image.) 
  • I don't have a flashlight with a red lamp, but used my iPhone to see the camera setting when I played with adjustments. Not its flashlight, but the glow from the dim phone screen. 
  • The camera was on Manual focus, set to Infinity — except for the portraits I tried, one of which is on my photo blog. The focus setting for that was a bit more complicated! (See my notes with the portrait, re: setting the focus in the dark.) 
I'd welcome comments from other photographers who've shot the Northern Lights, re: your approach and settings! 

What are these? Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights. (The links above go to other pix taken in Regina.)
Location: Slightly beyond the city lights of Regina, Saskatchewan, in a field just out of town.
Photo date: October 1, 2013.


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