Seeing Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) in Banff

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Seeing Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) in Banff

Seeing the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) in Banff National Park

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to fly all the way to Yellowknife or Iceland to catch the Northern Lights… they’re visible just outside Calgary! These photos were taken in beautiful Banff National Park (a 70 minute drive from Calgary) just a few nights ago. Since I posted the pictures to social media I’ve gotten numerous questions regarding the Lights (or Aurora Borealis, if you like) and writing a blog post to address them seemed like the best thing to do.

Here are the FAQs and the best answers I could come up with:

How do you know when the Northern Lights will happen? Is it just chance?
Although it’s hard to forecast, the site we use to best predict whether the Aurora will happen is: http://www.softservenews.com/gps-aurora-borealis-forecast.html and it’s been great. This site uses GPS to detect your location so that the information you receive is best suited to you. Obviously you must enable the location detector when the site prompts you or if this doesn’t work you can drop a pin on the map.

Northern lights Banff

You can check this on a daily basis OR if you’re lazy like me, you can just subscribe to notifications on Twitter from @Aurora_Alerts (their account) which will send you a message every time the status of the Aurora changes. For people who live in Calgary, the level of activity much reach a kp level 4 or higher in order for you to properly witness and/or capture any lights. The downside to the Twitter alerts is that you can’t tailor the updates to your location but if I’m not mistaken, they are Edmonton-based so the updates are similar if not identical.

Aurora alerts
What is the best time to see the Aurora?

The Aurora moves with the night so the later it gets and the deeper into the night it gets, the better your chances are of seeing it. I’ve found that the window between 12am and 3am is best for Banff/Calgary area. That being said, I’ve seen amazing photos at all times of night. If you’re committed, just bring a sleeping bag and stay up all night – I guarantee it’s worth it! If it’s too cold to camp out for the night and you just want to wait until you get notifications for a storm warning (5 Kp or higher), we’ve written up a list of the best places to stay in Banff that you can check out here: Finding Cheap Accommodation in Banff.

I got an Aurora Alert but I didn’t see anything – why?

For Aurora viewing, the less light pollution, the better. This is why you should drive as far away from the city as possible. You can check for levels of light pollution here: http://www.jshine.net/astronomy/dark_sky/

You can see from this site that Banff is completely dark which makes it prime Aurora-viewing territory. (Also, if you’ve got time to spare, Banff’s neighbor Jasper National Park is the world’s largest dark sky preserve!)

It’s cloudy, will this affect the viewing?

YES. The Northern Lights happen above the clouds so always always always make sure you check for cloud cover because it won’t be worth it if they’re there. You can use http://www.cleardarksky.com to check for clouds, transparency, etc. or simply check Environment Canada’s forecast.

Northern Lights Banff


What kind of equipment do I need to take photos of the Northern Lights?

Ideally you want a DSLR, a tripod and either a release switch or timer.

The gear we use for astrophotography and highly recommend for taking photos of the Northern Lights is:
Canon 5D Mark III DSLR (The best camera we’ve ever owned. I am absolutely in love with the photo quality.)
Fixed Rokinon 14mm lens (This is a super-wide fixed lens which is great for capturing the night sky)
MeFoto Aluminium travel tripod (All great Northern Lights photos are long exposures, which means a tripod is required so that the photo doesn’t end up being blurry)
Canon Remote Switch RS60 E3 (The best way to set a long exposure without shaking the camera so your shot is crystal clear)

BUT – I have captured images on my GoPro Hero 4 before and they didn’t turn out half bad! (See below)

What setting was your GoPro on to take photos of the Aurora?

Night mode, ISO 800, 30 second exposure
These photos of the Northern Lights were all taken with a GoPro Hero 3!

The new GoPro Hero 5 has even better features and the Night Mode has improved a lot.

If you have any questions about the Aurora or you’re planning a trip to Banff feel free to shoot me an email at Louise@Elitejetsetter.com or visit our website at www.elitejetsetter.com – we specialize in the Canadian Rockies. Have fun!

Instagram: @wzylouisey

Twitter: @wzylouisey

 

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4 Comments

  1. Kara says:

    I appreciate this fantastic article, and especially the great resources provided! I’m planning a Banff trip next week, and aurora watching is always high on my to-do list while I’m there!

  2. […] Some of the photos we took recently of the northern lights were taken with iso 800 and 1600 (Seeing the Northern Lights in Banff). Unfortunately in this case, the noise is just a necessary evil, and it can be reduced with post […]

  3. Bid says:

    Hi! Awesome blog. We are planning for Banff in September. Can you list a few spots in Banff, where we can drive to if there is an alert?

    Thanks in advance,

    • eliteyyc says:

      Thank you! Unfortunately September isn’t a particularly good time for the Aurora… It tends to show up more in the winter. However you can try Minnewanka Loop, Vermilion Lakes Drive and the Icefields Parkway if an alert does happen!

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