Aurora chasers blinded by the lights

·8 min read

Lighting up the night sky in a brilliant sea of vibrant colours, the aurora borealis has kept Manitoba photographers busy this fall with some of the most active displays of the year.

Landscape astrophotographer and full-time aurora borealis chaser Justin Anderson spends almost every day on the road aiming to catch a photo of the northern lights whirling overhead.

Anderson launched the Facebook group Manitoba Aurora and Astronomy in July 2020. It quickly gained traction across the province. He said uniting more than 32,000 people who are passionate about the northern lights has been thrilling.

“There is a lot of excitement about the aurora. Our community has grown this year from 2,800 members at the start of the year to almost 30,000,” Anderson said. “Our community has blown up.”

Anderson’s passion for photographing the aurora started with a simple spark; he was taking photos of the stars and was blown away by the majesty of the astronomical phenomena.

His first photos “weren’t great,” Anderson said with a chuckle, but he could recognize the structure and brightness of the aurora in the images. He was compelled to learn to capture lively photos and track the phenomena.

“From there it was right down the rabbit hole,” Anderson said.

He began taking photos professionally about four years ago, and the aurora became a staple of his catalogue in 2018.

Anderson lives about 25 minutes north of Brandon, and the spot has proved to be the perfect space to capture images of the dancing lights. When the aurora is especially bright, he can see it by just stepping into his backyard.

Other times, Anderson will hop in his car and find an interesting object, like an old building or pond, for the foreground of a photo and use the aurora to light up the background.

“Manitoba is one of the best locations to photograph the aurora in,” Anderson said. “As far as mid-latitude locations, we’re in the best location.”

Manitobans are fortunate because the aurora typically appears overhead instead of on the horizon, he said. The view provides stargazers with one of the best views in the country.

The aurora is generated by particles released by the sun. As the particles impact the earth, they glow and create the aurora.

The northern lights occur in multiple stages; they begin with an arc building on the horizon that appears as a green glow — this is the most often seen by photographers. The arc slowly mounts energy until it explodes into active movement and colours for about five minutes, Anderson said, although this sight is rarer to behold in comparison to the green glow.

“Right when it’s about to explode, you’ll get that really bright colour that looks like individual beads in the aurora,” Anderson said.

Understanding of the phenomena has grown through citizen science and the images captured by photographers, he added.

He cited the recently identified phenomena STEVE (Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement) that appears as reddish-coloured pillars as the aurora dies out. STEVE sits in a liminal state, he said, noting it is not technically considered part of the northern lights but appears as they disappear.

Anderson said Alberta aurora chasers played a major role in discovering STEVE, and there is a lot science still has to learn about the phenomena and the lights in general.

“There’s so much more than you can look into.”

The aurora can appear at any time of year, whether it’s 30 C or -30 C. However, it can be challenging to capture images of the lights in the summer because the nights are so short.

“We have two hours of the night in the summer. You have a lot shorter of a window to get out there and chase the aurora,” he said. “But, in the winter you get those -40 nights that are crystal-clear and all the stars are gorgeous … You can get out and shoot the aurora and be home by 10 p.m. and go to bed.”

In Manitoba the aurora appears once every 10 days or so, Anderson said.

When the aurora is weak on the horizon he will use a camera and long exposure to see if there are any colours to record. The camera can capture greens that are not visible to the naked eye.

Anderson added his camera serves as an important tool because he is spectral colour blind, directly impacting his ability to see the aurora.

“I’m not colour blind at all. I can see green, I can see it in the photos, but in-person I’ve never seen green,” Anderson said. “For me, it’s only white unless it’s dancing … It’s kind of funny; I’m a full-time aurora chaser and I don’t even see the aurora.”

Explosions of active aurora like the ones in October and November occur a couple of times each year, but they can be rare to capture with a camera.

“They can light up the ground as if there is a full moon,” Anderson said.

One of the best resources available for those seeking the northern lights is the Manitoba Aurora and Astronomy Facebook group.

“Those groups are made so you don’t have to be a scientist to understand it. You can see someone post a photo saying ‘this is happening right now and you can head out,” Anderson said. “It’s a community that works together to make the chances better for everybody.”

The group also includes threads about the expected weather and members share ideas about where the sky is clear for a photo.

When it comes to photography, the best teacher is experience, and new photographers will likely fail before they get the perfect shot, he said.

“By failing and photographing the stars you kind of understand how to photograph the night sky and get a bit of a feel for it.

“Get out there and try a few times — have high hopes for a show but low expectations.”

The best part of the hunt is that there is no confirmation when the lights will appear until they are visible — at times there can be an explosion of excitement that fails to materialize in the active night, while other evenings provide an unexpected surprise of beautiful colourful explosions.

“You hope for an event, but unfortunately, a lot of it won’t pan out and you get nothing. But, some nights there is no plan and it will happen.”

It takes a mix of chance, luck and careful planning to get pictures of the aurora.

“It works both ways — you can have fantastic aurora, but [sometimes] you have snow or rain or cloud ... and you can’t see anything,” Anderson said.

Christian Yackel has taken pictures of the aurora across the province, although he typically heads out to the Interlake region.

He first started chasing the lights in early 2020. He started off shooting with his cellphone before moving to a Canon Rebel T7i in the summer.

“The first three times I went out I didn’t see anything, and I remember being so disappointed,” Yackel said.

Seeing everyone else’s pictures of the brilliant displays kept him motivated to take a photo of his own.

He recalled the first time he managed to do so. He was driving home after a long night of no light shows. Then, near Selkirk, he happened to glance in the rearview mirror and saw them dancing in the night sky. He immediately turned around, jumped out of the car and started shooting.

“It’s always such a rush,” Yackel said.

It is often a waiting game hoping to see the night sky light up, he said.

He uses aurora activity tracking applications, but the Manitoba Aurora Facebook group is often the best way to find out when the lights are expected to be present.

“There’s a few times this month that have been the highlights of the year so far,” Yackel said.

Photographer Garnie Ross, of The Big Apple Images, started chasing the northern lights while living in northern Manitoba. He has been shooting them for at least 40 years, he said, and his passion for the lights has only grown over the decades.

“I used to watch the northern lights off the shore of the Hudson’s Bay. I did that for 12 years and I miss it so much — I’ve heard the northern lights ... it’s a tinkling, spacey, travelling [sound],” Ross said. “Whenever I see the northern lights are out, I’m going to be out there chasing them.”

He appreciates when he can capture the southern Manitoba aurora, he said, but it’s hard to compete with the splendour of the north.

Ross captured “wonderful” images of the lights Tuesday in Cartwright.

He lives in the area and can walk out the door with his camera in hand at the drop of a hat. He knows the area well and plans his shoots based on the locations of different landscapes, buildings and areas of interest.

“When you hear there’s a possibility of northern lights, you think about where you want to go that night and get some decent shots. It comes down to familiarity with the area,” Ross said.

Ross usually brings a couple of digital cameras and at least one film camera. Using film forces him to stop and think to ensure he gets a decent photo, he explained.

Ross lives with fibromyalgia, he said, and his symptoms often change with the energy generated with the aurora lights surrounding him. The photography keeps him grounded, he said, and he can do it even when he is having a severe fibro flare.

The northern lights are the sun’s energy being directed to the earth, and he can feel the effects physically, he said.

“You just feel good. I feel happy. It’s wonderful energy when you’re out there,” Ross said. “It’s amazing.”

» ckemp@brandonsun.com

» Twitter: @The_ChelseaKemp

Chelsea Kemp, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun

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