Camera Tips

Camera Tips

Capture the perfect aurora shots

Feel like a professional photographer!

Northern Lights


What Causes the Aurora?

One of Earth’s wondrous natural splendours, aurora borealis is the result of gaseous particles colliding in the atmosphere. Those electrons and protons, called solar flares, originate on the sun and are thrown violently from its atmosphere. As our planet rotates around the sun, only two percent of the particles make it through the Earth’s magnetic field, which funnel toward the north and south poles at incredibly high speeds after entry.

The particles then morph into an excited state after hitting atoms and molecules in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, creating two glowing rings of auroral emission over the poles, known as auroral ovals. Most auroras are created between 100 and 1,000 km (60 to 620 miles) above the Earth’s surface.

What Makes the Northern Lights Dance?

Scientists in 2008 made a remarkable discovery in their study of aurora, uncovering what makes the northern lights dance. Before the fascinating discovery, people could only postulate as to why the northern lights danced so majestically across the skyline. A fleet of five satellites stationed in the atmosphere and a ground-based team observed a magnetic storm that emanated 80,000 km from Earth, or a third the distance to the moon. The storm, caused by a phenomenon called magnetic reconnection, released colossal amounts of energy that scattered charged particles into the atmosphere.

Ninety seconds after the substorm started, ground observatories witnessed a northern lights display brighten and dance across the sky. The scattered particles created the dancing effect, as seen and interpreted by the human eye. While scientists already knew the cause of the northern lights, their 2008 revelation confirmed what makes them dance and brighten.

Can You Hear the Aurora?

Countless first-hand accounts attest to hearing sounds emitted from aurora borealis. People, as they behold the wondrously illuminating visual event, have described swishing, drumming, whooshing and crackling sounds coming directly from the northern lights. And while the theory hasn’t been categorically disproved, it is unlikely that aurora borealis emits sound. Donald Hampton, a research associate professor at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks who studies space physics and aurora and auroral interactions with the upper atmosphere, said “there’s no way you’re actually getting sounds from the aurora itself.” That’s because the northern lights are created in the upper atmosphere, between 100 and 160 kilometres above the Earth’s surface, and it takes sound several seconds to travel a kilometre.

“If you’ve ever counted after a lightning strike, it takes five seconds for sound to go a kilometre,” Hampton said, so if sounds were coming from the northern lights themselves they would take five to 10 minutes to be heard on the ground. While Hampton and other researchers have compelling research to debunk the theory that aurora emits sound, they can’t irrefutably prove it. There is bundles of anecdotal evidence to support the contrary. So while the unproven phenomenon that aurora emits sound is extremely unlikely, there’s no harm, as you admire the northern lights’ beautiful colour medley, to keep an ear out just in case.

Aurora Colours?

Different atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere, primarily oxygen and nitrogen, create the awe-inspiring spectrum of the northern lights. When in an animated state, the atoms produce a spectacular colour medley. Green is the most common colour and is produced when charged particles collide with oxygen molecules at altitudes of 100 to 300 km.

Aurora borealis, to a lesser extent, produces pink, dark red, red, blue and purple. Hydrogen and helium molecules create the blue and purple, going against the norm. Those two colours are harder for the human eye to detect, but are just as spectacular.

Naming the Aurora?

In 1619 A.D., Galileo Galilei coined the term “aurora borealis” after Aurora, the Roman goddess of morning or dawn. The famous Italian astronomer thought incorrectly that auroras were due to sunlight reflecting from the atmosphere. Galileo used Borealis, god of the north wind, to complete the famous name.

Galileo made fundamental contributions to the sciences of motion, astronomy and strength of materials. He was also influential in developing the scientific method.



Type A consists of a green aurora capped by red hues through a combination of energized particles.

The high-energy particles penetrate deeper into the atmosphere and push dense oxygen atoms into a state of elevated excitement, which result in green photons being emitted.

The weaker particles only penetrate the upper atmospheric layers, which result in the emission of red photons.

TYPE B and E

Type B and E auroras are green with a red-hue bottom trim and are characterized by an extremely high energy beam that penetrates the lowest layer of the atmosphere, between 70 and 100 kilometres from the Earth’s surface.

Nitrogen is the dominant gas in the lower atmosphere, which, when excited, emits vibrant, deep red colours.


Type C auroras are green throughout. Dense oxygen at slightly higher levels in the atmosphere, between 100 and 150 kilometres, create the green colour you see.


A weaker energy emission from solar winds characterize Type D aurora, the result of which is a red colour throughout.

Oxygen, as its less dense at lower levels, contributes to the colour tone by emitting red photons.


Type F produces a unique bluish purple colour scheme. Typically seen in twilight skies at sunrise and sunset, this specific type of aurora results from a secondary excitation, an ionization, of nitrogen molecules.

Sunlight during twilight at a low angle further excite the ionized nitrogen molecules, resulting in a gorgeous blue-purple colour. While more difficult to see and harder for the human eye to detect, Type F is a beautifully unique aurora variation.


What you’ll need to wear to stay warm

Aurora Borealis is usually at its vivid best on cold, clear nights. And the only thing that can tarnish your aurora-viewing experience is being ill-prepared for potentially bitterly cold temperatures.

Wearing appropriate clothing for the experience is essential to getting the most out of your experience. To ensure optimal warmth and comfort, many NWT tour operators provide state-of-the-art northern outerwear. Stay warm and cozy from head to toe, even if the temperature dips to -40 degrees, by following the recommendations in the below wardrobe checklist.

  • A wool toque is suitable throughout the winter months. It covers your head, where most of the body’s heat escapes, and ears. It’s also comfortable and easily fits under a parka hood for colder days and nights. It’s also a good idea to wear a wool scarf, which will cover the leftover exposed areas on your face.
  • A down-filled parka with a fur-trimmed hood will ensure your face is protected from the elements. The best parkas withstand temperatures that plummet down to -50 degrees Celsius. Make sure you get a jacket large enough to fit comfortably over a wool sweater or fleece jacket.
  • Heavy duty lined mitts with cuffs that fit under your parka sleeves (or gauntlets that fit over them), will protect you from cold drafts around your wrists. Lined wind-kpants to wear over your regular jeans or trousers. The warmest are fitted with a front bib and shoulder straps, which preserve the body heat in your torso.
  • Knee-high boots with big rubber feet, nylon tops, and thick felt liners leaving lots of room for wool socks. Although it might take some time to get used to these unfamiliar wearables, nothing is relied upon more to keep your feet cozy and warm for lengthy outdoor excursions.



Viewing aurora borealis for many is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so you’ll want to snap high-quality shots that reinforce and highlight your fond memories of the unforgettable outing. And while modern cameras are incredibly impressive, taking the ideal shot isn’t as simple as just pointing and clicking. Here’s some tips to help you snap the perfect image.

  • CAMERA: A single-lens reflex camera (SLR) is ideal because it allows you to control the camera settings and final exposure. Film and digital shooting are virtually the same, but even the best digital cameras produce some “digital noise.”
  • THE LENSES: Use a lens with an aperture of f3.5g or better (the lower the number, the faster the lens). A speedy lens maximizes the contrast by allowing more light on dark nights. Capture the entire landscape with a wide-angle (24-35mm) or an ultra-wide angle lens (10.5-21mm).
  • FILM SPEED AND ISO EQUIVALENT: For best results, use a film (or ISO equivalent in digital cameras) of 200 or 400. Set a longer exposure at ISO 200. You can then experiment with different speeds until you capture the perfect shot.
  • SNAPPING THE SHOT: You’ll need a sturdy tripod and a good shutter release cable that can withstand bitterly cold temperatures. Be sure to choose your location carefully, as an interesting foreground will enhance and add context to your shots.