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Yellowknife: The Aurora Borealis in Autumn

For as long as I can remember, the Aurora Borealis has always been something I’ve dreamt of seeing. It was always my impression that I would need to go far up North in the middle of winter in a Scandinavian country just to see it though, making it a little difficult to do.

In researching where to best see it though, I came across several places touting how Yellowknife, Northwest Territories is in fact one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights. You mean I don’t even have to travel out of my home country? Sold!

The Aurora Borealis in Yellowknife in August reflects on the lake surface.

Why Yellowknife?

With flat lands, no mountains, nor salt water surroundings, the resulting dry climate creates an ideal condition for seeing the Aurora Borealis, making it scientifically one of the best places in the world to see the Northern Lights. Yellowknife also sits directly under what is known as the Aurora Oval. This allows us to see the Northern Lights every which way, including directly above you—which is such a surreal experience.

When geomagnetic activity is high, this oval can stretch further south—sometimes as far south as Northern Ontario. In these cases, if you drive far enough to a place with little light pollution, you can often see a hint of green along the horizon facing North.

The unmistakable green colour of the Aurora Borealis seen north of Toronto.

In Yellowknife however, the Aurora Borealis is literally dancing right in front of your eyes, making the show that much more spectacular.

The Aurora Borealis at Tibbitt Point—at the very end of the Ingraham Trail.

The next question I asked myself was: when is the best time to see the Aurora Borealis?

In the Spring of 2016, I happened to meet someone filming a documentary on why the Japanese have a love affair with the Aurora Borealis. He told me a little known secret: go see the Aurora Borealis in the Autumn season. You get to see the lights without having to endure the cold winter weather. He explained the Aurora Borealis never really stops during the summer months. You just can’t see them then because the night doesn’t get dark enough. Once darkness starts to roll in again at night in mid-August, the Aurora Borealis viewing season begins.

And that’s how I found myself in the Northwest Territories in late August of 2016.

*The film he was making is currently scheduled to be released in early 2019! Titled Aurora Love, you can head to their website for more details.

The Aurora Borealis in Yellowknife can be quite spectacular.

The Advantages of Seeing the Aurora Borealis in Autumn

There are a number of advantages of seeing the Aurora Borealis during the Autumn season. If you think I may have missed a reason, please feel free to let me know in the comments below.

  1. Temperature. One of the most obvious reasons is the temperature. Mid August to early September offers a cooler but still manageable Autumn temperature in Yellowknife. With an average of about 13C, you won’t have to endure the cold temperatures of the Northwest Territories in the winter. This lets you stay out for a longer period of time without having to go indoors to warm up.
  2. Travelling. Travelling by foot or by car in Autumn is much easier than in the winter months. Without the snow-covered roads, you’ll be able to drive to wherever you want to see the Aurora Borealis.
  3. Reflections. The rivers and lakes have yet to freeze over during the Autumn months in Yellowknife, which means if you go by a body of water to see the Aurora Borealis, you’ll get to see the reflection of the Northern Lights, which also makes for spectacular images.
  4. Photography. Using your camera outside in the Autumn months poses very few problems. If you’re out by a lake, you may get some foggy lenses at most when the humidity increases, but other than that, you won’t have to worry about the laundry list of items you’ll want to do when you photograph in the winter time.
  5. Blue Hour. Daylight hours are still somewhat long in August with sunset being around 9pm in late August. This means you’ll have chances of seeing the Aurora Borealis during blue hour when it isn’t pitch black. This is great for wonderful blue hour images with the Northern Lights that you don’t see too often.
The Aurora Borealis during blue hour can be quite stunning to see as well.

The photo above was taken at Tibbitt Point, which is about 60km northeast of Yellowknife. I drove about an hour to get to the end of the Ingraham Trail, which offered a great view of the Northern Lights. With the reflection seen in the water, I was able to capture this in the blue glow of the evening. This was taken shortly after 11pm.

This particular photo covers most of my points. I had to drive far to get here, you can see the reflection, and you can see the blue glow of the evening.

The Disadvantages of Seeing the Aurora Borealis in Autumn

While there may be some disadvantages of seeing the Northern Lights in Autumn, I don’t believe they are significant enough to not see them during this time.

  1. Scenery. If you love winter scenery, then seeing the Aurora Borealis in winter might be the better option for you. With untouched snowscapes and those clear winter nights, it can be a great time to experience the Northern Lights.
  2. Travelling. While it might be easier to travel in Autumn, you’re restricted in travelling on only the roads. In the winter, with frozen lakes, you are gifted with different vantage points that you wouldn’t normally get in Autumn.
  3. Humidity. While humidity is generally not too much of a concern, there may be chances where your lenses can fog up through a night by the lake. If this ever happens, you’ll need to take proper care of your camera gear.
I love a good winter scenery so seeing the Aurora Borealis in winter was something quite special for me.

Seeing the Aurora Borealis for the first time in my life was breathtaking. Reminding us how small we are in this world, the Northern Light puts on a show that you will never forget. And that’s precisely the reason why I believe everyone should see the Aurora Borealis with their own eyes at least once in their lifetime. It is that special a moment.


Taku Kumabe currently has openings for his 2019 Aurora Borealis Photography Workshop at Blachford Lake Lodge in the Northwest Territories. Click the photo below, or the link above, to find out more about this workshop, and to register!

Caledon Fall Colours

A fall season wouldn’t be the same without a visit to Caledon, Ontario, no matter how short a visit it may be. One weekend I had the fortune of driving up there on a whim on my way back from errands. It was an unexpected drive, but the weather was definitely cooperating. I couldn’t really say the same thing about traffic up there though!

Nikon D800, 1/500 sec., f/8.0, ISO 100, 16mm

Nikon D800, 1/500 sec., f/8.0, ISO 100, 16mm

These photos are all taken within a walking distance from the Cheltenham Badlands. Since they had blocked off the sideroads immediately in front of the Badlands, we were all forced to park down the street on the next block, making everybody walk a few minutes to the natural wonder of Cheltenham. On our way there, however, I looked towards a sideroad to find a glorious spectacle of colour that was far more interesting that the actual Badlands that I was going to take a look at. The Equestrian home seen above was surrounded by great colours with lush greenery in the foreground. I didn’t see any horses nearby that were willing to approach my camera unfortunately.

Nikon D800, 1/400 sec., f/8.0, ISO 100, 14mm

Nikon D800, 1/400 sec., f/8.0, ISO 100, 14mm

I did, however, find this pea-shaped tree which caught my attention for awhile. It was an oddly-shaped tree standing all by itself. The fence in front of it played nicely as you see it make its way into the far distance. I can only assume the pea-shape was formed because of the power lines running right next to it. This area was so attractive that a family of six was sitting behind me on the grass, enjoying a nice picnic.

Nikon D800, 1/250 sec., f/8.0, ISO 100, 24mm

Nikon D800, 1/250 sec., f/8.0, ISO 100, 24mm

Like I sometimes do with my tours of the city and surrounding areas, I did a brief Periscope broadcast of the area. I showed the bright colours of the Ontario fall season to the world. You can see the actual broadcast below on my katch.me feed.

Nikon D800, 1/400 sec., f/8.0, ISO 100, 17mm

Nikon D800, 1/400 sec., f/8.0, ISO 100, 17mm

And finally as I always like to do, I looked up to see the colours against the clear blue sky. In this case, there were some green still present in the tree, making it for a kaleidoscope of colours. It really was a great way to end off the drive that took me around through Belfountain, where it was too crowded that I couldn’t even stop to admire the surroundings.

This fall season I wasn’t expecting to see such vibrant colours all around. I was pleasantly surprised during most of my visits to various locations around the GTA though. I have to admit, wherever I’ve gone, it’s been a pretty good season for colours. The weekends were sunny, which also made for some good photo-taking opportunities.


Periscope Broadcast

View the Periscope broadcast of the Cheltenham Badlands and its surrounding fall colours!

Mount St. Louis Moonstone in Autumn Colours

For any landscape photographer, the autumn season is a magical time of the year. With the leaves changing colours altering the landscape dramatically, it’s literally a photographer’s playground.

This year while I went to a few different places to see the leaves, it was one of the more unexpected places that I saw the most striking of colours. Contrasting greatly with the greenery of the slopes, the surrounding trees with their orange, yellow, and red leaves made this location a secret gem that I don’t think many people would ever have expected it to be.

Nikon D800, 1/100 sec., f/10, ISO 100, 82mm

Nikon D800, 1/100 sec., f/10, ISO 100, 82mm

Mount St. Louis Moonstone is a ski resort located north of Barrie. Visible from Highway 400, you could easily drive past it if weren’t for the changing colours of the leaves beckoning photographers to come and take their photos. And that’s just what they did this past weekend as I was heading north on the 400. A small detour made this photo tour well worth the time.

It was undoubtedly a great spectacle to see because of two reasons:

  1. The greenery of the slopes contrasted greatly with the surrounding leaves that this further accentuated the vibrancy of the colours.
  2. I came here shortly before sunset, which gave me great lighting on the leaves, making for some special moments.

Nikon D800, 1/60 sec., f/10, ISO 100, 130mm

Nikon D800, 1/60 sec., f/10, ISO 100, 130mm

Because this is a ski resort, the ski lifts added another element to the landscape that worked really well. Normally we may not associate ski lifts with the autumn season but they really go hand-in-hand here, don’t you think? It’s no secret I actually really like this combination, as I’ve done this in the past whenever I’ve come across ski lifts; just take a look at my photos from Sunshine Ski Resort in Banff, and while I know I took one from another ski resort in Ontario, the actual photo escapes me at the moment.

Nikon D800, 1/100 sec., f/13, ISO 100, 200mm

Nikon D800, 1/100 sec., f/13, ISO 100, 200mm

Standing from the base of the mountain, I equipped myself with a 24-70mm f/2.8 and a 70-200mm f/2.8 to get these photos. Since the ski lifts and trees were fairly far away from me, the latter telephoto lens came in handy quite a bit. Focusing on the very top ski lift terminal, I was able to bring in the coloured leaves to the foreground in the photo below.

Nikon D800, 1/125 sec., f/11, ISO 100, 180mm

Nikon D800, 1/125 sec., f/11, ISO 100, 180mm

Had I more time on my hands, I would have loved to walk up the slope to the top of the hill and see the view from there. I’m sure it would have been a great view. Instead, I walked from one side of the hill to the other and got a different perspective on the hills and the magnificent colours that surrounded the slopes of Mount St. Louis Moonstone.

Nikon D800, 1/160 sec., f/10, ISO 100, 56mm

Nikon D800, 1/160 sec., f/10, ISO 100, 56mm

While an overview picture really shows the area and the colours, the tighter photos where I focused on select elements of the landscape brings in more details. For example, the photo below has the trees with their bright orange and yellow on either side of the photo really brings out the lush green slope in the middle.

Nikon D800, 1/100 sec., f/9.0, ISO 100, 190mm

Nikon D800, 1/100 sec., f/9.0, ISO 100, 190mm

The ski lifts as they go up the slope gets hidden amongst the shadows of the trees. This deepens the bluish tint, which contrasts even more with the orange and yellow leaves surrounding it.

Nikon D800, 1/125 sec., f/8.0, ISO 100, 200mm

Nikon D800, 1/125 sec., f/8.0, ISO 100, 200mm

And finally, after seeing the curvature of the wooden fence below, I knew I had to get that into the frame somehow. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s just something about wooden fences that screams autumn scenery to me.

Nikon D800, 1/125 sec., f/8.0, ISO 100, 70mm

Nikon D800, 1/125 sec., f/8.0, ISO 100, 70mm

I loved this detour I made over the weekend. It actually made my trip up north worth while since my intended destination didn’t yield as colourful a picture as the ones I took here at Mount St. Louis Moonstone. Just an hour and a half away from Toronto, this ski resort may very well be a stop that I have to make every fall season. It’s just a shame I wasn’t into skiing or snowboarding!

 

Every year the colours are different in their vibrancy and colour range. The results are heavily dependant on whether the temperature drops quickly or drastically. This year, the autumn season started off fairly warm, which—depending on whom you ask—could be a good or bad thing. With the gradual temperature drop, the colour of the leaves weren’t as vibrant or bright as they could have been had the temperature dropped suddenly. When this happens, the leaves typically fall to the ground well before they reach their peak colours, making it harder to spot the orange-red colours of the leaves still intact on the trees.

Nonetheless it was the perfect weekend for a road trip, so that’s exactly what I did this past weekend. I took a drive up north to see if the colours were closer to their peak than here in the city. To help you with the colour changes, I use the ever-so-handy Ontario Colour Leaves Report. They update this every couple of days so it’s a great way to see what the regions are like in terms of their colours.

T

Being prepared

Being prepared in Nikko, Japan

Being prepared in Nikko, Japan

Landscape photography has a lot to do with proper lighting. It makes a world of difference so it’s always a good thing to know when that natural light is at its best.

When I went to Nikko, Japan late last year to enjoy the autumn colours of the Japan alps, I had a moment at the bus station when I was waiting around for the bus to come. The clouds were covering the peak of the mountaintop, making it for a dull time. I knew, however, that the sun would eventually have to come out!

I walked around the area with my camera bag on my shoulder to see if there was anything of interest nearby. Low and behold as I killed more time, the sun started to peak out of all the clouds. For the first little while, I enjoyed the sunshine and the warmth it brought that day. It wasn’t until a short while later that I looked back at the mountaintop to see that most of the clouds had dissipated.

With some lingering clouds beneath and the sun shining bright, it reflected off the clouds in such a way to give a surreal moment. I knew the lighting was just right here, so I quickly grabbed my camera and took a few shots of the mountain with the autumn foliage in that perfect light that just makes the trees pop out.

If I didn’t have my camera at that moment, I would have missed all of this, since the clouds rolled back in as quickly as they had disappeared earlier. I loved the series of photos I took at this time, and will eventually post more.

Photo opportunities can arise when you least expect it, so always be prepared.