I'd spent hundreds of dollars and countless hours driving around at night during my trips to Iceland in hopes of photographing the northern lights. I never saw them, much less photographed them. The aurora is elusive and can only be seen in Iceland in winter on the darkest of nights. Even if you're there during optimum viewing conditions, you still only have a fifty percent chance of seeing them. Recently I moved to Edmonton, Alberta and was pleased to discover that there are northern lights viewing opportunities year-round - even in summer. That is because even though we have long days and short nights in the summer months, it's still dark enough and far enough north to see the aurora at night (assuming strong activity and clear skies). My luck changed a few nights ago when the aurora forecasters called for strong auroral activity across southern Canada and the northern parts of the U.S.
My original plan was to head to the rockies to see the northern lights, but smoke from the raging British Columbia wild fires had been brought all the way to Edmonton on strong winds. The city was in a high air quality advisory and my throat and eyes burned when I attempted to pack the car. Jasper National Park is between most of the fires in B.C. and Edmonton, so I assumed the atmosphere was even more hostile there. I decided to head east, instead, and try Elk Island National Park. Luckily, the atmosphere was much more hospitable there. Luckily still, it was cold enough that there were no mosquitos out either (a blessing).
The skies were clear at Astotin Lake upon my arrival. At 12:15 AM I squeezed in between several other photographers by the lakeside and made a test exposure. To my surprise, barely visible to the naked eye, the aurora was already there! The sky was a pale green on my test image. I made adjustments to exposure, composition, and focus and fired away. The lake seemed like the place to be for northern lights at first, but the orange glow on the horizon from city lights to the west competed with the green glow of the aurora. I decided to abandon the crowd (as I often do) and head to darker skies facing north instead of west. I made frequent stops all over the park as the northern lights intensified and diminished over the course of 3 hours. The problems I encountered were finding a decent foreground and getting that sharp. Winds gusted around 30 MPH making long exposures of trees difficult. Despite this challenge, which was out of my control, I was blown away by my first northern lights experience. Thick bands of green and purple light danced across the sky like waves on a beach.