Northern Lights at the Muttart Conservatory

‘m gonna sound like a goddamn hipster, but I was photographing Northern Lights out at Elk Island before it became popular and extremely overcrowded. It used to be empty when I went, with maybe only one or two other cars in any areas, and you seldom heard about it, or seen any photos from there. Now eeeeeverybody goes there. Anyway, enough hipster sounding rant.

Not saying that Elk Island isn’t great, because it is. It’s close to the city, technically a “dark sky reserve” but you will still get light pollution on the horizon. Aside from that though, there’s 1 good lake, and then a crapload of trees and a beautiful dark sky. It’s actually amazing to go stargazing there, and thus making it great to see the Northern Lights/Aurora Borealis.

But seeing them is one thing, and photographing them is a completely other thing. I find that no photo ever captures the true beauty and awe of the lights. It’s just too vast, and the movements too delicate. They do however make a great background. So instead of just aiming at blank sky with no reference point, I’ve been trying for years to get nice photos of the aurora’s in Downtown Edmonton. And yes it’s more than doable. I first figured that out nearly 5 years ago in this shitty timelapse I made.

Ever since then, whenever there was a decent aurora storm out, I’d try to get them behind the city skyline. I’ve managed it a few times, but they were never super strong or super vibrant. Until this past weekend, that is. This past Saturday/Sunday the northern lights lit up and boy did they hit hard, and I immediately drove to the first spot I could think of that looks up at the city.

But truth be told, I’ve never done well with this spot. The idea of it is good, because there’s the river, and it looks upwards into the city of Edmonton, but for whatever reason, anytime that I’ve tried to get a photo from this part of the city, I’ve never liked the shot that much. The same was unfortunately true for this one as well… So after got a few shots, I packed up and decided to move to a more common spot, where I expected a few other photographers to already be.

Cloverdale Hill.

Somewhere along the way though I had to pass by the Muttart Conservatory and thought about that shot of the pyramids that a lot of people in Edmonton get, and for good reason. They’re a great piece of architecture with the city just behind it in the distance. But as far as I knew, no one’s ever gotten them with the Northern lights behind though… so I figured why the heck not. But right as I arrived, the aurora’s peaked and the sky was dancing as bright as I had seen them in Yellowknife, and I rushed to get my shot. Giving me a very powerful aurora, with a less than powerful composition… Ahhh well.

After everything had settled down a bit, I finally took the time to get the composition I wanted. The storm had died down a bit by then but I still managed a shot with a fairly decent aurora in it. A lot brighter than past ones I’ve gotten before, that’s for sure. Later on however, it really exploded again, and I managed another shot of similar composition, and the dance in the sky was amazing. But in the photo, it may look too busy…

What do you think? Which one do you prefer? The one above or the one below?

However, my unlikely favourite of the night was this last shot. The entire night, I was pointing towards the city, which was to my North, where the Northern Lights would be, but if the aurora storm is strong enough to reach further south, you can definitely see it in the south too, and that was true for that night. Towards the south wasn’t much, some houses, trees, annoying street lamps that I had to fight with and the dead unlit glass pyramids. But since I had nothing better to do while the storm was settling, I figured “Eh, why the heck not?” and it turned out much cleaner and much better than I had expected.

I’ve been so obsessed for so long trying to get a nice aurora shot with the Edmonton city skyline in the foreground that I had forgotten to even think about trying to get other great foregrounds. I guess that’s what they call tunnel vision right? Or tunnel-imagining in this case. But completing these shots with the Muttart Conservatory has opened a lot of new ideas for me to capture the next time that a big aurora storm comes along…