Photographing the Aurora borealis and Barren Lands Caribou
Arctic Adventure Photography Workshop 2014

by Dr. Robert Berdan
September 29, 2014





sunspots visible to the nake eye by Robert Berdan ©


Sunspots are occasionally visible to the naked eye at sunrise and sunset. Be careful not to look directly into the sun for more then a few seconds especially if you are using a telephoto lens or you may risk eye damage. These spots were visible at sunrise on August 27th at the start of our trip.



August 27, 2014, I left Calgary at 6 am to drive to Yellowknife with my friend and fellow pro-wildlife photographer Hälle Flygare from Canmore. It's 1800 km from Calgary to Yellowknife and takes two days to drive. We stopped for a quick breakfast at McDonalds and then headed north on highway 22. It was dark when we started out, but when we reached Water Valley we stopped to photograph the sunrise. The interesting thing was that I could see sunspots as the sun rose over the horizon. I under-exposed the image above to try and make the spots clearer. Later I checked with the Tesis (Telescopes for EUV spectral Imaging of the Sun) to be sure I wasn't looking at smudges on my camera sensor and you can see the dark spots on the black and white photo of the sun match with the spots I captured. The Chinese claim to have seen sunspots several thousands years BC - long before Galileo re-discovered them with his telescope around 1612 (Stanford Solar Center). I hoped this was a good omen for aurora viewing and photography in Yellowknife.


Abandoned home on the prairie south of Peace River by Robert Berdan ©


Abandoned home in field south of Peace River


The drive north travels mostly through rolling farm lands. Farmers and their tractors were out in full force harvesting wheat. We stopped to photograph an old abandoned house in a field south of Peace River and several hours later arrived in High Level about 6:30 pm. We searched for a small lake that might serve as a good spot for Aurora photography but it started to rain about 9pm and continued raining the next day. For most of the summer there was little rain north of High Level and a lightening strike set off forest forest fires that were still smoldering when we drove further north.


Deh Cho Bridge across the Mackenzie River by Robert Berdan ©


The Deh Cho Bridge crosses the Mackenzie River and is now complete. Last year they were still doing some maintenance on it. The bridge is free to cross for regular visitors but trucks and commercial vehicles must pay a toll fee or risk receiving a fine. To learn more about the bridge visit The Deh Cho bridge project web site. In late August the black-flies seem to be especially abundant in this area.



New grass appears after the recent forest fires. When I wandered a bit into the forest I saw there was almost a foot of ash. Mushrooms were also growing along the roadside next to the recent forest fires (see below).



Mushrooms next to fresh forest fire by Robert Berdan ©


Mushrooms were numerous next to recent forest fires.


Bison north of Fort Providence by Robert Berdan ©


North of Fort Providence we passed four groups of Bison (6-20 animals) that had escaped the recent forest fires.




We reached Yellowknife on the second day around 6 pm, we grabbed a quick meal, some groceries and headed down the Ingraham Trail to Prelude Park where we had reservations at the Country Cabins. The cabins offer a comfortable base from which we explored the Ingraham trail and took photos of the aurora during a week long stay before the Arctic Adventure Photography workshop officially started on September 3.


Halle Flygare boreal forest by Robert Berdan


Hälle Flygare next to one of the many ponds along the boreal forest.


lakes next to the Ingraham trail by Robert Berdan ©


The Ingraham Trail has been re-routed around the gold Mines which are currently being "cleaned up". Above picture of numerous lakes from a point just past Hidden Lake and Cameron Falls trail head.



Cameron falls near Yellowknife by Robert Berdan ©


Cameron falls is a short 40 min hike that leads to a waterfall. Spruce grouse and Whiskey jacks are common along the trail as are several species of mushrooms.


boreal forest next to the Ingraham trail by Robert Berdan


Colourful scene next to the Ingraham Trail. The Ingraham trail is named after Vic Ingraham a Yellowknife businessman in the 1930's and 40's. The road is featured in the American reality television series - Ice Road Truckers, which airs on the History channel.


In Yellowknife we stopped at some of our favourite places to eat - the Dancing Moose and Wildcat cafe. We explored Old town, and I dropped off music CDs, Multimedia DVDs and books. "Hangin with the Caribou" is a new book my wife and I produced this August - for more information about these products click here. I dropped off a music CD at CBC radio and some of the tourist centres and hope that they might consider playing them or even offer them for sale.


Across from the Dancing moose we discovered an interesting shop called the Old Town Glass Works where they recycle old bottles and make them into beverage glasses and other artistic objects. View their web site here;


Old town glassworks Yellowknife by Robert Berdan ©


Matthew Grogono (left) was originally an auto mechanic, everything Matthew uses is recycled from his bicycles to glass bottels- he took us for a tour of the shop. This was one of the more interesting attractions in Yellowknife. Afterwards you can cross the street and enjoy a meal at the Dancing Moose cafe.


Old Town Glassworks store Yellowknife by Robert Berdan ©


Old Town Glassworks Gift shop features a wide variety of cups and other artworks created from recycled bottles.



Dettah first nations community near Yellowknife by Robert Berdan ©


Dettah is a first nations community about 20 minutes drive outside of Yellowknife. At the top right is the Dettah government building. This small community has about 210 residents. In winter an ice road is constructed that crosses Slave lake and leads directly into Yellowknife. Dettah is represented by the Yellowknives Dene First Nation (Dettah) and they are part of the Akaitcho Territory Government



Sunset along Ingraham trail and photographer by Robert Berdan ©


Sunset is a great time to capture the colours of the sky reflected in the many small ponds and lakes adjacent to the Ingraham Trail. Photographer Hälle Flygare in the foreground.




One of the reasons thousands of tourists visit Yellowknife each year is to view the Aurora borealis. While many of the tourists are Japanese there is a growing interest from Canadians, Americans and Europeans. Yellowknife is considered the best place in the world to view the Aurora. On clear dark nights there is a 95% chance of seeing the Aurora, however cloud cover can obscure your view. In my experience about 1 out of 3 nights turns out to good for aurora viewing.


The intensity of the aurora varies depending on the number of sunspots and the geomagnetic activity. It also varies throughout the night with the time around midnight usually offering the best opportunities. Furthermore, during the summer months it does not get dark enough to view the aurora, Usually, the aurora starts to show up in mid August to about mid April. When you are in Yellowknife check out the web site operated by James Pugsley - this site provides up to date accurate aurora forecasts. For information about how to photograph the aurora see my Aurora quickguide or one of my articles about aurora photography on this web site.




Aurora from Cassidy Point. On this particular night the Aurora was faint.



Aurora and tent along Ingraham trail by Robert Berdan ©


Tent and aurora near hidden lake Territorial Park. I set up my tent next to the road overlooking the lake and waited several hours to photograph the Aurora - also see photo below.



Aurora reflection off lake Yellowknife by Robert Berdan ©


Aurora reflection off lake along the Ingraham trail



Aurora at Prelude lake taken with fisheye by Robert Berdan ©



Fish-eye image (Canon 8-15 mm f/4 lens) at Prelude lake with Hälle Flygare painted with a red light.




Crimison red aurora over Pontoon lake by Robert Berdan ©


Beautiful red aurora showing striking rays over Pontoon lake. Nikon 14-24 mm lens, Nikon D800 at ISO 800 6 sec.




Fish-eye image of the aurora at Pontoon lake in this instance the aurora was predominantly green. Nikon D800 camera, ISO 800, 10.5 mm f/2.8 lens 15 seconds exposure.



Aurora borealis, northern lights over pontoon lake, North west territories by Robert Berdan ©


Fish eye image (Nikon 10mm f/2.8 lens) at Pontoon lake - the foreground is lit up by our red flashlights used to avoid

disturbing other photographers and ruining our night vision.




Self-Portrait in front of my Jeep Wrangler lit up with a red flash light at Pontoon lake.



Tent and aurora borealis along Ingraham trail by Robert Berdan ©


Tent overlooking Hidden lakes along the Ingraham Trail.



Northern lights at Prelude lake Northwest Territories by Robert Berdan ©


Aurora at Prelude lake, photo taken from the docks.


Aurora borealis at Prelude Territorial Park, Northwest Territories by Robert Berdan ©


Another photo of the aurora from Prelude lake with boats in the foreground. The aurora displayed fine magenta rays.



Northern lights over Prelude lake, Prelude lake Territorial Park, by Robert Berdan ©


Prelude lake - aurora. The big dipper can be seen behind the lights in the middle of the picture. Wide open spaces with large views of the sky are ideal locations to set up and photograph the aurora. Prelude lake is my favourite spot outside of Yellowknife.



Aurora borealis over Prelude Lake by Robert Berdan ©


Aurora at Prelude lake, Hälle Flygare is moving about with his red head lamp in the foreground.


Aurora borealis over Prelude lake, northern lights, by Robert Berdan ©


Aurora at Prelude lake from near the boat docks. This particular evening there was a lot of moisture in the air from the lake and it condensed on our cameras and lenses. We had to wipe the moisture off the lens every 10 minutes. Sometimes attaching a chemical hand-warmer to the lens can help prevent condensation, but on this evening we could see a fog rising off the lake - so the hand warmer was of little use. Condensation on the lens causes the stars to "glow".





Aurora village tepee and moon by Robert Berdan ©


Aurora village is located about 30 minutes drive outside of Yellowknife on Cassidy point. The village is a favourite location for many Japanese tourists who arrive on buses. The village offers a gift shop and restaurant. We took our group this year to the Aurora village restaurant and the food was excellent and it put us in position early before the light show stars. The dining room features beautiful large prints of the Aurora by a Korean photographer. The cost for a viewing sesssion is about $150 per might per person - food is extra. Traditional heated teepe's are supplied that accommodate different group sizes. They come with a wood stoves, hot beverages, soup and bannock


Most visitors stay until 2 am, to stay longer there is an additional charge. We began visiting Aurora village last year as part of our tour and so far its been a fantastic experience. Visit the Aurora village web site for more information.



Moonset and aurora borealis over aurora village tepees by Robert Berdan ©


Full moon setting over Aurora village tepees. This is my favourite spot to photograph the aurora from in Aurora village. Note it gets wet and muddy as you get close to the water so bring boots if you want to take a similar photo.




Corona where the aurora rays seem to converge usually directly above.



Meteor and aurora borealis at Aurora village near Yellowknife by Robert Berdan ©


I was taking a series of aurora photographs to create a a time-lapse movie when I saw a very bright meteor streak across the sky in front of the aurora and I captured this frame showing the bright meteor.



Northern lights over tepees Aurora village by Robert Berdan ©


Aurora over aurora village tepees.




On our arctic adventure photo workshop we spend two days exploring Yellowknife, the Ingraham trail, Old town Yellowknife and hike to Cameron falls. If the weather is good we also take a boat tour of the bay. On the third day we fly north with an Air Tindi float plane. The flight takes about and hour and half to travel the 350 km north over the tundra. As we flew north we saw evidence of some of the recent summer forest fires. We also see a rapid transition from boreal forest to colourful red and yellow tundra - see below.



Tundra photographed from a plane by Robert Berdan ©


Tundra about 80 km north of Yellowknife



Tundra aerial photograph by Robert Berdan ©


Tundra about 300 km north of Yellowknife as we approached Peterson's Point Lake Lodge. Note the large number of lakes.



This year when we arrived at the lodge, it was snowing! In fact we had snow for the first few days. This made for some nice landscape opportunities that I had not had before. Unlike previous years caribou were not as numerous and we had to work harder to find them. When the lake is calm we take 16 foot boats and cruise down the 70 mile long lake in search of wildlife.




Peterson's Point Lake lodge is a warm retreat where we met and eat our meals.

Peterson's Point Lake lodge www.


Inside the Peterson's point lake lodge by Robert Berdan ©


Inside the lodge cooks Daphne and Margaret prepared gourmet meals for us during our 5 days on the tundra.



Tundra and fresh snow by Robert Berdan ©


Small creek that runs next to the lodge is surrounded by red dwarf birch and yellow willows.



Point lake and Point lakd lodge Northwest Territories by Robert Berdan ©


We hiked every day, this is a view of the lodge and point lake from above one of the hillsides - looking north. If you own an ipad you can download topo maps of the area for free - search for Canada Topo app.



Barren lands caribou in fresh snowfall by Robert Berdan ©


My first photos of caribou in the snow taken near the lodge with a 500 mm f/4 lens on my Nikon D300s camera - provides and equivalent of 750 mm focal length (about 15X magnification).




Caribou surrounded in fresh snow.



Photographers overlooking Point Lake Northwest territories by Robert Berdan ©


Looking east over Point Lake, Chuck Rockwell, one of our guides scopes for caribou while we rest and take some landscape photos.



Hiking on the tundra by Robert Berdan ©


After hiking a few clicks, our guide Chuck attempts to see if he can get ahead of some caribou we see off in the distance and possibly herd them in our direction. Caribou seem to walk leisurely at a pace that is about 3-4X faster than most of us walk on the tundra.




A pair of caribou pass near the lodge and I was able to get a couple of quick photos of them as they moved on. 500 mm lens f/4, Nikon D300s camera.



Barren lands caribou on the tundra near Point Lake by Robert Berdan ©


Caribou that passed near the lodge, one still had blood red antlers.



Caribou Red Rock lake Northwest Territories by Robert Berdan ©


This caribou was spotted near Red Rock lake. We went ashore and hid behind some willows while we photographed him for about 45 minutes.



Caribou Point lake by Robert Berdan ©


Three caribou past by the pond behind the lodge, taken from the lodge with a 500 mm f/4 lens on a Nikon D300s camera.



Photographers photograph caribou antlers in pond by Robert Berdan ©


Two of our guests, John Yates and Ron Lewis photograph caribou antlers and their reflections in the pond behind the lodge.


Resting on the tundra by Robert Berdan ©


John Lee (guide) and Doug Cavill rest on the tundra while we searched for caribou. Doug is a bird expert and helped us identify some of the migratory birds we saw flying overhead.



Tundra landscape by Robert Berdan ©


River mouth just south east of the lodge made for some nice landscape and closeup photos. Caribou and wolf tracks

were everywhere.



Tundrascape by Robert Berdan - Caribou bay  ©


Cliffs along Caribou bay with fresh snowfall on the tundra in the foreground.



Dwarf birch and willow in autumn on the tundrra by Robert Berdan ©


Closeup of red dwarf birch and willow.



Frozen autumn leaves on the tundra by Robert Berdan ©


Intimate portrait of fallen leaves frozen in a shallow pond.



Dwarf birch and rock covered lichens by Robert Berdan ©


Rocks covered in lichen with red dwarf bird in the back.




Our group having a short break at Caribou Bay

(front row: Adam Hill, Shawn Pinn, John Yates, 2nd Row: Judy Atkins, John Lee, Doug Cavil, Ron May, Ron Lewis, last row: Chuck Rockwell, Anthony Lee, and Chad Peterson)



Peterson's point lake lodge guests group photo in front of Air Tindi plane on Point lake by Robert Berdan ©


Our last day we gather for a group shot before we head back to civilization and on our different ways. Our pilot Jason Pineau (very left) is also an accomplished photographer - see his article on this web site. Margaret Peterson is in center holding some photographic prints, Chad Peterson - lead guide is on the far right.



God rays over Point lake by Robert Berdan ©


Dramatic light viewed from my cabin on our last morning. Later in the day it cleared to provide a clear blue sky.



Camera Gear - What to Bring

Frankly I bring a lot of camera gear including three camera bodies and wide selection of lenses. For landscapes and aurora photography a wide angle lens is essential along with a tripod. My favourite lens for Aurora photography is Nikon's 14-24 mm f/2.8 lens. A 24 mm f/1.4 lens is also ideal for capturing the reds and purples in the aurora that are often not visible to the naked eye. A macro lens is great for closeups of lichen, mushrooms and other intimate subjects. For wildlife a zoom telephoto lens that is light-weight is ideal. Professional photographers will often prefer the heavier 300-600 mm prime lenses, but these lenses are heavy to hike with and a certain level of fitness is required to carry these "big guns". One of the pro photographers on the trip this year, Adam Hill brought a Canon 800 mm lens. The cost of these big lenses is very high starting at about $5,000 for a 300 mm f/2.8. Some of the new zoom telephoto lenses to consider for wildlife photography include: Nikon 80-400 mm lens, Canon 100-400, Tamron 200-500 or 160-600 mm lenses. These lenses are light-weight and can be hand-held by using higher ISO settings on the camera.


This photography workshop is offered every autumn from Yellowknife. We can accommodate a maximum of 10 people so its advisable to book early if you want to join us. Next year we are going to operate the workshop a week earlier (August 27 to September 3, 2015) to hopefully avoid any snowfall though weather is something that can vary from year to year. In general early autumn is the best time to photograph the aurora as the lakes are still unfrozen and reflect the aurora, the temperatures are moderate to cool, but not freezing and the cool nights kill the pesky mosquitoes and black files. It's also when the tundra is the most colourful and caribou are in their finest fur coats as they begin their migration south to the boreal forest. If you would like to join us next year or have questions please feel free to contact me and also visit Peterson's Point lake lodge web site to register or learn more about our autumn arctic photography program. RB


PS My thanks to our pilots, Lodge guides (Chad, Chuck, Anthony, and John) and cooks (Daphne Savoy and Margaret Peterson) for another wonderful trip and tundra excursion.


Links and Additional References


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