Northern Lights Glacier National Park
After a recent streak of Northern Lights and getting prompted with so many questions, I figured it might be easiest to put all my answers in one place. A place to help guide the newbies, the ones who have been waiting their whole life to see them, and for those not local to the area that just want some tips. I don't even consider myself a "pro" on this topic, but knowledgable and I have a few years under my belt. I am usually pretty vocal on my social media outlets when the solar wind streams are present, so feel free to check out my Instagram and give me a follow to stay up to date! Below I have my tips and tricks broken into categories, hopefully helping you learn more about seeing and photographing the northern lights in Glacier National Park.
What are the Northern Lights?
Also known as the Aurora Borealis (Northern Hemisphere) and the Aurora Australis (Southern Hemisphere), they are actually collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth's atmosphere. These collisions are what cause the magical dancing lights you might see across the sky on dark winter nights. The lights are often seen across the magnetic poles of earth in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Depending on your location (if you live where you might see them), the Northern Lights can appear in a multitude of colors and formations; pillars, curtains, streamers, and/or arcs.
Best time to photograph and see the Northern Lights
If someone could actually tell you when the northern lights were going to peak, so trips could be planned accordingly... they would be a millionaire (or billionaire?). This concept is incredibly hard to predict and even scientists can't be 100% certain. There are definitely months where the solar activity is higher, and when the skies are darker earlier (winter in the northern hemisphere) so viewing can be done easily. There is some speculation that the spring and autumn Equinoxes (around 20 March and 20 September) bring greater solar activity. I personally have seen northern lights between the months of March-October in Montana. The sun goes through a solar cycle every 11 years and its said that during these cycles and the let down of the cycle is when the most solar flares happen, the last time this occurred was June 2014.
Things to consider about planning for viewing the northern lights; during Summer months the sky doesn't get dark till extremely late (after 11pm some nights, so its a long wait to see anything in the sky). Late Summer and Autumn bring warmer weather and non iced over lakes, allowing for water reflections with the northern lights... its a two-for-one show! Winter/early Spring months are cold, but the snow makes for a great foreground.
Another way to gage your ability to be able to view the Northern Lights is through the Kp Index. There is a simple index called Kp, a number from 0 to 9, which is used to refer to geomagnetic activity for a 3-hour period. If there is going to be a solar storm and chance to see the Northern Lights, you might expect to see a Kp index rating of 4 or larger. Depending on where you live, you are at a certain Magnetic Latitude (this is different from geographical latitude on the globe, the earth's magnetic poles are not exactly in line with the geographic poles). For me in Montana, I am at approximately 54.9 latitude. What this means is at certain magnetic latitudes you will need the northern lights to be a certain level on the Kp Index to be visible where you live. For Instance, they would need to be Kp 6.0 or higher to be visible overhead where I live. The higher north on the magnetic latitude that you live, the lower the Kp Index number you need to see the lights overhead.
Putting it all together! Even though the Kp Index for my location states we need a Kp Index of 6 or higher to see the lights over head, doesn't mean we can't see them at a Kp Index of 4. They will just not be overhead, but more so on the horizon when you're looking for them. Of course, conditions need to be right for you to have visibility of them at all. Below I have two images, one is the Kp index predictor over 3 hour increments, detailing when the lights will be most visible. The other image is a 27 day forecast of northern light predictions for my area.
The Aurora Borealis manifests itself in a huge ring above the Earth’s Geomagnetic North Pole which is referred to as the Auroral Oval, or the Ovation. These exist on the Northern and Southern Hemisphere, but are not identical. The ring moves continuously, and when it hovers over a region of the earth, the lights are possible to be see in that location. Of course, conditions need to be good for viewing. The Ovation is a good indicator of how good the northern light show may be and also when it will be visible. Most apps have the Ovation ring and can be updated to real time. the colors vary from a green to a red, red indicates a stronger display of lights, while green is a lighter display of lights. Below I have a image of the Ovation, the northern lights were visible to the naked eye on this night in Montana.
Time of Day
Although the northern lights are visible on their own terms, the best time of day to be seen is typically between 9pm-1am.
Factors that can affect your Northern Lights experience include:
Moon Phase (if its a full moon, you likely won't see the northern lights)
Cloud Cover (if its cloudy or stormy out, the northern lights most likely won't be visible through the clouds)
Light Pollution (get away from cities or well lit areas, find a dark place to watch the sky)
Time of day (northern lights are only visible in the dark, so high KP during the day doesn't help)
Air Pollution (clearer air allows for more visibility, if heavy smoke or city smog exists your chances might not exist at seeing them)
Locations to photograph and see the Northern Lights
Did you know that Kintla Lake is actually one of the darkest places in Glacier National Park? Rated by the International Dark-Sky Association, their site documents the darkest places in the U.S. and provides an incredible amount of education about why dark skies are important and how to keep them that way. Montana is home to one of the last large patches of dark night skies in the Unites States. Called astrotoursim, the term is used to define the crowds that seek dark night skies to star gaze, people who move from light polluted cities to areas that have the darkest skies. To learn more, and how you can help darken our skies check out their website.
Probably the most iconic of places to see the northern lights and likely most crowded place. Why? Because of its accessibility. You can drive to numerous places along the lake and see the Northern Lights. The most common place is the boat launch in Apgar. Imagine staying at the Village Inn and opening your window curtains to see the stunning glow over the mountain peaks.
bOWMAN & kINTLA lAKE
Located in the Northwestern portion of Glacier National Park, they are more secluded and darker! The path to get to them is rough, be forewarned, and you might see less travelers because of that! There is limited parking at both places, and its a long drive out. You'll need to be invested in the experience to make the trek. These places are not accessible in the winter by vehicle, only during the summer months.
Located on the East side of Logan Pass, there are many areas you could potentially see the Northern Lights from. Hwy 49 provides ample opportunities to be able to visually see the northern lights with minimal light pollution.
POLEBRIDGE & NORTH FORK ROAD
If you don't want to trek as far back as Bowman and Kintla Lake, you can see the Northern Lights from Polebridge (A small town outside of north fork entrance of Glacier National Park) and the north fork road leading up to Polebridge. The road is not well maintained, so proceed with caution... its a brutal drive in the late winter.
Northern Light Time Lapse in Glacier National Park
Images were taken continuously for just over an hour, 120 images were used to create a time-lapse of the northern lights. March 13, 2021 at Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.
Equipment to bring to photograph the Northern Lights
This might be my favorite section to write about because as a photographer myself, these were the tidbits I cared about most and had to learn to really be successful in taking the images. So I will compile a list of what you should have with you, I'll link the gear that I use and/or recommend! Don't miss my section below about essentials to have on hand to make it a successful night!
- DLSR/mirrorless camera (you could technically use a phone with manual settings capabilities, but the quality won't be great) I shoot with a Nikon D750 full frame camera. The Nikon D750 has amazing low light capabilities, probably the main reason I have yet to upgrade. The nicer the camera you purchase the better its low light capabilities will be (do your research), meaning less grain and a better image. However, if you're just starting out buy what you can afford. Photography can be an expensive hobby, and you can still get some pretty darn good pictures with a starter DSLR camera.
- Wide Angle Lens (fixed aperture lenses are excellent, zoom or prime lenses work) I most frequently photograph with my Nikon 35mm 1.8 or my Tamron 24-70mm 2.8 lenses. There are a variety of wide angle lenses available, depending on the type of camera you have. I love my prime lens because the aperture can be lower, and I also love my Zoom lens because I can get a really wide picture at 24mm. Having trouble picking one? Rent one and try it out before you buy!
- Tripod You have several options when it comes to tripods. I have had several over the years and came to love a ball head tripod the best for my photography needs. Do your research to learn more about the types that are available. I currently use a Manfrotto Befree advanced Carbon Fiber Travel Tripod, this tripod is small and lightweight. It's probably not my favorite tripod on a windy day, but its pretty dang amazing.
- Shutter Release Remote (corded or wireless) Depending on your camera type and its capabilities, will determine whether you need a corded or wireless shutter release remote. I use a Nikon Shutter Release Remote for my set up. I love being able to keep my hand in my coat pocket and controlling the shutter, yay for warmth! The remote is used to help prevent camera shake on the tripod during long exposures. Any sort of camera movement can mess up your whole image, don't skip this item when doing your shopping!
- Bubble Level (if your camera doesn't have a virtual horizon tool) This little tool is probably the least necessary as you can correct horizons in post processing, but if you're looking to eliminate that need after the fact, then purchase a bubble level that can sit in your camera shoe or use the in-camera horizon tool to help you line your camera even with the horizon when shooting. The one I own is a random off brand bubble level from Amazon, nothing special!
- Extra Batteries Bring at least one extra battery. Cold weather can deplete your battery faster, but you're also burning more battery when doing long exposures.
- SD/CF cards Don't forget to bring a memory card, and an extra in case you take some many photos that you fill up your card. I use SD cards for my camera, the Sandisk brand is my favorite. I shoot with the 64gb cards.
- Headlamp (with red light feature, I explain why below... keep reading!) Having a headlamp is super helpful when out in the dark trying to figure out camera settings. Rather than fiddling with your phone flashlight and trying to use your hands at the same time, a headlamp gives your hands the freedom they need to be usable. I love my Petzl Tikka headlamp, its relatively cheap and super bright!
How to photograph the Northern Lights
Although I cannot completely teach you how to be proficient at photographing the northern lights, I can explain some helpful tips and tricks that I have learned along the way. I recommend shooting in Manual mode on your camera, so you have the most control over your image. Not sure how? Check out this Creative Live class that breaks it down for you!
- ISO - I prefer to keep my ISO on my camera the lowest possible. I prefer under 1000 to keep the grain low in my image. Although you can post process out some grain, I like to minimize it while shooting in the first place. With some cameras and situations you may need to shoot with higher ISO to get more light out of a image, without overexposing.
- APERATURE - Depending on the lens I am using, I like to either shoot wide open at (f/1.8) or around f/2.2, when keeping your aperture low, it allows more light to come into your sensor for your picture.
- SHUTTER SPEED - Again, depending on my lens, this number will change. Also the final product your going for will impact this too. I love a 15 second exposure (viewed as 15" on your camera), this allows more light to be captured in an image without being too long and causing star trails. I use a shutter release remote to initiate the shutter.
LENS FOCAL LENGTH AND MAX EXPosuRE time
While I am not the pro at this topic, it is something I researched and learned about in the beginning to help my picture taking skills. There is a thing called "the 600 rule". For each type of lens you photograph with, there is a max length of exposure time you want to use, in order to keep your stars crisp and have no star trailing in the image. This varies on crop sensor cameras vs full frame cameras. For example: I use a Nikon D750 (full frame) and have a 35mm lens. My max exposure time to prevent star trailing is 17.1 seconds. Any longer than that, and I will have star trailing in my image.
camera and lens to manual focus
When photographing the northern lights, you will need to make sure that your camera AND lens are set to Manual focus settings. You want to have full control of the focal point (being the stars or whatever subject you have in mind). These settings will need to be in place. Also you'll find that in a dark space, with auto focus, you camera likely won't be happy or willing to focus on anything at all.
infinity focal settings on lens
The sweet spot, is what I call it. Infinity focal settings is essentially where your lens captures everything in the frame to be in focus, no matter where it is. There are some caveats to this, but its my favorite way to photograph in night settings. Most lenses have an infinity symbol on the focal graph of their lens. This symbol isn't always a 100% correct and sometimes cameras don't have them labeled. To find infinity, I always turn my focal ring to the farthest right it will go, and then turn it back left just a titch. It usually takes me about 10 photos of trying before I find it perfectly. This takes times and knowing your lens. Other tricks I've heard is to try focusing on the moon or farthest object from you manually to get to infinity focal settings.
auto white balance
White balance is essentially determining the color of the photo based on the lighting setting you're in and whether your camera can sense what a "true white" is. There are many options for white balance settings that I'm not going to get into in this blog post, but I personally choose to shoot in Auto White Balance (AWB) for my night photography. My camera does a pretty phenomenal job of determining the temperature (Kelvin) my image should be. Generally keeping your settings between 3200-4800 Kelvin are used for night photography, depending on your location and environment. To learn more, check out this helpful page!
Post processing your Northern Light images
I won't be delving into this topic extremely in depth because everyone has a different approach for processing their images after the fact. I personally use Lightroom Classic on desktop and I try to keep my night sky colors as close to original as possible. I also pay attention to the temperature (white balance) of the image, I shoot in auto white balance. There are several programs you can use to edit your images, below are a few listed!
- Lightroom or LR Mobile
- Adobe Camera Raw
Etiquette when photographing or viewing the Northern Lights
I say this lightly, but also with some seriousness. I think there really is an etiquette to try to abide by when coming out to watch or photograph the Northern Lights. I personally had no idea when I first discovered my passion for watching the northern lights in Glacier National Park. I showed up with some friends, cell phone lights scanning the shore, no realization that I was messing up someones shots who had been there for over an hour. A photographer asked me in a not so pleasant way to turn off the flashlight as I had just ruined his image... oops! Rookie mistake honestly and I have learned so much since then! Below I detail a few ways to be more conscious of yourself and the people around you.
- Dim headlights when parking if possible, especially if you choose to park exactly at the boat launch at Apgar. Or turn your headlights off as soon as you park to prevent more light pollution.
- Use your headlamp/flashlight/cellphone light as little as possible, the less the light is visible, the less the light pollution there is. Long exposures on cameras pick up so much light, even 40+ feet away... it really does matter!
- Use the red light feature on your headlamp if possible to lessen the light pollution, seriously its the best invention!
- Be aware of your surrounding, don't block someones camera view if they are set up before your arrive (some people put a lot of time in to predicting the northern lights display and arrive early intentionally to pick a location)
I fully understand that Glacier National Park (or any national park) is a public place and everyone is welcome, and I encourage people to go, but if you do go, understand that some serious photographers might be out there and might get upset if you mess up their long exposure when the Northern Lights are flaring up!
The Art of "Waiting it out"
Probably my most prized piece of advice it to wait it out. It can sometimes be rather boring sitting and waiting on Northern Lights. Sometimes you can go and get all set up and get skunked by the numbers... it happens, I've experienced it!
Bring a friend or loved one if you don't want to experience it alone. I always brief my tag along partner and forewarn about cold temperatures. Make sure they will tough it out with you so you don't have to leave early, possibly missing out on the best lights.
Helpful apps to use for the Northern Lights
iOS App Store
My Aurora Forecast
Northern Light Aurora Forecast (my favorite)
Star Gazing Apps
Star Walk 2 (paid version lets your map the sky for the future to plan Milky Way photos)
I also recommend checking to the Space Weather website, which has up to date information and northern light image galleries!
Essentials to keep on hand for viewing the Northern Lights
With the Northern Lights being more prominent in the Winter or early Spring seasons, it can get cold! I highly recommend bundling up, the warmer you are to start, the longer you can stay out and keep photographing. I promise, you won't regret layering up! Below I compiled a list of helpful items to bring with you on your Northern Light escapades!
- Hand warmers, disposable or battery powered
- Ear Warmers
- Gloves (fingerless is helpful if you're operating a camera)
- Camp chair, you're going to be hanging out for a while
- Wool blanket, I recommend a Pendleton
- Warm jacket
- Yak tracks/ice cleats (in case its icy)
The naked eye Vs. the camera
I will stomp out this myth before I set your hopes too high. The number one question I get asked so frequently is "can you see them with the naked eye?" My answer is one of truth... yes and no. We don't live in Alaska or Iceland where you can see the billowing clouds of colorful abyss right overhead, unfortunately. In Montana, I have personally only seen the northern lights colorful and vibrant to the naked eye, twice in the past 10 years.. and it was magical. The numbers were great and it was a phenomenal magnetic storm.
On the average night, you are likely just going to see a white glow on the horizon, possibly some pillars or changing of intense-ness of the white hue. It is exciting when this does happen though.
The camera has a great deal of capability with long exposure to really pick up all that visible light from the northern lights and the colors that it displays. So, while it is amazing to experience them first hand, please know that it probably is a little more exciting photographing it when you get to see the colors and changing patterns.
Enjoy and Have fun!
I am ever so grateful that you have landed here to read this jam packed full blog about Northern Lights. I hope this helps you get started on your journey of seeking out the northern lights or even photographing them. I have experienced lots of long nights looking up at the sky, every one of them I am blessed to have experienced. I hope you found the information you were looking for, and while I may not be able to answer all the questions, feel free to reach out to me if you do have questions. You can find my email on my Contact Page. Google is also an excellent place of information, there are many blogs out there easily accessible to answer questions. Remember, be courteous of others around you when you're in public places. Get to know thy neighbor, help them learn camera settings so they too can go home with amazing images, and pack out all the things you brought with you. I really treasure having the luxury of being able to go to National Parks and enjoying them year round and throughout the night, always leave no trace.
If you're traveling to the area and looking for lodging, check out my blog post on the Top 7 places to stay in and around Glacier National Park to help you find a great place to stay at. Also, I have a blog post dedicated to activities to experience while in the park (besides star gazing) on the Top 7 things to do in Glacier National Park.