Every weekday at 4,5,6 & 11 pm you get to see me on TV giving our “main” weather forecast. These forecasts are designated chunks of 3 minutes, often no more and no less. It’s enough to paint a reasonable picture of the expected weather ahead but doesn’t quite allow the freedom to dig into the weather weeds. That’s where this comes in.

Have you ever seen the Northern Lights? For some of you, the last month has been the most exciting our region has seen in many years. For others, you’re left only seeing pictures on social media the following morning. Seeing and photographing the Northern Lights is an endeavor that takes a combination of luck, knowledge and patience. Thankfully, it’s not rocket science. This article will attempt to give you a one-stop-shop of tips and tricks to maximize your chances of seeing the aurora whenever that next opportunity arises. Let’s dig in!

HOW DO I KNOW WHEN AN OPPORTUNITY IS COMING? With 100% certainty, you don’t. The Space Weather Prediction Center is dedicated to tracking all things space weather. Our sun is constantly battering our planet with energy. The solar wind and coronal mass ejections (we like to call them sun burps) can serve as sources to kick start the geomagnetic storms that generate auroras. The Space Weather Prediction Center attempts to predict the effect of this bombardment of energy and can issue Geomagnetic Storm Watches and Warnings. If you give Liam’s video above a watch, you’ll learn that our Sun operates in cycles where these geomagnetic storms becomes more vs. less likely. We’re in the midst of an uptick, a good thing and the reason we’ve been so busy lately.

Much like hurricanes, geomagnetic storms are categorized on an increasing scale. G1 is the weakest of storm magnitude; G5 the strongest. The greater the number on that scale, the lower in latitude the auroral oval drops & more likely we are to see the show in WNY. Bottom line, bigger is better when it comes to seeing the aurora locally. In my experience, it is exceptionally difficult to see anything unless we’re at least at G2 levels. Often, it takes G3 and above to produce a worthwhile display here. The farther south you go, the greater the magnitude the storm needs to be to see the show. There are many website that keep tabs on now only the forecast but current conditions. If you see a forecast for G3+, that should trigger your interest. Storm magnitude can also be assessed via the planetary K-Index. You can track that here:


That same site can keep you in the loop on watches and warnings. It is important to note, some of the best displays I’ve seen have been “surprises”. Our last one fell into that category. Conversely, I’ve seen many a forecast for a big storm come up empty. Everything in space is a moving target. There’s a ton of math and many factors involved that are nearly impossible to calculate. It’s an exceptionally difficult task to predict these things, so it’s wise to be vigilant and keep expectations in check.

A STORM IS IN PROGRESS…WHAT DO I DO? Let’s pretend G4 conditions have just erupted. Great, it’s showtime! Here are a few tidbits to keep in mind before you head out to see the show.

-Light is your enemy. Ask yourself, do I have access to a location with literally zero light pollution and a clear view to the north (after all, Northern Lights)? Many public places along Lake Ontario close after a certain hour. Know where you can and cannot venture. Almost every opportunity you’re going to get will not be as simple as looking out your window in your neighborhood. You are almost certainly going to need to go mobile. I have had the most success on the shores of Lake Ontario but any dark location with a view looking north can suffice.

-Check the forecast. A G4 storm is only worth your time if it isn’t blocked by clouds. Remember, it’s not so much clouds overhead that is the issue. You’re looking north, so that’s the view you should be concerned with. I’ll pull up infrared satellite imagery and get a sense of what’s out there over Lake Ontario.

-Is it nighttime? People often ask when the best time to see auroras is. The answer is when it’s dark. While auroras tend to like local midnight, darkness is all that’s necessary to see the display. Sometimes, a bright moon and its location in the sky can be a moving target you can work around. If you know the moon is about to set, that’s better (darker). Otherwise, if a storm is raging and it’s dark out, don’t wait.

So let’s assume you’ve got a location picked out. Skies are clear & you’re ready to go. Dress for the weather, so if it’s chilly, you’re going to need warm hands and fingers to operate your camera. Plan accordingly.

EXPECTATIONS VS REALITY: You know, photographing the Northern Lights is sort of like an art. Most folks I run into have this expectation that the bright, vivid photographs they see on the internet are awaiting the naked eye upon arrival. Sadly, this is not the case. As an example, I captured two photos from our last event to show you what the naked eye sees vs. what your camera might see.

The top image shows what YOU see when you look north. Sure, there’s definitely a green glow. But it’s faint, almost milky. If you didn’t know better you can easily miss it entirely. The photo below shows what the camera sees. It’s nighttime, so most cameras (even your phone) will benefit/automatically roll into a longer exposure shot. My iPhone, for example, inherently takes a 3 second exposure. That’s 3 seconds worth of light entering the lens, followed by post processing before the image gets spit out. Note how stark the difference is. Sure, a particularly potent storm can create dazzling displays to the naked eye. But that is exceptionally rare around here. The above photo is a much more representative example of what you are going to see. It’s your camera that will tell the better tale.

Photographers should aim for longer exposure shots, preferably with a tripod. If you’re on the lake, it’s likely going to be windy. That tripod will help minimize shake. The more light you let in the more color will be brought out into the image, often revealing pinks and reds hidden to your eye. I like spraying the horizon with multiple shots. It helps showcase “hotspots”. Know that the aurora is a moving target with curtains that ebb and flow as energy strikes the atmosphere. You’ll notice the lights have a tendency to pulse, flaring up and down so that no two shots are identical.

The duration of a storm is very unpredictable. Intense CMEs can cause things to reverberate for days, sparking extended displays. This is not normal, however. Many lower end displays can be visible for only a few hours, if that. Sometimes a storm occurs during daylight hours and winds down before dark. Sadly, it’s poor timing and a missed opportunity you can’t do anything about. All this is my way of saying if you get word that auroras are dancing, it’s often in your best interest to strike while the iron is hot. Sure, you might get a better show by waiting. But you might miss out entirely.

We do our best to keep you in the loop on TV & social media when we think conditions are ripe for auroras locally. If a display is actually happening, we have a great base of photographers in our region out there providing ground truth. Heck, we’re all weather nerds on this team & are likely to be out there ourselves tracking the show. This is an encouraging time for those of you trying to see the Northern Lights. Hopefully, this helps you maximize your chances of seeing the next round!