What to bring to an Arctic Photo Adventure in Yellowknife and onto
the Barrens at Peterson's Point Lake Lodge
by Dr. Robert Berdan
July 26, 2014
Caribou migrate near Peterson's Point Lake Lodge, Canon 7D + 300 mm F/4 lens.
For the past five years I have been conducting an Arctic Adventure Tour in Yellowknife and 343 km further north on the tundra in partnership with Peterson's Point lake lodge. Every year about a month before the workshop I send out an email to the participants with a list of recommended things to bring with them to get the most out of the trip. I thought this year instead of sending out another email I would write a short article and include all my recommendations along with some of my photos for anyone that might be heading north around the end of August and early September and send the participants a link to the article. Autumn is the best time to see and photograph the colours on the tundra, caribou migrating south and in the evening the Aurora borealis. Being next to a lake also offers opportunities for spectacular sunrise photos.
The Arctic Adventure Photography Workshop begins September 3 in Yellowknife where we spend two days and then we fly aboard an Air Tindi float plane north to Peterson's Point Lake lodge on Point Lake in the middle of the tundra. In autumn Caribou migrate south and many of them pass by the lodge.
Air Tindi plane landing on Point lake in front of Peterson's point lake lodge.
Caribou antlers lying on the beach in front of Peterson's Point Lake Lodge at sunset - the lake can be very calm or it can whip up large waves.
Peterson's Point Lake Lodge cabins at sunrise. These comfortable cabins offer a porch with insect netting for summer, and oil furnaces for nights when it gets cold.
Guests, guides and cooks having dinner in the main lodge where guests eat their meals, watch slide shows or just
socialize, read or scout the barrens with binoculars for wildlife.
Aurora over cabin at Peterson's Point Lake lodge - single image, Nikon D700 + 24 mm f/1.4 lens 10 sec exposure.
Time lapse stack of images of Aurora over cabin at Peterson's Point Lake lodge. Nikon D700 + 24 mm f/1.4 lens.
Each year I leave from Calgary and drive 1800 km north to Yellowknife staying my first night in High Level and arriving the next day in Yellowknife. I prefer to drive this scenic route for the opportunity to photograph landscapes, wildlife, waterfalls and sometimes the aurora. I also find the drive a nice respite from my busy day-to-day work and can bring along additional photographic equipment in my jeep. Our guests usually prefer to fly north to Yellowknife. I usually spend a few days shooting the aurora and hiking in Prelude Territorial park before the workshop begins.
Willow ptarmigan can sometimes be found around and under the cabins at Peterson's Point Lake lodge.
In brief, the Arctic workshop involves two days in Yellowknife where we tour the city and harbour. We also explore the Ingraham trail, hike to Cameron Falls and photograph the Aurora borealis in Prelude Territorial Park and include one night at Aurora village on Cassidy point. One does not have to be a photographer to join us on this trip. Anyone interested in the flora and fauna of the arctic and the spectacular scenery and outdoors will enjoy themselves. The cost is $5, 379.00\ person in 2014 which is quite reasonable if you compare it with the cost of other trips to the Arctic, Northwest Passage, Churchill or trips to the Antarctic. If you are wondering what is the difference between a photo tour and a workshop - tours show you places but generally don't offer any photo-instruction. On a workshop, instruction is offered to those that want to learn specific photo-techniques. Some folks may not need or want instruction, it is simply an included option for those that do.
Glow sticks can be used to attach to tripods when photographing the aurora at night so you don't accidentally walk into your tripod in the dark. At night it can get so dark it's possible to see stars right down to the horizon and the milky way. .
There are no interfering light sources for hundreds of miles (or km) and it is the best dark sky viewing site I have ever seen. The full moon rising over Point lake. Those interested in constellations, stars or galaxy's will enjoy the view on clear nights - the real attraction, however is the aurora borealis which is visible on most clear nights.
We operate the Arctic Adventure between September 3-10 with 2 days in Yellowknife and then fly north on an Air Tindi plane to Peterson's Point lake lodge on Point Lake. The lodge includes cozy cabins with oil heaters, bathrooms are out houses, but there is a shower and sauna. Electricity is available via solar panels in the cabins and by power generator for a few hours each evening when guests can recharge their camera batteries or access the Internet. Phone is only available via Skype or satellite. The trip includes meals and several guides to operate boats, lead walking tours and ensure the safety of everyone on the tundra.
I am waiting for the Aurora to show up at Prelude lake shortly after sunset. My tripod is set up and ready to go.
View of the Aurora over Prelude lake a few hours later - it was worth the wait!
Aurora over Aurora Village on Cassidy point outside of Yellowknife.
Sunrise and Sunset Times Yellowknife in August and Early September
August 27th Sunrise 6:14 am Sunset 9:03 pm
Sept 3 Sunrise 6:33 am and Sunset : 8:39 pm
Sept 10 Sunrise 6:51 am and Sunset 7:25 pm
View Sunrise and Sunset calendar for different dates by clicking here.
Sunrise Point lake in front of Peterson's Point lake lodge - on some mornings a short 50 foot walk from the cabins
will put you on the beach for spectacular sunrise photos.
Weather, Insects & Clothing
Yellowknife in late August and early September has an average high temperature of 19° C (66° F). Though it can reach into the high twenties (Celsius) or high 70's (Fahrenheit) making it comfortable for hiking and even swimming in some of the shallow lakes. In September the average high is 10° C (50°F). I find the temperatures perfect for hiking outdoors - not too hot and not too cold. At night the temperature can drop close to freezing, so thin gloves, hat and toque are recommended if you are sitting outside photographing the aurora borealis. A frost can occur anytime in late August and early September which kills most of the black flies and mosquitoes. If you are particularly sensitive to these insects you many want to bring some bug spray or bug hat. Further north at the lodge by the time we get onto the tundra in September a frost has killed most of the biting insects. Temperatures are a few degrees cooler and frost is possible on any evening. During the day the temperatures can reach 20°C or even higher in the sun. The lake is always cold so if there is a strong wind coming off the lake or when travelling by boat it can feel chilly. Guests will be supplied with warm flotation coats to keep them dry and warm in the boats. It's also a good idea to bring some fleece long underwear to wear under your pants if it should get colder. Rain gear is essential.
Caribou paparazzi on the tundra with guide Chuck Rockwell near Peterson's Point Lake Lodge. Note the use of monopod to steady a large telephoto lens, waterproof clothing and rubber hiking boots.
Photographing from boats allows us to cover much greater distances in order to explore Point Lake and look for wildlife.
Hiking and rubber boots are strongly recommended. The tundra contains many areas with shallow water pools on the surface that can reach over ankle boots so rubber boats that are knee high are ideal for walking around. The lodge has some rubber boats for visitors, but visitors may prefer to bring their own. If you bring hiking boots or rubber boats be sure to walk in them before you visit to ensure they are comfortable. If you get blisters easily you can bring along Dr. Scholls moleskin. Also try to do as much walking with your camera gear before your visit, the better fitness you are in the more comfortable you will be when we take short hikes on the tundra. The terrain in places is damp and hilly.
If you are not used to carrying you camera gear try walking near your home with it before you visit then you will know how much to bring on a walk and still be comfortable.
Eskers are ancient river beds that formed under the receding glaciers and are composed mainly of fine sand. They are easy to walk along and provide an excellent vantage point to spot wildlife such as caribou, wolverine and wolves.
The ideal camera for aurora photography is a DSLR camera with a wide angle lens (e.g. 24 mm f/1.4), a small astronomy flash light, and a cable release or intervalometer for time lapse photography. A tripod that comes to at least shoulder height is also necessary to capture long exposures at night - see my Tripod review for recommendations on what to look for if you are considering buying a tripod. Test your camera and tripod in your backyard some night before you come.
Suggested Photo Gear & Accessories to Bring to an Arctic Adventure Workshop or any Trip to Yellowknife and onto the Tundra
- Digital SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera that accepts interchangeable lenses, include at least 2 spare batteries Also consider a spare camera body which could be a compact digital camera like a Pentax Optio or even a cell phone. If you like to shoot video bring your video camera or consider using your digital camera or cell phone.
- Bring plenty of digital storage cards - as a guideline expect to take between 200-300 photographs per day. Some folks will shoot more or less. Extra Compact Flash and\or SD memory cards - at least 32 GB – I bring over 100 GB just in case. There is so much to photograph that it’s better to have more memory cards then you think you will need. A portable hard drive or lightweight laptop computer can also serve as a back up and be used for reviewing your images.
- Camera Lenses: Wide angle lens or wide angle zoom lens e.g. 8-15 or 10 mm fish-eye, 14-24 mm, 20 mm, 20-35, 24 mm, 35mm, 24-70 mm focal length – f/1.4, f2.8 or f/4 widest aperture. The best wide angle lens for Aurora photography will have
f/2.8 or f/1.4 maximum aperture. Wide angle lenses will also be useful for landscape photographs. Telephoto lenses for wildlife: e.g. 70-200, 70-300, 100-400, 300, 400, 500 or 600 mm lens. If you own a teleconverter – 1.4 or 2X bring it. Macro lens or close-up filters are ideal for photographing lichen, mushrooms and other small plants on the tundra. A polariing filterr is useful for landscapes, a neutral density grad filter is useful for sunset and sunrise photos or you can shoot HDR images. If
you don't own a wide angle or telephoto lens - you can rent lenses from Lensrentalscanada.com and other camera stores
for a fraction of their cost.
- A sturdy tripod is essential for aurora photography – please bring one you are willing to carry at least short distances,
preferably one that comes to at least shoulder height so you don’t have to bend over for hours when photographing the aurora in the evening. Tripods with legs that will go flat to the ground are also good for macro-photography. If you don’t own a tripod consider borrowing, renting or buying one. I have written an article on what to look for in tripods if you are considering purchasing one. Monopods are great for walking and photographing wildlife with big lenses, but they can’t be used for aurora photography because night time exposures will usually be 10 seconds or more. I bring both a tripod and monopod with me.
- Battery charger, lens cloth for cleaning your lenses and wiping dew off the lens at night.
- Also I suggest you bring your camera manuals that way if you have questions about certain features we can find out where they might be buried in the menu –you may want to use a feature that you have not used before e.g. Intervalometer for time lapse photography. I am most familiar with Nikon and Canon cameras, if you have a Sony, Olympus or other brand please bring your camera manual.
- Light weight field binoculars to find and spot wildlife and to view the stars in the evening.
- Small flash light or head lamp for working with your camera in the dark – bring fresh batteries. I bring an astronomers flash light that can shine both red and white light but any pocket flashlight will do. The red light does not disturb my night vision which is why they are popular among astronomers. You can order one from All-Star Telescope or any astronomy store for $30.00. Some folks prefer hands free head lamps they can wear them on their head and they are available at most sporting goods stores.
- Brightly coloured ribbons e.g., pink, orange to attach to your backpack, binoculars or camera bags so that when you put items down on the tundra and walk away they are easy to find again. Some visitors have put things down on the tundra walked a few feet away and have not been able to find them again.
- Bendable glow sticks – can be used for wrapping or attaching to your tripod at night so that you or others don’t accidentally walk into the tripod and knock it over when its dark. Glow sticks are available at most dollar stores - I will have a pack with me.
- Other miscellaneous accessories to bring include an alarm clock for sunrise photography, tablet e.g. I pad with apps for star viewing, Aurora alerts, e-books on birds, plants, aurora etc. Instead of bringin a book I now bring my Ipad to read and it does so many other things as well.
- For the flight to the lodge please keep the weight of your baggage including your camera equipment to no more than 70 pounds.
Wide angle lenses are ideal for landscapes and taking photographs of the Aurora. Lenses with F2.8 or wider apertures are best for aurora photography. Lenses with f/4 apertures can also be used but require f longer exposures when photographng the aurora. Short exposures show more detail and structure of the aurora then longer exposures. Often faster lenses also reveal more colour as well.
Telephoto and telephoto zoom lenses from 70 mm up to 600 mm are ideal for photographing distant wildlife like caribou, wolves, wolverines and birds.
A tripod is useful for landscape, wildlife and aurora photography - for the best pictures I strongly recommend bringing one. Do not expect to be able to photograph the Aurora with a compact digital camera, it may be possilbe with some compacts but it will be very difficult and the quality of the images from a compact is not very good for night photography.
Photographing in the dark
In order to photograph the aurora we will be photographing in the dark, usually on level surfaces so you don't trip. Most folks have never done this befpre and are surprised how much more difficult it can be to take pictures when you can't see the buttons and controls. A small flashlight is essential, but I also recommend visitors take their camera outside in their back yard and try it before coming so they can get an idea of what to expect. Focusing on stars with some lenses simply means setting the lens or camera to manual focus and then setting the lens to infinity. However, some modern lenses focus past infinity or don't offer an infinity symbol on the lens. For digital cameras, we will use the camera's live view, zoom in an bright star or very distant light and make it appear as a pin prick. I will assist folks in the field on how to do this. Also I recommend my Aurora e-guide for additional tips on finding and photographing the Aurora for only $2.99 - it is specifically designed to fit smart phones and tablets so can be easily read in the field on a dark night. (My Aurora e-book or quick-guide will be provided free to lodge visitors before the workshop).
Astronomers flashlight with red and white lights and a Coleman head lamp for hands free operation at night. When using flash lights at night be careful not to point them into the direction of other photographers so you don't ruin their exposures and their night vision.
Photographers set up tripods at Prelude Territorial Park to Photograph the Aurora shortly after sunset.
Other miscellaneous items to bring are: light weight water bottle, I like the thin flexible "bag like" water bottles that compress flat when empty. I also like to bring a few chocolate bars, though there may be some for sale in the small gift shop at the lodge.
Slippers for lounging at the lodge.
Reading and writing material, there is a small library of books and magazines about photography, arctic adventure and the history of the area at the lodge. See book list below.
Swim suit, there is a shower and suana at the lodge, only a few visitors venture to swim in the lake :-)
You can buy and bring any wine & spirts in Yellowknife that you might like to drink while at the lodge. The lodge offers mostly fruit juices to drink like lemonade etc.
Please keep the weight of your baggage including your camera equipment to no more than 70 pounds.
Beach in front of Peterson's Point Lake Lodge on Point Lake - the beach is often covered in caribou, wolf and bear tracks in the morning.
Aurora borealis reflected in a pond behind Peterson's Point Lake Lodge
If the weather is cooperative we may do some fishing one morning to catch Lake trout for a fish fry. Above, guide Egan Wuth, shows a typical sized lake trout. Prize lake trout come much larger.
Judy Atkins sitting on top of an Esker in Esker bay uses a Canon camera equipped with a 100-400 mm zoom lens on a tripod. Portable zoom lenses are light-weight but powerful enough to capture closeup images of most wildlife.
Caribou photographed near Peterson's point lake lodge. The strong back light creates a rim-light around their antlers.
Photographed with a Nikon D300 and 300 mm f/2.8 telephoto lens.
This year I will also bring sample photo books and music CDs called "Hangin with the Caribou". I will have free e-book versions of Hangin with the Caribou and the Aurora Quick guides for all the guests and guides.
Book cover jacket
Music CD back and front cover.
The book will be available as Hardcover with Image Wrap sometime in August.
To order or learn more about this new Book and Music CD - CLICK HERE
LInks and Additional References
1. Arctic Ordeal: The Journal of John Richardson, Surgeon-Naturalist with Franklin, 1820-1822 available in Yellowknife or you can order it on Amazon.ca.
2. Arctic Artist - The Journal and Paintings of George Back, Midshipman with Franklin, 1819-22 - available in Yellowknife or on Amazon.ca
3. The Journey from Prince of Wales's Fort in Hudson's Bay to the Northern Ocean by Samuel Hearne - may be available in Yellowknife or through Amazon.ca
4. Narrative of a second expedition to the shores of the Polar Sea in the years 1825, 1826, and 1827 by John Franklin available through Amazon.ca
5. A Naturalists Guide to the Arctic by E. C. Pielou available in book store in Yellowknife or through Amazon.ca
6. Across the top of the World - The Quest for the Northwest Passage - James P. Delgado available from Amazon.ca
7. Caribou of the North A shared Future by M. Hummel and J. C. Ray available in Yellowknife bookstore or Amazon.ca
8. The World of the Caribou by H. J. Russel available to read at the lodge or purchase at Amazon.ca
9. The Northern Lights Secrets of the Aurora Borealis by Dr. Syun-Ichi Akasofu available in Yellowknife or Amazon.ca
10. Aurora Fire in the Sky by Dan Bortolotti with Y. Takaska available in Yellowknife or Amazon.ca
11. Northern Lights by C. Hall & D. Pederson available in Yellowknife or Amazon.ca
12. How to Photograph the Northern Lights by P. Endres - the best book on aurora photo-techniques but the book is only available only from his web site as an e book . Click here to learn more about this book.
My favourite store in Yellowknife is the Yellowknife Bookcellar - they don't have a web site but they have a lot of books on the north and they are conveniently located one block from the Yellowknife Inn where we will be staying. You can visit their facebook site here.
[ Top ]