Photographing Yellowknife in Winter

Way up in Canada’s Northwest Territories at 62° latitude lies a surprising city. When my photo tour participants arrive, the first thing they usually comment on is how surprised they are to find an actual city instead of a tiny outpost village. They were expecting to fly into something right out of the 1800s gold rush era.

I like to call it a microcosm of a large city. It’s small, yes, but it has an airport, tall buildings, car dealerships, and even a Walmart. Yellowknife owes its existence to gold, and more recently, diamonds and tourism. Tourists come to Yellowknife in summer to fish, boat, and view wildlife. In winter, they come to look at the sky. Yellowknife sits directly under the aurora oval, which makes it among the best places on Earth to view the northern lights.

Along with sharing a few photos, I’ll talk a little about my approach to photography in this cold place. I’ve only visited Yellowknife in winter, so I can’t speak to its photo potential at other times of the year, although some of the photos I’ve seen have me wanting to go. Also, I’m far from an expert on the region and learn new things on every trip. To see some great images from a photographer who lives there, check out Martin Male’s website.

This is what brings people to Yellowknife in winter. The aurora borealis! Various types of ice-fishing tents are on the lakes surrounding Yellowknife. This tepee is my favorite. For the interior lighting, I used 3 tea candles. I rent the old-style snowshoes from a local to use as a prop for the photo tour shoots. Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm lens at 14mm, f/3.5, 20 seconds, ISO 3200.

Not the gold-rush outpost people expect to find when they arrive in Yellowknife. I shot this evening twilight view of the city from Bush Pilots Monument, possibly the best vantage point for photographing the city. This is a stack of 5 exposures shot at f/22, 30 seconds, ISO 100. One shot would have worked fine for just the cityscape, but I used 5 to increase the light trails and make them appear continuous. Nikon D850, Nikon 28-300mm lens at 72mm.

The number of roads in Yellowknife greatly increases in winter when the lakes freeze over. It’s a little scary driving on a lake for the first time, but you get used to it. This is the Dettah Ice Road on Great Slave Lake. Shot on an iPhone 6s Plus.

In winter, you have to plug in your car at night! Rental cars come with block heaters and extension cords and hotel parking spaces have outlets for plugging them in. Shot on an iPhone 6s Plus.

Typical view along the roads surrounding Yellowknife. This road turns off Ingraham Trail, the primary road leading into the wilderness outside of town. Ingraham Trail is the beginning of the ice road leading to the diamonds mines a couple hundred miles north of the city. The first season of Ice Road Truckers was filmed here. Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm lens at 20mm, f/11, 1/2 second, ISO 100.

Frozen lakes provide Yellowknifers with much more than new roads. Ice fishing, snowmobiling, and mushing are favorite activities. I hired this musher for our photo tour group. The sun dogs were an added bonus. Nikon D850, Nikon 28-300mm lens at 28mm, f/22, 1/400 second, ISO 200, polarizing filter.

Colorful houseboats surround Jolliffe Island in Yellowknife Bay. Accessed by car in winter and boat in summer, the residents live off the grid. Nikon D850, Nikon 28-300mm lens at 92mm, f/16, 1/40 second, ISO 200, polarizing filter.

A tourism company operates these ice fishing huts. They’ll provide everything you need for fishing and they’ll even cook your catch on site. Nikon D850, Nikon 28-300mm lens at 28mm, f/16, 1/125 second, ISO 200.

No trip to Yellowknife is complete without at least one visit to the famous Bullock’s Bistro where you can eat fresh fish caught from Great Slave Lake. For the best experience, sit at the bar and enjoy the cook’s captivating performance. Shot on an iPhone 6s Plus.

Growing conditions in Yellowknife are harsh, with fires in summer and extreme cold in winter. Trees are stunted and there are no lush forests here. But there is plenty of beauty. This is the twilight wedge, seen opposite the sun after it is below the horizon. This is an old film shot I made in the early 2000s.

Late evening twilight casts an ethereal glow on the landscape. Nikon D850, Nikon 28-300mm lens at 28mm, f/16, 6 seconds, ISO 100.

The landscape is gently rolling and extremely rocky, which provides good foregrounds for the light show overhead. Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm lens at 15mm, f/3.2, 20 seconds, ISO 3200. I light painted the foreground with a flashlight.

Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm lens at 14mm, f/3.5, 8 seconds, ISO 3200. Notice the difference in shutter speed from the photo on the left. The light intensity of the aurora is constantly changing, so you have to adjust your exposure settings accordingly.

Some of the ice fishing tents are made of plywood, metal, and plastic materials. I really like the canvas ones that are more rustic. Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm lens at 14mm, f/2.8, 10 seconds, ISO 6400.

Typically, I like to do the foreground lighting for night-sky shots as a separate exposure and then stack it with the sky shot. This makes it easier to get the lighting just right. However, when it’s 30° below, you want to remove everything possible from the equation. No way was I going fumble with switching out settings for foreground and sky. For the tent lighting, I experimented with how many tea candles it took to provide ideal lighting in a single exposure using the average settings for the aurora. I started with 7 candles, which was way too bright, and ended up using only 3. Yes, this tent was lit with only 3 of those little tea candles. But with an ISO of 6400, it was almost too much. Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm lens at 14mm, f/2.8, 10 seconds, ISO 6400.

Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm lens at 15mm, f/2.8, 8 seconds, ISO 3200.

It was a lot of fun shooting this tepee. I learned an important lesson on this shoot. A participant was unable to make sharp images of the sky. We checked everything. He used his camera on my tripod and the shots were sharp. Then when I used my camera on his tripod and they were  not sharp, we finally figured out that it was his tripod causing the problem. The tripod legs had rubber feet on them and the weight of the camera and tripod was just enough to cause the tripod to splay slighting during the long exposures. Now I recommend spiked feet for all ice shooting. Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm lens at 14mm, f/3.5, 20 seconds, ISO 3200.

The tea candles burned out and I had run out of replacements (I’ll buy the 100 pack next time). Just for the heck of it, I tried a shot with the tepee unlit. Surprisingly, I liked the result very much. Nikon D850, Nikon 14-24mm lens at 14mm, f/3.2, 5 seconds, ISO 3200.

This is a shot of the dashboard instrument panel during one of our outings to shoot the northern lights. Yes, it was 40° below zero! No, we didn’t care. The lights were great and kept our minds off the cold. Besides, we were nice and warm inside our winter suits. I have problems with my hands in cold weather, so that was definitely an issue for me. For cold like this, I wear a pair of thin gloves inside very hefty overmitts that I stuffed with hand warmer packets. I can set up the camera on the tripod and change composition while wearing the mitts. I slip my hand out of the mitts (thin gloves still on) to change exposure settings and switch out batteries. Shot with an iPhone 6s Plus.

On my last photo tour, Yellowknife experienced a heat wave near the end of our trip. The temperature climbed all the way to zero on this day. One of the participants, Matt Perry, is positively giddy about it. Nikon D850, Nikon 28-300mm lens at 170mm, f/8, 1/500 second, ISO 200.