On May 10th, I headed out to the mountains to shoot the Milky Way before a sunrise workshop on the Icefields Parkway. There was going to be a bit too much moonlight for dark skies, but the forecast said the skies would be clear and there was a chance of aurora. Before heading off the grid, I checked Space Weather Live one last time for aurora data. I knew I was going to get a good show shortly after I arrived at my location. Not only did I get a good aurora show, but STEVE showed up too.

STEVE is a celestial phenomenon that has recently been demystified by scientists. This purple band sometimes appears with a geomagnetic storm, but it is not aurora. It is caused by charged particles in the ionosphere colliding, which creates friction that heats the particles and causes them to emit the purple light.

The main Northern Lights show that I saw on May 11th occurred from 2:30 am to 3:30 am. I set up a time-lapse with one of my cameras to catch the Milky Way moving across the sky and the moonlight changing on the peaks. Once that was running, I waited for the aurora to show up. Initially, there was just a green glow around some of the mountains. The glow became more substantial and intense until pillars formed and danced along the sky.

Green aurora with purple pillars dancing behind mountains next to Mount Chephren in Banff
Aurora Borealis dancing on the right with the setting moon creating a glow on the left.

To your eyes, this all seems mostly grey. The reason for this is because our eyes use rods in the dark, which are most sensitive to light but do not assist in colour vision. The photoreceptors that respond to colour are cones.

STEVE showed up around 3:08 am. I noticed a wisp moving further west of the main aurora show. STEVE can be seen as a full arc across the sky, running NW to SE. Most of the following images are not fully edited. Only some brightening and colour correcting was done in Lightroom.

STEVE appears in the sky on May 11, but is very faint.
The first sign of STEVE! This was just a test shot to see if the wisp I was seeing the sky could be the atmospheric phenomenon.
STEVE becoming more prominent in the sky above Mount Chephren
I adjusted my settings, position around the open water and composition to capture STEVE as it became more prominent.
Reflection of STEVE arcing next to Mount Chephren at night.
One of my fully edited images when STEVE appeared the brightest. It was also beginning to extend further up.
STEVE reaches higher into the sky above Mount Chephren with the aurora still dancing in the north.
A single test frame taken before shooting a panorama.

The full arc became visible around 3:20 am. At its highest point, the light is very faint but also appears to have a green band as well. To capture the arc and still include my foreground with reflection, I shot a two-row panorama. I had to work quickly as STEVE was beginning to fade away by the time I was shooting my second row. My position also wasn’t ideal for getting the full Milky Way arc as well – I would have been in the water, and the foreground would have included a lot of plain dirty snow.

Panorama of STEVE arcing above the rocky mountains to the Milky Way arc.
Full arc of STEVE stretching from NW to SE.
STEVE fades away and moves closer to Mount Chephren.
STEVE fading away and moving westward.
And that was it for the show.

At 3:31 am there was no more to see, except the Milky Way of course. The whole STEVE show was just about twenty minutes. This is generally how long the light show lasts. If you see it, get shooting!

I have a cool time-lapse that I am in the process of completing of the Milky Way moving through the sky as the moon and then the aurora light paints the peaks.