The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) is without a doubt one of the most fascinating natural wonders. The dancing light show is an experience that features on most people’s bucket list, yet only very few of us live in places where you can experience this extra ordinary phenomenon. I have been fortunate enough to spent some time in Finnish Lapland last winter and while there are many reasons to travel North of the Arctic Circle, the Northern Lights tend to be the main draws for many tourists. As the nights are getting longer the Aurora season in the Northern Hemisphere is fast approaching and if you are dreaming of chasing the Northern Lights then read on as I have put together a handy little guide packed with everything you need to know to enjoy an unforgettable adventure.
What exactly is the Aurora Borealis?
An aurora, also sometimes referred to as polar light is what we call the natural light display that occurs when solar winds interact with the Earth’s magnetosphere. Electrically charged particles (protons & electrons) from solar winds enter the atmosphere of the Earth and then react with the gases here. If me and science would get along more I would go into detail at this point telling you exactly what type of reaction takes place, but since we had a fall out somewhere around year 7 in school my understanding is rather basic.
Imagine that the Earth is surrounded by a “shield” called magnetosphere that protects us from cosmic rays and solar storms. Sometimes charged particles from the solar winds break through that “shield” at the North and South Pole and then react with the gases we have on Earth causing excess energy that turns into the dancing night lights that we know as aurora.
The name actually comes from the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas. Auroras on the Northern Hemisphere are referred to as Aurora Borealis, while their Southern counterparts are known as Aurora Australis or Southern Lights. This brings me onto the next point…
Where and when to see the Northern Lights?
The visibility of the Northern Lights depends on the time of year, solar activity, weather and location. The best places to see an aurora are in the so called “Aurora Zone”, which is made up of countries that are located in close proximity to the poles.
Canada, Alaska,Iceland, Finland, Sweden and Norway
Antarctica, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand and Australia
While Auroras occur all year round, your best chances to spot the Northern Lights are during the winter months, but it is possible to see them as early as August and sometimes up until May.
The best time to view the Southern Lights is between March and September. So technically you could make travel plans to chase those beautiful lights all year round if you pick the right location.
Once you have arrived at your chosen destination you need to monitor two things: the weather forecast & solar activity. There are lots of apps and websites that will display the current solar activity quite in-depth and you can even sign up to aurora alerts, although you might be charged a small amount for this service. The next step is finding a location with a clear sky. You can only see auroras when there are no or only little clouds, as otherwise the clouds will cover the Northern Lights. Another thing to watch out for is light pollution. The darker your surroundings, the better your viewing experience will be. If your accommodation is in a city it might be worth renting a car and venturing out a little. A car will also come in handy when you’re trying to locate an area with clear skies.
Essential equipment to see the Northern Lights
The essential equipment you’ll need to capture your Northern Light experience is a good camera, a tripod and lots of spare camera batteries. A decent camera with interchangeable lenses is key as you won’t be able to take a picture with your phone camera no matter how good it is (believe me I’ve tried). I used a Canon 700d for all my Northern Light photography, but as long as your camera allows you to adjust the ISO, aperture and shutter speed, you should be able to get a result. A sturdy tripod will also be necessary as the slow shutter speed will cause your pictures to be blurry if you hold the camera. Amazon offers some basic models that will cost you around 25€ and or more, which is absolutely fine as a beginners tripod. One thing to watch out for when purchasing your tripod is that it’s sturdy enough to withstand windy weather conditions. Last but not least you will need at least one fully charged, spare battery when you’re out chasing auroras as the cold causes them to loose charge quicker (this also applies to other gadgets that you’re might planning to take). Keep spare batteries and other small electric gadgets close to your body to make sure they’re not already drained when you need them.
Chances are, if you’re visiting any country in the aurora zone during winter it will be cold (expect anywhere between 0C and -30C degrees) and while everyone deals different with temperature, most people will find temperatures below zero quite cold. Warm clothes and gloves are a MUST. It’s best to take some extra layers if you’re driving to chase the lights as you might be exposed to the cold for long periods of time. I found it handy to use gloves that work with touchscreens when I’m taking pictures as I don’t have to take them off. Heat pads are another very handy essential to sling in your bag when you’re out exploring.
Don’t forget to take some drinks and snacks on your adventure. Tea or coffee in a thermos are great to keep you warm in between shooting and watching the aurora displays.
How to photograph the Northern Lights
If the weather conditions are right and the solar activity is strong then you have a very good chance at seeing auroras any time after sunset. The best time to see them is between 10pm and 2am local time when the sun is on the opposite side of the Earth to you, but I have seen very strong Northern Lights displays as early as 8pm in Finnish Lapland.
If the sky is clear and the auroras start appearing set up your camera and tripod. Make sure your tripod is stable as it can be difficult to set up a tripod if you’re standing in deep snow or on icy, rough grounds.
Here are a few tips to help you to capture that unforgettable moment in a photo. At this point I’d like to point out that I am by no means a pro, but these are some basics that have helped me.
Choose your settings: high ISO (as high as necessary, as low as possible), low aperture and a slow shutter speed are good starting points.
When the aurora is getting strong and fast, make sure to turn down your ISO & shutter speed.
Try to shoot with a timer delay to avoid blurry images, as even a small movement, like pressing the button can cause your image to be blurry.
Make sure your images are sharp and clear. I found that the best way to do this is zooming in on a source of light (a bright star) and making sure the image is in focus.
Thanks so much for visiting Global Brunch. If you enjoyed this article and want to see more Northern Lights photography check out my Instagram.
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