Where to travel for, how to view and photograph the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) is a spectacular phenomenon that occasionally lights up the sky in the far north. Green, blue, red, violet and shades of these colors dance in the sky, forming shapes and pulsating like a work of art. Seeing the lights is a magical moment that you won’t ever forget. No photograph or video can reproduce the impressive play of lights. Here are tips (extracted with permission from the travel guidebook to Lapland) to finding, viewing and filming the Northern Lights.

Northern Lights in Kilpisjarvi, Lapland, Finland. Photo by Carsten Frenzl The Northern Lights are frequently visible north of the Arctic Circle. It is possible, but rare, to see the lights south of the Arctic Circle as well. In the far north, the lights show up regularly, and spotting them is pretty easy if the following key factors have been covered.

1. Season. In summer, it is not dark enough even in the night to see the Northern Lights. The Aurora Borealis may be dancing in the sky, but they are not visible. Autumn, winter and spring are the seasons for the Northern Light viewers.

2. Weather. Cloudy weather blocks the lights. Following weather forecasts for the region you are staying may help you to find a cloudless spot.

3. City lights. There are not many towns north of the Arctic Circle, but it is still advisable to move away from the brightest city lights.

In the northern parts of Lapland, long term statistics indicate that the Northern Lights performance can be expected in three out of four nights. Still, if you want to increase your odds in seeing the Northern Lights, you need information on two things: the weather (for clear skies) and solar winds (for times when a strong burst is going to make contact with the earth’s atmosphere).

You can find detailed weather forecasts, for instance, for Nordic countries at national meteorological insitutions’ web pages:

Weather forecast for Sweden: www.smhi.se/vadret
Norway: www.yr.no
Finland: en.ilmatieteenlaitos.fi

Predicting the time when the Northern Lights appear is based on the sun’s activity. The sun continuously emanates electrons and protons to the space. The flow of these electrically charged particles is known as the solar wind. The wind correlates with bursts of sunspots. When a burst causes strong enough solar winds, the particles arrive in the earth’s magnetosphere in one or two days. When it happens, the particles collide with gas in the earth’s atmosphere, and the lights are on.

Northern Lights prediction service for Lapland: www.aurora-service.eu/aurora-forecast/

Aurora Borealis in Ruka, Finland, North Europe. Photo by Timo Newton-Syms

Viewing the Northern Lights

Viewing the light show is simple: look at the northern sky. The colorful lights are easily seen by the naked eye, no instruments or aids are required.

The lights are not harmful, they are dancing at the height of 100 km / 62 miles above the earth. Only an extremely strong solar wind may cause disturbances to sensitive magnetic and electric devices.

Especially in Lapland, ski resorts, hotels, and activity centers like to advertise how their place is the best for viewing the Northern Lights, but in reality, any place with a view to the northern sky is suitable.

There are hotels, like Kakslauttanen Arctic Resort in Finnish Lapland that has cottages with glass roofs. In there, you don’t have to go out in the cold at all, but you can sit on the couch (in the dark) and wait for the lightshow to start.

Apps and alerts for the Northern Lights

Some Nordic national meteorological institutions have alert systems that send out email messages when the Northern Lights are expected. A number of ski resorts, like Levi and Ylläs in Finnish Lapland have their own mobile applications that alert of lights.

For Android phones and tablets:

Aurora Alerts
Northern Lights Alerts

For Apple mobile devices:

Aurora Forecast
Northern Lights Alerts

Alerts via Twitter twitter.com/Aurora_Alerts
Web page that shows the situation in Lapland www.aurora-service.eu/aurora-forecast/

Photographing the Northern Lights

You can try photographing the rapidly changing lights with an ordinary compact camera or camera phone (choose the night mode), but if you want to capture decent images you need better gear, and you have to know how to use the gear. You need:

    – A camera that can take good images in high ISO setting. The higher ISO value you can set, the better your chances are for capturing a sharp image.
    – A lens with wide aperture. f2.8 or less is recommended.
    – A tripod.
    – Spare batteries if you intend to take more than a few pictures in cold climate. Freezing temperatures quickly suck out life from batteries.

Tips for shooting the Northern Lights:

    – Set the largest aperture your lens allows.
    – Choose the highest ISO value that still provides reasonable image quality.
    – Set the focus at infinity. Do it manually. If you can’t, focus on the most distant object you can see.
    – Set the exposure time to as short as possible. For instance, if the aperture is f2.8 and ISO value is 800, try exposure time between 4 and 15 seconds.

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