The Northern Lights

The Aurora Borealis is one of the most mesmerising sights you may ever see. Gazing upwards as the sky lights up and the Northern Lights starts to put on a show is a real buzz and one of nature’s greatest events.

The Northern Lights are always there. Day or night, regardless of the season or weather, it’s always up there and always happening. The reason certain times of year are cited as being “better” for seeing the aurora is due to having more hours of darkness and less likelihood of cloud cover. March and September/October tend to give a reasonable balance for this. All you need is darkness and clear sky.

Unlike the Aurora Australis, a natural light show generally only seen by the penguin population of Antarctica, the Northern Lights can be viewed from many places in and around the Arctic region: Iceland, Norway, Swedish and Finnish Lapland, Greenland, parts of Alaska, Svalbard, even northern Scotland at times, and some of the most remote areas of the world across northern Russia and Canada. Plenty of options. When the solar activity is exceptionally high, the aurora can be seen from the southern parts of the UK and has been recorded as far south as northern Italy. But this is incredibly rare.

Relying on nature playing ball is a mistake in this region. The weather can change so quickly and scupper the best of plans. And when you’re relying on two aspects of nature – good weather and solar activity – then the odds can be stacked against you before you head out. With that in mind, planning a single aurora trip, or “chase”, and only allowing one night for it could easily lead to disappointment. Giving yourself a few options across several nights is well worth it. I’ve seen a couple of arguments between tourists and local guides due to the tourists “not getting what they paid for” when the weather was poor or activity low. It clearly doesn’t work that way.

When I’ve been in Reykjavik, Narvik and Tromsø, I’ve had hopes of seeing the Northern Lights which fell flat due to bad weather or low activity. On one trip to Narvik, and this was particularly annoying, there was immense solar activity but it was happening behind thick cloud. And another night in Kiruna, beautifully clear sky with thousands of stars showing but no visible aurora activity. Sometimes that happens.

A word about cameras

Your smartphone is useless for aurora shots. Forget it. Your GoPro will struggle to capture video of the aurora – it isn’t designed for that. You need a decent camera, a tripod, and you need to know how to work your camera. Manual focus (to infinity, use a light in the distance to set this), a wide open aperture (low f number) and set to manual mode so you can choose how long to expose for (anything from 0.5s to 30s depending on activity and how much movement/sharpness you want to capture). With the ISO, you need to balance this between allowing for low light and the limitations of your camera in managing noise. It takes practice.

For all of my aurora shots to-date, I’ve used an OM-D E-M5 (mark 1) from Olympus with either the 12mm f2.0 lens or the 12-40mm f2.8 lens. The camera is around five years old now and I can generally work around its limitations in low light, but aurora shots can be a bit of a struggle. There’s a balance to be had in having the aurora looking good and something in the foreground visible to provide a bit of scale and detail, and getting the exposure right can be tricky.

Another aspect to keep in mind is that the photos online are generally the best of the aurora shots. Solar activity varies massively and more often that not, what you’ll see is a white/grey looking band across the sky. It looks that way because our eyes don’t see colour very well in low light. But take a photo of it and the green will show. When the activity is higher it can look visibly green, with hints of red, purple and blue.

And when the aurora puts on a show like that, it’s something you’ll never forget.

Luleå, Sweden

The first time I saw the Northern Lights was in Luleå in northern Sweden. I had been to see a basketball game, grabbed a beer and went to bed. Checking the aurora activity (this site is good) before going to sleep, it had picked up and there was a chance to see something from the town.

There’s a little duck pond a few minutes walk from the main centre of Luleå, down by the water, a place with no overhead lights nearby. It was the best chance of avoiding light pollution without travelling outside of the town. As my eyes adjusted, there was a faint band of white waving slowly across the sky. There it was: the Northern Lights, right there.

It’s an odd feeling, the first sighting. Seeing this part of the sky lit up is other worldly, it’s as if it can’t actually be real. The camera captured some nice shots with part of the town below. Not bad for a first sighting and first attempt at photos.

Reykjavik, Iceland

On a last-minute trip on a short break to Reykjavik, I made the mistake of going with a big company which ran aurora tours (I’m looking at you, Reykjavik Excursions). They had seven coach loads of tourists, set off from Reykjavik and headed towards Keflavik, into the cloud cover. There was no sign of genuine organisation, the photography advice for people was poor, and they didn’t seem to care whether people saw anything; it was simply a case of bussing as many tourists as possible to a spot for an hour then heading back.

The only thing I took from this is to avoid the big companies. They’re generally found in Reykjavik given it’s a tourist hot spot. Go with a company which runs “chases”, where it’s a small group in a car or minivan and the intention is to find the clear sky. I’ve known some aurora photographers to take people on 10-hour round trips from Sweden well into Finland just to maximise the chance of seeing something.

Kiruna, Sweden

This area of Sweden, from Kiruna to Abisko, is particularly good since there’s little light pollution and the weather tends to provide a decent chance of clear skies. Lots of guides and tour companies offer aurora trips here, some geared towards photography and others linking in with snow mobile trips or dog sledding. Or you can head out on your own in any direction and find a suitable area.

Kangerlussuaq, Greenland

Claiming over 300 clear nights a year on average, Kangerlussuaq is a prime spot, but unfortunately harder to get to than the Nordic countries. It’s a tiny town of 300 people and light pollution isn’t even an issue, a short walk outside of the town provides enough darkness to see the aurora. And there are plenty of scenic places around for some nice photos.

I headed out of town one night when it was -25C and a clear night. There was a faint band, pretty static, on one side. And after 45 minutes, with the thought of packing up due to the freezing cold, the action started. The sky lit up from behind as the aurora started waving and dancing, moving right overhead. It was the first time I had seen proper activity and it is truly captivating. At times it sways across the sky, at times it dances around more quickly. And it’s tempting to stay perfectly still and quiet, completely irrationally, in case a noise or sudden movement scares it away.

Ilulissat, further north, is also a great spot and for similar reasons. The scenery in Ilulissat is truly stunning – including my favourite spot I have ever visited – with icebergs the size of towns in the Disko Bay, and if there’s aurora activity and clear sky, this could make for some phenomenal photos. My trip to Ilulissat unfortunately coincided with snow storms, hence no aurora shots. But if Greenland is your destination then certainly consider Ilulissat.

Tromsø, Norway

My favourite place for seeing the Northern Lights so far has been Tromsø in northern Norway. Although the weather is typically unpredictable, I’ve been fortunate enough to see the Northern Lights on several nights, including a breath taking night on Christmas 2016 when it was even clearly visible from the city.

Night 1: the “base station”

For the first aurora night in Tromsø, I visited one of the TromsøSafari base stations. They have four spread across the region, each in an area to deal with slightly different weather conditions. As part of the set up, there’s an indoor spot to keep warm and food and hot drinks available. It works well, although the clear downside is being in a static location. On this night there was some decent activity but quite random aurora ‘shapes’ around.


Night 2: the chase

The second aurora night in Tromsø was a chase which started with some stunning sights right over the city and ended in Ringvassøya, in a beautiful, secluded location. This was the night the aurora provided a Christmas treat and went absolutely crazy right overhead. I have never seen anything like it before, as the sky lit up from behind a mountain, the Northern Lights danced so brightly and so fast right above and then disappeared over the horizon. I couldn’t hope to get a photo when it was that bright – anything I tried came up as a bright white blob – simply due to the speed it was moving at and the brightness of the reds, greens, purples and blues mixed together.

Seeing the aurora is one of the most memorable moments you may ever have, particularly if the activity is high. And if you’re looking to capture some photos, keep in mind three points:

  1. Use a tripod.
  2. Learn how to use your camera.
  3. Allow time for more than one aurora trip on your holiday.

And enjoy it!



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