Experiencing the northern lights – Aurora Borealis – is magical and deserves a spot on everyone’s bucket list. Although there will never be a guarantee you get to see them, there are some precautions you can take to increase your chances. Read on and figure out how to find the northern lights on your next arctic adventure.
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FIND THE PERFECT PLACE TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
The first thing you have to do when looking for the northern lights is finding the perfect place to see them. Want to hear a secret? There isn’t one. I see many travel bloggers inform their readers about “the perfect place to see the northern lights” and it honestly pisses me off. Some of those post are misleading and give the impression that you’ll definitely get to see the lights if you choose this or that location.
The truth is that like any other natural phenomenon, the northern lights lives its own life and doesn’t really care about us weirdos down here who want to observe it. There simply are no guarantees you get to see them no matter how much you want to. HOWEVER, that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways you can increase your chances. How? With the choice of destination and choice of when to travel there. I’ll get more into detail on that:
WHERE TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
Your best bet is to travel somewhere within the aurora belt. Due to the scientific nature behind their existence, the northern lights occur most frequently in a belt-shaped area centered on the magnetic north pole. This aurora belt is huge and extends across northern Scandinavia, Iceland, southern parts of Greenland, northern Canada, Alaska and the northern coast of Siberia (source).
Although I’m sure all of those arctic destinations are wonderful to visit in their own way, they aren’t all as approachable for the common traveler. Some of them are simply too darn cold, or too hard and expensive to reach. That may be some of the reasons why so many choose to chase the aurora in places like Iceland or the coast of northern Norway. Our coastal climate in this part of Europe is much more mild thanks to the Gulf Stream (thankyouthankyouthankyou), making a visit here a little less harsh than Siberia, for instance.
PICK THE PERFECT PLACE FOR YOU
If you choose to go for one of the places within the aurora belt, you should do loads of research before booking anything. Keep in mind that there are no guarantees you get to see northern lights, so ideally you should spend your time and money on traveling to a destination you want to explore no matter what. I can’t speak for the other arctic regions, but both Iceland and northern Norway have loads of other cool things to see and do in addition to chasing the northern lights. As for northern Norway I can personally recommend visiting Tromsø, Lofoten, Hamarøy, Bodø, Finnmark or Svalbard for great outdoor experiences and (potentially) seeing the aurora.
WHEN TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
The northern lights are active all year round, but the skies have to be dark in order for the human eye to actually see them. Since the arctic have pretty much 24 hour daylight in the summer months you should schedule your arctic trip to the darker months. The exact timing varies a little from place to place, but it typically means from late September to mid April. The best time for seeing the aurora is historically in the months of October, February and March. Experience also shows that the northern lights shine most often and strongest a few hours before and after midnight (source).
THE THREE IMPORTANT FACTORS
There are three factors that decide if you’re lucky enough to see the northern lights or not. Although none of them are within human control, you can still increase your chances of seeing the lights by tracking these factors closely in the process:
1. THERE HAS TO BE DARK SKIES for any potential aurora borealis to be visible for the human eye. This is why the best time for chasing the aurora is around midnight in the winter months, as explained above.
2. THERE HAS TO BE CLEAR SKIES so that no clouds stand between you and the aurora (literally). Make sure you pay close attention to the weather forecast once you’ve arrived at your arctic destination.
3. THERE HAS TO BE A CERTAIN LEVEL OF SOLAR ACTIVITY. The northern lights are influenced by solar activity, and strong solar winds will intensify the northern lights, thus increasing your chances of seeing them. There are several so-called aurora forecasts out there that help you predict your odds of observing the aurora in your location, like this website. I recommend the app My Aurora Forecast & Alerts (iOS / Android) which has real-time aurora information and much more. For those going to northern Norway I recommend Norway-Lights.com which provides aurora forecasts & weather forecasts at the same time for many popular destinations in the region.
OPTIMIZE THE VIEW: AVOID LIGHT POLLUTION
Once you’re ready to chase the northern lights in your destination (and the three mentioned factors hopefully are in your favor), it’s time to find a great spot for you to enjoy the show. This means getting away from any disturbing light pollution, like lights from cities or towns.
Although city lights aren’t a major problem in northern Norway, Sweden & Finland, I still recommend you find the most secluded spot possible at your destination of choice. Any light pollution may ruin the experience, especially if the aurora is weak, so why risk it. And don’t be afraid to ask locals if you’re uncertain of where to go.
Cities like Reykjavik in Iceland or Tromsø in Norway are a larger however, so get out of the city centre to increase your chances of seeing the northern lights. You can get lucky and see them right in the city centre but making an effort to get out of town often pays off. The easiest thing is to rent a car on a clear night, or booking a northern lights tour (Reykjavik | Tromsø). Just remember to bring warm clothes so you won’t turn into an ice stick!
PHOTOGRAPHING THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
The pictures in this post were all taken by my brother and I at our cabin in Hamarøy, Norway. As we were celebrating Christmas the northern lights suddenly appeared in the sky, creating an insane light show for us. I had never seen them that strong before and it was an incredible sight even for us who grew up watching the lights frequently.
We threw on a bunch of warm clothes, grabbed our DSLRs and ran down to the shore, having the best time photographing it all before it suddenly stopped an hour later. No drastic edits have been applied to any of the photos, I only made some minor exposure and shadow adjustments in Lightroom because I chose to underexpose the shots. With the right technique you won’t have to edit your aurora photos at all.
HOW TO SUCCEED WHEN PHOTOGRAPHING THE NORTHERN LIGHTS:
Now, I’m no expert, but that is kind of the point: You don’t need to be an expert to capture the northern lights successfully. It’s not as hard as you think as long as you’re prepared for it. I’ve only tried it a couple of times in my life, but we still managed to get these photos the first time we really tried. Here is how you do it:
- WEAR WARM CLOTHES and shoes. Trust me, you won’t last long if you don’t dress appropriately. I recommend thermals (my favorite), wool socks & warm and waterproof winter boots.
- CHOOSE THE RIGHT CAMERA GEAR: For good quality pictures you should use a camera with manual settings and interchangeable lenses. Use your lens with the largest possible aperture (lowest possible f-number). We used one with f/1.4.
- BRING EXTRA BATTERIES as they don’t do well in the cold. Keep them warm inside your clothes when you’re not using them.
- SHOOT IN RAW FORMAT if possible. It stores so much more information than a jpeg, which comes in handy when shooting in dark surroundings like this. Also remember to bring a large enough memory card (RAW files are huge).
- PUT THE CAMERA ON MANUAL MODE and try these settings:
ISO should be at 100-400, exposure time should be long (30 seconds or more), choose the largest aperture available (the lowest possible f-number), put on manual focus and set it to “infinity”. Play around with the settings to find your style.
- AVOID MOVEMENT and get sharp images by using a tripod and a remote control shutter. Many cameras can also be controlled by an app but I wouldn’t depend on it in the cold.
- DON’T OVEREXPOSE YOUR PHOTOS (don’t make them too bright). The brightest part of the aurora gets ‘burnt out’ easily that way, which means no information will be available in this area of the photo, making it impossible to repair even in post-production. I prefer to underexpose the photos instead. That way you keep more information in the photo and you can bring back the areas that you think are too dark by bringing up the exposure and shadows of the RAW file in Lightroom after. (You don’t have to do this but it can increase the quality significantly.)
DON’T FORGET THE MOST IMPORTANT THING
Photographing the northern lights can be such much fun, but please don’t forget to truly enjoy the show when it happens. Trust me. You do not want to experience the entire adventure through your camera lens. If you want cool photos without the stress you can book a northern lights photography tour in Tromsø. They provide free photos of you enjoying the aurora!
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I hope you’ll get lucky enough to experience the incredible northern lights on your arctic adventure, fingers crossed!