While there is never a guarantee to see the Northern lights, you can highly increase your chances. Here I would give some recommendations and links that can help planning your aurora hunt.

“Oh Northern Lights! They are so beautiful”
“I’m sorry, this is MCdonalds behind the trees, it gives the flare”

(a conversation between Finnish and Spanish students, after reading the post you would not make the same mistake)

Northern lights, Aurora borealis

Aurora borealis in Finnish Lapland. Seen at Kiilopaa, Inari.

 

1. Choose location for Northern Lights

The basic rule is the closer to the north magnetic pole – the better. Therefore the best spots are in the North of Scandinavia, Iceland, and Finnish Lapland.

When choosing the location, remember that the climate in the Nordic countries is affected by Gulfstream. The difference in temperatures between the shoreline and the middle of the land are significant. You may need to wait for the lights for hours, so from the temperature point of view, Northern Norway and Iceland are the most convenient locations.

rovaniemi, northern ligths

Northern lights over Rovaniemi, Finnish Lapland. I consider it an unlucky Northern Lights hunt. In January, the temperature was -35. It was too cold to wait until they get bigger. Also, I found out that if you accidently breathe on your camera – ice appears in that place. I had to avoid using the viewfinder. So not only my battery died earlier because of the frost, but I could not change it since the camera was literally frozen.This photo was the only dissent from the night, but I got a good lesson on how to operate with the camera at such temperatures.

2. Choose time of the year

The Northern Lights, as phenomena, happen throughout the whole year, but to actually see them, the night has to be dark. Summer nights in the North are bright, which limits us only to the period from late autumn to early spring. The higher to the North – the longer this period is.

It is a very common myth, that the Northern Lights appear only in winter. It could be an accident, but I was more lucky in seeing them in spring, rather than in winter.

Northern lights, Aurora borealis

Aurora borealis in Finnish Lapland. Seen at Kiilopaa, Inari in the beginning of April. The level of the aurora activity was 6 (scroll down to see what it is). Bright lights lasted for around 3-4 hours.

3. Check the Northern lights activity forecasts

The level of the northern lights is measured from 1 to 9. It affects two things:

  • The larger the number – the brighter the lights would be
  • The larger the number – the more they expand to the South

Online services display the current level of the Northern Lights, the short-term forecast (hours), the long-term forecast for several days. Here are some websites to help you.

Aurora Service.

They have a nice way of displaying the current and short-term activity, and also the website works well on mobile devices.

In addition, they have a page with the web-cameras, that picture Northern lights in different parts of the world.

University of Alaska, Geophysical Institute

Shows basically the same information, I just found it easier to look for long-term forecasts.

Mobile apps

In popular tourist destinations you can use special apps to help to see the aurora. The idea is simple. If someone sees the lights – they make a notification. Other people who have the app are notified and see the position on the map where notification was made. They may add likes to your notification (so really bright ones collect more) or alternatively can inform that they didn’t see anything.

Check the app stores for: “<your location name> aurora”, or something similar. In the tourist offices, they can inform you about applications.

4. Check the weather for clouds

It doesn’t matter how bright the lights are – you would not see them if the sky is covered with clouds. So always check the weather forecast before you go.

In addition to “general” weather forecast, take a look at the clouds map (for example this one). It would show the open spaces. You may choose the place in advance and drive there.

5. Be aware of bright artificial light

Avoid artificial lights! To see the lights you have to be in complete darkness. When your eyes are used to the dark – you can see aurora better, in more colors and details.

Northern lights, Aurora borealis

I was once asked to make a few shots of “Alyosha”  monument in Murmansk with the Northern Lights in the background. I was happy to do that, but easier said than done. Although the activity was at level 5, because of the projectors, the aurora could hardly be seen.

And finally, brief photo tips

As I was asked it few times, here are basics of Northern Lights photography. First of all, you would need a fast, wide angle lens, and tripod. Is it possible without? Yes, I have done few shots with a kit lens and by putting a camera on top of my backpack at an angle (instead of a tripod). But the photo wouldn’t be of a good quality (still good enough for small web illustrations though).

  • Set your camera to manual mode, keep ISO as AUTO
  • Set aperture wide open or close (I usually don’t go over f/2.8)
  • Depending on the nature of the lights – set the shutter speed
    • If they are still – set it to 10-25  seconds
    • If they are moving set the to 4-10 second
  • Note the auto ISO value and take the test picture
  • Set the ISO value lower and test again, until the photo is properly exposed

Note couple of things:

  • The image preview in the dark looks a bit brighter than it actually is
  • Set the timer for 2 seconds before the shot, it would reduce the shake when you press the shutter

Wish you a great aurora hunt! With a bit of luck and planning, you would be able to see and photograph them.

Northern lights, Aurora borealis

Fist-shaped aurora

 

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