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How to find and photograph northern lights?

Betty

One of the biggest dreams of many is to witness the spectacle of northern lights. I know only few people that do not have this experience on their bucket lists and so had I. We came to Finland for five days and honestly, I did not have much hopes to tuck off this experience from my personal list. The northern lights forecast was not promising, fluctuating from 0% to 5 % of chances. Not much indeed. It is not an easy predictable occurrence and local people know very well how tricky aurora borealis is. And I could experience this trickiness myself too.

But than…

On the third day of our visit we have changed our location and moved to the more remote part of Ylläs area. And the forecast started to change unexpectedly. What a beautiful surprise it was that northern lights showed up in the evening, exactly on the day of my birthday. Even more surprising was, according to what we have been told by locals, that this was the strongest and most beautiful appearance of aurora borealis in a year time. This spectacle was truly insane experience of northern lights dancing on the sky for more than an hour. We saw all the colors including a rare pink and just could not believe our luck.

What you should be aware of is that although Finland is among 8 best places in the world to watch norther lights, being in Finland does not guarantee you will actually see it. Therefore it is good to know few tips to increase your chances. Not only of witnessing northern lights but also of getting the best possible photograph.

What causes northern lights?

This surreal phenomenon can light up the sky and take on absolutely breathtaking shapes and colors. It does not resemble any other phenomenon on Earth. According to the scientific explanation, the Northern Lights are the result of a series of events that begin already on the Sun. The lights are caused by collisions between electrically charged particles. Once they enter Earth’s atmosphere the particles interact with the gas atoms and cause emission of energy and light. This is what we perceive as a colorful light show in the sky known as northern lights or aurora. What is also interesting is that auroras are not unique only to Earth. Jupiter, Uranus, Neptune, and Saturn, they all experience auroras as well.

How does it look like?

The most common form for the lights is an arc which is a long curve from horizon to horizon. When the lights do not take on a specific shape, it’s called a diffuse aurora. This kind of occurrence is more likely to be detected by cameras with long exposures, not that often by the naked human eye. The most common Aurora color is green and white but if you are lucky, like we were in Finland, you may also witness rarer pink, red or blue color. Our eyes are more sensitive to green than to red, therefore we perceive green auroras more often and reds only during periods of very high solar activity.

northern lights

Where is the best place to watch Northern Lights?

The polar lights appear near the Poles. The closer you get to poles the bigger are the chances you will see it. Northern Lights are only visible when the sky is clear or when there are at least clear parts of it. The collisions take place many kilometers above the clouds, so on a cloudy weather you will not be able to see anything. If the sky is cloudy where you are, it may be worth to check out the cloud forecast in the nearby places. This is what Northern Lights tour operators do. When they see an opening in the clouds not too far away, they drive there and you can do the same.

To make the Norther Lights better visible, we need a place that is removed from the city lights. Strong street or city lights make our eyes less sensitive. The best observation point is a flat area with no buildings or high mountains blocking the view and no street lights around. This is why we chose as our location the Ylläs area. You can find there big flat parts of land or place yourself by the frozen lake which is really good observatory point.

If you do not want to chaise aurora on your own, you can always book one of the trips offered by local tours providers, but this is not a cheap experience. This kind of tour usually cost around 100 euro per person and you will get no guarantee to see the northern lights.

northern lights

What application should I use to monitor Northern Lights and how to use it?

There are few applications but we trusted locals and used the one recommended by them. As a result, we saw Aurora Borealis the same day. Of course this was coincidence ;) However, without the app it would be very difficult especially if you do not stay in the place where northern lights can be well seen so an open space with no lights around.

The application we used is called “My Aurora Forecast & Alerts” and you can find it both for Android and Apple devices, for example here. The application will notify you in advance about the probability of seeing the lights in your area. Usually about 30min to 1h before you might have reliable information so that you can reach the best observatory spot. We used the free version but if you would like some extra features you might go for paid pro version. For our purpose free version was absolutely enough.

northern lights

How to photograph northern lights?

Aurora Borealis is very hard to capture and we were lucky to take some photos. You need to stay aware that northern lights will look a bit different on the photo with predominant green, whereas in reality there are multiple quickly changing colors.  So lets start with the key points:

  1. First of all, you definitely need a tripod. It is hard to imagine any replacement for this in case you want to achieve a good result. You might need to be in a area that has a lot of snow. Therefore the higher the tripod, the better as the snow can be quite deep.
  2. You will want to work with low ISO in order to achieve clear picture with details. It depends on the aperture but the range between 160 and 400 should work well.
  3. I would recommend also a really bright lens. You will need to use as wide aperture as possible to let more light in. We used a lens with f1.4. That allowed us to reduce the shutter speed and therefore minimize the noise in the picture. Remember that Aurora Borealis is not a stable occurrence. It’s moving what makes it harder to capture using long exposure times.
  4. You need to be ready to shoot with long exposure which I would advice to be several seconds but the best is trial and error approach. We used aperture priority program which speed up the process vs full manual mode.
  5. Find a way to release the shutter remotely. You might want to use remote control or a app dedicated to your camera. Be careful with using app on your phone because you will be shooting photos in very low temperatures (most likely). There is a risk that your phone will not perform well which is exactly what happened to us.
  6. Finally, the focus will be a challenge. With such a weak light your camera will search for focus point which might be difficult to find. Especially if you want to capture a landscape only. However the solution could be to find an object (e.g. a person) on which you will concentrate the focus.

Before planning your trip to Finland you may also want to red 6 smart tips on how to travel in Finland cheaper and 5 Essential Things to Know Before Traveling to Finland.

With love,

Betty

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