I think it’s safe to say that the magic of the Northern Lights fascinates every single person on earth. I’m yet to meet a person who doesn’t want to witness this phenomena with their own eyes. In this post I am going to tell you everything you need to know about seeing and photographing the Aurora Borealis yourself!
THE BEGINNERS GUIDE TO THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
WHAT IS THE AURORA BOREALIS
The official name for the Northern Lights is the Aurora Borealis. In the Southern Hemisphere it is called the Aurora Australis or the Southern Lights. The Aurora is created when electrically charged particles from the sun enter the earths atmosphere and collide with oxygen and nitrogen particles. What follows is an incredible light show of colours dancing in the night sky.
WHERE TO SEE THE AURORA
The Aurora is drawn to the earths magnetic poles so the closer you can get to the North or South Poles the better. It is ideal to visit a destination inside the auroral belt as the chances of seeing the aurora are higher but it is not absolutely necessary. When there is a large geomagnetic storm the aurora can be seen in many places around the world, if you know where to find them.
For your best chances of seeing the Northern Lights you’ll want to visit either Alaska, North-Western Canada, Iceland or Scandinavia. Whilst Antarctica is the only country within the Southern Aurora belt it has been seen in Australia, Chile and New Zealand during strong geomagnetic storms.
If you’re in Banff, Canada the best spots are Lake Minnewanka and Castle Mountain.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME OF YEAR TO SEE THE AURORA
Whilst the Aurora happens throughout all months of the year the best time to see it is during the winter months, for each hemisphere, as the nights are darker for longer. Statistically the best time of night to see the Aurora is between 10pm-2am though it can be seen on either side of that time frame.
Whilst technically the Aurora is best when the night is at its darkest (no moon) one of my favourite memories and photographs of the Aurora was during a full-moon as we could get awesome photos with the Aurora, as shown below.
HOW TO KNOW IF THE AURORA IS ON
The Aurora is very unpredictable and so there is no sure way of guaranteeing that the Aurora will be active at any given time. The most warning you’ll have is an hour or so, so be sure to keep this in mind when booking a holiday specifically to see the lights. There’s one thing for certain though, you will need a clear night. The Geomagnetic storm can be the strongest it’s ever been but if the sky is covered in thick clouds you won’t be seeing anything, unfortunately. If the sky is clear then go online and check the KP Index of your location. The Kp Index measures the Aurora and ranges from 0-9, if it’s anything under 5 stay in bed but if it’s over 5 you have a good chance of seeing it. If the Kp Index is at 9 it’s at STORM LEVEL and for the love of god you better hurry out that door so fast as if your life depends on it. I can’t even tell you how many times I have been in bed about to go to sleep when I’ve checked my phone to see it’s on storm level and gotten dressed and ran out the door within twenty seconds. The Aurora is so unpredictable and can disappear as quickly as it came so you need to be prepared to go without a minutes notice.
I always use Soft Serve News but Space Weather is also good.
The more Green the better, if there’s Red or Yellow even better. If the picture looks like this then unfortunately you won’t see anything, but if it looks like the picture below you better get out that door stat!
PHOTOGRAPHING THE AURORA
WHAT YOU’LL NEED
Now let me start off by saying I am not a professional photographer and I am no expert at this whatsoever. But after living in Banff, Canada for a year where the Aurora can be seen quite regularly I had to learn a thing or two about how to photograph the enchanting event that is the Northern Lights.
- a Digital SLR Camera (it’s not impossible to take a photo with a regular camera but SLR quality will be way better).
- A Full-Frame 35mm (or larger) lens.
- A tall and sturdy tri-pod
- A Red-Light Head-Torch (you can’t have any light disturbing your photo and if you are surrounded by fellow photographers they will not hesitate to yell at you if you shine a light their way. A red light, however, won’t disturb their photos or their vision of the lights themselves. Don’t even get me started on car headlights, the yells you’ll hear!)
- Warm clothes. As the Aurora is usually strongest during winter you’ll need extremely warm clothes to keep you warm
- A Flask of hot drink of choice. Chances are you’ll be sitting around waiting for a few hours at a time so believe me when I say you’ll appreciate this thought.
- Remote or Timer
HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
Find a remote area far away from light pollution that is facing North and has clear skies (use your phones Compass if you need to find North). Note that the closer to the North or South Pole you are the higher in the sky the colours will be. If you are lower the lights will be closer to the horizon.
- Set up your Tri-Pod and ensure its stable and well positioned.
- Set your Cameras LCD brightness to low.
- Put your Camera on manual settings.
- Focus the lens to infinity (find a large planet/star/mountain/moon whatever you can find to focus the lens until it is crystal clear).
- Play around with your settings. Depending on how bright/dark the night is, the movement of the Aurora etc your settings will have to change. Practice this before the Aurora starts if you can, preferably on a totally different night so that when the Aurora begins to dance you have no hesitation on how to work your camera.
- If you have a remote use the remote control to release the shutter so you don’t disturb the image by touching the camera with your hands (the slightest movement will make your photo blur). If you don’t have a Remote Control use your self-timer setting and set it to release 5 seconds after pressing your shutter button.
- Most of the time I used 1600-3200 ISO with a 15-30 second exposure time, but again it depends on the lighting etc.
- Sit back and marvel in one of the worlds most natural beauties.
Seeing the Aurora was high on my bucket list and I’ll never forget the first time I saw the lights dancing in the sky. I started screaming in delight and the joy brought me to tears (and to my knees). I was lucky enough to see the Northern Lights another 12 times after that first night and the magic and excitement never faded. I spent hours sitting (often in -30c temperatures) admiring the Aurora Borealis as she danced magically in the night sky, the shapes changing colours from green to red to purple. The Aurora truly is one of the most incredible natural wonders of the world, I hope you too have the honour to see her beauty one day.
Where would you like to see the Aurora?
Or if you have seen it before where were you?
Let me know in the comments below!
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