Northern Lights guide for ordinary travelers

Last week I wrote about how this quarantaine is a way to self-reflect, to think about what you want out of your life. What are your dreams and what has been holding you back to actually achieve them?

Lots of people have the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, written down on their bucketlists and the picture above shows why. The Northern Lights are magical and inspiring and it’s a dream for many a traveler to see them. Since last year, I am lucky enough to say that I have seen them on our trip to Lapland. And it was everything I had hoped for. A worthy bucketlist goal, indeed!

It’s time to start following our dreams. So here’s a guide for the ordinary traveler on the when and wheres of the Northern Lights. And some tips and tricks to take some pictures of this magic!

When and Where?

As the name suggests, you’ll have to go north of the Arctic Circle to see the Aurora Borealis. More specific, you should be traveling to the northern parts of Norway, Lapland, Iceland, Greenland or Canada.

The northern lights are not an all-year-round spectacle, but can only be seen on clear winter nights (or late autumn or early spring). It has to be dark enough and the sky needs to be clear, which is why you’ll have the best chances in winter. Roughly you could say that you can see the lights between October and March, but your best chances will be in December or January.

Is there a guarantee that if I visit one of these places in winter that I will see the lights?

Unfortunately, no, there’s never a guarantee that you will see them. Which is what makes the lights so special. You’ll have to have a little bit of luck. We were extremely lucky to have seen the Northern Lights every single night on our trip to Lapland, for I have heard from lots of people that, though they visited Scandinavia quite a couple of times, they have never seen them.
And honestly, the first few nights we saw them, we were hesitant to say that it was the northern lights we saw, because they were just so vague. The first night, when our guide pointed them out to us, we were like: ‘Where?’ We had to take pictures to make sure it was actually the Northern Lights we saw, and not just some hopefull figment of our imagination. It was only the last night that the sky exploded. We would have missed it if someone hadn’t knocked on our door, yelling ‘there’s massive Northern Lights outside, you have to come!’, and we put our winter gear over our pyjamas and ran outside to see the entire sky filled with green magic.

So you will need a little bit of luck. My advise would be to check the weather reports, download an aurora app to be sure to not miss anything. And the longer you’ll stay there, the bigger your chances are. So don’t go for a short trip if you’re wanna make sure to see the lights. And don’t go to bed early.

Photography tips

Okay so I am clearly not the world’s best photographer but I did manage to take some pictures of the lights while others of our group tried desperately to take some photo’s with their phone which resulted in not really seeing anything on the picture. Have you ever tried to take a picture of a beautiful moon? It’s kinda like that. The key? Preparation.

You’ll need a good camera. Loads of websites say you will need a DSLR camera and nothing else will capture the northern lights. That is not true, for I captured the lights with my systemcamera. You just need a good camera with a good lense and it is important to be able to change the settings.
Another thing you’ll need, is a tripod. Because you’ll have the shutter open for a good 20 seconds, it is important to keep the camera very still in that timeframe, because even the slightest shudder can lead to blurry pictures. A tripod will help you with that.

Some of the settings I found online and used while taking pictures of the Northern Lights:

  • Set camera and lens to manual
  • Turn off Image stabilization
  • Turn flash off
  • Set ISO to 1600
  • Set Aperture on f-2.8
  • Set shutterspeed to 20 seconds
  • Zoom out
  • Set resolution to Raw
  • Use a timer so you won’t accidentally shake the camera whilst it is taking the picture

If you’ll experience static Northern Lights, than it is best to have a lower ISO value and set the shutter speed to anywhere between 20 and 30 seconds. If the Northern Lights are dancing however, you can get prettier pictures by having a higher ISO and a slightly lower shutter speed value.

Make sure to have a subject to take a picture of, and not just the lights. I did both and indeed, the photo’s I took of the green sky are just a blurry green mess, and it’s not even really clear what you’re looking at. Since you’re using a timer and a tripod, you can hop in front of your camera. If you actually want to be clearly visible in this picture, make sure to have some sort of flashlight pointed at you, so that you will become the center of the photograph, with the northern lights in the background. You can also take picture of the trees with the northern lights in the background, which turned out to be my favourite pictures.

Last but not least, change the settings before you go outside. What happened with my camera was that it got cold very quickly (it was minus 25 degrees celcius outside) and I could only take a couple of photo’s before the battery died. Taking an extra battery with you (and keeping it warm) is not an unnecessary luxury.

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