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TIPS FOR SEEING AND PHOTOGRAPHING THE NORTHERN LIGHTS

Updated: Jan 30, 2022


What is aurora borealis?

Northern lights or "aurora" is a magical phenomenon on the sky you can observe mainly from September to March on the Northern hemisphere (aurora borealis) and from March to September on the Southern hemisphere (aurora australis). When free electrons and protons are thrown from the sun's atmosphere and escape through holes in the magnetic field of Earth, you can enjoy the northern lights. Iceland, Norway and the Finnish Lapland is the most popular destinations in Europe for hunting the aurora. Observing this breathtaking phenomenon and taking good quality photos is not easy, especially when you have never done it before.


Our experiences collected in the last couple of years

In recent years we have visited several Nordic countries with the aim of hunting aurora.

The first one was in Finnish Lapland, where we observed the lights with low activity, pulling over on the motorway and trying to photograph it at minus 21 celsius. Without the right photographic equipment, we were unable to take photos we could be truly proud of.

The next successful tour was in Iceland at the end of the summer 2021, but the phenomenon was so quick that we were unable to capture it.

For our trip to Iceland at the end of 2021, we were much better prepared and lucky enough: we rented a country cottage near Hella in the middle of nowhere and were able to enjoy the aurora for many hours on 4 occasions and take many beautiful photos.


Our aurora hunting history:

5 days in October 2018, Iceland - rainy and cloudy weather, no aurora

7 days in October 2019, Finnish Lapland - successful hunting (1 night), but terrible photos

5 days in March 2020, Tromso, Norway - snowy and cloudy weather, no aurora

3 days in August 2020, Reykjavik - no aurora

5 days in December, 2020, South Iceland - no aurora

7 days in August 2021, Northern Iceland - successful hunting (1 night), but terrible photos

2 days in October 2021, Reykjavik - no aurora

10 days in December 2021, South Iceland - successful hunting (4 times), good quality photos


Useful tips for beginner aurora hunters

1. Watch the weather forecast and space weather forecast

The best way is to download one of the aurora smartphone apps. We used "My Aurora" and "Northern Eye" applications. A good aurora forecasting app and notification system is a must that warns of possible upcoming solar storms that cause strong aurora activity. The aurora is not visible every night. It strongly depends on the level of solar activity and the atmosphere. A cloudless, clear and dark sky with significant solar activity is essential.

My Aurora Forecast and Northern Eye Forecast smartphone apps


2. Dress for the weather

When the app let you know that aurora borealis visible near your accommodation, go outdoors and start hunting it. The phenomenon can last minutes or even hours, so it's important to layer up, always dressing for the weather. The weather is still nice in late August, but you need to wrap up warm in winter.


3. Always look north

Look for the northern lights in the northern sky, near the horizon. When the activity is less intense, it is difficult to see with the naked eye. Huge light bands and dancing pillars can be seen across the entire northern sky if you are lucky enough to catch the lights at high intensity.


4. The northern lights are not green in real life

The northern lights are not like what you see in photographs. Only the camera lens sees the lights as green, the human eye sees them as white. Sometimes you can distinguish the colors, but usually it's just a white or pale green band with pillars dancing on the horizon, almost like a cloud.

Northern lights with naked eye and with a camera lens


5. Hunting with a tour operator company or on your own?

The cheapest way to hunt the northern lights is to rent a holiday cottage for your stay, from where you can watch the sky every night and early morning. If you can't rent a cottage, you can book an organised tour, where a guide will take you to the most promising places, but 100 percent success is not guaranteed. If you're in Reykjavík, you can go out to places less affected by the city's light pollution to find the best viewing spots with a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights. The Grótta lighthouse or Perlan might be good choices, but you can also see the aurora from Sun Voyager or near Hallgrímskirkja.

Our country cottage near Hella


6. Photography tips

If you want to take professional photos of the Northern lights, you'll definitely need a tripod and a good DSLR or MILC camera with a wide-angle lens (we use Irix 11mm lens and Sony A7 II), or you can use a mobile phone if you can set the shutter speed.

It is very important to make your camera settings in advance. The aurora can disappear quickly, so you won't have enough time to play with the settings while hunting.

A high ISO is recommended (1600-3200) with an exposure time of 5-15 seconds.

For best quality results and easier post-processing, you can shoot aurora in raw files (not in jpg).

Use manual mode and never use flash.

A headlamp can be useful for finding the best place to shoot and can help you find the right buttons on the camera.

Cold temperatures drain batteries quickly, so take a few extra batteries with you and keep them warm in your pocket.

Pictures will be more beautiful if you place a lighted object on it, such as a house or a person with a headlamp, and this will help you find the best focus.



Northern lights photos taken from the garden of the holiday cottage

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