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The best time and place to see the northern lights: the ultimate aurora borealis guide

Few natural phenomena speak to the imagination like the aurora borealis or the northern lights. Seeing this with your own eyes is on the bucket list of many travelers and it's something you'll never forget. If you want to spot the northern lights and at the same time take great pictures you must know a few things first!
I would like to tell you everything you need to know about this miracle of nature. This way you can travel to the Northern Lights with peace of mind!

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northern lights

What are the northern light?

It pretty much comes down to collisions between electrically charged particles of the sun entering our atmosphere. You can see these lights above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres. In the north they are known as “aurora borealis” and in the south as “aurora australis”. These lights come in all kinds of colors, although green and pink are the most common. Even though some have even seen red, yellow, blue and purple lights. They usually take the form of scattered clouds or a sort of curtain.

Where can I see the northern lights?

The best chance to view the northern lights is of course in the most northerly countries such as Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland. But this phenomenon also occurs outside Europe, such as Canada and Alaska. Very rarely, thanks to a solar storm, the size of the northern lights can be further extended to the south. In September 2017, for example, you could see the northern lights at various places in the middle of the United States and the United Kingdom, Moscow, Copenhagen and even Riga. With a lot of luck you can even see it in the Netherlands, but most of the aurora won’t be visible at all and therefore it won’t be the northern lights experience that you’re craving for. For this reason I’ve written down the best places for you where you have the greatest chance of experiencing the Northern Lights in a great way.

Finland

In Finland, and more specifically in the Lapland region, lies Rovaniemi, a town known to many travelers who hope to catch a glimpse of the polar light (and Santa Claus!). In Lusto there is even a real “aurora alarm”, which alerts you with a beep when the lights appear. Other good locations are Utsjoki, Kakslauttanen, Nellim and Ivalo. The northern lights and Lapland go hand in hand, because this is a unique place to experience this natural phenomenon.

Sweden

Sweden is so much more than IKEA and köttbular because this is also one of the most beautiful locations in the world to view the polar light. In Swedish Lapland you’ll find the Abisko National Park, which is no less than 70 kilometers (43,5 miles) long. When the northern lights dance in the sky, this creates the famous “blue hole of Abisko”, a part of the sky that stays clear regardless of the weather conditions. It’s therefore not surprising that tourists travel from far and wide to Abisko. If you want to avoid the crowds a bit, Kirkuna is a good alternative. But in my humble opinion, Abisko is absolutely worth the crowds.

Norway

Just like Iceland, this is one of the most popular countries for northern lights travel. Because of its location above the Arctic Circle, Tromsø is the ideal base. You’ll also find the northernmost university, brewery and planetarium in the world here! Norway is also the ideal country for a cruise to the Northern Lights. The advantage of this is that they wake you up when the northern lights can be seen, so you don’t have to especially stay awake for them.
For the adventurous travelers I can recommend Spitsbergen or Svalbard. Seeing the northern lights in Spitsbergen is a unique experience. Because it’s only 1300 kilometers (808 miles) from the North Pole, you have the biggest chance in the world to see the northern lights here. You can even see the aurora borealis in Svalbard during the day!
Finally, the Lofoten Islands, Alta and Finnmark are great destinations for a Northern Lights trip.

northern lights norway

When I took this photo I not only got to see the northern lights, the milky way was also perfectly visible!

Iceland

This is the place where most travelers have already seen the northern lights. The island’s prime location is the Þingvellir National Park (which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site). The Kirkjufell mountain, Myvatn and Vík (where you can see the beautiful puffins) are some other great locations where you can view the northern lights. Iceland, however, is not the cheapest country and renting a car can already cost quite some money. So if you want to stay in the Reykjavik area you shouldn’t despair because there is in fact also a big chance to see the polar light in the capital. Try to look for a location that is as dark as possible (for example a park) and then just hope for the best. In the vicinity of the airport in Keflavik you can also sometimes see the polar light.

Alaska

382 kilometers (237 miles) north of Anchorage lies the Denali National Park, where you can still enjoy the authentic Alaskan wilderness. Besides the highest mountain in the USA (Mount McKinley), you’ll also find a lot of beautiful fauna such as grizzly bears, wolves and elk. This rugged wilderness ensures that there is hardly any light pollution, making it a great location to spot the northern lights. Just outside the city Fairbanks you can see them regularly and sometimes you even see them in the southern capital of Juneau. In the Nome area you also have a great chance to admire this phenomenon. With a trip to Alaska you can never do wrong.

Greenland

Admittedly, this is not the easiest destination, but for adventurous travelers this is the ultimate destination to see the aurora borealis. Nice bonus is that the entire island is a great place to view the northern lights, though Kulusuk and Ammassalik are the most beautiful spots.

The north of Russia

Nothing is as great and memorable as seeing the northern lights while sipping a glass of home-made vodka. Kola Peninsula, surrounded by many clear lakes, is one of the most beautiful places to see the Northern Lights. Just like Murmansk, which is located near the north of Finland. If you don’t mind defying the freezing cold, the north of Siberia is where you have to be! The crazy Russians will make it a moment to never forget. Na zdrowie!

places to see the northern lights

The polar light is magical in itself, but the environment is also very beautiful.

Canada

Just like Alaska, the combination of the rough, untamed wilderness with the dancing northern lights creates a once in a lifetime experience. Whitehorse in Yukon, Calgary, Lake Superior in Ontario, Yellowknife, Manitoba, the Canadian Rockies and Alberta… There are more than enough places to see the northern lights in Canada!. You’ll the beautiful mountains and the crystal clear lakes as a beautiful background setting for your pictures.

The Faroe Islands

The sheep islands are also widely known as a fantastic place for a Northern Lights trip. Tórshavn, Gjogy and Sumba are just a few of the prime locations, because almost everywhere on each of these eighteen islands you have a great chance to admire the polar light.

Scotland

If you prefer to stay elsewhere in Europe, you should perhaps just cross the canal. Of course you shouldn’t be in the big cities like Glasgow and Edinburgh, but you should travel as far north as possible. The Isle of Skye, Orkney Isles and Shetland Isles are the places where you have the greatest chance. However, the weather conditions must be ideal here. Also in the Galloway Forest Park, the darkest place in Scotland, you have a real chance to see the northern lights dancing. Don’t forget that Scotland is a long way from the Arctic Circle in comparison with the other countries and places that I’ve listed here. As a result, the intensity of the aurora borealis will be much lower, and the chance that you’ll see them will also be much smaller.

New Zealand

Did you know that you can see the northern lights in New Zealand as well? Well… actually it’s called the southern lights or the aurora australis in this part of the world. This is because the polar lights that you see here comes from the South Pole.
If you’re in the country where The Lord of the Rings was recorded, then you have a great chance to see the southern lights. I have been told that beautiful air and light shows are often seen in Stewart island, Lake Tekapo, The Catlins, Invercargill and Dunedin.

best place to see the northern lights

Besides the name, the Northern Lights and the Southern Lights aren’t that different. It remains a wonderful spectacle!

Best time to see the northern lights?

This of course depends on when you travel to the Northern Lights, but usually you have the best chance from November to March. The best times are from ten o’clock in the evening to two or three o’clock in the morning (local time).

What can you expect?

First of all, I have to disappoint you because unfortunately the light is not as brilliant as you see on the many images of the northern lights. Keep in mind that many photographers use photoshop and other software to edit their photos. Does this mean that the northern lights are not worth it? Absolutely not. Seeing the Northern Lights is one of the most beautiful experiences of your life and nothing comes close to seeing the green lights in the sky for the first time. It’s a unique natural spectacle that you must have experienced at least once in your life.
If I’m very honest, I think it’s even better in real life than on photos. The powerful movements that happen so silently are so intense that you can never get enough of them!

How long they can be admired can also vary, sometimes they only shine for fifteen minutes or half an hour, other times it takes a few hours. In other words, the northern lights remain a sporadic phenomenon. And that’s what makes it so special at the same time.

How long do you need to have a chance of seeing the northern lights?

This is a difficult question, because the polar light can be a cruel mistress, as they say so beautifully in English. Try to at least travel one week. The first time I went to the north, I saw the northern lights for no less than three of the four days. The second time I didn’t even see them once and the third time I saw the aurora borealis only once on a ten-day trip. So, you’ll really need some luch to spot them. However, every disadvantage has its advantage, because that way you always have a reason to go back to the north again!

northern lights lofoten islands

The villages or nature where the polar light dances above become even more beautiful because of the green lights!

Predicting the northern lights

A Northern Lights prediction isn’t an exact science, despite all the technology we have, but luckily we have a lot of different websites and apps available to help us with this. Thanks to real-time information from NASA’s ACE spacecraft about the solar wind and with the help of computer models, one can predict the northern lights fairly accurate, but keep in mind that these aren’t always accurate. As I said, it’s not (yet) a 100% exact science.

Websites for a northern light forecast

Europe
http://www.aurora-service.eu/aurora-forecast/
If you go to Iceland, the Vedur Aurora website is an excellent source. Information about Norway, Sweden and Greenland can be found on this website: http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/

North America
http://www.aurora-service.org/aurora-forecast/ and http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast
You can even experience the aurora from your lazy chair because the Canadian Space Agency shows a live feed from the sky above Yellowknife: http://www.asc-csa.gc.ca/eng/astronomy/auroramax/

Northern lights forecast apps

  • AURORA (appleandroid) is, according to many, the best app, for tourists as well as “serious” Northern Lights viewers. You’re told not only how great the chance is to see the aurora, but you also get detailed information about the solar winds and images of the sun in high resolution.
  • Aurora Forecast 3D (appleandroid) predicts the aurora up to four hours in advance at any place on Earth, all in a beautiful 3D view.
  • Northern lights alert (note that there are several apps with this name, I mean this one: appleandroid) is one of my favorite apps. Since it’s so difficult to predict the polar light, there must be a little cooperation between people looking for this magical scene. If someone else using the app sends a message that the aurora is visible, you’ll be sent the exact location on your phone. Through the app you can see how active the northern lights are (Light – Medium – High) and how far you are from that location. If the other person feels like it, he can also add a description. If you see the polar light dancing, you should also let the other users know!
  • Norway lights (appleandroid) tells you if it’s worth searching for the northern lights in Norway (Alta, Andøya, Bodø, Hamm in Senja, Harstad, Kirkenes, Lakselv, Narvik, the Lofoten and Tromsø). It shows you the coming three days (but the forecast is constantly changing to be honest…) from 6 pm to 3 at night.
northern lights app

I tested a lot of apps, but the above four are in my opinion the best.

How to photograph the Northern Lights?

A lot of travelers unfortunately know the feeling where they think that they took beautiful pictures of the even more beautiful polar lights, until they see the photos afterwards where they hardly see anything on the image… In order to ensure that you can steal the show at your next family party with your breathtaking pictures, I would also like to tell you how you can best immortalise this phenomenon.

Every photographer has his or her own favorite techniques to photograph the northern lights, but generally you only need a DSLR camera on a tripod where you set the exposure time to 15 or 20 seconds (shutter speed) with the focus on infinity or an object in the distance (the focus ring is the moveable ring on your lens). All this set up in a very dark location.

Minimum requirements for photographing the northern lights:

  • A sturdy tripod that doesn’t move. Tripods of a lower quality often move, resulting in terrible image quality. So make sure to invest in a good tripod! I myself use the MeFoto Globertrotter tripod. Tripods from the Manfrotto brand are also very good.
  • A camera with manual mode functionality (the ‘M’ on the dial). With this you can manually set all ISO values, F-stop and shutter speed. Essential if you want to capture the polar light on image.

Recommended equipment for photographing the northern lights:

  • Full frame / 35mm camera: Full frame cameras offer better picture quality with less noise when taking pictures when there is little light. I myself use the Nikon D750. Other excellent cameras are the Nikon D810 the Canon 5DS models and the Sony a7R II.
    As you’ll probably notice, these cameras are rather expensive. If you’re a starting photographer or don’t want to spend a lot of money, you can also take great photos with a basic model such as the Nikon D3300 or the Nikon D5300. Canon also has some good entry models, such as the Canon Eos 1300D or the Canon EOS 700D.
  • A wide-angle lens: This lens allows you to photograph the vast landscapes together with the northern lights. When you buy a wide-angle lens, make sure that your minimum f-stop values ​​are F / 2.8-f / 4. When you take photos with f / 2.8 you get a very wide aperture opening so that more light can reach the image sensor with a standard exposure time. Because the polar light is far away from us on earth, you can put the focus on infinity and take particularly sharp pictures of the night sky. Most lenses have a “∞” symbol indicating the approximate infinity focus point.
visit northern lights

Mother nature pampers you with this spectacle. It looks like the aurora borealis only dances above the most beautiful places in the world!

Recommended settings to photograph the northern lights

The most important settings for your camera are the aperture, the shutter speed and the ISO value. These three strange words all have to do with the light that falls on your lens and determine the darkness of your photo.

1. Aperture:

What is it?
The diaphragm is an opening in your lens that lets light through and drops it on your sensor. It’s expressed as the ‘f-stop’. The smaller the aperture (eg f / 1.4), the more light that will fall on the photo, and the larger the diaphragm number (eg f / 12), the less light that falls on the sensor.

Recommended settings
f / 2.8 is the best aperture setting for taking pictures of the northern lights. F-stop values ​​of f / 3.5 or f / 4 are also still suitable. I advise you to not set your aperture wider than f / 2.8, because it’ll then be more difficult to focus in the night.

Why?
The more light your lens can capture, the higher you can set the shutter speed. This makes the photo faster and this way you’ll get more details in the dancing light.

2. Shutter speed

What is it?
The shutter speed is perhaps the most important setting in the photography of the aurora borealis.
It determines the opening time of your lens, or in other words the time that the camera needs to take a picture. The more seconds you give to your camera, the more light that will fall on the lens and the clearer the picture will be. This is therefore perfect for dark situations.

Recommended settings
Set the shutter speed or exposure time between 5 and 25 seconds. This works best for shooting the northern lights. When the northern lights move quickly, you can set the exposure time to 5 to 7 seconds, if it doesn’t move that fast, you can set it between 10 and 25 seconds.
Watch out with luminous objects in the neighborhood. With a slow shutter speed, these become white, or a very ugly yellow. And this will often create a not so beautiful effect on the picture.

Why?
The lower the shutter speed (the more seconds, eg, 5″ = 5 seconds), the more light your lens can capture, making a darker environment more illuminated, and the northern light on the photo also gets a much brighter color.
The low shutter speed is also the reason why you should use a tripod. Because it takes so long to take a picture, the camera has to stand still. After all, every move you make is recorded on the sensitive plate.

3. ISO

What is it?
The ISO value is a simple setting in the computer of your camera. The lower you put this figure, the less light that comes in. The higher you put this number, the more light comes in and the clearer your photos are. However… Each time you increase the ISO value you also get more noise (dots) on your photo. It’s therefore recommended to set the ISO so that you don’t have much of that noise.

Recommended settings
When you raise the ISO settings, the camera can expose the image properly. Start with an ISO from 400 to 800 and take a picture to practice. If the photo isn’t clear enough you can increase the ISO to about 1200. Continue until you have the correct exposure. Usually you should be fine with an ISO between 800 and 4000.
Don’t take images with too high ISO values. Otherwise you’ll get noise on your photo, and that makes the aurora borealis a lot less magical…

how to photograph the northern lights

And once you have mastered everything, you can finally photograph the Northern Lights!

Making a timelapse of the northern lights

A video consists of 25 photos per second. If you take a photo per minute and then play it at 25 frames per second, you get a great time compression which is also called a timelapse.
Many cameras now have a built-in timelapse feature, so you don’t have to do anything at all. All you need is your camera and a lot of memory cards.
If your camera doesn’t have this option, you have to take a series of photos during a continuous interval and then you can use editing software to convert those photos into a video. If you do this, make sure that you’re not taking photos in RAW, as this unnecessarily takes up a lot of storage space (however note that you won’t be able to edit them very much if you’re not using the RAW format!). Small JPEG photos are sufficient, because this is more than good enough for making a video out of. Also make sure that you set your own focus: don’t set the settings to automatic!

Making selfies with the northern lights

The green and purple light is of course beautiful, but of course you also want to prove to friends and family (read: make them jealous) that you’ve really been there!
When you finally start to understand all the settings, you can also make a nice photo of yourself together with the aurora borealis.

Just like before, you put your camera or a tripod, but this time you set the shutter speed to two to five seconds and you also open your flash (usually by pressing a button with a lightning bolt on it).
With the help of a timer you’ll then pose nicely in front of your camera and after the bright flash you must remain completely still until the time is up and the picture is taken.

The flash ensures that you are visible in the image, while the landscape and the polar light are still dark enough.

Every movement you make is recorded by the camera. So if you want to have a clear picture of yourself, it’s really important to remain very quiet.
You’ll probably need some attempts to make a nice photo, but… Practice makes perfect!
After a lot of practicing I managed to take these myself:

northern lights selfie

Taking a selfie with the northern lights isn’t easy, but it is of course a must to show to your friends and family!

aurora borealis selfie checkoutsam

Sometimes the light from the flash also creates a large shadow. You also have to take this into account when you make a selfie with the aurora borealis!

Unique ways to spend the night during a Northern Lights trip

When you travel to the Northern Lights you can make the experience even more memorable by booking a unique kind of accommodation. For the northern lights in Lapland, for example, you can spend the night in a tree house. An icelandic tree house with a view of the sky is the ION hotel, and in Rovaniemi you can climb the Arctic Treehouse Hotel. In the same Rovaniemi you can also stay in a glass igloo: the Santa’s Igloos.
You also have tents in the form of an igloo (including fireplace) in Harriniva or real “Wilderness hotels” in Nellim. Or what do you think of staying in a fishing village on the Lofoten Islands? The only drawback is that this can be very pricey. For a night in a tree house you pay (at least) 300 euros …

Other fun activities in the high north

You may wonder if it really is worth it to travel all the way to Lapland to see only the northern lights. I would say yes. But… What if the aurora borealis doesn’t show up? Fortunately, this is not the only icing on the cake, because there are many other nice activities which you can plan during your Northern Lights trip!

In Finland you can explore Lapland on a reindeer or husky sled. Or jump on a snowmobile and tear over the snow! The Lainio Snow Village is also worth a visit, this is a village made entirely of snow and ice, including an ice hotel and ice bar and restaurant. The Arktikum is a museum where you can learn a lot more about the history and culture of Finnish Lapland and the local lifestyle and folklore. And when you’re in Finland, you can’t forget to experience the Finnish sauna as well of course!

The most popular activities in Norway are whale watching or ice fishing in the fjords. Furthermore, snowshoeing (it’s as fun as it sounds!) and cross-country skiing are the ideal way to absorb the unparalleled snowy landscape.

In Iceland you should certainly visit an ice cave, just like the golden circle tour, during which you visit the Þingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss waterfall and the geothermal area in Haukadalur (with the geysers Geysir and Strokkur). Here, too, there are of course many wonderful walking opportunities.

In Canada, it’s mainly about real outdoor activities such as hunting and fishing, but also kayaking and whale watching.
This also applies to Alaska, which you can also explore with the motorhome. If you’re a good fisherman, you can even try to catch the best salmon in the world.

other activities high north husky sled

Let yourself be pulled around by a bunch of cheerful huskies! If you book an evening excursion you may see the northern lights while you’re in the huskysled!

Ten fun facts about the northern lights

  1. On other planets in our solar system you can also experience the aurora borealis, for example on Jupiter and Saturn. Maybe an idea for the future? At last something different than a cruise to the northern lights!
  2. It can change! Every so often the magnetic poles of the earth change and they change location. The magnetic field of the earth needs between 200,000 and 300,000 years to change polarity. So if you had lived 800,000 years ago and you turned your compass to the North Pole, it would’ve in fact showed up as the “south”.
  3. During the past 150 years, the magnetic pole has moved more than 1000 kilometers to the north. Scientists say that it is moving at a speed of ten kilometers (6,2 miles) per year and can even turn from pole to pole. In recent years, the speed has even increased to 40 kilometers per year (24,85 miles), which mean that it’ll reach Siberia in only a few decades. For the time being, the geographical North Pole of the magnetic North Pole (where your compass points to the north) differs by about 500 kilometers or 310,5 miles.
  4. The Inuit tribes of North America regarded the aurora as the spirits of the dead who were playing a ball game, with the ball being the skull of a walrus. For some reason that we’ll never understand, the people of the Nunavik island told the same story, but the other way around. For them, the northern lights were the ghosts of walruses playing with the skull of some unfortunate soul.
  5. The originally indigenous people of the United States believed that the polar lights were the spirits of the dead. The fiercer they lit up the heavens, the happier they were so to speak.
  6. The northern lights were also considered as omens. After the Christianization of medieval Europe they were often seen as a warning for dark times that were advancing. During the Battle of Fredericksburg in Virginia, however, the confederates saw them as a positive sign. Against all odds, they effectively won the battle.
  7. Aurora borealis is derived from the Greek words “aurora” (sunrise) and “boreas” (wind). In order for the ancient Greeks to see the northern lights, there must have been a particularly strong solar activity, because the polar lights can hardly, if ever, be seen in the south. According to the Greeks, Aurora was the sister of Helios and Seline (the sun and the moon) and every morning she raced through the sky in her colorful carriage to show her brother and sister a new day.
  8. The Romans associated the northern lights with a new day. They believed that they were Aurora, the goddess of dawn.
  9. The Japanese believe in turn, that when a child is conceived under the polar light, it’ll be blessed with a beautiful appearance, a lot of reason and happiness. That immediately explains why so many Japanese travel to Iceland these days…
  10. Finally, the Aborigines in Australia also used to see the aurora australis (the southern light). They saw in this light their gods who were dancing.

As you can read, I absolutely love the Northern Lights and I (still) can’t get enough of them. Whether you opt for a Northern Lights cruise or travel to Greenland or Spitsbergen on your own, the northern lights will stay with you wherever you are. If you travel during the right period and keep an eye on the above mentioned websites (or apps) on a regular basis, you have a particularly great chance to see this colorful beauty. Always ask the locals if there will be green lights in the sky that night, because they know better than any website. If you don’t have a good camera to capture the event, save the effort and frustration and take photos with your own eyes. This is better than what any camera will ever be able to photograph. In any case, I will never forget my northern light experiences, and I hope many more will come!

northern lights aurora borealis

No matter how you photograph the northern lights, with your own eyes or your camera, it remains an experience never to be forgotten!

 

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Hi, I'm Sam Van den Haute. The last three years I've been traveling the world almost constantly. Heading out for an adventure and visiting the most beautiful places are what I love to do! Let me inspire you with great stories, beautiful pictures and handy tips from my adventures and travels. On my facebook page and instagram account you'll get to see the latest updates and photos to inspire you for your next vacation.
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