That Flightly Temptress Aurora Borealis. How to Find and Photograph the Northern Lights

Hunting the northern lights is SERIOUS BUSINESS y’all.  We asked so many people about it, looked up weather, had a tracker app and almost gave up.  That my friends, that’s when the magic happens.  Somewhere between fresh-faced determination and  losing hope, that’s where you’ll ultimately find the Aurora Borealis.

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I know it sounds intimidating, and after my experience hunting lights I know why people pay for an excursion.  What those excursion people don’t get though, is that half the fun of watching the lights is knowing you have searched for hours to find them, and all of the sudden, poof, there are there!  Its magic in real life and being able to find magic on your own is a special gift.  I want to share that gift with you by sharing some of the tips I have from successfully hunting lights on our own.

  • Install the Aurora app (android, apple) which automates most of the process for you.  It also has links directly in the app to some of the weather monitoring sites we used.  Android its a free app but I think apple its a paid version
  • Bookmark this website (click here) which tracks cloud coverage in Iceland.  Cloud coverage is one of the most important factors in tracking so this is very helpful.
  • Talk to the locals, they are pretty much experts on the subject and a great source of information.  We did find though that on the night we saw the lights the locals though they wouldn’t come out.  I think this is more because they are used to the big spectacles caused by solar flares and everyday shows like the one below aren’t as spectacular to them.  Its funny what things you think are normal when you see them so often!

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Those above points are going to be crucial in your success but some other things to keep in mind for general knowledge:

  • The lights are not guaranteed, weather conditions have to be perfect and even then you just never know.  That’s what makes them so special.
  • Solar flares make the northern lights more vibrant and varied in color.  Without them the lights are green and don’t vary much.
  • Winter is your best bet to see the lights, its darker longer and the earth is in a better position to see them.  Beginning mid-December until mid-March are the best times for European countries.  Alaska and Canada have a slightly longer season due to their position on the globe.
  • Northern-most countries are the only place you can see the lights, the further north you get the better your chances.  These countries are:
    • Iceland
    • Norway
    • Finland
    • Denmark
    • Sweden
    • Greenland
    • Russia
    • Alaska (yes I know its not a country)
    • Canada
    • Scotland – not as well know and not as dramatic of a show
  • The lights will only come out on clear nights.  If there is cloud coverage you wont be able to see them as they will cover the lights.
  • In Iceland the lights come out anywhere from 8pm to 8am but most of the activity is from 11pm – 3am.

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Since winter in almost all of these countries is pretty dangerous to drive in, I highly suggest you get a guide for places like Finland or Sweden.  You will more than likely need something like an ATV to get around and to find the best roads you will need a trained professional.  The area we were at in Iceland, the roads were in good condition and safe to drive but if we had been further north it probably would have been prudent to get a guide.  In winter conditions its always better to be safe than sorry.  You never know what that snow might be covering up!  I know I said excursions aren’t as fun but you can hire a one on one guide that will still give you a little of that experience but in a safer format than if you were alone.

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Now that you have an idea when and where to go and you have the tools to find the lights, what are you going to do when you actually DO find them?!  You cant really photograph these with a phone and the goPro doesn’t work (trust me we tried) so you really do need to have a traditional camera to make this work.  Personally I use a Nikon D5300 and was very happy with the results.  Here is the equipment I used to capture all of the photos from this post:

  • Nikon D5300 (similar)
  • Wide Angle Zoom Lense (link here)
  • Tripod (similar)
  • Remove (link here).  This is if you want to manually open and close the camera shutter.  I didn’t end up using this.

That’s it!  Not a whole lot of equipment or anything super fancy.  The lens though was a special purchase.  I got it before we went to Paris but really this is where the lens came in handy.  This particular lens is wide-angle which is really important when shooting nighttime photography.  It also has an infinity focus feature that allows you to focus on pretty much everything in a shot.  It took a lot of practice, a lot of outreach to photographer friends and a lot of googling but I finally figured out how to get the lens to do the infinity focus.  Each camera and lens combo will be different on how you get that function to work but if you have camera tech specific questions shoot me a comment and I’ll do my best to answer.

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Long story short you have to have your camera in manual focus mode to set the lens to infinity.  You also want your ISO and aperture as low as it will go, and a very very long shutter speed.  I think mine ended up being around 20 seconds which gave me plenty of light.  Some cameras will also have a manual shutter, meaning you can open and close it with a click of a button but I found that the longest exposure setting on the camera worked and I didn’t have to deal with manually opening and closing the shutter.  I extended the exposure a little to get our bodies in silhouette, but that’s something you play around with!  I did a lot of photo-shoots in my backyard working on exposure times, ISO/aperture settings and more importantly how to get the lens to be in infinity.  My biggest tip here is practice whenever you can.  You want to practice when the stars are out and with some sort of object in the frame as well so you can check for in-focus.  That way when you do find the lights you will have a good idea of what your settings need to be and you don’t have to spend precious minutes trying to figure that out.  Another pro-tip, the lights don’t always stick around for a long time so you may not have enough time to figure out your camera.  Do that before you leave for your trip and don’t miss out on capturing what might possibly be a once in a lifetime event.

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I’m not going to even scrape the surface of editing your photos because that is just a can of worms I am absolutely not qualified to open.  I have used Snapseed (a google editing app), Lightroom and Luminar.  All of them are giving me results I don’t 100% love but I’m still figuring out this whole photo editing thing.  The top photos are done in Snapseed and I think are my favorite but I’m still working on it.  There are plenty of youTube videos with how to’s and other blog posts so just do a quick google search and you’ll find some great info.  Below you can see some edits I did in Luminar, which I love so much more than Lightroom but I’m still figuring out how it works.  The one on the left is edited the one on the right is the original.

I think that about coveres everything for your northern light hunt!  I hope you have fun and, may the odds be ever in your favor!

CHIME IN!!!  Are the northern lights on your bucket list?  Are you pretty good with photography?  Are you now obsessed with finding the lights yourself?!

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