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landscape nomads

The northern lights, or "aurora," is a natural phenomenon that I believe everyone would like to see at least once in their lifetime. If you're a landscape photographer and you haven't photographed the aurora yet, it's undoubtedly one of your dreams. It was certainly one of mine as well. During my photo expeditions, I have witnessed and captured this breathtaking phenomenon many times. Even after years of experiencing the aurora borealis dance above my head, I still feel as happy as I did the first time I saw it. Anyone who has ever observed the aurora will certainly agree with me.

Now, what if you haven't photographed this phenomenon yet and you are traveling to one of the Nordic countries during the period when it is visible? How can you find out when and where you can see it? Moreover, how can you photograph the aurora in a way that leaves you satisfied with the result? All of these questions will be answered in this article.

In what areas is the aurora visible?

As the name suggests, the aurora, also known as "aurora borealis," is primarily visible in the Nordic countries and regions. Many people often travel to Iceland, the northern part of Norway, Finland, or Canada to observe this phenomenon. However, it can also be seen in other northern areas such as Greenland, Siberia, and similar regions. Occasionally, this phenomenon can be observed a bit further south, around places like Denmark and the Baltic Sea coast. The visibility in these regions depends on solar activity. During a strong solar storm on the surface of the sun, a greater dose of electromagnetic radiation is sent towards the earth, allowing the aurora to be observed over a wider area.

As landscape photographers, we are not only interested in capturing the aurora borealis in the sky but also in finding captivating scenes that complement the natural beauty of this phenomenon. Therefore, I'd like to share a few places that are worth traveling to if your goal is to photograph beautiful scenery along with the aurora borealis:

photographing northern lights

NORTHERN NORWAY - If you enjoy spiky mountains and epic scenes but prefer not to spend long hours or days hiking up steep hills to find the perfect composition, the ideal choice is to visit the Lofoten islands, located in the north of Norway. In this relatively small area, you will find numerous beautiful compositions featuring pointed mountains, serene fjords, and interesting beaches, most of which are oriented to the north, making them perfect for photographing the aurora borealis. Of course, Lofoten also offers breathtaking hiking trails, making it an excellent destination for both tourists and non-tourists alike.

Another area in northern Norway worth visiting is Senja, situated slightly further north than Lofoten. Similar to Lofoten, Senja boasts many excellent compositions for photography. The northern lights are visible in Norway from September to early April.

CANADA - Canada and Alaska are full of beautiful mountain scenes that remain largely unexplored. Photographing them with a strong aurora is something truly special. However, the main challenge lies in accessibility. In this area, each composition requires enduring long and demanding treks, and you must always keep the potential danger of encountering a grizzly bear in mind. Nevertheless, if you manage to find and photograph an interesting composition in these remote areas, it will be an incredibly rewarding experience and a rare photo.

ICELAND - If you are seeking variety, the most suitable place is Iceland. In addition to its photogenic mountains, you can capture perfect landscape photos of the northern lights alongside massive waterfalls, glaciers, or volcanoes. This is why Iceland is one of the most sought-after countries for aurora photography. Traveling in Iceland is not particularly difficult (unless you venture deep inland). Most of the well-known photo spots are just a few steps away from the car. However, Iceland is still filled with "undiscovered" places that can be photographed with the aurora borealis. The aurora is visible in Iceland from the beginning of September to approximately mid-April.

FINLAND - Finland, especially the Lapland region, is another destination worth traveling to for the Northern Lights, especially during the winter months. Although you won't find any distinctive pointed mountains or massive waterfalls, this area is known for the substantial amount of snow that blankets it during winter. The vast areas are filled with low trees that become beautifully twisted under the weight of the snow. These elements create truly interesting compositions that can be perfectly complemented by the aurora.

When is the aurora visible?

aurora borealis season

Simply put, the aurora borealis is only visible when it's dark. If day and night alternated in the northern regions as they do elsewhere on Earth, the aurora would be visible all year round. However, it operates differently in these countries. There are periods known as polar day, during which the sun never sets, polar night, during which the sun doesn't appear at all, and short episodes in between that resemble the typical day and night alternation on Earth.

To observe and photograph the aurora borealis, you must visit these areas during the polar night or the intermediate period when the polar day alternates with the polar night. This means the ideal time to observe the aurora is between the beginning of September and approximately mid-April. We can refer to this period as the "aurora season."

northern lights iceland

Northern lights captured in the start of "Aurora season" period (September / Iceland)                                   Photo by: Marian Kuric

However, visiting the northern regions during this period does not guarantee that you will actually see the aurora borealis. There is another factor in our "aurora-hunting game" that is just as important as darkness, and that is the weather. The weather in the northern regions is highly variable and unstable. It could easily happen that you travel north to see the aurora and end up not experiencing a single clear night for ten days. It has happened to me before, and it's quite disappointing, especially if the main goal of the expedition is to photograph the northern lights.

That's why I recommend finding out in advance which months statistically have the most stable weather in the area you're traveling to. From my experience, September and January are good months for stable weather in Iceland. In northern Norway, the highest probability of catching stable weather is at the turn of January and February. However, it's not an absolute rule, as these areas can create their own weather, which is often unpredictable.

northern lights norway lofoten
aurora borealis lofoten norway

Northern lights captured in the middle of "Aurora season" period (February / Northern Norway)               Photos by: Filip Hrebenda

aurora borealis iceland
northern lights iceland

Northern lights captured on the end of "Aurora season" period (Mid-April / Iceland)                                 Photos by: Filip Hrebenda

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You are in the Nordic region… How to find out where and how strong the aurora will be?

The initial idea of photographing the aurora is straightforward: "I will come to an interesting spot at night, set up the tripod, and take pictures." However, it often doesn't happen that way. Behind every quality aurora borealis photo lies careful planning. What should such planning include to increase your chances of success?

1.) Weather - To avoid unnecessary trips to a location, you need to know if the sky will be clear or cloudy during the photoshoot. If it seems likely that the spot will have cloudy skies, it's better to change your plans and seek a place with less cloud coverage. How can you find out this information? You can use apps like "Windy," which provides a graphic display of cloud positions with a forecast accuracy of about 1-2 days in advance. With this tool, you can plan the ideal spot for aurora shooting, ensuring you'll be in the right place at the right time.

2.) Aurora activity - The second thing I check before heading out to hunt the aurora is the forecast of its strength for that night and specific moment. There are apps that can predict the visibility of the aurora for particular nights and times. Personally, I use the applications "My Aurora Forecast," "Aurora Forecast," and "Aurora Now." I'm not claiming that they are the best, but I'm used to using them. These apps present a lot of graphs and data, and I understand that, like me, you might not be a scientist either, leaving you with a big "question mark" when looking at the information. So, which data are essential in these apps for you?

  • The first data that most photographers follow is the KP index. Many people believe that this is the only data that matters when observing the aurora borealis - "the higher the KP, the stronger the aurora." In a sense, this may be true, but the KP index by itself doesn't solely determine the strength of the aurora when you are in a northern region. The KP index has a scale from 0 to 9, and the higher the number, the more intense the magnetic storm will be. Simply put, if the KP index forecast is high for a particular night, the aurora will be observed at a higher latitude area. The KP index does not directly indicate the strength of the aurora, but rather the possibility of its observation in more southern areas. Therefore, if you are in the north of Norway, it is not as crucial whether the KP value is 2 or 6.

 

  • The second data, which I consider more important, is the Bz index. This index represents the value of the interplanetary magnetic field. Regarding the Bz index, the lower the Bz number (ideally a negative number), the higher the probability that the aurora will dance directly above your head. Most apps provide real-time updates of the Bz value and can predict it up to a few minutes or hours in advance.

 

  • The third information I look at before photographing the aurora is the Solar Wind Speed, which is given in km/s. The higher the speed, the stronger the dancing aurora will be. The solar wind speed usually ranges from 300 km/s upwards. To witness a vibrant dance with the aurora borealis, a value of ideally more than 450 km/s must appear on the graphs.

What are the ideal camera settings for photographing the aurora borealis?

Night photography necessitates a slightly different approach compared to classic daytime landscape photography. During the day, the aperture chosen by the photographer may not significantly impact the outcome. However, when photographing the aurora, it becomes a crucial setting due to the limited available light. As a result, the aperture must be set to the lowest possible number.

lofoten islands aurora

ISO 2500, f/2.8, 4 seconds                      Photo by: Marian Kuric

iceland aurora

ISO 3200, f/3.5, 8 seconds                     Photo by: Marian Kuric

Many photographers make a basic mistake when shooting the aurora for the first time by using the same settings as for classic night photography, resulting in long exposure times (over 10 seconds). However, there are two crucial factors to consider when photographing the aurora borealis:

  1. The aurora is a phenomenon that shines much brighter than the Milky Way, making it easy to overexpose.

  2. The aurora moves quickly, so a long exposure time would blur its appearance, turning it into a green blob rather than a graceful, dancing snake-like pattern.

To capture the aurora effectively, it's ideal to use a medium-long exposure time. In practice, this means setting an exposure time of approximately 1.6s to 4s with a low aperture (f/1.4 to f/2.8). The shorter the exposure time you choose within this range, the sharper and more beautiful the aurora's waves will appear.

Regarding ISO settings, it's similar to shooting the Milky Way. ISO values between 2500 to 4000 are often preferred. The specific value you choose within this range depends on the lowest possible aperture number of your lens.

northern lights norway

ISO 3200, f/2.8, 2,5 seconds 

Photo by: Filip Hrebenda

photographing northern lights

TIP: Before capturing the aurora, we recommend turning off the "Long exposure noise reduction" and "High ISO noise reduction" settings in the camera. Additionally, if you are shooting with a tripod, it is advisable to turn off image stabilization.

What equipment do you need to photograph the aurora borealis?

photographing northern lights
photographing northern lights
photographing northern lights
photographing northern lights
photographing northern lights

Tripod - A tripod is a must for anyone who plans to take pictures at night or use longer exposures for any reason. Since the aurora borealis is often photographed in Nordic countries, where it can be very windy, we recommend using a stronger tripod. The so-called travel tripods, which often weigh less than 1 kg, are unsuitable for such conditions.

Lens with the right aperture - Since the aurora borealis is typically photographed at night, and the ideal exposure time for capturing it is around 2 seconds, having a lens with the lowest possible aperture is highly advantageous. (Ideally f/1.4 - f/2.8).

Remote control - Although not a necessity, I don't use it often. However, photographing the aurora is an activity that may last several hours, especially in arctic winter conditions. In such cases, having a remote trigger can be convenient, as it allows you to keep your hands warm in the pockets of your down jacket while controlling the camera.

A memory card with enough space - Once you get caught up in the "aurora ecstasy," you may continuously take pictures, capturing each new beautiful formation appearing in the sky every few seconds. Anyone who has photographed the aurora knows what I'm talking about. After an hour or so, you might realize that you have filled up your memory card with two or three hundred photos of these "green snakes."

After reading this article, you might be thinking that shooting the aurora is difficult. However, it is actually quite easy if you follow a few guidelines from this article. And the results are truly worth it! If you happen to catch a clear night with decent solar activity, you'll not only capture a great photo but also have an unforgettable experience. So, all you need to do is ask yourself the question:

Where will you go next to see the aurora borealis?

northern lights
northern lights

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WHERE YOU CAN SEE AND CAPTURE NORTHERN LIGHTS

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