What You Need to Know about Shooting the Northern Lights

What You Need to Know about Shooting the Northern Lights

Northern lights are just a dream. Viewing the lights during the peak season Finland was on the top of my list mostly – After my amazing trip to the Arctic Circle, I would like to share 4 afterthoughts and 17 photo-taking tips with you.

Useful sites for chasing the northern lights:

Northern Lights 101: All you need to know about Northern Lights

Check out the weather in Scandinavia – www.yr.no

Aurora Forecast – http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/Europe

Northern lights are actually collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the atmosphere. To view the bright dancing lights in the Arctic Circle during the peak season, Finland was on the top of my list mostly because of direct flights that took me from my hometown to Helsinki, closeness to the Arctic Circle, and state-of-the-art facilities and infrastructure.

Finland

Under negative degrees doesn’t mean giving up fashion, right?

Chasing the northern lights in Lapland, Finland:

Right, the sparsely populated Lapland offered an excellent communication network and it’s clean and warm everywhere. In Nellim (a village in Lapland – Google map it J), I still have mobile 3G coverage to keep up with the rest of the world! #GREAT #3G (But of course, maybe the same case for the rest of Europe, US and Canada??) More, I could buy a pre-paid sim card for a few Euros and enjoy an unlimited mobile reception network (However, when I was there in 2014 – they have pre-paid sim card, but no nano-sim – which means not available for iPhone 5…)

The driver who picked me up to the resort told me though – hospitals were so far away, the locals were joking about most Lapland babies were now born in cars, since ladies couldn’t make it to the hospital; and if you, unfortunately, break an arm, be patient, a helicopter will bring you to the nearest hospital in the state’s capital- Rovaniemi, a couple of hundred miles away.

To catch the Nothern Lights, some said 2013 was the peak year and the strength would deteriorate; turned out 2014 still, and now somehow 2015 still (but the last year of the 13-year cycle?); some recommended Norway, Iceland, Alaska, Canada, Finland; some said December was not the best time, some said February, some said March. Well, true, there could be a MOST ACTIVE year of sun particles collisions (according to the scientist), there could be the BEST location (according to the closeness to the Arctic circle?), there could be the best period of time (typically December to March) – but the luck still depends on YOU. I heard that some of my friends visited Iceland fourth time to finally see the Northern lights; it could be bad weather, it could be bad timing… Northern light is a natural phenomenon, sometimes you see it, sometimes you don’t; when it comes, it could be of your least expected time or least expected occasion. Just be prepared and enjoy the trip.

Actually, there were still a lot of things to see and do in Lapland, Finland during the wintertime. Most visitors (like me) usually fly off from the Capital, Helsinki, to different cities in Lapland and stay for a few days to catch the Northern Lights. Local tour companies or resorts usually have a similar list with all sorts of daytime activities, (such as reindeer visits, Sami cultural tour, Husky experience, Snowmobile, Horse sled ride, Snowshoeing, etc) and the most important events at night – Northern Lights hunting.

I have done some research on different cities and resorts, somehow I ended up choosing the resort in Nellim; because it is packaged (room, meals, 4 days of daily activities), the price is reasonable, and the flight time suits me. It could be a little bit cheaper if you book everything separately; however, trust me, it won’t worth the hassle, the total cost for the same activities would end up similar – no matter you book a package, or separately. Besides, you could contact the resort and customize your daily activities, usually, the hotel staff would be happy to cope with your requests.

I didn’t make a bad choice after all. For the 5 days, I had a great time in the secluded resort, had fun in the daily activities, and knew some new people. The facilities were clean and the food was yummy. (Besides, just sign up for the Sauna room and relax after a day of activities)

I enjoyed the amazing view of the frozen lake with the Husky safari, I wore a special snowshoe and hike in the wild, we had fun chopping woods and made a fire for a nice barbecue party, I tried driving the snowmobiles and snow sleds, and I learned cross-country skiing. ~

Outdoor Activities in Lapland: 

I only saw a giant explosion of Northern lights the first night I arrived at the resort and I didn’t even grab a camera with me. (I did some research on how to take photos with your camera, but the outcome was not that good – I did not use a DSLR (Professional Camera)…) Then it was snowing and cloudy at night.

As much as the Northern Lights are amazing, it could be frustrating that you just couldn’t capture it; interesting though, some people say a good camera could capture the lights that you couldn’t see with the naked eye. I am no professional photographer and it was a nightmare for me to set up the camera in freezing whilst amazed by the breathtaking natural phenomenon.
I met some nice Taiwanese (who can speak perfect English) in the resort and they asked me out one night and we waited around until 3 am on the lake but in vain. However, we had a nice time and nice talk, sometimes “anticipation of happiness can sometimes be as gratifying as its consummation”…? – Gaynor Arnold

Afterthoughts for the Northern Lights:

  1. Cloudy days are not your friend – it blocks your views even there were Northern Lights behind it.
  2. As I heard, some Japanese group tour is super-organized. They traveled in groups in the large coach bus and the group would take them to somewhere high for a better chance to see the lights. Did I wonder if there any group tour like that for non-Japanese?
  3. It was weird because in Lapland the daytime was incredible – plus you probably need more time to dress and wrap yourself up (well, yeah, it’s cold, but I really think it’s not THAT cold), time flies even faster… so don’t stretch yourself out with too many activities, just take it slow and enjoy the time during the day, and then go out to see the Northern Lights at night.
  4. I bought an intervalometer for the trip, in which I could just set a fixed time interval and take pictures of the sky in case there are dancing lights. Originally I booked a room with a view of the lake so I could set the camera in my room and take photos all night. It was later I decided to change hotels so finally, I had no chance of using it L… Maybe some other time I could use this tool?
  5. For more about the guides and tips about northern lights viewing, check out: All you need to know about Northern Lights

Photo-taking tips of the northern lights:

To take beautiful photos of the Northern Lights – you need a great camera and tools.

Anyway, just Google it, you probably would see a lot of information about photography, and below are some specifications, and dos and don’ts:

Equipment and settings:

  1. Tripod: wrap it up to keep it warm (for prolonged exposure to the cold, your tripod might be frozen and you will have to let it go), you may need a heavier tripod (although my light one worked just fine, it’s not as windy out at night), and choose a taller one so you don’t have to look back up from the screen for every photo you take
  2. Camera: While it’s possible to use mobile phones to shoot the lights (if the light is strong enough; and the phone cameras are, honestly, pretty amazing these days), it’s best to use a camera that at least with a manual mode functionality like shutter speed and ISO, which allows you to adjust the setting, reduce image noise, and experiment while you are admiring the magical phenomenon.
  3. Lens: a wide-angle lens, 24-24mm F2.8 (Recommended). Image the sky is your canvas, and the lights dancing basically all the way across the sky. You want to capture as much of the light as possible.
  4. Function settings: turn off the “Noise Reduction” Function – so you could still take pictures of the stars
  5. Manual mode: ISO (Super High) – 6400 / 12800 >> and then fine-tune to 2000 – 3200
  6. Shutter Speed: ~20 sec >> 5 – 8 sec

Tips and guides: 

  1. Plan your shoot: if you have time, go out during the day to have an idea about the location that you plan on going to shoot the lights. Trust me, the place looks completely different during the day when you go there at night. Explore the area and so you have the confidence to walk around when you are out shooting at night.
  2. In general, you want an open area to have a clear view of the lights (that’s why it’s important to explore the area during day time, especially if you are self-driving), however, don’t forget that you need an area with some shade while you are waiting. If you are staying in a lodge, talk to the staff or other visitors for useful tips and advice. Location, weather, and many factors change for each visit and you need all the useful information to make your trip a pleasant and safe one.
  3. DO NOT TAKE YOUR CAMERA IN AND OUT – THE LENS WILL BE FOGGED!!! Just leave it outside the house!!
  4. TRY TO WARM UP THE BATTERY, and it will last longer all night
  5. Don’t use flash
  6. Try to shoot your photos in RAW image format that gives you the flexibility to adjust it afterward and minimize error. For me, I would say to give yourself some varieties when you see the lights so you have options for easy sharing and uploading – back up your photos when you return to the hotel so you won’t lose them all in case “something happens”
  7. Besides, experiment with different settings so you have different options. You can always edit the photos (like overexposure) back home and you want to have photos with different angles and different lights for your different purposes
  8. Sadly, there’s no guarantee that you will see the lights every time you go out (it’s true, and be prepared for it), don’t forget to explore and practice your photo-taking skills shooting the beautiful stars, Milky Way, and the night sky. If it’s cloudy, shoot the landscape. You could still get some amazing photos out of your trip
  9. While you are waiting, bring a small torch (or use your phone) to write your message in the darkness with your camera set at a long shutter speed! The activity keeps you moving and stay warm in the cold, and it’s a fun thing to do to pass the time

Shooting the northern lights with an iPhone:

  1. If you use iPhone to shoot the lights (and yes you can), download an app “NightCap” which allows you to adjust your exposure and shutter speed to take clearer photos of the lights with you in it
  2. While you are stargazing, another free app “Star Walk” is a useful tool for you to locate the stars, planets, and constellations with an astronomy guide and details. Children love this app

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