Where to find and how to photograph the Northern Lights

Expert astronomers and Hong Kong photographers share their tips on where to see and how to shoot one of the most popular bucket-list events

PUBLISHED : Monday, 20 February, 2017, 5:02pm
UPDATED : Monday, 20 February, 2017, 5:09pm

If you’re anywhere near the Arctic Circle, sleep with the curtains open. I always follow that travel advice, but on this occasion I’m woken at 5am by a phone call. “Aurora outside the hotel,” cries a voice. I can hear people running down the corridors, and I join them, pulling on layer upon layer of winter clothing as I tumble outside into deep snow. The Northern Lights are twisting, pulsing and streaming across the sky above.

Two hours later and I’m back inside the snug Hotel Rangá, a four-star wilderness hotel in southern Iceland where the staff are on constant lookout for the unpredictable displays that so many tourists – including Hongkongers – travel to witness.

“Hong Kong travellers have shown a growing appetite to travel to northern Europe in the hope of seeing the Northern Lights as opposed to travelling to Alaska and northwest Canada,” says Fang Fang, senior marketing manager at Skyscanner Greater China. Searches performed on its flights booking platform from Hong Kong grew during 2016 for Finland (80 per cent), Iceland (68 per cent), Sweden (57 per cent) and Norway (52 per cent) while searches for Alaska slumped 55 per cent. Figures from travel metasearch engine Kayak demonstrate a more dramatic rise since last July as plans were made to visit this winter, with search volumes massively up for Norway (222 per cent), Finland (175 per cent), Iceland (138 per cent) and Sweden (117 per cent).

You can even get lucky during the flight. “I’ve never seen the Northern Lights, but I did capture them on a flight from the UK to Hong Kong,” says Hong Kong photographer Timmy Wong. “It was in August and it was a real surprise for me – I did not expect to see them during summer.” His advice? Always sit on the right-hand side of the plane on the way to Europe, and on the left on the return journey.

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However, it’s very hard to recommend a ‘best’ place to see the Northern Lights. “The weather is the biggest thing you need to think about when choosing somewhere,” says Dr. Melanie Windridge, author of a new book Aurora: In Search of the Northern Lights. “The Northern Lights happen hundreds of kilometres up, so any clouds will block the view, but you can see them anywhere in the auroral zone between about 65°N and 75°N magnetic latitude,” she adds. That area includes northern Norway and both Finnish and Swedish Lapland, the remote Greenland, northern Canada and Alaska. The Southern Lights are just as active, but there’s a lot less landmass in the ‘aurora zone’ in the Southern Hemisphere, and even in the best spot – Dunedin in New Zealand – they’re relatively rare.

Wherever you go, it can really pay to go on an organised Northern Lights ‘hunt’ because there’s often a lot of local knowledge needed to find them. Often organised from cities and towns, not only will the staff know the best spots and be able to read the weather, but they’ll drive you around in the icy conditions and even show you how to take photos if the Northern Lights, also known as aurora borealis do appear. “If you drive on the road out of Reykjavik you can see buses parked by the side of the road so that tourists can see the Northern Lights,” says Sævar Helgi Bragason, a famous astronomy educator in Iceland who shows visitors the Northern Lights, and how to photograph them.

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Photographing the Northern Lights does have its challenges, but it’s perfectly possible. “If you have a DSLR, it’s good if you know your manual settings and are able to operate them in darkness,” says Hong Kong-based photographer John Butlin, whose favourite spot for the Northern Lights is at the Icehotel in Jukkasjärvi, Sweden. He advises manual focusing to infinity, setting an aperture around f4 to f5.6, ISO 400-800 and shutter speed of around 15-30 seconds. He also recommends setting the camera white balance to daylight, and to shoot both RAW and JPEG files since RAW files save more information for post-processing. Many of these manual settings can be performed on modern compact cameras, too. “A steady tripod is essential, as is as wide angle a lens as possible,” says Butlin, who advises fully charging the battery before going out, and taking a spare since power drains much more quickly in cold temperatures.

Common mistakes include forgetting to bring a small torch for adjusting camera settings in the dark, not dressing warmly enough, and trying to take photographs too close to street lights.

The displays themselves – charged particles in a solar wind from the Sun hitting the Earth’s atmosphere at the poles – depend entirely on the activity on the Sun’s surface. Local weather maps and apps are vital for finding clear skies, but for aurora predictions it’s best to go straight to the source; the Space Weather Prediction Centre (swpc.noaa.gov), which shows the phenomenon as an oval. “The Northern Lights are created in an oval because that’s how the accelerated charged particles from the Sun are hitting the atmosphere at night time,” says Windridge.

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The shapes you can see vary enormously. You may see arcs, bands, curtains or a flower-like corona, and in colours of green, red, blue or purple. “They’re actually all the same structures, it’s just your perspective that changes,” says Windridge. “They have a lot of energy, and they hit the oxygen in our atmosphere they emit green, and also red higher up, while nitrogen emits blue and purple colours.”

Your camera will magnify any trace of Northern Lights, so you can still get a good souvenir image even if your eyes don’t see much, but weak displays are a worry. There have been reports that you should wait a few years before travelling to see the Northern Lights, with astronomers confirming that the Sun is now on its way down to a state called solar minimum where the Sun is less active.

That’s caused a rush among tourists to see them ‘before they’re gone’, but Bragason insists that solar minimum makes little difference. “We will have fewer solar storms, but here we can see Northern Lights almost every night regardless, and that’s not going to change.” The solar minimum is coming around 2020, with solar maximum not predicted until 2026, but there’s no time off for Bragason. “We’re marketing Iceland as a good spot for experiencing darkness and seeing the stars as well as Northern Lights because lots of visitors have never seen the Milky Way.” He’s even constructed an observatory beside Hotel Rangá with a sliding roof that reveals several telescopes, including the largest in Iceland, for guests to find stars and planets between Northern Lights displays.

Not only does he refute the impact of solar minimum, but Bragason also disagrees with the traditional October-March ‘Northern Lights season’. “The earliest I have seen auroras is August 4, and I’m convinced that during a strong display it’s possible to see them even at the end of July,” he says, claiming to have seen displays during May. “I’m encouraging the tourism companies to start their Northern Lights tours around August 20 because although it never gets totally dark, you can see auroras in a dark blue sky after a long sunset.”

Sunsets in the polar regions do take a long time, but as an astronomer who’s grown up with the Northern Lights, Bragason doesn’t mind when they don’t show up. “We try to take deep space pictures using our telescopes and sometimes they are ruined by the auroras,” he says. “When they cover the whole sky and look like a mist, I call it natural light pollution.”