The Northern Lights are propably the most beautiful and the most misterious natural phenomena on Earth. Every year thousands of tourists and travelers from all over the world travel far north just to witness this miracle of Mother Nature. For many photographers and filmmakers dancing green lights are one of the most interesting topics to work on. According to our years-long experience in searching for the Aurora, we decided to write a comprehensive article supported by practical advice. What is the Aurora Borealis, where to look for the it, how to photograph the Northern Lights and how to generally prepare for that kind of hunting hunting - you can find it all in this article.
WHAT DOES AURORA BOREALIS MEAN?
It was Galileo Galilei himself who named this phenomenon over 400 years ago (in 1619). One night a huge solar storm made the Northern Lights visible in the northern Italy. Exactly there, where Galileo was then. Due to its pink color Galileo associated the phenomenon with the dawn, but he knew that it wasn`t regular one. It did not appear on the eastern side of the sky, like it should do, but in the north, as Aurora always does. Therefore, Galileo decided to give the phenomenon the names of two: first name refers to the ancient Roman goddess of the morning - Aurora, and the other one to Greek god Boreas - the personification of the northern wind.
HOW TO FIND A NORTHERN LIGHTS IN 10 STEPS
That`s the only hunt which no animals are killed in and that`s why we like it so much and go for as often as possible. Hunting for Aurora is nothing like chasing a white bunny or searching for the mythical golden pot at the end of the rainbow. The secret of a successful evening is good, substantive preparation and knowledge about the terrain and climate in the region- it`s not a secret that weather conditions play a key role here. There are many articles in the Internet about Aurora chasing, full of better and worse advices, but we haven`t yet come across a post or article directly from someone who does it on a daily basis. Therefore, we decided to present an action plan step by step.
FIRST STEP: CHOOSE THE RIGHT PLACE
preferably between 65 ° N and 72 ° N. In Norway, these are, for example, Tromso area and Lofoten.
SECOND STEP: CHOOSE THE RIGHT MONTH
the best chances are from mid-September to the end of March, when the night is long enough.
THIRD STEP: CHECK THE WEATHER FORECAST
rely on the weather forecast more than the KP index. The weather can change hourly, so check out the last afternoon's updates. Even the most beautiful Aurora wouldn`t be visible through the thick layer of clouds.
FIFTH STEP: BE FLEXIBLE
the weather can be capricious, so it is often needed to move around in a search of a clear sky. Don't stay in the jacuzzi waiting for miracle, go by rental car or join a tour to have the highest chances to find clear skies.
SIXTH STEP: DRESS PROPERLY
During frosty nights you need to wear at least a few layers. It`s also good to take something warm to drink in a thermos flask.
SEVENTH STEP: GO OUT WHEN IT GETS DARK
Start early, don't trust any Aurora apps that scatter coffee grounds and suggest hours. It`s the best to leave when it gets dark, so you can be sure that you won`t miss any of the Northern Lights. It's hard to say what hour, because every month is different. In December you can easily start after 6pm, when in September you can start after 8pm.
EIGHTH STEP: FIND CLEAR SKY AND STARS
Following the weather forecast, you should travel to the places where the sky is most likely to be clear. Avoid the artificial lights, spot the stars on the northern side of the sky and then you have a chance to observe Aurora Borealis.
NINTH STEP: WAIT FOR AURORA
The Northern Lights will be visible everywhere, where there are no artificial lights and there are no clouds on the northern side of the sky. If you are in a place like this, there is nothing else to do but wait. Don't give up, stock up on wood, make a fire, enjoy the views and be patient. Don't give up too early or change the place (unless the weather changes).
TENTH STEP: TAKE PHOTOS
Everyone dreams of a photo with a green sky. You will need a tripod and a camera with manual settings. More and more smartphones are also able to take a satisfactory picture. Night photography is a completely different topic, so we have prepared a separate article:
WHEN TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
Although Aurora appears in the sky all year round, the chances to see it in the northern hemisphere appear from mid-September to the first week of April. Of course, one might say that they saw the Northern Lights on August 31, and we also saw them on April 17, however a reasonable timeframe must be adapted when there is enough time to hunt. The middle of April and the end of August is just a stroke of luck and strong activity. Everything is related to the occurrence of the polar day and night, because the aurora is visible only at night. After the first week of April, full darkness lasts only two or three hours. In mid-May, we are already dealing with the polar day. The night slowly lengthens in September and since then it is worth thinking seriously about tracking Aurora. You need to know that THERE ARE NO BETTER OR WORSE MONTHS to observe the Northern Lights. Of course, if someone loves statistics, you will find information that September and March are statistically the best months due to the slope of the Sun relative to the Earth. But as shown in our experience the most beautiful (and those a bit worse) Auroras appear each month. Solar activity really does not depend on our Gregorian calendar. There are also no better or worse days, the aurora occurs both on Fridays and Tuesdays, nor does it appear at a fixed time. Many tourists make a huge mistake leaving only at 10pm, just because they have read on the facebook that the best Aurora will be visible at midnight. There are no rules, so as not to miss any spectacle in the sky, we will always recommend starting in the early evening, just after dark.
WHICH NORTHERN LIGHTS APP IS THE BEST
In this paragraph, we could make a list of the best apps NOT to install. Our favorite one is an app limited to sending just 3 messages: TRY, GO, DON'T TRY... and that`s all. No application, the so-called Aurora Apps won't help you find the aurora by itself, and will often mislead you. A strong attachment to smartphones is a sign of our times, people often treat them as oracles. The Northern Lights are a cosmic phenomenon, it's hard to predict what will happen in an hour, so don`t try to create a monthly forecast that app users enjoy. There are situations when the applications predict the intensity of KP5, e.g. on Tuesday in two weeks. There is no aurora intensity forecasting algorithm and people often misinterpret the KP index. Never trust when an app says don't go or stay home. If you already use such applications, it is good to use those that show more data, especially in the form of graphs. We can recommend the University of Alaska website and the solar wind chart there:
At first glance, the chart looks like black magic. It is a measurement of the solar wind in the last 24 hours. The average user should check the speed of the solar wind (average approx. 400 km / s). The Bz chart, which should be below 0. However, the easiest way to assume is that the more turbulent the chart in the last minutes, the greater the chance of seeing a spectacular Aurora.
Most of our Northern Lights guidework is done at home, usually one hour before we leave. We deeply analyze weather maps (e.g. on weather applications), because the weather on the coast can be capricious. We check at least a dozen locations, looking for a cloudless sky. What is this for? Even the strongest Aurora will not be visible when there are three 100% layers of clouds overhead. Therefore, the weather is much more important than the KP factor or the intensity of the Aurora. First you need to find a clear sky facing north, and only then you can cross your fingers for the Aurora to show its beauty. Sometimes it's like chasing "holes" in the clouds to see a bit of green. Hence the whole myth of hunting for the Aurora. You don't really hunt for the Northern Lights (it will be visible wherever there is a clear sky), you hunt for a cloudless sky, but it is not such a catchy and marketing name of course. In Norway the best forecasts website is yr.no (the app of the same name), where you can check cloud coverage, wind speed and direction, precipitation and any additional warnings you need to be aware of (e.g. avalanche danger or hurricane wind). It is worthy taking into account the weather conditions, especially if you try to hunt on your own, so as not to return in a terrible snowstorm or get stuck in a traffic jam when an avalanche broke nearby (at night, the services do not react too quickly). You have to put your own safety above the fun and the best photos. Good weather forecast will allow you to predict what will happen in the middle of the night. As we mentioned before, this is the only oracle in our profession. KP indices are irrelevant to us and only on the basis of the weather forecast we are able to predict the real chances of a cloudless sky, and in extreme cases decide to postpone the trip-due to zero chances or dangerous road conditions.
AVOID ARTIFICIAL LIGHTS
Artificial light disturbs or even makes it impossible to observe the Northern Lights. Of course, there are nights when Aurora can be visible from the city center, but these are very rare cases (rarer than most tourists think when they see a Tromso promotional photo). It is worth going off the main road, over the water or into a mountain valleys. It is worth looking at the map around the city and finding good spots with an open view to the north, away from the villages. That way we can also avoid an orange glow on the photos. Darkness helps to observe the aurora with the naked eye, the colors are more intense then. Remember that our eyes need about 15/20 minutes to adapt to complete darkness. It works pretty similar with a moonlight.
DOES THE MOON DISTURB OBSERVING THE NORTHERN LIGHTS?
In December it can be brighter during the full moon than during the day, especially when the moonlight reflects off the snow and the brightest stars are only visible in the sky. The full moon is the only time that can be predicted well in advance, just look at most calendars before planning your trip. Aurora Hunters, however, are divided into those who appreciate the time of full moon and those who avoid it like the plague.
Why is it necessary to avoid a full moon?
There is no complete darkness, although the Northern Lights are visible, they will probably never have intense colors. Those who expect intense green will come back very disappointed.
Why is it worth going during full moon?
Definitely that`s one of the best times for night photography. The Aurora Borealis will always be green in your photos, what`s more it will be embellished with beautiful mountain views and the landscapes of Northern Norway.
CAN I SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHT WITH THE BARE EYE?
And now the naked truth about Aurora! Probably no one will want to tell you that, but the truth is that you will never see such intense colors with the naked eye as in the photos. Not because we use magic tricks in Photoshop or Lightroom, but because of the structure of the human eye. As we wrote earlier, it takes time for man to adapt to the darkness. In the dark we see no colors, only contours. Therefore, when Aurora appears, the rods of our eye catch the emitted light and send information to the brain that something is flared. This is why, at first, many people see the aurora as a white glow. Only with time, when our eye gets used to the darkness, we are able to see colors. However, you should not expect toxic green colors, rather it will be a delicate shade. Anyway, each of us has different eyes, better or weaker, so it is difficult to engage in any discussion about the perception of colors. There are guests who do not see (or do not want) green even in the strongest Northern Lights, and there are also those who rejoice at the sight of green, even when it is not there (because it was an ordinary cloud). For a camera, things are easier. Due to the long exposure that we use when photographing Aurora, more light accumulates in the photos and therefore green is greener and pink is more pink.
So you can ask, what's the point to go and freeze when you can see more beautiful postcards? All Aurora Hunters are waiting for the climax, which is the dance of the Northern Lights. That`s something that camera can`t capture well and it`s certainly an unforgettable experience. Depending on the intensity of the Lights, it can be gently undulating or crazily spinning / dancing, which cannot be described in words or properly captured with a camera.
THE MOST IMPORTANT RULE - BE PATIENT
Aurora appears overnight and that`s not the name of a high-speed train in Japan that arrives down to the second. If you compare this phenomenon to trains, it is rather northern England train with its horse cart pace - it will not arrive on time and no one knows how big the delay will be (or at all). We hope this accurate comparison fully answers the question of "when?" This is a natural phenomena, there are no rules, and we are truly sad to notice that so many tourists are repeating myths they read somewhere on blogs. More than once we met with people who missed the most beautiful aurora at 6pm because they read that the Aurora occurs between 9pm and 11pm. There are no time frames or rules, especially if it`s your lifetime chance, even if you spend over 2-3 nights above the Arctic Circle. As long as you have enough strength, it is worth looking at the sky (not sitting in the car) and you should not lose hope. Another contradictory myth - Auroras appear only in the morning or miraculously disappear after 1am. You could say that this is entirely a matter of chance. We have watched Northern Lights at any time and there is really no rule for that. In December, we were able to see it super early, at around 3pm. Sometimes Aurora appears when we leave the house, sometimes we have to wait an hour, sometimes six. Nobody can guarantee how long the show will last. The show can last for 15 minutes, two hours or literally ... 30 seconds. Aurora may appear once, maybe two, maybe a dozen or so during the night, and sometimes it is in the sky and does not want to disappear. Its intensity, color and length will be completely different each time. One thing is certain, the moment when you see her for the first time is unforgettable and it stays in you forever.
YOU CAN COUNT ON US
All of those informations sounds like black magic for you? For many years, every winter we`ve been traveling around Tromso in search of the Northern Lights and we will be happy to help you achieve your goal. Without experience, some may find it difficult to hunt Aurora on their own, so it is worth relying on the knowledge of people who have been doing it for years. We will try to help you make your dream come true and provide you with beautiful photos.