The fascinating northern lights

Everyone has their own bucket list of places to visit, things to do or experiences to try, but seeing the northern lights is probably on top of many people’s list. I was lucky enough to see them 4 times during the 2 weeks I spent in Iceland and I can confirm that it’s an unbelievable sight that I’ll never forget. This article is dedicated to this extraordinary phenomenon, how it happens, where to see it and tips on how to get the best northern lights’ pictures.

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A bit of science

The northern lights (or aurora borealis) are a natural phenomenon linked to the solar activity. After each solar eruption, charged particles are ejected from the surface of the sun (forming what’s called the solar wind), eventually getting in contact with the magnetosphere, a layer around 800 to 1000 km above our head that protects us from the effect of these solar winds. The charged particles interact with atoms of the high atmosphere, which in reaction release energy and photons, particles of light.

The aspect of the northern lights comes from the different kind of atoms of the high atmosphere, which release energy at a very specific wavelength, resulting in different colours. For example, the green colour most commonly observed in the northern lights is due to the presence of oxygen.

Where/when to see the northern lights?

The further north you are, the better. Alaska, Canada, Russia, Norway, Finland, Greenland and obviously Iceland are among the best countries to spot them. In case of very intense activity, the northern lights can also be seen much further south but it’s very rare. In the Southern hemisphere, the southern lights can be seen from New Zealand or Tasmania for example. There’s no particular place in Iceland to see them, they can be observed from anywhere around the country. Just try to avoid light pollution.

It is commonly thought that northern lights are a winter phenomenon. It’s not true. Northern lights can happen any time during the year, but they are much easier to see during winter simply because nights are longer and the sky is darker. If you’re looking at this table for sunset and sunrise time in Reykjavik, you’ll see that there’s less than 3 hours of night around summer solstice; basically, the sky will never be dark enough to see anything. But you don’t necessarily have to be in Iceland (or any other northern country) in the middle of the winter to see the northern lights: they can usually be observed from September to April. I was there in the second half of September and can confirm that it was a very good period!

The best conditions to see the northern lights

Northern lights, Skaftafell National Park

The northern lights require 3 conditions to be seen properly: dark sky, no clouds and high solar activity. Unless they’re really intense, you won’t see them in the middle of a city, and you can forget about them if it’s cloudy (the picture on the right is from an aurora partially hidden behind clouds). There are apps and websites that you can use to check how likely you are to admire them. The website from the Icelandic Met Office shows a map of the cloud coverage of the country as well as an intensity forecast. I also used a free app called “My Aurora Forecast” which gives you the percentage of chance to spot the lights based on solar activity and cloud coverage. But the phenomenon can’t be completely predicted: when I observed northern lights at their highest intensity, the forecast was average and the chances to see them were supposed to be about only 20%…

What do northern lights look like?

A lot of people wonder if what you see on pictures like the ones in this article is the same as what you see with your naked eyes. It depends.

Northen lights, Myvatn

If the aurora is weak, what you’ll see will look a bit like a grey/white cloud moving above your head, but also transparent as you can still see stars through it. Colours will only come out if you take a picture with long exposure time. But if the aurora is intense, the entire sky will turn to green, purple or yellow and the show will be amazing.

The colours can come and go during the same phenomenon with no warning. If you can only see a grey/white form, don’t give up, the colours can appear at any time. During my first aurora hunting night, there was only this grey/white “cloud” for a while, when all of a sudden it looked like the sky exploded and was falling down. It was extraordinary. During about 2 minutes, I saw the northern lights dancing above me, with colours brighter than I would ever have dreamed of, making all the fireworks I ever saw in my life looking ridiculous in comparison. And as quickly as it started, it stopped and even if I observed dashes of green and purple again in the next couple of nights, I never saw anything that intense anymore.

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How to take pictures of the northern lights

I’m not pretending to be an expert photographer, but based on my own experience I’d like to give you some tips about how to take good pictures of the northern lights with a reflex camera. I used a Nikon D5500 set up on manual mode with a Tamron 17-55mm/f2.8 lens.

First, try to find a spot with low light pollution (outside of a city) and with a nice background (mountain, glacier, ocean, house…). You don’t want to just have a picture of the sky alone, you want to capture the northern lights in their environment. You’ll need a wide angle for that, with a focal length lower than 20mm (my 17-55mm lens was very good).

As you’ll shoot in the dark at night, you’ll need a lens with a good aperture to catch as much light as possible; it means that the “f-number” on your lens should be as low as possible. Lower than 3.5 is good, if possible 2.8 or below will be even better. You can modify two other parameters to bring more light into your camera: the ISO number and the exposure time. The higher the ISO number is, the brighter the picture will be, but above some point the image will start to look “grainy”. With my camera, an ISO of 3200 gave good results, try yours at different levels to find the best compromise.

south-coast-iceland-northern-lights-blurryThe exposure time should be the last parameter to adjust, depending on how intense the light is. I took most of my pictures with an exposure time of 4 to 5 seconds, with an aperture of 2.8 and ISO 3200. But in case of an extremely bright and fast-moving aurora like the one I described before, you should drastically reduce the exposure time otherwise you’ll just end up with a blurry and too bright picture like the one on the left. In all cases, you’ll absolutely need a tripod to take long-exposure shots. If you don’t have one, try to put your camera on a rock, a fence or somewhere where it won’t move. I also recommend using a timer before taking your pictures, as pressing a button might slightly make the camera move.

If you manage to find the perfect settings to all these parameters, there’s one last thing that you’ll need: luck!

Northern lights in Höfn

I hope this article has helped you understand more about the northern lights, and if you have any other recommendation about how to take pictures of them, feel free to drop it in the comments. Thank you!

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