What is the best time to see the Northern Lights? When should I plan a Northern Lights tour? Which are the best countries to spot the Aurora Borealis? These are some of the questions we are asked on the daily. Watching The Northern Lights or the Aurora Borealis is definitely one of the most overwhelming travel experiences we’ve ever encountered – however it is hard to predict exactly when you’ll see the elusive green lights and how.
Having said that you can definitely maximise your chances of spotting and photographing the Northern Lights. We have now encountered the Northern Lights several times on our travels. Based on our experience, here are 5 of our Top Tips to making the most of your Northern Lights holiday, things we wish someone had told us before we went hunting for the Northern Lights
Best Time To See the Northern Lights
November – March are the best months to plan a trip for the Northern Lights. However it is possible to spot them outside these months, during September and October, too, usually at latitudes closer to the North Pole
Best Places To See The Northern Lights
Scandinavia (especially Lapland, Norway and Sweden), Iceland, USA (Alaska), and Canada (Yukon, Yellowknife, Northern Labrador)
5 Tips for Hunting & Photographing The Northern Lights
I) Prepare Beforehand
Even on the best of nights the Northern Lights are a fleeting phenomenon. Make sure you research beforehand. Read up a bit about this stunning natural phenomenon so you know exactly what is unravelling in front of your eyes. Make sure you go equipped with your photography gear and know a bit about the ways in which to spot the Northern Lights , photograph them, and absorb the grandeur before you set off on your trip.
Remember this – the darker the skies, the better are your chances of spotting the Northern Lights. While you can get lucky and see them in heavily-lit surroundings (e.g. city centres) as well, the chances of that happening are rare. The best way to spot the Northern Lights yourself is to drive into the countryside where there is little or no ambient light, put your phones away, close your eyes for 5-10 minutes, and then gaze at the sky. You will see a glimmer of green or entire rainbows of green depending on the day. Make sure you take some snacks along with you because you might have to wait a while 🙂
If you’d like your Northern Lights photographs to depict the experience you had, it’s always a great idea to include yourself in the photographs. Here’s us – picnicking under the Northern Lights, some fairy lights in tow 🙂
II) Photography Tips for the Northern Lights
When it comes to photography, the Northern Lights are particularly tricky to capture but they look even more stunning on camera than they do in real life. Long exposure photography is the best way to capture the magic of Northern Lights on camera. Here are a couple of tips and tricks I like using for my Northern Lights shots
- Always carry a tripod. Here’s the one I use for my mirrorless camera (Sony A7C) (and also for my phone), however if you’re just using the phone, you can get a much lighter and smaller tripod too to save space.
- Fast and wide-angle lenses work best – Currently I use Sony 16-35mm f2.8 GM (perfect when you find the lights directly overhead) and Sony 24-70mm f2.8 GM (ideal for when the lights are more visible on the horizon) and an exposure of no longer than 3-5 seconds as you’ll lose the streaks of light in super long exposure shots. Adjust the ISO accordingly. When both of us are in the frame, we try to keep the exposure to a maximum of 4 seconds to avoid body movement, especially in very strong winds.
- It’s always important to be patient to get a good shot but this is especially important while photographing the Northern Lights. You might be battling sub-zero temperatures or heavy winds, but it is imperative to stay still and protect your camera from moving if you want good photographs.
- Shooting videos of Northern Lights – in all probability, shooting a clear video of Northern Lights is impossible unless the lights are VERY strong (in which case my Sony A7C with a fast lens is able to record videos). The next best thing is to make a time-lapse video of the lights. This basically means that you’ll take hundreds of photos of Northern Lights at an interval of 2 -5 seconds and then stitch all these photos together to create a video. Most modern cameras have an in-built time-lapse mode and all you need to do is compose your shot and let the camera do the rest 🙂 Here’s a time-lapse video we made of the Northern Lights over our cottage in Iceland:
III) Don’t book a Northern Lights Tour
Contrary to popular perception you needn’t book a Northern Lights Tour to actually spot the lights. If your holiday is centred around a busy city such as Reykjavik, you might need a tour to take you into the surrounding wilderness. But if you’re staying in the countryside, you needn’t book a tour at all.
How then should you spot them by yourself? Consult the aurora forecast, available on multiple websites online. If the forecast is good, just turn off all lights and sit outside your accommodation or pick up your car and head into a dark area where there is little or no ambient light. You can drive away from the lights of cities and hotels but what about the light emitted from ipads and phones? Sometimes our eyes are so accustomed to such bright lights that they cannot spot the Northern Lights if they are faint or weak. In this case, you need to train your eyes to spot them.
Even if the forecast is not good, keep checking the skies. The best display of Northern Lights that we have ever seen was on a night when no lights were predicted.
IV) Be realistic
Spotting the Northern Lights depends on a variety of factors such as electromagnetic activity, clear skies, and the lack of ambient light. While it is possible to ensure the cooperation of man-made hindrances (eg: too much light), it is impossible to force nature to cooperate. For this reason, never plan a holiday ONLY for the Northern Lights or you might end up disappointed. Make sure there are other activities on the itinerary that excite you – e.g. you could hike a glacier in Iceland, book a reindeer sleigh ride in Finland, or a husky dog safari in Canada. This way spotting the Northern Lights is the proverbial cherry on top of the cake but not the be-all and end-all of your holiday.
Secondly do not expect bright green Northern Lights to show up as soon as you go hunting for Aurora Borealis in the countryside . By virtue of the long exposure, all photographs of the Northern Lights make them seem more vibrant than they are. You are looking out for powdery green streaks in the sky which intensify and become more vibrant as the aurora activity increases.
V) Sit back and enjoy the dance of the Northern Lights
You’ve conquered the crazy temperatures, braved the windstorms, consulted the forecasts, trained your eyes to the darkness, got lucky with clear skies, and FINALLY spotted the Northern Lights. When you do spot them, don’t rush to photograph them. Take some time to drink it all in – the Aurora Borealis are insanely gorgeous. They’re dancing overhead one moment and behind you the next. They will leave you spellbound and you might tear up too, but you will be unable to stop yourself from going back for more. Consider yourself warned 🙂
Want to watch the Northern Lights with a young child/family? Lapland is the place for you
Want to combine Northern Lights with a roadtrip? Iceland is the place for you