Seeing the Northern Lights (or Aurora Borealis) in Finland is not an easy task. It requires darkness, clear skies and a reasonable aurora activity. While it always gets dark during the winter months and there’s always some aurora activity going on, having clear skies is usually a luxury in the near-coastal regions of Scandinavia. I knew that chances weren’t on my side, so I always said to myself that I was going on a week of Husky Safari near Inari, Finland, and if I was lucky enough to see the Northern Lights, so be it. You knew it was a lie by just looking at my browser bookmarks: cloudiness forecast for Finland and hourly Aurora Borealis forecasts – I was absolutely obsessed with not missing the chance to capture them. Unfortunately for me, the forecast for the entire week was the same: heavy clouds throughout the week.


 

The night of my arrival, I saw that a “geomagnetic storm” was forecasted, which really shifted my focus solely on the satellite images. Was the weather not going to turn to my favor? No. Still heavy clouds over Scandinavia. But as if fate wanted it, there suddenly appeared a tiny little gap in the gigantic cloud patch on my satellite images. Could that be true? 11 pm and the dark skies were skill absolutely starless. I turned off all the lights in the house to make sure my eyes wouldn’t be distracted. Slowly, I saw in the distance very soft lights, like disco spotlights. Was I imagining it, were they actual disco lights or maybe the Northern Lights I had hoped for? It got cold and I popped up a beer, sitting on my bed, staring out into the dark. I was slowly getting tired around midnight, when suddenly there was a burst of green dust in the sky, like curtains. It was clear: the Aurora Borealis had revealed itself! I was ecstatic. The camera and the tripod were obviously already ready. I dressed up with everything I had and ran out into the forest to reach the frozen river where I would have less disturbing surroundings, mostly trees. The thought of wolves and bears quickly passed my mind, but I knew that it was extremely unlikely (wolves avoid people, bears were asleep). And, you know, the Northern Lights!


 

I set up my camera according to the instructions I had saved from the Internet and took a shot. Success! The photo on the LCD Display showed wonderful formations and colors, better than I had ever dared to hope for. It was also then when I realized for the first time, that all photos of Northern Lights are different from anything the human eye (or for that matter, your smartphone) could ever capture. You could see the formations, but much weaker and only in a very light green. It really seemed like slightly glowing green dust in the night sky. What also surprised me was how different every photo looked. The Aurora Borealis was changing extremely fast; it was truly a geomagnetic storm and it blew nothing less but my entire mind (ok, maybe the beer had a say in this, but it definitely was a double-rainbow experience).
Enjoying the only five hours of cloudless skies for the entire week, I fell asleep as the happiest man in Inari, Finland.

Did you enjoy our Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) adventure so far?

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How to photograph the Aurora Borealis

I’ll already mention that there is a lot of room for improvement of my Aurora Borealis photos. It was the first time for me photographing the night sky and although I took several precautions, I was still not able to capture the Northern Lights sharply. So I hope that you can learn from my experience and achieve even better shots.
  • You need a tripod. There is absolutely no chance to get a decent shot when holding the camera yourself.
  • You need a camera with exposure time. You cannot take a photo with your smartphone or any other digital camera.
  • Don’t speak and don’t make any steps. Try to find cover from any winds. Even the smallest movements will carry the vibrations through the snow straight into your camera. I was able to clearly identify the blurry photos where I moved, even without direct contact.
  • Get a remote, or set a self-timer. Even pushing the camera button will create enough vibrations to ruin your photo.
  • Find a dark place with as little as other light as possible. Don’t photograph in the direction of the moon. In my case, the moon was already too bright and ruined some of my photos.
  • Know your hardware: learning about the basics of your camera (exposure, f stop, ISO) is absolutely key. You will need to experiment in difficult conditions (dark), so it helps to have practiced a bit before. I tried to practice a bit before and still had difficulties getting better photos of the Aurora Borealis.
  • Camera settings:
    • On your lens, if available, turn off VR and change it to M.
    • Exposure: usually around 10-30 seconds. If the Aurora Borealis is really strong, even a few seconds could be enough. The longer the blurrier the Northern Lights will be. The shorter the sharper. With full moon near, shorter exposure time might be better.
    • f stop: This depends on your lens. Get it as low as possible (3.5). Otherwise, you need to compensate with longer exposure or ISO (which might result in blurrier photos or more noise).
    • ISO: ISO 800-1’600 is ideal, max 3’200. If ISO goes high up, the picture can get noisy. The lower the number, the stronger the Aurora would have to be. Aim for high ISO and reduce noise later with RAW editing, if you know how to photograph and edit RAW image files.
    • To start with, I used f3.5, ISO 1’600, 15 sec, but then started to reduce the exposure time as I could already see the blur on my LCD Display.

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About the author Valentin Rüst rotate

I founded Don't Complain Travel in 2010 with the goal to experience, document and share travel adventures from all over the world. From Zurich, Switzerland.

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