- October 13, 2012
- 6 comments
- Posted by EdGraham
- Destinations, Europe Travel, Guides, Iceland, Photography
How You Can See the Northern Lights this Winter
An Experience Like No Other
You can look at all the pictures you want, but absolutely nothing compares to the awestruck feeling of standing under the aurora borealis yourself. I’ve seen the lights only a handful of times, but my sightings were always just a glimpse from an airplane flying northerly routes to Europe or Canada. My recent trip to Iceland changed that: I saw the lights from the ground for the first time in the countryside outside of Snæfellsbær, and although the show was short lived, it was stunning.
It’s Not Easy
To see the lights, two entirely different sets of weather conditions have to cooperate at the same time. Weather here on earth must be favorable to allow clear nighttime skies, and the weather in space must be such that the northern lights become visible. Clear skies and good weather are a tall order for many northerly locations during winter time, and the chances that both sets of conditions will be right on any given night are not very good. But if you plan to spend any length of time up north during winter, sooner or later you’re bound to be treated to an amazing show of light.
The Easiest and Best Way to See Them
The simplest – and probably best – way to see the lights is to make your way to a northerly destination (above 60 degrees latitude) in winter, wait for a clear night, and look up. The exact timing, location, and intensity of the lights is nearly impossible to predict, so you’ll have to keep checking the sky at regular intervals throughout the night. It can be an exercise in patience and frustration but the payoff is worth it.
Maximize Your Chances
Despite being notoriously inaccurate, northern light forecasts are helpful. They’re good at predicting your chances of seeing the lights, but by no means guarantee a sighting. Still, forecasts are useful if you’re trying to decide between staying up to keep looking or heading indoors for the night. My favorite sites are:
Seeing the Lights Below 60 Degrees North?
Let’s face it, most big cities are located at far more reasonable latitudes and thus aren’t prime viewing spots for the lights. Although rare, it IS possible to see them below 60 degrees latitude. Sightings have occurred as far south as California and Texas, and I’ve personally seen the lights from an airplane flying well south of Chicago. This is where the forecasts really become useful, especially the handy charts on this webpage:
Scroll down to find your city (or latitude), then compare that latitude with the K-index value you’ll need to be able to see the lights. Then, keep watching the forecasts and wait for the K- value you need. Hey, no one said it was easy!
Photographing the Lights in 4 Easy Steps
- Set up your equipment: camera, wide angle lens, and tripod (you NEED a tripod)
- Set EVERYTHING to manual: lens focus to infinity, ISO to 800-3200 depending on the noise characteristics of your camera, aperture to as open as you’re comfortable with (f2.8-f4 if possible), and exposure time to about 20 seconds.
- Set “Long Exposure Noise Reduction” to ON if your camera has that option.
- Take the picture. Verify focus by zooming in on your LCD screen. Adjust your exposure time and ISO values as necessary and keep shooting. Leave the aperture alone.
A good starting estimate is 20 seconds, 3200 ISO, and f4. Adjust as needed depending on your specific scene. Avoid exposure times in excess of 30 seconds because you’ll start to see blur in the stars as they move across the sky.
Know When to Call It
Clouds setting in? K-index values too low? Consider heading to bed and saving your sleep for a better night.
The aurora borealis isn’t just limited to the northern hemisphere, even though that’s where just about everyone sees them. Southern lights are visible too, but unfortunately you’d have to get to Antarctica in winter (May-September) – it’s a much colder and much more remote place than just about anywhere up north. Of course, given the opportunity I’d be all over it!