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Bucket List Item – Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) Photography + Viewing Tips

In 2015, I went up North towards the Canadian Arctic and had a chance to view the Aurora Borealis, also known as Northern Lights. Experiencing the lights had been on my bucket list for a awhile, so I thought, why not go and make it happen? It is definitely one of my best memories to date.

I went during early-February, when it is one of the periods for highest visibility of the lights. Ever since, I’ve been asked a lot of questions for tips and my experience, I’ve decided to write it all down in one blog post! 🙂

My Northern Lights Viewing Tips:

Time Period

The Northern Lights are most visible during the Winter months ranging from November to late March. I would suggest going during January or February when the chances of an aurora sight is the highest. During the summer, temperatures are a lot warmer (more bearable being outside, compared to -40 degrees Celsius) and the lights are visible! But definitely not as commonly seen compared to Winter months.

It is also best to check aurora forecasts ahead of time to see which nights have the highest predicted chances for visibility. There are no guarantees and everything is subject to change, but preparing as much as possible will maximize your chances!

Locations

The best places in the World to see the lights are: Canada (Yellowknife has one of the top chances in Canada, Manitoba has high chances as well), Norway (Tromso), Alaska, and Iceland.

Best Spots For Viewing

I went with a tour company that brought groups of people to the best locations in the City for viewing. I would definitely recommend this option as opposed to driving by yourself. The road conditions were pretty bad+dangerous, and since the best areas are far outside the City, there was no lighting during the path to our spot in the woods, which was covered by a lot of snow. Also, the guides know the best spots and are ‘chasers’ themselves, so they know well when and where to move to if you aren’t having luck in a spot.

The lights are best viewed in dark areas without any light or moon pollution. Best to go far outside from City lights, and during a night without a lot of moonlight or full moon, as it illuminates the sky making it harder for visibility. Sometimes an overcast evening can also make the lights more difficult to be seen.

Clothing

This is the most important tip, and I can’t stress it enough! During the evening, temperatures in Yellowknife (where I saw the lights) dropped down to -40 degrees Celsius. I ended up with minor frost bite because I didn’t use proper gloves for photography. The gloves I had were not camera-friendly, and I ended up taking them off multiples times so I can adjust the settings on my camera and tripod properly. If possible, try to wear gloves that would make adjusting camera settings more convenient. Make sure to wear layers of warm clothing (eg. sweaters, ski pants) and opt for renting a jacket (most tour companies will have them) warm enough for those temperatures if you don’t have one.

My Tips To Photographing The Lights: 

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This is a shocker to many people I’ve told, but the vibrant green/pink/purple/yellow colours of the lights you see in photos or videos are the result of good camera lenses and editing afterwards. When viewed by the naked eye, the lights are almost white-grey with very faint traces of green. But when a camera captures the light, the ‘true’ colours are shown through these lenses. Don’t get me wrong, viewing the aurora in person is very beautiful and really special, I’m just sharing this so you won’t accidentally overlook the sight of an aurora. Quite a few people in my tour group didn’t realize the lights had appeared before us because they thought it was supposed to be a bright green. They almost missed it!

*Practice taking night shots (if you don’t have much experience with photography) before attempting to photograph the lights. The lights can come and go very quickly, it would be a bummer if you spent too long figuring out which settings to use and the lights are gone already. At that point, you haven’t taken a proper photo, and you didn’t get to really enjoy them because you were too busy with the camera settings.

Camera

A DSLR camera would be best for capturing the lights, but phone cameras also have basic settings similar to an actual camera, you may be able to capture part of the lights with my following tips as well! I personally like a balance of landscape and lights in my photo for a full capture.

I would recommend a full frame 35mm camera and wide angle lens (f-stop values of f/2.8-f/4). A wide angle lens here is quite important to capture the landscape + lights! It makes such a difference!

Format

Always shoot RAW 😉 It makes the quality and editing afterwards that much better.

Aperture

Set your aperture to f/2.8, or as wide as possible.

ISO & Exposure Setting 

I recommend setting the exposure time between 5-25 seconds. Try 5-7 second exposures if the aurora is moving quickly. If it is moving slower, 10-25 second exposures.

Most of my shots ranged from 3000-6000 ISO, and usually I would increase or decrease as necessary for night shots. Depending on your camera and lens, the level of ISO you use may vary. Although do keep in mind that the higher the ISO you use, the more ‘grainy’ (also known as noise) your photos will look. Put simply, you sacrifice quality by increasing the ‘brightness’ for your shot. However, better gear can shoot with lower ISO to reduce noise while capturing an amazing visible shot, so it really depends on the type of camera you have.

Tripod

A tripod is a must to shoot the best images possible. However, a temperature-friendly tripod goes a long way here. When it is -40 degrees celsius, the tripod will stiffen/freeze, making it incredibly difficult to adjust. Using a tripod designed for these conditions will make setting up and photographing much quicker and easier.

Editing Your Photos Afterwards

I used a Canon camera, and they have their own editing software which I like. I also used Photoshop to edit some of my photos.

Final Tips

I was very fortunate that the lights were visible on and off for about 2 hours when I saw it, giving me ample time to adjust my camera and tripod settings. I highly recommend experimenting with the settings beforehand so you will be at ease when you’re attempting to take the shots. Also, take some time to put the camera away and just enjoy the moment with your eyes 🙂 Imagine laying down with the sky full of stars, a dancing aurora, and its just you and this natural phenomenon. It is truly an incredible experience.

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Have fun, and if you would like to ask me for any further tips or questions, send me a message anytime!

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