Workshop Aurora Borealis

First: when and where. If you are already on your way you can skip this and go directly for the photographic instructions below.

In this workshop you will learn the ins and outs of photographing the Northern Lights. As not every visitor of the Aurorea is a photographer this workshop will be low-level in photography explanation to enable everyone to get a decent photo of this phenomenon.

People often ask me where and when to go to for the Aurora. When is quite simple: always and in the dark. That would be from roughly half august till half april on the Northern Hemisphere. The Aurorae are the result of Earths defense mechanism against galactic radiation and charged particles from our Sun. So basically the Aurorae will be there on a regular basis though not non-stop. No threat, no defense.

Where is quite more complicated for two reasons. First you have to be somewhere around the arctic circle, preferable north of it so about 66 degrees north or higher. There are very few spots to watch the southern lights of Aurora Australis so forget about that unless you live in the most southern area of South America. The second reason are the weather gods. Clouds are the major spoilers. When thin they can provide you with psychedelic effects when Aurora shows up for her performance but this still not what you want. The light can be very faint and pale and you won't be able to see it with the thinnest of clouds.

So before planning your trip be advised about the local climate. Furthermore you have to go away from the city lighting. Remote rural areas are preferred. The less light the better and you can measure this by looking at a clear sky and make an estimate of the amount of stars that you see. You're pretty close when the sky looks like grainy from stars. But also the moon can make spotting the lights difficult. The moon is a huge lightsource in any dark sky area and spoiles the faint lights. And the lights are more often faint and pale then strong and colourfull.

Last but not least: money. I can hardly advice about that. Scandinavia is expensive. I go to Finnish Lapland and put som links in my links menu. I don't give about luxury but about quality. I love the Guesthouse Borealis and amongst the many Safari Companies there is one that stands out in their effort to let you experience the Aurora. Lapland Welcome does have a timeframe but hardly keeps to it if there is any chance that making it later than planned will help to spot the lights.

I stay in the city of Rovaniemi which has its own airport and Ifly with Finnair for the simple reason that hardly any other airline goes there with the connection on Helsinki that is usefull to me. My favourite time there is September and March around the equinox. The clouds are somewhat better before and after the huge snow deposits but the weather there is extremely inpredictable due to 3 colliding systems. On the other hand... that takes care of sudden clearings quite often.

Last but not least... It is a gamble. An expensive one. Take a week at least and go every night. Go out to a dark sky area and don't go alone as temperatures in winter can be extremely low or drop in seconds to minus 30 celcius or lower. Lights above the city are possible for sure but they are rare as they have to be extremely strong. hey can last for hours but 30 seconds for 1 night has been my part as well.

Maybe we'll meet in Rovaniemi from 11 till 22 march. See you there!

Technique

Equipment: Though listed here, do not buy it only weeks before you leave for the lights. Unless you have a lot of time on your hands under the lights, you will need to familiarize yourself with it in advance as the lights can hold for hours or... for less than a minute.

For novices:
Camera:

  • must be on a tripod for long exposure times
  • must be set to manual exposure and manual focussing. Auto is no option.
  • set your ISO for 3200 or 1600
  • If you shoot jpg files only (standard for most non-hobbyist camera's): set you whitebalance for flash or if you can at 5600 K. Do not use auto white balance.
  • set the aperture on 4.0 max, preferred on 2,8 or lower if you have
  • set the shutter for 10 seconds to start with.
  • take enough batteries with you. Cold will make them halt before they are drained and long exposure times do drain them quickly. The camera doesn't have to be expensive but really does need these manual possibilities.

When there seemes to be nothing in the sky: Set the camera for starters on your tripod with iso 3200, aperture wide open (lowest number) and shutter 15 seconds (15", not 15). Set the focusring for infinity (the flat laying 8). When there is a reasonable light in the sky set your ISO for 1600 and shutter for 10" (seconds) When there is good light 1600 and 2,5"-5" seconds. When bright moving multicoloured 800 iso at 1 second. Remark! These settings are guidelines depending on your own perception of brightness of the lights.

A good camera that is not expensive is by example the Sony DSC-HX400V. It has a good lens with a good max aperture of 2,8 at wide angle.