Posted on February 7, 2017

All About the Northern Lights and How to Photograph it

Destinations/ Europe/ Iceland

As I am about to head off on an exciting Arctic adventure in hope to see the Northern Lights, I wanted to share my research as well as expert photography tips and checklists from the luxurious and rather isolated Hotel Rangá, an hour from Reykjavik in Iceland – an ideal spot to watch this natural phenomenon.

What Exactly Are the Northern Lights?
It’s a celestial phenomenon of collisions between electrically charged particles from the sun that enter the earth’s atmosphere. It has amazed people for centuries and looks like flickering curtains of lights dancing across the dark sky. It tops most people’s bucket list and with good reason. But to be able to see them requires visiting during the winter, clear skies and a whole lot of luck.

Where Can You See Them?
Also known as Aurora Borealis (named after the Roman goddess of dawn), the natural displays of light are mainly observed in the Arctic circle that surrounds the North Pole (near the South Pole they are called Southern Lights or Aurora Australis).

The Cycle
Auroras apparently occur with more frequency when there is high solar sunspot activity. The solar sunspot has an 11-year cycle, which climaxed in 2013. This doesn’t mean you won’t be able to see the Northern Lights in the next few years, it just wont be as intense. The year to mark in your calendar is 2024 where you can expect to see Northern Lights displays in all its glory.

How Does it Get its Colour?
The collision of atmospheric gases- oxygen, nitrogen and helium are responsible for the various colours of the Northern Lights. More oxygen creates a green (most common one) or reddish hue, nitrogen creates a blue or red display while helium causes a blue or purple light display.

Where to See Them
The Northern Lights typically occur near the magnetic poles. Some of the best places to see them is the northwestern parts of Canada such as Yukon, Nunavut, Northwest Territories and Alaska. The Southern tip of Greenland and Iceland, the northern coast of Norway, Finland, Sweden and over the coastal waters north of Siberia.

When to See Them
Winter is typically the best time (around midnight) as the days are shorter and the nights are longer which is an ideal situation to watch the auroral displays.

How to Photograph the Northern Lights
The experts at Luxury riverside and celebrity-favourite Hotel Rangá located between the towns of Hella and Hvolsvöllur, about an hour from Reykjavík share their expert tips with us:

Picture by Hotel Rangá

1 Hotel Rangá offers a wakeup call to see the lights, so be sure to mark your room number on the list in the lobby. (Please note that there is a new list every day).

2 When waiting for the northern lights you will receive a call from the reception or the night watchman, be prepared with your clothes and camera gear – it could happen while you are a sleep. If you get the call the best way is to respond quickly.

3 Dress in many warm layers as staying out in the middle of the night, standing still, your body will cool down quickly and you will want to give up.

4 Most often the lights are seen in the general direction of north. If you don‘t have a room with a balcony facing the north, please come out to the parking lot.

5 Have the camera ready, use your fastest wide angle lens, the ISO (ASA) number from 500-1600, F- stop wide open or largest and on a good tripod.

6 When exposing you will have to experiment with times from 5 seconds to half a minute.

7 Keep in mind the Auroras will come and go.  If they disappear they will probably reappear within 30-60 minutes. If not, they will show up later, most often when we are back in bed.

Checklist for the More Serious Amateur Photographer

1 Shoot in RAW format.
2 Turn on Long Exposure Noise Reduction.
3 Set LCD Brightness to low.
4 Remove the filter from your lens.
5 Pre-focus your lens on infinity or use live-view with loupe.
6 Test exposure, consult histogram.
7 Have two batteries and two flash cards.
8 Use a tall but sturdy tripod.
9 Use a cable release (not a wireless one).
10 Check the aurora forecasts.
11 Scout a location in daylight.
12 Don’t breathe on your viewfinder.
13 Use your lens hood to protect against frost/condensation on your lens.
14 While waiting for the aurora, point your camera lens down to prevent frost gathering on the glass.
15 Have a luminex cleaning cloth accessible to clean frost from lens if needed.
16 Put black tape over your red processing light under the wheel (for Canon users-your fellow photographers will like you).

Pictures by Hotel Rangá, click here for more. Have you had an incredible Northern Lights experience? Feel free to share it with us in the comments below.

Happy Hunting!

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