As a professional landscape and wedding photographer, photographing the Northern Lights in Lapland has always been on my bucket list (and maybe one day shooting a wedding here too!) I spent a lot of time researching how best to see and photograph the aurora, and I am often asked how to maximise your chances of seeing the northern lights, and when you do, how best to capture them. So I thought I would share all my thoughts and all I have discovered here. Personally I believe that knowing what the aurora are and what they need to occur are fundamental to increasing your chances of seeing them, and it’s a fascinating subject. If you only have a week in Lapland, and it is once in a lifetime trip, then it pays to give yourself the best possible chance.
What are the Northern Lights? – The science
The Aurora Borealis is a phenomenon whereby beautiful waves of light are created when charged particles from the sun (known as the solar wind) reach the earth’s atmosphere, where the earth’s magnetic field diverts the particles towards the poles, in our case the north pole. When the particles reach the earth’s atmosphere, the energy is transferred through ionisation, and transforms into light – the particles begin to flouresce. Every type of molecule radiates its own unique set of colours, so red and pink are formed by nitrogen molecules, and the well-known green by oxygen molecules. As different molecules are present at different levels in the atmosphere, this creates the curtain shaped effect, with green at the bottom, and pinks and reds at the top. The name Aurora Borealis was termed by Galileo, from the names of the roman goddess of the dawn (Aurora), and the Greek for the north wind (Boreas).
The Aurora normally occur in a band around the earth, which is usually around 3-6 degrees wide, and occurs at the latitude 10-20 degrees from the pole, so 80-70 degrees, and with Levi in Lapland sitting at 68 degrees, it is perfectly positioned for this band to pass overhead. Levi is on the southern rim of the oval, so generally the lights are more likely to be seen in the North. If you can’t see them overhead, then try getting higher and looking in to the distance, as they may well be visible on the Northern horizon.
The strength of the aurora is dictated by the KP index, which can be found through Aurora forecasts. However, you don’t necessarily need a high KP index to see the aurora in Levi. The KP index indicates how strong the solar storm is, and thus how far south it might reach from the pole, So in Levi, the lights will be visible with a KP index of around 2-3, which is actually just classified as ‘unsettled’ on the KP index. A higher KP, such as those which go into the red zone at 7 and 8 doesn’t necessarily mean the probability is greater, it just means the storm is stronger and may reach further south, so for example at the highest level of KP8, the same Aurora could be visible in the UK. It stands to reason though that a higher KP means more activity, and therefore potentially better viewing opportunities, as the aurora oval will be more active and fluctuate north to south more. The photos on this page were all taken when the KP was just 3.
The KP index, and the potential reach.
The aurora oval, and how it fluctuates around the pole. At this time, Levi experienced an incredible display.
When can I see them? What conditions do you need?
Statistically, the Aurora can be seen on average 111 days per year in Levi, so 1/3 of the time. If you take the summer days when there is no night out of the equation, then this becomes 50% of the time. Further south in Rovaniemi, the probability drops to 40% due to the lower latitude. This is the probability of the lights being present however, and you still need a clear sky don’t forget. So if you had clear skies for a week in December you might expect to see them 3 times, however if it is cloudy all week, then the chances could be zero. This is why keeping an eye on the forecasts for cloud cover is so important, almost more so than the KP factor.
Typically the aurora can be seen around two hours before midnight, and 2 hours after, however then can be seen at any time it is dark, they can be seen faintly at first, getting stronger as the evening progresses.
So to see the lights, you need both a clear sky, and a low to medium KP index of perhaps 2 or above. By far the best way to maximise your chances is to constantly check the weather, and the aurora forecast, both of which constantly change and become more accurate the closer you get. I know from experience that the KP index can change vastly of an evening as the forecast is based upon live readings form various stations situated around the arctic, so keep a close eye on the app, and above all keep looking out, looking up, and towards the northern horizon. The My Aurora app also provides cloud cover information in your location, and I cross referenced this with the IS Supersaa app, just to make sure. Trust me, there is nothing worse than waiting your whole life to see the aurora then missing them through blissful ignorance because the forecast wasn’t quite right. If in doubt, go outside and look for stars, if you can see them, then you have a great chance of catching the aurora.
How do you know if you might see the northern lights?
There are several apps for forecasts which use similar data. The best one I have found is the My Aurora app, which can be programmed to send you alerts which is very useful. It works in the UK too, so if you live in the North of the UK then it can alert you to the very rare sightings when the KP hits 7 or above.
Can you see them with the naked eye?
One of the keys to seeing the lights is to go somewhere with minimal light pollution, and let your eyes adjust to the dark. They can be very faint and hard to see, sometimes just looking like a wisp of grey cloud. A really useful tip here is to use your phone and take a photo in night mode. The camera sensor can be more sensitive than your eye, so if the aurora are there, the chances are that your camera will pick them up before your eyes will!
Can you photograph the lights with your camera phone?
Absolutely, a good modern camera phone will photograph the lights well if it has a night mode. The camera takes a range of photos at different shutter speeds and exposures, then combines them into one to capture the full dynamic range of the image, which is why it is really important to hold your phone still. With an app such as Camera +, you can take much more control of your camera and enable long exposures, which will always be better quaility as they let more light in, but you will need a simple tripod for this.
You can also record a time-lapse with a phone too. A time-lapse effectively creates a short video from a series of still photos taken over a longer period of time, so 20 minutes of photos would create 10 seconds of video. This is useful if you can’t see the aurora moving as they are slow, but it allows you to see the fascinating dancing patterns. You will need a tripod for this to hold the camera still, and once set up, you can’t move the camera of the duration. Position the camera low and wide to include as much of the sky as possible.
I’d recommend trying all of these features before heading out to see the lights, as when they are dancing overhead isn’t the time to be trying to figure out how it all works, especially with cold fingers!
Make sure you head out to an aurora session with a full battery, taking photos can be power hungry, and the cold can reduce the performance of a battery significantly.
If you have a good camera, what is the best set up?
With a digital SLR or mirrorless camera you have ultimate control over the exposure and the image you can create. I would recommend the widest lens you have, ideally 20-24mm, one which is really fast, so has a low f number, to allow the maximum amount of light to enter the camera, ideally f1.8, but f2.8 to f4 will do. My starting settings are a low ISO of 800 (to reduce the amount of noise in the image), a shutter speed of 1 second (to allow plenty of light in to create the image), and the widest f stop possible (again to allow as much light in as possible). You will definitiely need a tripod for a long exposure, and make sure it has a firm footing through the snow. With a wide aperture you get a very shallow depth of field, so you need to focus manually, ideally on the stars, so that the aurora will be in focus. I also always shoot in RAW format so you have as much digital information to be able to get the best possible edited image afterwards. When you edit the image, you may need to adjust the white balance to really bring out the pinks, which aren’t always visible to the naked eye. The pages below explain this in a little more detail if you are interested.
To get the best possible photograph of the aurora, think about ways to get interest in the part of the frame where there is little interest in the sky, with shapes of trees, or cabins. You can use people for silhouettes, or if you want to see their faces, you can light them with a torch, or the torch on another phone.
Cameras and the cold
Cameras and phones perform surprisingly well in the cold, it’s just that battery life can be significantly reduced, so make sure you have spare batteries with you, or a powerbank. A really important consideration if you have your camera or phone out in the cold for a long period of time is condensation – this can be a problem when you bring it in to a warm environment, so the best solution is to leave it in your camera bag, or put it in a ziplock bag so the temperature adjusts before looking at the camera indoors, or you risk fogging.
Video and timelapse
Making a timelapse video is a great way to capture the aurora if they are moving slowly, as it allows you to see the motion much more quickly, so 20 minutes might become 10 seconds. You can create a timelapse on a modern phone (though you will need a tripod for this, and to leave your phone sat for a long period of time, which means you can’t then use it for photos). With a modern mirrorless camera such as the Nikon Z7ii which I use, you can set up the in built interval timer to take a photo every 5 seconds, and then as well as giving you several hundred photos to choose from, it also creates a timelapse for you.
Do we need to book a Northern Lights hunting trip or stay in a glass igloo?
An aurora hunt is a great way to try to find the aurora, and to learn more about them from the people who know them best, and live underneath them all year round. They will be able to take you to the best places to see them based upon the forecast and the weather. Bear in mind though that if it is cloudy, they won’t necessarily be able to find the aurora for you, but you will still probably have an amazing adventure. Eanan Levi run some great specific aurora hunting tours. The same applies to glass igloos, they can be the perfect place to enjoy the aurora, but if it is cloudy then your chances are greatly reduced. The point is that you don’t need to do either to see the aurora, they are free for all to enjoy just by heading outdoors.
Where are the best places to view the Aurora in and around Levi?
The magic is that you can see the aurora anywhere in Levi, but some places are better than others. Try to head somewhere with minimal light pollution, which is why the lakes of Immeljarvi and Sirkkajarvi are popular choices, which are also wide open spaces to allow you to see as much of the sky and horizon as possible (remember that if the aurora aren’t overhead, they may stil be visible in the distance to the north). The golf course is also a good spot, as well as the cabins in the forest. You can also get a good high viewpoint from the Panorama hotel, though you will get light pollution from Levi below.
How can we quickly check if the Aurora are visible over Levi?
The live Levi aurora camera by Starlapland is a great way to keep in touch with what is going on real time- I have embedded it here below, and you can also find it by following this link.
I hope you have found this information useful – I’m not an expert in the subject, just sharing what I learned which was really useful in maximising my chances of seeing the aurora in Levi. Good luck and I really hope you get to see them! I’m happy to answer any questions below.