How To Find The Auroras/Northern Lights and Photograph Them, 23 August 2015

Welcome to my post about how to find the northern lights. This post is not so much about post processing tips but more of how to find the northern lights and photograph them. I will be using Iceland as my primary example, which is one of the most difficult spots to see the auroras.

Due to its geographical location, Iceland is probably one of the best spots in the world to see the auroras, but what makes it difficult is the weather. Many people think that by just being in Iceland or any northern part of Scandinavia they will see the lights; sadly, that is not true. If you want to see the auroras, follow my tips below, as they can help you understand what to look out for when viewing them. At the end I have included a bonus section about camera settings.

1. What are auroras and when do they happen?

Auroras are the result of solar winds emitted from the sun interacting with earth's magnetic field. The chances of seeing them are based on a KP number system. The KP number on any particular night determines if the auroras can be seen or not based on where you are. Auroras form in an oval-shaped ring around the north and south poles. For this article, we will focus more on the North Pole because seeing auroras in the South Pole means you need to go to Antarctica, which is difficult and prohibitively expensive.

I use this website to find the status on auroras:

The map for the KP numbers can be found here.

The KP gauge shown below is a screenshot from the website above. Notice how it says 2.67 which means that countries above a certain latitude will be in the zone where you MIGHT find auroras. The KP number is affected by Earth's magnetic field. It fluctuates rapidly and the way it works is when the disturbance is strong, it will 'stretch' the auroras further south making it visible in more countries and therefore raising the KP number.

Sometimes, the sun will fire off a CME (coronal mass ejection) which is a large amount of solar wind which can cause the KP number to rise up to 7 or 8 and be visible even in the US. The amount by which the auroras stretch south is determined by the most important indicator, called the Bz field.

2. Bz field and how to read it.

You will find this gauge in the solar gauge section in the first website above mentioned. Normally, every night you could potentially see auroras, but if the Bz field is positive, then the auroras are very far north, only visible in extreme places like Tromso, Norway. If the Bz field goes positive, in the green section, then there are less chances to see them further south. What you need to look out for is when the gauge goes negative (south) and that's when you will have the best chance of seeing them at lower latitudes. The Bz field can fluctuate within minutes, which explains why some people can go out and see nothing and go home but then another group later suddenly see the northern lights and then the first group of people would say:
"but we were out last night and didn't see anything :("

3. Auroras can appear and disappear within minutes as well.

In the photo above, I was in Landmannalaugar in April 2015 and there were other people at the hut who were outside just minutes before I came outside and they didn't see a thing. When I came out of the mountain hut I waited for about 10 minutes and saw these waves come in and vanish within 45 seconds. They didn't believe I saw them until I showed them this image from my camera which I left outside on timelapse mode.

4. Planning to see the auroras

The problem with most tours for auroras is that they start and end at a specific time. If you don't see them, most of the tours will take you out again for one more night and that is why many people on trip advisor forums say they haven't seen any.

You have to be in a location where you can stay overnight, maybe at a cabin hut or even one of those rental trucks where you can sleep in the back. Once you have that going, then you have the freedom to come out anytime and check on them. I should mention that if you want to photograph the auroras, you have to have your camera ready on a tripod, set to at least 10 seconds, ISO 1600 and the widest aperture possible. Auroras don't come in a flash either, they normally start as clouds which will look white to the eyes but one way to recognize them is by looking at the southern edges of the clouds, if you see sharp edges, chances that is an aurora wave starting up.

Whenever you doubt a cloud, take a test shot. This image below shows how it can look like at first:

This shot was taken in northern Finland, in a place called Levi on top of the snow hill. I saw what seemed liked a long streak of clouds with sharp edges, I took a shot and I saw them in the shot, although weak. But that was the first step. I immediately found a better spot away from the town lights and all of a sudden I saw the wave become stronger. One thing with aurora waves is they normally peak like a wave in the ocean and they usually turn purple:

This shot above was taken just 2 minutes after I took the first test shot. Seconds later, it disappeared... That is how long they can last. During a strong storm, they can appear for the whole night, again depending on the Bz field.

5. Patience is key.

It goes without saying that you have to be very patient to see them. Normally, during the aurora season in high latitudes it can be very cold but if you are patient, you will be rewarded handsomely. This shot above came by surprise. I didn't expect them to show up above my head as I was looking north. Auroras can also start anywhere in the sky so it pays to look behind as well and not just north.

6. The KP number can trick you.

One night in southern Iceland, I was very excited to know that the KP number was very high (6) and I set out and saw nothing, to my disappointment. I was confused because the skies were clear, but the auroras were nowhere to be seen. The issue was that there was not enough energetic particles to make the aurora oval band 'thick' enough that even if it was KP 6 it would cover Iceland as well. I turned behind to head back to my hotel and I saw them, in the picture above, and they were far south of Iceland. f the KP number is very high, it might not work for high latitudes as the oval can stretch far below Iceland and visible to other countries further south than Iceland. My Canadian friends went up to their cottages and saw the auroras while me being in Iceland couldn't see them. The image above shows the auroras further south Iceland, that was the only visible wave and for the rest of the night none were visible in Iceland :( oh well..

7. Set yourself up for disappointment

The worst thing to happen when chasing auroras is to not find anything. The way I do it is I setup for disappointment first as it makes the defeat more palatable :) as you've read so far, there are many conditions to meet so that they can show up and the chances are very low. This is why having access to a light pollution-free zone for the whole night will give you better chances. One of the best places in Iceland is Landmannalaugar, in the highlands. If you can book a seat there for the night, you will have better chances.

8. Weather being the biggest issue and about 'chasing' the auroras.

It goes without saying that if there are clouds, you won't see auroras. In Iceland, the weather is extremely unpredictable. Don't bother looking at the weather report for cloud cover as it can change within minutes. There's a saying in Iceland: "if you don't like the weather, just wait for 5 minutes" and it's been very true.

On my recent trip with a co-worker, we stayed at a motel on the Snaesfellsnes Peninsula next to Kirkjufell and on the night I took the photo above, it was raining. He said to forget it and went to bed. The next morning I showed him this shot and he wanted to strangle me because all I did is go 20 minutes away from the small town and there was a huge patch of clear skies.

It's like they say, you have to chase the auroras and not just sit in one spot. If it's cloudy in one spot or even raining or snowing, start driving. If you don't see a clear spot, keep driving. The cloud cover in Iceland sometimes breaks up and you will have that small window of opportunity to shoot the auroras.

We've had to drive up to an hour to find a clear patch of sky to shoot the auroras so don't give up!

9. That wind...

Be very wary of the wind in Iceland. The weather could change from a sunny day to a full-blown blizzard within 5 minutes. The photo above shows the blizzard closing up the sky and it became a windy hell. The real danger is the wind, as the arctic winds can blow very strong. On this day there were gale force winds up to 32m/s and strong enough that it could blow a small car off the road because with blowing snow, the road becomes extremely slippery and if you are caught in the wrong angle, you can be blown off the road. It can lower the temperature as well. In the above photo, when the sun was out it was +4c but with the wind it felt like -12c. Always gear up properly when you visit Iceland! Windbreaker jackets are an absolute must and good gloves will protect your fingers because if your fingers are frozen, the last thing you will do is use your camera.

10. Look for a landscape!

When you are setting up for shooting auroras, pick your landscape! Your landscape will take your shot to another level. A lot of people just point up and shoot and get boring aurora pictures because they were too thrilled to select a landscape that will match their shot. If conditions are met, then it's easy to forget about what the final image will look like. During daytime I like to scout the areas first to pick a landscape for the night.

11. Success!

If all goes well, you will be rewarded with one of the most spectacular shows of nature. It takes time, patience and a lot of deprived sleep to see auroras. Given all the necessary conditions, it's a very difficult show to see and capture on camera. I'm on my 4th Iceland trip this year and I've only gotten a few shots myself but I don't regret the sacrifices I had to make to capture them.

12. Bonus: camera settings

To photograph the auroras, you need a fast lens. A phone won't work, you will need a DSLR with high sensitivity to record them. Normally my exposures have been between 4 seconds and 15 seconds, not more. Because these thing can move very fast and if you expose for too long, they will trail and make the shot muddy and over-exposed in some areas. The ISO I use is normally 1600 or 3200 because i need to capture them using the shortest exposure possible so I can preserve the 'candles' in the auroras.

Lenses I used were the canon EF 14mm and Zeiss 21mm and these shots were taken on an EOS 6D. They were shot wide open at f2.8. You could try closing down the aperture but that increase in exposure time might make the auroras trail unless they are so bright that they can be shot with a small exposure time at f4 or narrower. Another important thing is to set your focus at the infinity mark but the infinity mark is not always as marked on the lens.

Set your lens' image stabilization off and switch it to manual focus. Use live view and zoom in to a bright star, and make adjustments in the live view until the star is at its smallest size, then don't touch the focus ring for the rest of the night. Once all set you should get a spectacular shot.

Good luck!


© 2015