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Aurora Borealis in Arctic Norway

Aurora Borealis in Arctic Norway

Aurora Borealis in Arctic Norway

BY JOHAN VESTERS | POSTED: MAY 20, 2018

BY JOHAN VESTERS | POSTED: MAY 20, 2018

Aurora Borealis, aka the Northern Lights, one of Mother Nature's many wonders. Anywhere from a static, faint, green arch over the horizon, to different kinds of shapes and colours moving around, lighting up the whole sky. The Northern Lights are never the same, sometimes you get to see a little bit, sometimes it lasts all night. It's always amazing and to me, it's still the craziest thing I've ever seen. It truly is nature's best light show.

I've always had a thing for Scandinavia, Norway in particular. The more I traveled the Nordic countries, the further north I went. The Aurora Borealis had been number one on my bucket list for a while. So when a friend asked me to join him on a roadtrip through northern Finland and Norway, I was obviously down to go. After two weeks of late nights filled with Northern Lights, sleeping in the back of a van, standing outside in the cold for hours, taking countless pictures, drinking liters of coffee, watching this incredible natural phenomenon, I just couldn't get enough of it. Another friend of mine had moved to Tromsø earlier that year so we met up, he showed us around the area and told us about his job as a tour guide. This inspired me to pack my things and move to Tromsø a month later to work as a Northern Lights guide.

The Northern Lights are caused by a reaction similar to the way a fluorescent light tube works. Electrically charged particles escape the sun's atmosphere, streaming towards our planet at high speed, this called the solar wind. Once these particles hit our earth's magnetic field, they make their way towards the North and South Poles, where they collide with the upper atmosphere, 'exciting' air particles, releasing light as they calm down. Different shades of green, yellow, pink, blue, violet and red can be seen depending on whether the particles react with oxygen and/or nitrogen and at which altitude. Green is the most common Auroral colour, caused by a reaction with oxygen at an altitude of about 100 km (60 miles) up to 240 km (150 miles). Another reason we mostly see green is simply because the human eye detects green easier than other colours.

Camera's will always catch the lights brighter and more colourful than what we can see. But the experience of watching the Northern Lights will always be better than any picture. Even after seeing the lights uncountable times, I often get just as excited as my guests.

Though it's definitely not the only place, the upper section of Northern Norway (north of Vesterålen) is the best place to go and see the Aurora Borealis. Most importantly because it's situated right in the Northern Lights 'zone', a circle around the magnetic North Pole. Another reason is the fact that the area is easily accessible and offers plenty of facilities and activities, making your trip both more interesting and more comfortable.
Tromsø is located right in the centre of the Northern Lights zone, which basically makes it the Aurora capital.

The Aurora forecast and measurements are shown using the KP-index (0 – 9), KP 0 being no activity and 9 being a major geomagnetic storm. A higher number means more and/or stronger Northern Lights, as well as an expansion of the Auroral oval. This means the lights can also be seen in other, more southern places. Around Tromsø, even KP 1 or 2 is good enough and you will still be able to catch the lights. In case of high activity, you might even see the lights dance above your head, or even towards the south.

Though the Aurora forecast can be useful, in reality it seems to be off most times. I've had incredible nights with a low forecast, but also experienced nights with almost no activity even though the forecast showed KP 5. All you gotta do is get away from light pollution, have an open view towards the north, clear sky and a bit of luck. There's no set time when the Northern Lights happen, as long as it's dark, you have a chance of seeing them. My first night I had to wait until 2 AM before anything happened, other nights it already started at 5 PM. Activity might even happen during the day when it's still light outside, you just won't be able to see them.

No fancy phone app can correctly show when to go out or where to see the lights. ALWAYS go out and try, you never know what might happen!
The next picture was taken on a night with a forecast of KP 2, it ended up being 6..

In the zone, the Northern Lights season lasts from late August to mid April. That doesn't mean there's no solar activity during the other months, it's simply too bright to be able to see the lights. Further south, where it's still dark at night, they might be visible until early May, if activity is high enough. Last week (May 6th) for example, the lights were even visible from the Netherlands, though this is extremely rare and they were only visible on camera.

So you own a camera and you want to capture the Northern Lights yourself. Truth is, there's not one single setting that's 'right'. It all depends on how well your camera handles low light situations, how fast your lens is, how strong the lights are, if and how fast they're moving, if the moon is out at all and ultimately, what you're trying to achieve in your picture. Where a slow shutter speed is better when the lights are more static or faint (the result will be a lot smoother), a fast shutter speed is needed to 'freeze' the lights when they're moving.

Let's go through some of the basics:

Stabilization: To prevent your camera from shaking, always use a tripod. Any vibrations will mess up your shot. For the same reason, either use a camera remote or simply use your camera's Timer or Delay function. Though I do sometimes use my remote, in most cases I use the timer in stead, set to 2 seconds.

Aperture: Just keep your aperture wide open. If your lens goes down to f/2.8, good.
If it goes down to f/1.8 or f/1.4, even better!

ISO: This really depends on how well your camera handles higher ISO settings without producing too much noise. I always say start around 1600, but if you can, go higher.
I've shot anywhere between 1000 and 4500, but usually stick to 2500 or 3200.

Shutter speed: I suggest taking a few test shots to figure out what shutter speed you should use. Start around 5 seconds and just go from there. Most of the times I stay between 1 to 5 seconds, but in case of low activity I go up to 10 seconds or more. The fastest shutter speed I used so far, was a quarter of a second, capturing some of the craziest lights I've ever seen.

Focus: Set your lens to Manual Focus and your focus to Infinity (∞). Even though lenses do have a little infinity mark, in most cases it's a little off. Focusing in the dark can be quite tricky as well, but this is the way I do it. Aim your camera at a distant light source, for example a bright star, go into live view, zoom in (on your screen, not with your lens), set your focus manually and you're good to go!

White balance: This is often personal preference, but I usually stay around 3400k. In case of full moon or twilight, I might go up to 4000K or more.

Play around and get familiar with the settings, always have your camera set up and ready to go. The lights may appear or change at any moment, react fast and you'll get the hang of it through trial and error. If you're curious about which exact settings I used for all these pictures, I always include them in my Instagram posts.

Whether you're out photographing or just watching the Northern Lights, always make sure to stay warm. Arctic nights can get very cold, so wear multiple layers, bring food and drinks, build a campfire if you can.. Stay safe out there, happy travels and enjoy the light show!

Aurora Borealis, aka the Northern Lights, one of Mother Nature's many wonders. Anywhere from a static, faint, green arch over the horizon, to different kinds of shapes and colours moving around, lighting up the whole sky. The Northern Lights are never the same, sometimes you get to see a little bit, sometimes it lasts all night. It's always amazing and to me, it's still the craziest thing I've ever seen. It truly is nature's best light show.

I've always had a thing for Scandinavia, Norway in particular. The more I traveled the Nordic countries, the further north I went. The Aurora Borealis had been number one on my bucket list for a while. So when a friend asked me to join him on a roadtrip through northern Finland and Norway, I was obviously down to go. After two weeks of late nights filled with Northern Lights, sleeping in the back of a van, standing outside in the cold for hours, taking countless pictures, drinking liters of coffee, watching this incredible natural phenomenon, I just couldn't get enough of it. Another friend of mine had moved to Tromsø earlier that year so we met up, he showed us around the area and told us about his job as a tour guide. This inspired me to pack my things and move to Tromsø a month later to work as a Northern Lights guide.

The Northern Lights are caused by a reaction similar to the way a fluorescent light tube works. Electrically charged particles escape the sun's atmosphere, streaming towards our planet at high speed, this called the solar wind. Once these particles hit our earth's magnetic field, they make their way towards the North and South Poles, where they collide with the upper atmosphere, 'exciting' air particles, releasing light as they calm down. Different shades of green, yellow, pink, blue, violet and red can be seen depending on whether the particles react with oxygen and/or nitrogen and at which altitude. Green is the most common Auroral colour, caused by a reaction with oxygen at an altitude of about 100 km (60 miles) up to 240 km (150 miles). Another reason we mostly see green is simply because the human eye detects green easier than other colours.

Camera's will always catch the lights brighter and more colourful than what we can see. But the experience of watching the Northern Lights will always be better than any picture. Even after seeing the lights uncountable times, I often get just as excited as my guests.

Though it's definitely not the only place, the upper section of Northern Norway (north of Vesterålen) is the best place to go and see the Aurora Borealis. Most importantly because it's situated right in the Northern Lights 'zone', a circle around the magnetic North Pole. Another reason is the fact that the area is easily accessible and offers plenty of facilities and activities, making your trip both more interesting and more comfortable.
Tromsø is located right in the centre of the Northern Lights zone, which basically makes it the Aurora capital.

The Aurora forecast and measurements are shown using the KP-index (0 – 9), KP 0 being no activity and 9 being a major geomagnetic storm. A higher number means more and/or stronger Northern Lights, as well as an expansion of the Auroral oval. This means the lights can also be seen in other, more southern places. Around Tromsø, even KP 1 or 2 is good enough and you will still be able to catch the lights. In case of high activity, you might even see the lights dance above your head, or even towards the south.

Though the Aurora forecast can be useful, in reality it seems to be off most times. I've had incredible nights with a low forecast, but also experienced nights with almost no activity even though the forecast showed KP 5. All you gotta do is get away from light pollution, have an open view towards the north, clear sky and a bit of luck. There's no set time when the Northern Lights happen, as long as it's dark, you have a chance of seeing them. My first night I had to wait until 2 AM before anything happened, other nights it already started at 5 PM. Activity might even happen during the day when it's still light outside, you just won't be able to see them.

No fancy phone app can correctly show when to go out or where to see the lights. ALWAYS go out and try, you never know what might happen!
The next picture was taken on a night with a forecast of KP 2, it ended up being 6.

In the zone, the Northern Lights season lasts from late August to mid April. That doesn't mean there's no solar activity during the other months, it's simply too bright to be able to see the lights. Further south, where it's still dark at night, they might be visible until early May, if activity is high enough. Last week (May 6th) for example, the lights were even visible from the Netherlands, though this is extremely rare and they were only visible on camera.

So you own a camera and you want to capture the Northern Lights yourself. Truth is, there's not one single setting that's 'right'. It all depends on how well your camera handles low light situations, how fast your lens is, how strong the lights are, if and how fast they're moving, if the moon is out at all and ultimately, what you're trying to achieve in your picture. Where a slow shutter speed is better when the lights are more static or faint (the result will be a lot smoother), a fast shutter speed is needed to 'freeze' the lights when they're moving.

Let's go through some of the basics:

Stabilization: To prevent your camera from shaking, always use a tripod. Any vibrations will mess up your shot. For the same reason, either use a camera remote or simply use your camera's Timer or Delay function. Though I do sometimes use my remote, in most cases I use the timer in stead, set to 2 seconds.

Aperture: Just keep your aperture wide open. If your lens goes down to f/2.8, good.
If it goes down to f/1.8 or f/1.4, even better!

ISO: This really depends on how well your camera handles higher ISO settings without producing too much noise. I always say start around 1600, but if you can, go higher.
I've shot anywhere between 1000 and 4500, but usually stick to 2500 or 3200.

Shutter speed: I suggest taking a few test shots to figure out what shutter speed you should use. Start around 5 seconds and just go from there. Most of the times I stay between 1 to 5 seconds, but in case of low activity I go up to 10 seconds or more. The fastest shutter speed I used so far, was a quarter of a second, capturing some of the craziest lights I've ever seen.

Focus: Set your lens to Manual Focus and your focus to Infinity (∞). Even though lenses do have a little infinity mark, in most cases it's a little off. Focusing in the dark can be quite tricky as well, but this is the way I do it. Aim your camera at a distant light source, for example a bright star, go into live view, zoom in (on your screen, not with your lens), set your focus manually and you're good to go!

White balance: This is often personal preference, but I usually stay around 3400k. In case of full moon or twilight, I might go up to 4000K or more.

Play around and get familiar with the settings, always have your camera set up and ready to go. The lights may appear or change at any moment, react fast and you'll get the hang of it through trial and error. If you're curious about which exact settings I used for all these pictures, I always include them in my Instagram posts.

Whether you're out photographing or just watching the Northern Lights, always make sure to stay warm. Arctic nights can get very cold, so wear multiple layers, bring food and drinks, build a campfire if you can.. Stay safe out there, happy travels and enjoy the light show!

Johan Vesters

Johan is a Dutch musician and photographer who loves hiking, camping and scuba diving. Spending most time away from home, touring and traveling, he's been to 47 countries so far. After almost spending a year in Australia he moved to Tromsø, Norway last year, to work as a Northern Lights guide. With an ever growing bucket list, he's set out to explore even more of our world, sharing his adventures through photography.

Johan Vesters

Johan is a Dutch musician and photographer who loves hiking, camping and scuba diving. Spending most time away from home, touring and traveling, he's been to 47 countries so far. After almost spending a year in Australia he moved to Tromsø, Norway last year, to work as a Northern Lights guide. With an ever growing bucket list, he's set out to explore even more of our world, sharing his adventures through photography.

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