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Quick Guide to Northern Lights and Photography Tips

I had the privilege this year to go to Yellowknife to check out the Northern Lights. People often ask me two questions: 1) Did I see the Lights? 2) How would you take pictures of it?

This guide should give you a quick overview and everything that you need to know about the Northern Lights.

What is the Northern Lights?

Northern Lights is the nickname for Aurora Borealis. It is basically a natural phenomenon created by the interaction between Sun’s emitted electrons, protons and Earth’s ions in the atmosphere. It is mainly caused by solar wind where the trajectory of the particles is greatly disturbed. When the electron/proton “skids” off the Earth’s Northern hemisphere, the magnetic field of Earth re-attracts them back to the atmosphere. These particles ionize with Earth’s atmospheric elements, such as oxygen and nitrogen, and produces light of varying colour and complexity.

Pretty cool eh?

Depending on what atmospheric element the particles are interacting, it will produce different kinds of colour. For example, Northern Lights is green when it interacts with oxygen at 60 miles above sea level. When the particles interact with nitrogen, it produces a blue colour. In rare moments, if particles interact with oxygen at high altitude, such as 200 miles above sea level, you’ll see red.

When the Nordics discovered the Northern Lights, they often refer them as Act of God.

Not surprised.

Is it really green?

Unfortunately, the human eye cannot pick up the true colour of the Northern Lights. Depending on the strength of the Lights, you may not even see the green colour. When I went to Yellowknife to see Lights for the first time, I wasn’t even sure that was the Aurora Borealis. I thought I was seeing white dust, mist or clouds in a really peculiar motion. Anyhow, this is what most people see.

Our human eyes have cones cells and rod cells. Cone cells work during the day where we can detect colour and gives us high resolution. Rod cells work during night, where we can detect faint light but only in black and white colour shades.

The only time you can see Northern Lights is during darkness.

Fortunately, our cameras are not restricted by light. Nowadays, DSLRs have powerful censor chips that can detect colour at the faintest condition. That’s why the beautiful pictures you see on Google have vibrant colours; whereas real life is only white in colour.

Where can you find them?

Pretty much every northern cities.

These include: Yellowknife (Canada), Fairbanks (Alaska), islands at Denmark, Aberdeen (Scotland), Greenland, Kakslauttanen (Finland), outside Reykjavik (Iceland), Svalbard (Norway), Jukkasjärvi (Sweden), Siberia (Russia).

How do you measure Northern Lights strength?

Northern lights strength is measured using the K-index. It quantities disturbances in the Earth’s magnetic field using a scale from 0 to 9 with 1 being calm and 5 indicating a magnetic storm.

A 3 is considered to be average and a 4 is already considered to be “stormy”.

When I went to Yellowknife, it was mostly between 2 to 3. You can still see the Lights but it is not as strong.

What season should you go?

The best season to check out the Northern Lights is from September to February.

Two conditions must exist for strong Northern Lights: it must be cold and dark. Ideally, you should go out to see Lights at around 10pm.

Even then, you may not be able to see it. Sometimes, heavy clouds can block the Lights. Another factor is the moon. Bright moon will overshadow the Lights.

It is very possible that you can stay in these cities for a week and not see any Lights (that would be a waste of time and money). It is honestly a hit or miss experience.

I was lucky enough to see 1 out of my 2 night stay at Yellowknife.

Why go this year (2017) especially?

Northern Lights is pretty much dependent on solar activity. Our sun goes through a cycle where it will be very active (called the “Solar Maximum”) once every 11 years. Each time, the Solar Maximum lasts for about 3 years.

The latest Solar Maximum was in June 2014, which means winter of 2017 will be the last time that you’ll see strong Northern Lights.

Definitely cannot miss it.

How would you take picture?

It is definitely an art to take pictures of Northern Lights. It takes a whole different set of skills to be a Northern Lights photographer.

First, you need a DSLR. A normal point-and-shoot camera, or an iphone will definitely not cut it.

Other than a DSLR, the most important gear that you need is a tripod.

Since you are taking pictures under low light, you want to get prolonged exposure of the Lights. It is important that your camera is stable and there is no movement while you take your shot. Wind is one factor that can create instability to your camera. If it wobbles, try to hook something heavy, like a handbag, to the bottom of your tripod.

The formula that I used to take Northern Lights picture is ISO 1600, Aperture 2.8 and 15 seconds of exposure. (Also, make sure you shoot pictures at RAW). Obviously, there’s flexibility using this formula. You can adjust the shutter speed based on the condition and strength of the Lights.

The lens that I used is a Canon 16-35MM F2.8 L II USM. The camera body that I used was a DSLR T5i. If you have extra money, I highly recommend using a Canon 5D Mark IV for the full-frame effect and for better pixels. Something similar for Nikon users would also work.

Even with the correct gear and formula, there are tips to ensure your picture is crisp.

First, any slight movement will cause the picture to blur (even the stars could look like a blob rather than a dot). You should get a cable release to capture the Aurora properly. When you press the DSLR button to take pictures, the release of the mirror lens could have moved the camera (even by a bit). It’s best that you pre-open the lens (lock the mirror up) before you actually take any pictures.

Second, the focus is really important. When you take pictures at low light, your camera will not be able to detect anything to auto-focus (and manual focus will be almost impossible). The technique is to pre-focus a far-away object in the morning (ideally close to infinite). This is an important step that you cannot miss.

If you want to take pictures of the Lights with a person, that’s a whole different technique.

The technique that I used was to bring a small flash light. Flash the light to the person that is in the picture, and then manually adjust the focus to make sure the person is crisp and clear. Then, when you expose the picture for 15 seconds, occasionally flash the light at different directions (above the person, below the person, at the side etc.) to create several light source. Make sure you do not flash for too long otherwise the picture will be fully blown.

You will be stunned to see how clear your face is with a beautiful Aurora Borealis in the background.

Did I also say that you should bring gloves and heat warmers? Those are important gears to take Aurora pictures because (trust me) you will be under extremely cold conditions.

In Yellowknife, what else can you do there?

Special mention about the city of Yellowknife, what is there to do? Nothing. The city has nothing to do. You may be able to go on dog sledding and ice fishing, but that’s about it.

Happy Northern Lighting!

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Who is Henry Shew?

Henry is an avid traveler and a tax consultant by profession.


Walk In My Shew is started to document the travel stories and culture experienced in different countries.


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