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northern light

Northern lights is the name of a light phenomena often seen in the northern regions. The northern lights have had a number of names through history.

The scientific name for the phenomena is Aurora Borealis, which is Latin and translates into the red dawn of the north. It was the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei who first used the expression. On the latitude where Galileo was living, northern lights consist of mainly red colour.

The northern lights, aurora borealis, has fascinated and baffled humans for thousands of years. It is related to myths and stories from around the world. For according to the Japanese believe it ensures a long and happy marriage for you and your loved ones. No wonder that Coastal Steamer (Hurtigruten) has become a favorite destination for lovers of tourists from Japan? Some sites warned it about births, on arguing. In the old days, children warned waving to the Northern Lights, because it came down and took them.

On an official Nasa video, Todd Hoeksema, the director of the Wilcox Solar Observatory at Stanford University, predicted that there should be what is termed a "solar flip" – a "complete field reversal" of the sun´s polar magnetic fields. His predictions were backed up by fellow observers at the Wilcox Observatory who have recorded "an increase in cosmic rays, sunspots and solar flares… an increase in solar activity that has resulted in those at high latitudes on Earth seeing more of the beautiful auroras, or northern lights."

There is never a guarantee of seeing the northern lights – no matter how great the solar maximum, a cloudy night will thwart the best-laid plans – but the conditions this winter are optimal. To maximise your chances, give yourself as much time as possible, keep as far away from artificial light sources as possible, and build in lots of the additional activities that also make trips to the far north so special.



Northern lights originate from our sun. During large explosions and flares, huge quantities of solar particles are thrown out of the sun and into deep space. These plasma clouds travel through space with speeds varying from 300 to 1000 kilometers per second.

But even with such speeds (over a million kilometer per hour), it takes these plasma clouds two to three days to reach our planet. When they are closing in on Earth, they are captured by Earth´s magnetic field (the magnetosphere) and guided towards Earth´s two magnetic poles. The geomagnetic south pole and the geomagnetic north pole.

On their way down towards the geomagnetic poles, the solar particles are stopped by Earth´s atmosphere, which acts as an effective shield against these deadly particles.

When the solar particles are stopped by the atmosphere, they collide with the atmospheric gases present, and the collision energy between the solar particle and the gas molecule is emitted as a photon - a light particle. And when you have many such collisions, you have an aurora - lights that may seem to move across the sky.

In order for an observer to actually see the aurora with the naked eye, about a 100 million photons are required.


1. Know Your Subject

Let’s begin by getting to know the aurora. According to astrophysicist Dr. Henry Throop, the aurora was thought at one time to be caused by ices suspended high above the Earth’s coldest, darkest regions. We now know that the aurora is actually an electrical phenomenon, caused by interactions between the solar wind and the Earth’s upper atmosphere. The sun emits massless photons that we see as light, but also emits out a real, physical, tangible wind of particles which moves at several hundred kilometers per second. When this wind reaches the Earth, it begins a process that ends by exciting gasses in the Earth’s atmosphere, eventually leading to the emission of light. And just as a true neon light only comes in one color (red), the colors of the aurora are limited too: green and red caused by oxygen, with the fainter blue and purple caused by nitrogen. Unlike the wispy shapes of the aurora, its colors are narrow and precise. Just like stars, the aurora is present during the day and the night, though during the day it is overwhelmed by the brightness of the sky.

As the sun sets, it starts to become visible, being brightest near midnight when the orientation of the Earth’s magnetic field and the solar wind cause it to be strongest. The aurora is seen mostly in a ring centered roughly around the poles, where the solar wind is focused most intensely by the Earth’s magnetic field. If the Earth had no magnetic field, we’d still have an aurora, but it would be weaker and more flat across the sky: a dull glow seen in every direction. A planet like Jupiter with a stronger magnetic field has a comparably more intense aurora, while Mercury - having neither an atmosphere nor magnetic field - has no aurora at all. A terrestrial wind passing across the continents creates an unsettled display of turbulence and eddies, which we see in the form of dynamic cloud patterns, vortices, weather, and storms.

In much the same way, the solar wind crossing the Earth’s magnetic field makes visible to us the turbulence of space: the vortices and eddies of magnetic fields peel off and pass rapidly overhead. Even though - like wind - the magnetic fields themselves are invisible to us, we can see it through its tracers: charged particles. As the aurora moves in the sky overhead, the ripples in it are like the wakes and eddies peeling off a boat as at travels up a rough river at night, working at times with, at time against, the current and forcing what’s there out of the way.

2. Timing Is Everything

Now that you know what you’re chasing, when should you expect to actually see your quarry? Sadly there is no easy answer to that question. Here are some notes to consider, as you prepare for the hunt: Aurorae are caused by Earth-directed coronal mass ejections. Those ejections often come from solar flares associated with sunspots, or originate from coronal holes on the sun.

The sun rotates around into an Earth-facing position roughly every 27 days, meaning that at least on a short term basis there is an element of a 27 day cycle to geoeffective emissions. The weather on Earth is another important factor. If the sky is cloudy, it doesn´t matter what´s going on above the cloud layer - you won´t see it. In much of the arctic, the skies tend to be clearer in late winter and early spring than in fall. Ambient light is another critical issue. In the high arctic, excessive sunlight will overwhelm any aurorae during summer and the surrounding months.

The moon is another source of ambient light that must be considered. A partial moon may helpfully illuminate the surrounding countryside, avoiding the “silhouette” effect common in aurora photographs. I usually prefer about a quarter to a half of a moon when I’m including landscape in a photograph and want it to be illuminated. Anything approaching a full moon, however, can make it quite difficult even to see, much less photograph, ordinary aurorae. Fortunately, the modern auroral photographer can take advantage of a lot of "real time" information and analysis of so-called "space weather", freely available online.

3. Location, Location, Location

Photographers in search of exceptional aurora imagery will generally need to travel a significant distance. This is because aurorae form in oval rings that, roughly speaking, circle the magnetic north pole (the "aurora borealis") and magnetic south pole (the "aurora australis"). When observed from far away, these rings will appear as a faint glow on the horizon.

When viewed from the arctic or antarctic, however, even an ordinary aurora will often appear directly overhead. Overhead aurorae tend to be more photogenic, clearer and brighter because of reduced atmospheric interference, and will more effectively illuminate the foreground. Auroral displays over snow, for instance, will generally cause the snow to take on the coloration of the aurora. In comparison, when an aurora is low on the horizon, the foreground will often appear as a less-interesting silhouette. In addition to finding a location remote from the equator, you’ll want to situate yourself far away from city lights, airports, and other sources of light pollution.

Tromsø: This location offers picturesque mountains and water in which auroral reflections regularly appear, but you might struggle to completely exclude the glow of town and city lights from your photographs.

4. Gear Up For Battle

When photographers are asked how they managed to achieve a certain result, they will usually point to their own artistic proficiency, not the capability of their tools. "It’s the photographer, not the camera," is the common refrain. There are, of course, elements of artistry in aurora photography as well. However, the importance of good quality equipment cannot be overstated. Aurora photography does not require the most expensive kit available; it requires gear that can capture broad views, in low light, in cold weather. You will need: A camera body that excels with clean high-ISO operation.

There are a number of new bodies in recent years that meet these criteria well, and which have enabled revolutionary advances in the field of aurora photography. Weather-sealing is a definite plus, although not a necessity. A wide, fast lens. On a full frame camera, a focal length of 24mm or less is desirable – but the wider, the better, in my experience. Ideally the lens will be able to shoot sharp pictures with minimal vignetting at a maximum aperture of f 2.8 or less, as you’ll want to keep your exposures short. All else being equal, your exposure will be inversely proportional to the square of your aperture, meaning that a lens at f 2.8 will need four times as long to capture an image as at f 1.4.

A lens for this purpose is Nikon’s AF-S Nikkor 14-24mm f 2.8G ED. A sturdy tripod, and a remote shutter release (or, at a pinch, your camera"s self-timer function). They’re essential for aurora photography. A robust ballhead is also extremely useful. Gearing up for winter photography, at night, in the arctic, necessitates psychological preparation as well. If you want to get the most out of your journey, you’ll need to be prepared to be awake and working most of the night.

5. Brace Yourself For A Chilly Reception

Aurorae just don’t seem to enjoy the warmth of the tropics or the glow of the midnight sun during summer. You’ll need to play on their home turf, during the dark months. That means planning to spend hours on end, standing around outside at night, quite possibly in extreme cold, and probably a long way from home.

  north cape, norther light


Northern lights is a result of our atmosphere shielding against solar particles which would otherwise make our planet uninhabitable.


The northern lights, are the perfect combination of science and romanticism that every geek lucky enough to snag a woman needs as a backdrop for their proposal.


Due to the stable climate the persistent Aurora watcher will have excellent chances of spotting the frail rays of this beauty. The Season to see the Northern lights is between September 15th and March 31st.


GuideGunnar`s Aurora tours

Kjetil Skogli

Arctic Guide Service


Lyngsfjord Adventure

Clothing: Be sure you’re dressed for the occasion. This is not a party you’ll want to attend in a mini-skirt. For winter aurora photography I’ve settled on a down-filled mountaineering suit (the Mountain Hardwear Absolute Zero), winter boots rated to -40 degrees F (the Sorel Caribou Reserve), multiple pairs of long thermal underwear (Under Armour ColdGear Base 3.0, both top and bottom), and a wind-proof cap (by Mountain Hardwear). For the hands, you’ll want gloves thick enough to keep you warm, but thin enough to allow you to operate your camera. Personally I prefer to forgo gloves and keep my hands in warm pockets between shots. Most of the time it works fine. If you’re averse to occasional frostbite, try a different approach.

Batteries: The temperatures of the far north take an enormous toll on battery life. My camera batteries last around 1,500 actuations in normal conditions, but in the arctic winter have become exhausted after as few as 25 frames. The conventional cold weather advice is to keep your battery warm by storing it in a jacket pocket while not in use, but that is not an adequate solution under extreme arctic conditions. I recommend bringing multiple batteries and a charger, and rotating the batteries through the charging station when they’re not in use. If your aurora photography will take you far from the nearest well-stocked camera store, consider also bringing backups for any other "mission critical" elements of your system.

Tripods: Carbon fiber tripods are just wonderful. They’re light, and in cold weather can be carried without chilling your hands as much as metal would. In frigid temperatures, however, both the carbon fiber legs and the adhesive used to connect then to your tripod base can become brittle. Exerting substantial pressure on your tripod, particularly when its legs are buried in deep snow, can easily result in the amputation of a leg. If you’d prefer not to find yourself hundreds of miles from civilization, with only a "dipod" for support, be particularly cautious when planting your gear in deep snow.

Cameras and lenses: As noted above, weather-sealing is preferable. In part, this is to help prevent condensation from forming inside your equipment, when you move from an exceptionally cold environment (e.g., shooting outside) to a much warmer space (e.g., into a heated car). Particularly for non-weather-sealed equipment, including most medium format cameras and lenses, it is essential that the cold-to-warm transition be made gradually. It only takes one misstep to generate trip-ending amounts of condensation inside your lenses or sensor. To help slow the transition, I transfer my equipment to a camera bag that has also been outside, and only after sealing the bag do I move the bag and its contents into a warmer space. The camera is then allowed to heat up, slowly and safely, within the bag. For even better protection, consider placing your equipment in an airtight enclosure, such as a Ziploc bag, during the thawing process.

Safety gear: If you’re headed to the far north during winter you should, of course, also read up on how to travel safely in cold, icy climates. When travelling in northern Alaska between November and March, I’ll usually bring extra fuel, chemical additives to prevent the fuel from freezing, an oversupply of food (including food that will be palatable when frozen), a cold weather sleeping bag (rated to -25 degrees F), jumper cables and a tow rope with which a vehicle could be rescued after sliding off of an icy road. My tow rope has paid for itself on multiple occasions.