You’ve probably seen films or photographs of the northern lights. How they dance across the sky, charging forward, recoiling, twisting, unrolling, flaring up, retreating, billowing out and suddenly fading away. All in a wash of yellows, greens, blues, reds and purples. It’s breathtaking. In real life it’s much better. You bundle up in the warmest winter gear possible, and proceed into the Nordic night, not far from the arctic circle. You’ve travelled a long way to see this. A little cold air isn’t about to stop you. The sky is so dark and so vast, it seems to draw you into its endlessness. Patience. Now there’s nothing more you can do.
Northern Sweden is possibly the best place to see the northern lights, because it lies under the auroral oval and enjoys clear skies more often than many coastal regions. Icehotel is a prime location for experiencing the aurora borealis, or northern lights.
Pale green is the most common
The best time to see the northern lights is on clear nights from October to March – when the sky is darkest
Northern lights 101: What are the northern lights?
- Electrically charged particles (electrons and protons) from the sun are carried in the solar wind to the earth’s atmosphere. There they collide with gaseous particles, injecting them with extra energy which they then emit in dramatic displays that we call the northern lights.
- Pale green is the most common
- The colour of the aurora depends on what sort of molecules the particles from the sun collide with. Oxygen molecules at low altitudes yield pale green auroras, while high-altitude oxygen molecules give us red. Nitrogen molecules produce blue and purple.
- The northern lights form in the polar regions because the earth’s magnetic fields pull the particles to the poles.
- The southern hemisphere its own version – the southern lights or aurora australis.
- The northern and southern lights occur simultaneously and are almost mirror images of each other.
- The best time to see the northern lights is on clear nights from October to March – when the sky is darkest.
- The northern lights mostly appear at altitudes of some 60 to 90 miles (90-130 km), sometimes much higher.
- They are concentrated to a ring about 3,000 miles in diameter, centred roughly on the magnetic poles.
- They also occur on other planets, including Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Mars.
- They actually appear in summer as well, but the bright nights at these latitudes make them difficult to see.
Myths of the Sámi
For the Sámi people of northern Scandinavia, the lights were energy from the souls of deceased ancestors. When the lights appeared, people were to behave solemnly. Disrespecting them could result in sickness or even death.
It’s no surprise that something as supernatural as the northern lights is awash with myths and stories. Cultures right across the north understood the aurora through imagery that ranges from poetic to sombre to horrifying.
- The Finnish word for the northern lights is “revontulet”, which literally means “fox fire”. According to an ancient Finnish myth, a magical fox swept its tail across the snow, whipping it up into the sky.
- For the Sámi people of northern Scandinavia, the lights were energy from the souls of deceased ancestors. When the lights appeared, people were to behave solemnly. Disrespecting them could result in sickness or even death.
- The Fox people of central North America feared the northern lights, believing them to be the souls of slain enemies ready to take revenge.
- A myth in many Inuit cultures says that the lights are the spirits of the dead playing ball with a walrus head or skull. However for Alaska’s Nunivak Islanders, it was walrus spirits playing with a human skull.
When you experience the northern lights with your own senses you’ll understand how they could inspire such powerful legends.
How to snap the northern lights
Want to photograph the northern lights? Then you’re up for a challenge, because capturing them through a camera lens is not easy. Temperatures well below freezing can take their toll on your camera battery, your fingers and your morale. Light is scarce and you’re trying to photograph something that flashes and flows across the sky, before fading away as enigmatically as it appeared.
- So before you head out into the deep, dark, cold Nordic night, here are a few tips to help you get some photos that really do justice to the remarkable northern lights.
- Dress warmly and if possible, wear gloves that let you operate your camera.
- Use a tripod and remote trigger (or self-timer) for stability.
- Include some foreground in your photos, for added interest.
- Use a long shutter speed, from 4 to 12 seconds. As the lights vary in strength, experiment with different shutter speeds.
- A wide-angle lens lets you capture more of the sky.
- Use a large aperture, i.e. a low f-number, to let in as much light as possible.
- Make sure you have auto-focus switched off, and set the focus to infinity.
- If possible, take a fully charged spare battery and an extra memory card.