My name is Dave, and I’m an auroraholic
WARNING: photographing the Northern Lights is addictive
“IS IT AS BRIGHT to look at as it is in photographs?” This is the question I am most often asked about the aurora borealis. The answer is a frustrating, “well, that depends”.
Having seen the aurora dozens of times, I can say it is always different and you know when you’ve seen a good one. And you know it’s a good one when the snow turns green and the face of the person next to you is lit up, as if watching a fireworks display. This generally happens at a Kp of 5 or more – the Kp-index being a scale of 1 to 9, rating the intensity of an aurora and the radiation burst from the sun that reacts with the Earth’s magnetic field, resulting in the aurora. I have seen up to Kp7, which filled the sky with a dazzling, dancing display for hours – photos didn’t do it justice. I’ve never met anyone who’s seen a Kp9, but I suspect they’d have a permanent green tan.
But what if it isn’t that bright? Is it possible to photograph a dim aurora? Absolutely, but it’s here that it’s particularly important to know how to use your camera.
Photographing the aurora is popular for visitors to the far north, with Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Canada being top vantage points, especially in winter when nights are long and “aurora season” is in full swing. Chances are best under the “aurora oval” which runs like a ring around the top (and bottom) of the globe, generally at 66 to 69 degrees latitude, coinciding with the highest concentration of magnetic field lines. It is best photographed with no moon, or up to halfmoon, ensuring more night sky darkness and therefore more aurora colour and contrast.
Cameras are so good today that almost any camera can be used. I’ve even seen someone create a decent photo using an iPhone, resting it atop a car to keep it still. But getting truly great images requires an SLR camera where settings can be manually controlled, and a tripod to keep it steady over several seconds.
The skies light up in Jukkasjärvi, main, and Lake Torneträsk, Swedish Lapland.