Tuesday, 6 March 2012

What I learnt from chasing the Northern Lights

Although we knew there was no guarantee of a sighting, we did our research on increasing our chances of viewing the Aurora Borealis. With a wealth of advice already available, we found tips that were common amongst all sources, and some that slightly contradicted each other. In the end, there were definitely some snippets of information that aided us, and some which didn't. Each experience is unique, and the conditions can be so vastly different that they really are uncontrollable; the lights will either show up or they won't. However, I learnt some things that were really useful, and we discovered some tips of our own.

I'd love everyone searching for the lights to have the same magical experience that we did, so here is a consolidation of advice we received and our own experience.

- There's lots written about the timing of the lights - most indicating that sightings are more common between 10pm and 2am. Whilst this may be true as a general rule, for us the show started before darkness had even settled, at 7pm, and continued until 10.30. If we'd have set off to arrive at 10pm, it would have been over. I think the trick here is to stay flexible and set out early, even if it means a longer wait. We reasoned that as we would be waiting anyway, we might as well do so in the car.

- On the other hand, the oft-heard suggestion of leaving artificial lights as far behind as possible is absolutely true. Within the cocoon of darkness, the aurora shone bright and vivid, reaching out across the sky in every direction with only the stars twinkling gently in the background.

- Our guide for the ice caves recommended finding a spot with a picturesque background. We took our chances at the famous iceberg lake, and it was perfect. Photographically, it provided a context in which to frame the lights, the ice glowing with the various colours and revealing the true scale of the spectacle. It was also peaceful and quiet, the water gently lapping against the shore as the wind rushed by.

- Take plenty of layers and some snacks! Having no idea about timings, we were prepared for upwards of 6 hours sitting in the car, in February. Warm clothing, a duvet for draping over, gloves, hat and scarf accompanied us, and even then we were cold after hours outside at a time. Snacks served as dinner and added fuel. It's also useful to bring a head torch to actually identify all these items in the dark!

- In terms of photography, I was worried about capturing anything on camera. Certainly not an expert in night photos at the best of time, I would have been happy with just a glimmer on screen. However, after trawling website after website in the weeks leading up the trip, I found a combination that worked quite well - if no-where near the standard of some of the photos I've seen! Setting the focus to infinity initially worked well, altering it slightly as time went on to try to sharpen the icebergs in the foreground, although it was a difficult balance and I certainly didn't always succeed. High aperture was also essential, and I fiddled with the exposure time a lot until I was happy. A tripod goes without saying, and even with the strong winds, it held up well. When the gusts were particularly bad I anchored the tripod behind the car, moving it further away only when confident that there was little risk of damage. Having an object in the foreground provided context and scale, the reflections of the aurora in the water dramatic and beautiful.

- The tools I found most useful for determining our 'hunting' plan were the aurora forecast, which can be found here: http://www.gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast , and the local weather forecast. The aurora forecast shows a band of potential sightings, and a number indicating the strength, ranging from 0-9. On the night we saw the lights, the prediction was a 2 - classed as 'low', although in reality the display was incredible, so don't be dis-heartened if the band appears weak.

- Finally, my advice is to just sit and enjoy this magnificent spectacle. Yes, having a photo or two is great, but unless you live in an aurora band and have multiple opportunities to see them, this may be a once-in-a-lifetime event, so take the time to experience it fully!

* 2013 UPDATE* - We were fortunate recently to have a second encounter with the Northern Lights in Finnish Lapland in February 2013. This time, I attended a specialised Aurora photography class before embarking on our first night searching, and have written a more detailed post about photographing and preparing for seeing the lights here:

How to photograph the Northern Lights

Please check it out!


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