Guesthouse Husky Review

Hi all you lovely Aurora Borealis fanatics =)

I recently returned from a lovely trip to the Arctic once again, to Ivalo in Finland. My readers will probably know by now that I tend to put a lot of research into each destination in terms of light pollution, easy of access, amenities and available activities.

This time around I stayed at Guesthouse Husky, just a 20 minute taxi/car rental ride from Ivalo Airport. So here is my review on this lovely family owned establishment. I will group my opinions in headings that should be of interest to most Aurora hunters and given them all ratings out of 10.

Northern Lights – 9/10

As a Northern Lights destination Guesthouse Husky ticks all the boxes. Located at roughly 67 degrees corrected geomagnetic latitude its in a great location for Aurora viewing close to the ‘Auroral band’. There is a clear view to the skies all the way around the lodge, with just some tree-lines on the lower horizon. There is also few manmade structures nearby to detract from the beautiful surroundings, the wooden main lodge and outhouses all blend beautifully into the surroundings.

Weather – 8/10

Located further inland than other Aurora destinations at a similar latitude means ‘statistically speaking’ Ivalo in Finland’s weather is a little more stable and is less affected by the coastal weather extremes that plagues much of coastal Norway and some parts of Sweden. Of course there is always the chance of cloud cover in any of these destinations especially when visiting in winter, clear skies are never a guarantee, but during my stays in northern Finland I have generally had a higher occurrence of clear skies the further inland I headed i.e. staying in Finland. Be ready though, it can also be quite a bit colder being further from the coast!

Accomodation – 9/10

The lodge itself is very cozy and welcoming and is based on three floors. There are two entrances into the lodge. One onto ground level from the front of the lodge, and the other to the first level from the back of the lodge. At ground level there’s the reception, and dining area as well as the Sauna. On the first and second floor are guest rooms which are very cozy, warm and spacious, with windows to see outside to check on the Aurora.

There’s also a communal kitchen area on the first floor, I spent much of my time there working on Aurora photos and blogging.

All in all the accommodation is clean, tidy and welcoming and the host Outi is a lovely woman that’s very helpful with any queries you may have.

Food – 10/10

Homecooked food is served if you choose the lunch and/or dinner options during your stay and you should definitely give it a try on at least one of your days. We decided to sample both for most of our stay and the food was consistently tasty and wholesome and we always left with a happy full tummy.

Activities – 7/10

As an Aurora hunter I don’t normally look at activities as a focal point when I visit. But normally end up doing one or two tours depending on budget/time. The dogsledding was a lot of fun and very reasonably priced compared to other operators I’ve used in Norway and Sweden. The dogs are beautiful, well taken care of and so full of zest and enthusiasm. The trail is beautiful and you get to drive the sled yourself and/or share with a second party member.

They also offer snowmobile tours of different durations that also give you the option to visit a Reindeer farm. A good idea if you’d really like to see Reindeer as they don’t come out to play too much in the Winter in the wild!

There’s a bunch of Aurora tours available too, but honestly I found the lodge was perfectly suitable as a Northern Lights base.

My main reason for rating slightly lower here is that I’ve find a few more options in terms of activities in other locations as well as some laid out walking trails.

Atmosphere – 9/10

I felt very at home and welcomed at Guesthouse Husky, the communal kitchen area and main dining area are nice cozy areas to meet other people should you be a lone traveller, and most times people will strike up a conversation about their mutual love of the Northern Lights anyway so its really easy to get to know the people there =)

Overall 9/10

Overall I would rate Guesthouse Husky a 9/10 which makes it one of the better options when choosing a Northern Lights destination. It’s closeby to the town of Ivalo, yet isn’t affected by light pollution to any significant degree so Northern Lights viewing is easy when there is activity and clear skies. Hosts are friendly, food is available onsite, its easy to drive to from the airport and there are activities available from the lodge, not to mention a stunning beautiful environment.

Thumbs up! 🙂

Here are some photos taken of the Northern Lights as well as general images from the area.

Photography guide to capturing the Northern Lights

Hey everyone 🙂

I thought it would be a nice follow up to my previous post on everything to do with the Northern Lights (or as much as I could think of hah) to lead with a tutorial on how to capture them.

What equipment do I need to capture the Aurora Borealis?

First off lets get through the basics, what do you need? Talking bare minimum, you need the following:

  • DSLR or Digital Camera – As long as the camera allows you to manually control the cameras Aperture, Shutter speed and ISO settings then you’re good.
  • Tripod – Essential to Aurora Photography. A lot of Northern Lights photography relies on short to long exposure times, anything from 1-2 seconds to as much as 20-30 seconds. So being able to keep your camera stable the entire time is of utmost importance, or you’ll end up with 00gly blurry pictures.
  • High aperture lens – You’ll need a lens with a low f number (known as high aperture). Anything smaller than f4 is perfect. The smaller the number the more light is allowed into the camera, so the shorter your exposures will need to be 🙂 I use a Sigma 20mm f.1.8 and Nikon 14-24mm f2.8 lens.

And some more recommended pieces of equipment:

  • Remote Switch – This can be either remote or cable release. Extremely handy as it allows you to take pictures on your camera without having to touch the camera. Stops those jitters and shakes from translating to blurry shots (cold can do that to a person!) Here’s an example – Nikon D40, D40x, D60, D80 & D90 Digital SLR Cameras,
  • Intervalometer – If you’re interested in creating timelapse movies of the Aurora Borealis, you’ll need an Intervalometer. This is a device that takes pictures on a timer, a repeated number of occasions, so you can collate them together later to create a video.
  • Spare Batteries – If you’re outside waiting for the Northern Lights, chances are it’s darn cold! The cold eats away your batteries life like nothing else. Highly recommend keeping 1-2 extra spare batteries with you, and keeping them close to your body (like in an inside pocket perhaps). When the battery in your camera is running low, switch for one of your warm batteries. Your used battery will regain some of its battery life inside your pocket again and once again you can switch etc.

What settings should I use?

As with most things Photography, this isn’t a precise science. Rest assured, you do have quite a bit of lee way with regards settings, which will still give you nice Aurora shots. Getting the perfect Aurora Borealis photography is all about tweaking your settings around a ‘baseline’ depending on the current conditions. Such as Moon Phase, speed of the Aurora, intensity of the Northern Lights, light pollution etc. Generally speaking the below will give you some nice shots:

  • Aperture – The wider the aperture the better. This is the f number on your camera. Aim for f4 or wider (i.e smaller number than 4). I use f1.8 on my Sigma 20mm and f2.8 on my Nikon 14.24mm.
  • ISO – You should be able to find this setting in your cameras menu. Start off with an ISO of 600-800 and see how this fares on your camera. Certain cameras handle high ISO’s better so you may be able to raise this number. ISO is basically your camera’s sensitivity to light. So by raising this number you allow more light into the camera (therefore reducing the shutter speed or the amount of time 1 shot takes) BUT you risk more ‘image noise‘ in your shot. It’s all compromise.
  • Shutter Speed – This one has a wider range as it depends on the brightness of the Aurora. Generally speaking the following are good guidelines:
    1. Weak Aurora – 10 to 30 second exposure.
    2. Moderate/Active Aurora – 5 to 10 seconds
    3. Active Aurora – 1-5 seconds

So how to set the shutter speeds? You can do this in one of two ways:

    1. Set the shutter speed manually to the number of seconds desired (2 seconds would show up as 2″, 3 seconds as 3″, etc)
    2. Set the Camera to ‘Bulb’ Mode. In this mode you control the shutter speed simply by holding the shutter release down for the amount of time desired.
  • White Balance – You can find this in your camera menu too. Even though on most DSLR cameras you can shoot in RAW Mode, and adjust White Balance later on, this isn’t always an option with Digital Cameras. Set your White Balance to Auto. This should handle most situations well.
  • Focus – A lot of people struggle with how to set their focus. It’s pitch dark outside, and it’s hard to get your camera to focus on anything. The rule of thumb with Astrophotography and Northern lights photography, is to set your camera’s focus ring to ‘Infinity’. This will appear as the ∞ symbol on most focus rings. This should mean the stars are in focus, which is what really gives Northern Lights shots their sharpness.
    NB – On certain lenses, true Infinity maybe be ever so slightly off the ∞ symbol. Test this out on a dark night anywhere. Set your ring to infinity, take a shot, then zoom in on your viewfinder and see if those stars are sharp. Then remember that focus ring spot 🙂

Settings close to the above will give you some nice Aurora shots =) From there it’s just tweaking things by yourself once you get a feel for it.

Shutter speeds will have a significant effect on the outcome of your Aurora photography, in particular the shapes and sharpness of the Aurora. You may have sometimes wondered or heard people say that the camera picks up the Aurora’s telltale green colour better than the human eye. This is true to a certain extent. A camera picks up WEAK Aurora’s when we cant. For this reason, a lot of people are able to create beautiful Aurora Borealis pictures by having very long shutter speed / exposure times i.e. 25 seconds +. This allows the camera plenty of time to ‘absorb’ all that green colour. So while very long exposures are not true to life visually, they sure can be pretty =)

Rest assured, the Aurora can be insanely bright and fast! So much so that you need really short exposure times so the Aurora doesn’t overexpose in your shot and look white! Here are some examples of some of my shots at different exposures:

2 second Northern Lights exposure

4 second Aurora Borealis exposure

12 Second Aurora Borealis exposure

NB – If at all possible shoot in RAW mode. DSLR cameras should all have this setting in their menus where you can choose the image mode i.e. JPEG Fine, JPEG Normal, RAW. Shooting in RAW mode means you will have much more flexibility later on to edit the image’s color balance, exposure, contrast etc. Jpegs compress the images as soon as you take them and you therefore lose a lot of the data that allows you to make changes.

How will the Full Moon affect my shots?

A lot of people are wary of travelling to see the Northern Lights during the Full Moon. As mentioned in my post about the Aurora Borealis, I love the Full Moon! Unless you’re dealing with a very weak Aurora, Half to Full moons are pretty awesome in that they light up the landscape beautifully and naturally. Here are the pros and cons to different moon phases, and how you might have to adjust your cameras settings :

Gibbous – Full Moon

  • Pros – Lights up landscape naturally. Give’s more foreground detail so you don’t end up with black foregrounds. Allows you to use a lower ISO or alternately you can shorten the amount of time you’re taking a shot for (exposure).
  • Cons – Capturing the star field and/or the Milky way becomes very difficult due to moonlight obscuring the universe from us.

Aurora Borealis during New Moon

Aurora Borealis during Full Moon

New Moon – Half Moon

  • Pros – Easier to see weak Auroras. Allows for more stars in your pictures, possible Milky way if you’re pointing your camera at the right place.
  • Cons – Foregrounds tend to be very dark with less detail in the other elements of your shot. You may need to compensate and higher the ISO, or increase the Exposure time of your shot.

Here are two examples showing some of my Aurora shots during the Full Moon, and New Moon respectively. Both shot’s are interesting in their own way, but I personally prefer to make my Aurora shots better ‘all around’ pictures, and not just about the Northern Lights.

Worried about your camera in cold weather?

This was initially one of my worries. The first time I really exposed my camera to true cold was when I travelled to Tromso to see the Northern Lights for the first time, back in 2007! At the time, I was using a Nikon D80 and I have to say I’m really proud of how it held up! It saw many cold spells, spent hours outside in the cold, practically got frozen solid but here it still is working perfectly fine =)
There are some simple tips you should follow, and if you do, you should have no problems whatsoever.

  • Battery Life – As I mentioned above, the cold will eat away at your battery life. So have more than 1 battery, and keep them on rotation. Placing the battery in a pocket close to your body will keep it warm and will also revive a drained battery giving you more time for precious shots =)
  • Condensation – This is the true danger when it comes to potential camera damage. When you’ve been outside in extreme temperatures, and you go back indoors again, there’s a sudden increase in temperature which can cause condensation on your camera. If you’re unlucky this could damage the electrics of your camera (has happened to a friend so it’s no joke!). A simple trick to avoid this is to place your camera inside a re-sealable plastic bag, or alternately the camera bag. Then take it inside. Don’t remove the camera from it’s temporary casing for a while, let it gradually acclimatize to the new indoor temperature.
  • Don’t breath on the lens – Easy mistake to make! Try and keep your face away from the front of the lens, it can steam up your lens pretty fast and ruin potentially great shots (doh!).

How to make your Aurora photos stand out

This is probably the most challenging aspect of Aurora Borealis photography. The single most important thing (aside from Auroras ofcourse) is an interesting foreground.

Pictures of the Aurora Borealis are plentiful, but the real gem’s are the ones where the Northern Lights are NOT the main feature of the image, but an complimenting feature. All of my favourite pictures from other photographers involve beautiful foregrounds i.e frozen lakes casting the auroras reflection, pebbles on a lake, cabins, churches etc etc. It’s a challenge because it’s hard enough travelling and searching for the Aurora without having to also find the perfect spot to shoot from! Trust me though, if you can map out your area in the daytime, come night time you won’t need to do it and can just focus on capturing the Aurora.

I’m victim to this myself, the first time I saw the lights I was completely trigger happy! I look back at those early shots now and think ugh! Each time I go back there I like to think my shots get a little better as I try and incorporate interesting foreground elements.

The good news is, it doesn’t even really need to be a lake, or a cabin, anything interesting in the near foreground will do wonders for your shot! Some ideas of stuff you could use if you don’t have a beautiful natural foreground:

A bench, a snowmobile, your camera on a tripod (if you’ve got a spare), log pile, heck even yourself sitting on the snow, your dog, friend, snow prints, snow mounds…the list goes on. Seriously, having something in the foreground gives the photo real depth and it therefore looks less ‘flat’.

I’ve added some of my older pictures below beside some of the newer ones with more interesting foregrounds so you can see what I mean…

and now some of my later work trying to incorporate the basic steps above.

Dress for the cold weather

Chances are…if you’re hunting the Northern Lights, it’s cold!! Unless you’re in Iceland in which case it might just be decidedly nippy 😉 Either way, you need to make sure you’re comfortable, and dressed safe as you’ll probably be spending hours outside.

So lets start layer to layer basics:

  1. Thermal Underwear – To start it all off you’ll need some good thermal underwear. That includes a thermal top and thermals pants.
  2. Mid Layer – Over your thermal undies you’ll need a good mid-layer. This can be wool, polyester, synthetic fibres, however it must NOT, under any circumstances, be cotton. Cotton is a big no no when it comes to the cold as it absorbs moisture and takes a long time to dry. I tend to stick to polyester or woolen shirts and hoodies. They keep my snug and dry 🙂
  3. Outer layer – This is the outer jacket over you mid-layer. This layer has to be wind proof/waterproof. A lot of the better jackets are breathable and use materials such as Gore-Tex.
  4. Socks – This ones pretty important 🙂 A lot of times when I’m shooting the lights, the first part of my body to feel the cold are my feet. Invest in good socks! Honestly, the best socks are those made from 100 percent wool. I use a pair of thermal socks, covered with a loose pair of woolen socks. It’s important not to buy tight socks as your feet need room to ‘breath’ and retain warm air in your boots.
  5. Boots – Pretty self explanatory 🙂 Get some waterproof shoes, snow wets up those shoes fast! So definitely invest in some waterproof boots. The ones with higher ‘heel’s keep your feet warmer as they’re further away from the cold floor.
  6. Gloves – Get yourself some good gloves/mittens. As with the socks, let them be big enough that your fingers have a little breathing room and warm air can build up. I know it’s necessary sometimes to remove your hands from gloves to play with camera settings but try and keep the spells short or they’ll start getting pretty numb =D
  7. Hat – Always wear a good hat. We lose a lot of hear from our heads and our ears are prone to the cold so always keep am covered up.

As far as the camera goes, if you’re not going to be using it for a while, take it off the tripod and keep it close to your body, it will preserve the battery life.

Word of caution! Don’t touch the tripod legs without your gloves on! (Unless you’ve got padded legs in which case you’re golden). If it get’s cold enough can be pretty painful touching such cold metal with bare hands!

When to head outside?

Predicting the Aurora Borealis is tricky business, I go into this subject in some detail in another of my blog posts about the Northern Lights. Like the weather, Aurora Borealis predictions become more accurate the closer we are to dates in question. It takes 24-48 hours for solar wind to reach us from the Sun when Earth facing Coronal Mass Ejections (CME’s) or Solar Wind Streams leave the sun. So when either of these events are occur we can expect some Auroras.

There are a few websites that give you a good general indication as to present and future activity:

Geographic Institute at Fairbanks University – A popular general prediction model. Good used as a general guideline but not updated everyday. Predictions are made for 5-6 days ahead, however if an event occurs on the Sun, this prediction model will not account for new activity due to it’s update intervals. Take with a pinch of salt.

SWPC Prediction Center – Ovation Model – A good realtime model showing the Aurora Borealis’ current oval over the Earth. The brighter the green (or white) in the model, the more intensely the Aurora can be seen over the estimated geographical location underneath.

SWPC KP Model – The Kp model is an indication of the current Aurora’s activity level over a 3 hour period. Kp values of 3+ are considered to be conducive to Geomagnetic storms and more intense Auroras. However, Kp’s as low as 1/2 can sometimes spark some wonderful Auroras, especially if you’re situated directly underneath the Auroral band. This is because there could be isolated substorms that do not last for a long enough period to register as a high Kp number, so the average will be lower.

Astronomy North – These guys tend to be pretty accurate with predictions and likely monitor events on the sun as well as current solar wind data.

The most important thing to remember with the Aurora is that you need to be patient. She could make you wait hours but it will be totally worth the cold and frustration when she finally puts on a show for you.

I personally use a combination of current Solar activity and Solar Wind readings from the ACE satellite, and generally know when to head outside to within an hour of activity. But the above should get you on the right track 🙂

To conclude, I really hope you find the above information helpful and are now well on your way to producing your own Aurora Borealis photographs. I would love to see any attempts and am happy to offer advice/suggestions.

Clear skies and Auroras to you all =)

The Aurora Borealis (The Northern Lights) – Everything you need to know

Hey fellow Aurora fans!

After several years of research, kilometers travelled, multiple destinations visited, dark drives down foreign icy roads, snow storms, disappointment, exhilaration, several failures but more successes, here is my two cents on everything Aurora Borealis 🙂

First off, before I start I wanted to elaborate a little on the above. I’ve always held a certain fascination for the Northern Lights. My earliest memory was a documentary on the Discovery channel on Antartica when I was around 12 years old. I found them ethereal and magical and straight away wanted to know more about them and see them.

Being a 12 year old though has it’s drawbacks =) Being completely at the mercy of my parents destination wishlist meant that I wouldn’t really get to chase this dream until a little later on. So that plan was on the back burner for a few years.

So I studied, left school, and started working. At the age of 20, the Northern Lights popped into my little noggin again, and with freedom and a paycheck, I started doing my research and was adamant this time on seeing the Aurora Borealis.

I researched everything from Solar cycles, weather patterns, prediction techniques and annual aurora statistics to ideal destinations under the Auroral Oval.

I’m now 26 and over the last 6 years have seen the Aurora Borealis many times in many varieties and intensities. Those places include Yellowknife (Canada), Skibotn (Norway), Tromso (Norway), Kiruna (Sweden), Abisko (Sweden) and Ivalo/Inari (Finland). I’ve also experienced some failures along the way, and while you can never be guaranteed Aurora displays, I have learnt a few useful things along the way 🙂

What causes the Aurora Borealis?

Aaah the Sun =) The beautiful Sun! Not only does it sustain life on Earth, but it creates one of the most beautiful natural displays known to man. The Aurora Borealis happens due to the interaction between the Solar Wind and the Earth’s magnetic field.

There are a few terms worth remembering just so it’s a little easier to understand.

Solar Wind – A stream of particles originating from the Sun that travels towards us (and other planets alike). It can vary in density (i.e number of solar particles i.e. protons/electrons in the stream), and in speed. Higher speed streams will reach us faster than slower streams.
IMF – Interplanetary Magnetic Field. This is the magnetic field carried with the solar wind. Remember the sun has it’s own Magnetic field, and as the particles leave the Sun, they carry with them magnetic field lines.
Magnetopause – This is a boundary between the Earth’s magnetic field and the Solar Wind. Think of it as a sort of barrier stopping the Solar Wind from reaching us.

The Earth’s magnetic field is pointed North at the Magnetopause (this is illustrated in the image below). Think of a magnet for a second….If the IMF is in a Northern direction, then it will ‘clash’ with our own Northern Magnetic field at the Magnepause and it will repel the solar wind.

However, think of the opposite. If the IMF contains Southern facing magnetic field lines, it will ‘link’ up with our Northern facing Magnetopause and both field will cancel each other out! This in essence opens a portal for Solar wind to enter our atmosphere.

So to sum up, as the Solar Wind approaches and strikes the Earth’s Magnetopause, it causes it to bend and flex. If the IMF in the Solar wind has a southern facing direction, the Solar Wind will eventually causes a ‘break’ in the Magnetosphere and creates two Magnetotails that swing around and behind the Earth. When the Magnetotails from both sides meet up on the otherside, they ‘snap’ and slingshot the Solar Wind particles towards our poles.

The Solar wind particles collide with the Oxygen/Nitrogen atoms in our own atmosphere. These collisions ‘excite’ the Oxygen atoms. When these ‘excited’ Oxygen atoms return to their previous calm state, they emit light in the process. This results in the Northern (or Southern) Lights.

This is slightly over simplified, but illustrates the process by which Solar Wind particles reach our poles.

What triggers high intensity Auroras?

The body of knowledge on the Solar wind and it’s relationship to our planet and the Northern Lights is far from complete. But relationships have been deduced and there are things we do know with relative certainty. Before we answer this question lets specifically look at the ways in which the Solar Wind reaches us.

  • Coronal Holes – Coronal Holes are dark regions on the Sun’s Corona (sort of it’s own atmosphere) where temperatures are cooler. They act as ‘funnels’ for the Solar wind to escape the Sun and travel towards us. Coronal Holes are generally responsible for High Speed Solar Streams (and also Low speed streams). The intensity of Northern Lights caused by these streams are dependent on the IMF of the Solar Wind Stream, the number of solar particles in the stream (plasma density), and the duration of time the stream is hitting us.
  • Coronal Mass Ejections (CME) – CME’s are sudden high speed ejections of large amounts of solar wind and magnetic field lines from the Suns surface. They are sporadic and unpredictable and originate from Sunspots on the sun’s surface. They are classed by intensities, B, C, M and X. The latter being the most powerful. Typically they also take 24-48 hours to reach us. So when news arrives of decent CME’s Aurora hunters all over the world await with baited breath and hope for clear skies =)

So what conditions can cause Geomagnetic Storms? Here are a few examples:

  • Solar Wind Streams with good southern IMF – Solar Streams with a decent southern Bz (Southern IMF of approx -5nT or less), with moderate to high Particle Density (approximately greater than 5 protons/cm3), that last for extended periods of time, can cause Geomagnetic Storms and cause intense Aurora displays. Therefore contrary to popular belief, fantastic Auroras are not just the result of CME’s from our Sun.
  • CME’s – CME’s of class C, M and X (C being the weakest, M more powerful and X are real whoppers and only happen a couple of times a year) can trigger geomagnetic storms. The higher class CME’s are more likely to spark high intensity Auroras i.e. M and X, CME’s are intensified when they carry negative IMF’s too.

There are situations when weaker CME’s or weaker Solar Wind streams can still cause some amazing Auroras! Say for example that a good Solar Wind Stream is approaching Earth with a Southern IMF, this will in effect ‘weaken’ the Magnetic Field and allow Solar Wind to enter our atmosphere. Imagine now…there is also a CME on the way behind the Stream. Even a low class CME (say B or C) could be intensified due to the fact there is already a ‘portal’ open.

So as you can see, if’s not an exact Science. I’ve learnt to get a feel for conditions and can now predict with relative confidence when to expect something decent. I hope this helps you too!

What’s the best time of the year to see the Aurora Borealis?

This is one of the most common questions I get asked about the Northern Lights. The basic answer is that, although the Aurora Borealis is always present at the northern and southern magnetic poles, we can’t always see them because of daylight hours getting in the way during the summer months at such extreme latitudes. Therefore the best time to try and see this natural phenomenon is anytime between late August – early April when the window of opportunity with regards darker skies is higher.

Statistically speaking (I like my statistics) there seems to be higher Auroral activity around the Equinoxes, that is around the months of late September and late March. This is to do with slight variations of the Earth’s tilt axis relative to the Sun’s tilt. During the equinoxes the Earth’s magnetic axis more suitably aligns with that of the Sun’s and larger deviations into negative Bz are more likely, therefore facilitating Solar Wind particle transfer into our atmosphere. Suffice to say, activity does tend to be higher around these months.

This is NOT to say that spectacular Aurora’s are not possible in the interim months, in fact I have seen fabulous displays in other months. But since I don’t get to travel as much as I’d like, I like to give myself the best chances and stick to those times.

My personal preference is February/March, due to the fact weather tends to stabilize in Northern Scandinavia after December.

Where are the best places to see the Northern Lights?

There is no one right answer for this one as there are many places you can see the Northern Lights. As long as you are situated far enough North (or south if you are thinking of the Aurora Australis) then you stand a chance of seeing the Aurora. North of 63/64 degrees latitude roughly is a good place to see them.

The Auroral OvalHowever, there is a slight catch to these numbers, in that I’m not talking about standard geographical latitude, but Corrected Geomagnetic Latitude. The Earth’s magnetic field is not perfectly aligned around our geographic poles, it deviates slightly. Therefore this ‘Corrected Geomagnetic Latitude’ is the true latitude you need with regards our magnetic field (and therefore Auroras). This is why in Europe, you need to be in Northern Scandinavia to see the lights, but in certain places in Northern US and Canada, you don’t need to be at such a high latitude. So, to sum up, North of 63/64 Corrected Geomagnetic latitude and you’re set =)

Here are maps for Corrected Geomagnetic Latitude:
Europe –
UsA & Canada –

All you need to do is click on a location on the maps linked above, and you’ll be given latitudes, most importantly the corrected magnetic latitude. If the location is greater than 63/64 you will be able to see the Northern Lights there (if there’s activity and clear skies).

The Auroral Oval over Northern US and CanadaFor some people, this might not be particularly helpful as we need specifics, easy to access towns that are close to convenient airports etc. So a more tailored answer for Aurora chasers is that any of the cities underneath the green band in these images, are good locations to spot the Northern Lights.

As for my own personal recommendations? Here is my top 5 places to see the Northern Lights. All tried and tested and I’ve had success in each one. They’re fantastic places to try your luck! I’ve listed them in order of my preference and given reasons why.

My top 5 Places to see the Northern Lights

Here are some of my suggestions for where to best see the Aurora Borealis from. These are tried and tested. Feel free to get in touch if you have other towns in mind and would like some advice.

  1. Ivalo, Finland

River Ivalo behind Hotel IvaloI visited Ivalo and the surrounding area in March 2012 when working with Aurora Hunters for a week. The landscape in this part of Finland is vastly different to that of Abisko in Sweden and parts of Norway. It is much flatter, but so beautiful in a different way!

The landscape has a very winter wonderland type feel to it, with snow capped trees, and snow mounds everywhere. Really beautiful =) The people in Ivalo and the Inari region are so friendly and welcoming. Ivalo itself is a relatively small town, with everything you need, supermarket, local pub all within walking distance. I stayed at the Hotel Ivalo for a week. The hotel is basic but more than adequate, with clean rooms and decent food. The best part about this hotel is its lovely location in Ivalo. It sits right off the River Ivalo, literally, 20 seconds walk behind the hotel down a gentle slope onto the beautiful frozen river (On the picture to the right the Hotel is on the left hand side!) Not only is this a hub for daily activities such as snowmobiling and cross country skiing, but makes a good location to view the Northern Lights if you cant get out of the city!

Being a small town, Ivalo doesn’t actually have that much light pollution, which means Aurora viewing is entirely possible within the city. In fact I was witness to a wonderful display right on River Ivalo behind my hotel for about 2 hours with several of the hotel guests.

Of course this was a happy little extra, there are other options that involve heading outside the town, to some gorgeous locations in perfect darkness. One company I can highly recommend myself is Aurora Hunters. Andy Keen and his team of Aurora hunters will do their utmost to drive you to clear skies and Auroras, even if it means driving for hours to the Russian border! They provide entertainment, warm drinks and will help out with your photography equipment too! They also know all the beautiful locations to help you get the most out of your photography, I owe some of my best shots to Andy Keen 😉

  • Pros – Winter wonderland landscapes, amenities in town, low light pollution, plenty of activities, Aurora tour guides. Furthern inland, therefore colder with more stable weather patterns.
  • Cons – Staying inside the city does have some light pollution, but as long as the Aurora Borealis isn’t too weak you will see them. So tours may be required.
  1. Abisko, Sweden

Abisko Mountain LodgeAbisko is a lovely little arctic town in the North of Sweden, nestled between Kiruna and Narvik in Norway. The scenery is beautiful with the famous Lapporten mountain range in sight, and wonderful frozen lakes nearby. The small town is offered some protection from cloudy weather due to the Norwegian mountain range, so some say there are clearer skies in this region than others in the area. I myself have noticed that it can clear up in a very short space of time in Abisko!

I stayed at the Abisko Mountain Lodge and I really can’t say enough good things about the place. Service, food, location is all top notch, and the best part of all? You just need to step outside your room/cabin into darkness to see the Northern Lights, so you can be ready at a moments notice. So there is no need to pack  your car and head out into the dark night and sit in the cold for hours on end (as I’ve done many times!). This really is a bonus to this type of accommodation  Your window of opportunity for viewing is so much higher when you can just step outside. If you’re up for something special, you can also take a chairlift up to the Aurora Sky Station for some amazing views over the beautiful Abisko region, and hopefully a great view of the lights!

  • Pros – Beautiful scenery, excellent food, wonderful hosts, no need to go anywhere to see the lights, activities organised from the lodge.
  • Cons – Can’t think of any!
  1. Kiruna, Sweden

My family and I under the Aurora in KirunaKiruna is a quirky mining town in the North of Sweden. It’s a wonderful base as from here you can get to Jukkasjarvi (where the Icehotel is) or to Abisko (my first choice).

Kiruna itself isn’t the most picturesque town, but does have a large selection of hotels, and many activities. My recommendation here if you’re not planning on staying in Abisko, is to head out to the Ice Hotel which is just a 15-20min taxi/drive from Kiruna.

Alternately you could stay in Kiruna and take nightly tours out to see the lights. But that will prove more expensive.

  • Pros – Good base, lots of activities leave from Kiruna, plenty of hotel selection. Easy access to Abisko and Ice Hotel.
  • Cons – Kiruna is a relatively large city and suffers from moderate light pollution, so you’d need to find a darker spot, either by tours, or renting a car and driving outside the city.
  1. Tromso, Norway

It’s almost a little painful for me to place Tromso 4th on the list. Tromso as far as cities go is an absolute gem. It is a gorgeous city nestled in the Arctic North. I’ve been there 4 times and loved it just as much as the time before. Some call it the Paris of the North and this title is well deserved. It is a beautiful, bustling town with every possible amenity you could think of. Restaurants, hotels, pubs, cinemas, shopping malls the lot.

City of Northern LightsThe Clarion Collection hotel is a lovely nautical themed hotel (ask for a room with a view of the harbour they’re wonderful). Very fairly priced, good food, and free chocolate waffles and coffee all day are a real plus when you return from the cold.

My personal reservation with Tromso is twofold, it is the largest Arctic city I have visited, so has the worst light pollution. It is also a coastal town, and close to the Gulf Stream, therefore temperatures are milder than you would expect, but as a result suffers more from cloudy skies.

You would likely need to drive outside the city limits to find darker skies, and further inland  if cloudy, to find clearer skies (along the E8). Alternately you could take nightly tours outside the city of which there are many. But I personally have had great success with Kjetil Skogli, a local photographer and Aurora hunter who also works tirelessly to find clear skies and Auroras if it’s at all possible. He drove us 3 hours out to Skibotn where I was treated to one of the best displays I’ve ever seen, despite a snow storm back in Tromso.

  • Pros – Beautiful city, all amenities, numerous tours and tourist activities, good Aurora guides.
  • Cons – Heavy light pollution, tends to suffer from cloudy weather
  1. Yellowknife, Canada

Blachford Lake Lodge groundsI’ve placed Yellowknife 5th on my list mostly because it’s across the pond from me 😉 So for us Europeans perhaps it’s slightly more out of reach, but for all of you over on the other side of the Atlantic I can’t say enough good things about this place, in particular the Blachford Lake Lodge which is where I spent my 5 nights in Yellowknife.

The lodge is on its own private plot of land and is accessible only by Bush plane, but oh my was it worth it! The landscape is absolutely astonishing. So beautiful and desolate at the same time, with wonderful safe forest trails surrounding the property. The lodge itself is top notch and has all the luxurious commodities you would need. The Chef is professionally trained and apart from the Abisko Mountain Lodge, I don’t remember the last time I’ve eaten better!

  • Pros – Amazing location with stunning scenery, private (no chance of overcrowding tourists), food to die for.
  • Cons – Hard to get to, no roads so you’re completely at the mercy of the weather.

Some other recommended locations are:

  • Norway – Lyngen, Alta, Kirkenes, Malangen
  • Finland – Inari, Nellim, Utsjoki
  • Sweden – Jukkasjarvi
  • Alaska – Fairbanks, Bettles
  • Canada – Churchill (Manitoba), Gillam (Manitoba)

Can the Northern Lights be seen further South?

Another common question is from people wanting to know whether they can see the Aurora Borealis from a little further south. This is entirely possible to a certain extent. I mentioned earlier that a good location for Northern Lights viewing was approximately North of 63/64 Corrected Geomagnetic Latitude, and in my opinion it is if you want to see the Aurora as brightly as possible, in all its glory, directly above you. (Personally I prefer to be bang underneath it at 65-67 Corrected Geomagnetic Latitude).
But this isn’t to say it’s not possible to see the Aurora to a different degree further south.

The general rule of thumb is that the further south you are from the Auroral band, the further North, and the lower, the Aurora will appear on the horizon. Keep travelling going South and eventually it dips beneath the horizon and we can no longer see it.

So how can you know if its possible for you to see it from your location?
Check out the latitude maps I linked earlier again:

Europe –
UsA & Canada –

Roughly look at the location in question, and then see where you’re positioned relative to the coloured lines in the image. These are the KP Index lines. They roughly tell you what KP Activity number the Aurora needs to have, for you to be able to see it at the location in question.

The current KP Activity index can be seen here.

How many nights do I need to stay to see the Northern Lights?

The more the better! This is a little obvious, but really I always say the same thing. For most people trips to the Arctic Circle are a rarety, and expensive. All things considered I feel that since we’re going through the effort to travel so far, we might as well give ourselves the best shot! I strongly advise anyone that is serious about wanting to see the Aurora, to stay ATLEAST 3-4 nights. More really is better. There may be activity, but cloudy skies, or clear skies, and no activity, so stay as long as is possible.

According to the scientists in Kiruna, Sweden, you have about an 80% of seeing the auroras if you stay in the area for at least 3 days. This is likely too for any destination at similar latitudes (like those listed above).

I tend to spend between 5 and 7 days in any one location, and I’ve had a lot of success with this timeframe.

Can you actually see the Northern lights with the naked eye? Or is it all camera trickery?

The definite answer is YES! Yes you absolutely can see the Aurora with the naked eye. You can more than see it, when it’s active enough it’s so bright, intense and fast that your eyes won’t be able to keep up! You’ll want to stop time just to take it all in.

The problem is, there’s a common misconception that because Aurora photography can sometimes use long exposures to enhance the Aurora’s, that this is infact untrue to life, and it isn’t. When the Aurora borealis is weak, long term exposure photography is handy because it allows the camera to capture light over time, and as result you get a nice green band in your photos, much brighter than perhaps you can see yourself.

But this is just because the Aurora is weak. Infact it may appear to you (when your eyes have fully adjusted to the dark) as a pale green/ almost white band of light in the sky, immobile, and very faint. SO much so that you might think to yourself, is that it? Is that the famous Aurora Borealis?

Take the two shots below as examples, the left shot was a 2 second exposure, the right an 18 second exposure!

Aurora Borealis over Nellim, Finland

2 second Aurora Exposure

Weak Aurora over Skibotn, Norway

18 Second Aurora exposure

The left hand picture looks almost identical to the naked eye as the photo, whereas the right hand picture really looks nothing like it did in real life and infact appeared to me as a very VERY faint, and pale band in the sky. Just remember, photos with short exposures are more true to life, longer exposures enhance what we see.

It’s important to note, the Aurora Borealis is present in a great variety of intensities, from it’s lackluster weaker form, to it’s in your face, vibrant, dancing from one side of the sky to another in 2 seconds flat form. The latter will literally take your breath away, so much so the camera might be the last thing on your mind. You will just want to stare and take it all in.

So please, don’t be put off by any weak Aurora’s you may have seen, or any stories about how it’s all long exposure trickery. The Northern Lights are by far the most beautiful natural phenomenon I’ve witnessed. You just have to be lucky and catch her right 😉

Below is some video footage I captured of the Northern Lights in Yellowknife, Canada back in March 2008. I’ve sped it up quite a bit as the display was over 2 hours long! But rest assured the movement is very fast at normal speed too! Apologies for the grain, it’s actually read video footage, not time lapse images.

Will the Full Moon affect my Aurora viewing?

Short answer, not much. I used to be put off by the Full Moon, and always booked my Aurora hunting trips around the New or Crescent Moon, but there really is no need for this and it really limited the times I could travel!

Contrary to popular belief and suggestions, the Full Moon or Gibbous Waning moon will only affect your viewing of the Northern Lights if they are WEAK. In which case, it will make it harder to see the pale green bands in the sky. But honestly? If the Aurora has any decent level of activity it really matters very little, and it’s those impressive Auroras you really want to see =)

I actually PREFER the brighter moon phases as the Moon lights up the landscape beautifully and brings out all the details in my photographs. Just remember, even the Full Moon pales in comparison to a moderate to active Aurora, and it gives beautiful photographs 😉

I guess what it boils down to is preference, and for us photographers what it is you’re after from your shots. If you want a nicely lit landscape, the Half to Full Moons actually help us out (as long as the Aurora is of moderate activity). If you want more of a Star-field, or want to capture the Milky Way and the Aurora Borealis, then plan your travels around a New or Crescent Moons as the moonlight does obscure the star field.

What colour are the Northern Lights?

The most common colour of the Aurora Borealis is shades of green. Different colours start to appear depending on what elements are interacting with our Earth’s magnetic field. As the Solar Wind becomes trapped in our Magnetic Field at the poles, the solar particles collide with atoms and ions in our atmosphere and become ‘excited’. It is the settling down of this excited state that results in the emission of ‘light’. If the excited particles in question are Oxygen, we typically see the green/yellow light, however, if the Oxygen particles are at very high altitudes, a more seldom seen Red light colour is emitted at the top of the Aurora. If it’s Nitrogen particles, we are more likely to see a blueish tinge to the Aurora. Purples, whites, blues occur often in coronas (coronas appear as almost spindle looking shapes directly above, as if reaching directly down to you), but overall green is the most common =) There isn’t a geographical place where specific colours occur, its all totally random and depends on the activity of the Auroral oval over different parts of the world.

Can we predict Aurora Borealis activity?

A lot of people message me with dates they have in mind to travel to certain destinations, and they ask if there’s anyway to know if there will be Auroras (often times these dates are months in advance!)

The truth is, predicting the Northern Lights is a tricky business and there’s never an absolute guarantee. Predictions are always most reliable the closer we are to the dates in question (much like the weather).

To be specific, it takes approximately 24-48 hours for solar wind to travel the distance from the Sun to Earth (depending on the speed of the Solar Wind or Coronal Mass Ejections (CME). So relatively accurate predictions can only really be made in that time frame, 2-3 days ahead. Here are a few useful resources for gauging general Aurora activity currently and over the next few days:

Geographic Institute at Fairbanks University – A popular general prediction model. Good used as a general guideline but not updated everyday. Predictions are made for 5-6 days ahead, however if an event occurs on the Sun, this prediction model will not account for new activity due to it’s update intervals. Take with a pinch of salt.

SWPC Prediction Center – Ovation Model – A good realtime model showing the Aurora Borealis’ current oval over the Earth. The brighter the green (or white) in the model, the more intensely the Aurora can be seen over the estimated geographical location underneath.

SWPC KP Model – The Kp model is an indication of fluctuations in the horizontal component of our geomagnetic field, also referred to as the Kp value over a 3 hour period. Kp values of 3+ are considered to be conducive to Geomagnetic storms and more intense Auroras. However, Kp’s as low as 1/2 can sometimes spark some wonderful Auroras, especially if you’re situated directly underneath the Auroral band. This is because there could be isolated substorms that do not last for a long enough period to register as a high Kp number, so the average will be lower.

Astronomy North – These guys tend to be pretty accurate with predictions and likely monitor events on the sun as well as current solar wind data.

Longterm forecasts tend to be unreliable, but there are ways to see what potential long term activity COULD be. There is a method known as the Carrington rotation (you can see an example of this on the Gedds page) which is based on the Suns rotation pattern. The Sun fully rotates on its own axis every 27 days. If there is an active Sunspot that is causing Solar Flares or CME’s, there’s a chance that 27 days later, that same Sunspot could still be there and could dish out similar levels of activity.

The problem with longterm forecasts, is that Sunspots decay and die, and their activity wanes. So the Carrington rotation is not always reliable, and when the Sun rotates completely and is facing the Earth again, a particular Sunspot might not be there anymore.

Aurora Borealis activity is never guaranteed, unfortunately it’s a little like playing the lottery. Many people are blessed with days of fantastic displays, while others leave their holiday destinations only to hear of Auroras the day they left. (Personal experience! Very frustrating).

The most important thing to remember with the Aurora is that you need to be patient. She could make you wait hours but it will be totally worth the cold and frustration when she finally puts on a show for you.

I personally use a combination of current Solar activity and Solar Wind readings from the ACE satellite, and generally know when to head outside to within an hour of activity. But the above should get you on the right track 🙂

Here are some photographs I’ve taken over the last 5 years or so, all of which are in the locations listed above. I hope you enjoyed my article! Feel free to ask any questions and I’ll try and answer =) You can find my full Aurora stream here

All photographic images and written content are copyright protected and are the property of Natalia Robba. If you’d like to order some prints, use my photographs, or republish my written content, please email me at to request permission.


My little Aurora expedition

This posts been a long time coming! Can’t believe it’s taken me this long to write up. I curse the rat race *waves fist in the air defiantly*!

Back in February of 2012, I travelled up to Abisko in the far north of Sweden. It’s a beautiful little town up in the Arctic circle, with breathtaking scenery, mountains and frozen lakes as far as the eye can see, and then nestled in this small off the beaten path town of Abisko, the lovely welcoming Abisko Mountain Lodge. My home for the next 6 days =)

Can’t say enough good things about the place, the atmosphere was warm and welcoming, the food simply out of this world, and of course the friendly resident Bernese mountain dogs (whom I shall miss seeing every afternoon) are there to greet you when you arrive. I really couldn’t have found myself a more perfect base for my Aurora hunting…great food, stunning surroundings a few footsteps away, and of course the prospect of Aurora Borealis displays right outside the lodge. The owners Mina and Dick we’re always very helpful and really were wonderful hosts.

For someone who has hunted the Aurora on countless occasions, I can’t say how fantastic it is to be able to simply step outside at a moments notice, with no light pollution whatsoever, to see the Aurora. I’ve got to say, you’re a little more dependent on some good luck for clear skies, but it beats driving around in a car looking for dark spots and it certainly extends the amount of time where you could potentially be viewing the Aurora since you could literally step outside your room at 3am at a moments notice to see Auroras above!

In terms of my Aurora viewing prospects, things looked rather bleak initially. I’d been monitoring our Sun for sunspots for the weeks preceding this trip, and wasn’t too happy with the activity levels! There were no significant incoming CME’s (Coronal Mass Ejections). Fortunately, the Solar Wind was consistent and strong, and coupled with several occurrences of a southward Bz tilt, we were blessed with several nights of Aurora displays, one of which was a real whopper!!

Birth of Corona

Aurora Borealis above Abisko Mountain Lodge

I have seen fantastic displays that lasted longer than this, but what we were lucky enough to see was just as beautiful in terms of colour and vibrancy. Green bands pulsated and danced in curtain formations across the sky, and then violets and blues appeared overhead in coronas so immense and violent you wanted nothing more than to slow down time so as not to miss a single detail! What made the whole thing even more breathtaking was the Aurora’s seemingly intuitive dancing away from the incoming ominous clouds, as if such a grand force of nature had any sense of awareness or compassion for the insignificant beings beneath her cheering her on! It was just spectacular 🙂 A night I shall never forget…

So I came to the end of my wonderful stay at Abisko, and amazingly I had another 5 days to go! From Abisko in Sweden, I flew over to Ivalo in Finland to meet up with Andy Keen from Aurora Hunters where I was to help out with Northern Lights tours for 5 days.

On arriving at Ivalo airport, there was already an Aurora band directly overhead which was a great start and was certainly very promising for the days ahead.

I stayed at the Hotel Ivallo, which by the way was a lovely place! It’s a no frills hotel, but rooms are clean, perfectly adequate and the food was pretty decent too!

The setting itself was just perfect, with a frozen river directly behind the hotel providing a perfect setting for afternoon walks…and as I’ll explain shortly…Aurora viewing!

The Northern Lights over Ivalo, Finland

The Northern Lights over Ivalo, Finland

The next night was a little quiet and although we waited and waited, the Aurora did not make an appearance. Although there was an incident a bag of nuts and raisins and a certain messy vegetarian leaving her mark on our means of transportation, providing much more entertainment than would be considered normal in such situations!

Anyways, there was news of an incoming M class solar flare so we were hopeful for some activity the following night and we were treated to some lovely Auroras on a bridge over the Paatsjoki River in the Nellim region. It carried on for over 2 hours after which the clouds rolled in and the Aurora began to diminish, once again it was as if she decided to dwindle away into the peaceful night as soon as the clouds arrived =) I got some of my best photos on that bridge so thank you again Andy!

My last night there was initially just supposed to be a day of rest, packing, and organising myself for my travels back home the next day. However I’d been monitoring throughout the day and it looked promising for some more activity that night. My plan was just to find a nice dark spot close to the hotel as I had no transportation. Little did I know people we’re already using the frozen river directly behind the hotel for Aurora viewing and it was fantastic!

Aurora Borealis over Hotel Ivalo

Aurora Borealis over Hotel Ivalo, Finland

The light from the hotel was negligable and even the full moon couldn’t compete with the Aurora that night. It wasn’t a long display but was full of sporafic outbursts of intenses Auroras. What was amazing was how friendly and sociable everyone became with complete strangers, most of whom were jumping around with joy, or laughing, or on the verge of tears even!

I can’t think of a better way to have ended that trip 🙂 I left the next morning extremely happy at what I’d seen over the preceding 2 weeks.

It’ll be hard to top that’s for sure! I’m heading back to Abisko at the end of February 2013 as there seemed to be more to explore there! We shall see 😀 My aim there is to produce a time lapse movie that is as faithful to the Aurora’s beauty as possible.

Big show tonight for all you Northerners!

I am so jealous! 🙂 It looks like it’s going to be a great show tonight for all you Aurora Borealis fans out there. The results of the suns Coronal Mass Ejections (CME’s) a few days ago from sunspot 1401 are starting to take shape!

Major show expected around 6am UTC. Can’t wait to see peoples pictures! Solar Activity has noticeably been on the rise lately! Hope it keeps it up 🙂 Come on Sun!

Really crossing my fingers I’ll get this sort of activity when I get to Abisko end of February 🙂

Copyright Aurora Sky Station Webcam

A live webcam shot from the Aurora Sky Station is already starting to reveal the beginnings of very early Auroras! A good sign!

So all of you lucky lucky people out there north of approx 62 degrees north! Have a great night! Drive safe and I hope for clear skies for you all 🙂


A week with Aurora Hunters?

W00p! I soooo excited! I’m going to spend a week with Aurora Hunters in Ivalo!

I just happen to be ever so slightly bonkers about the Aurora Borealis. Ok not slightly I’m totally obsessed. Having made 7 odd trips in the last 5 years I’m hooked! So any chance I get really I’m researching different Aurora Borealis destinations where I can take my next trip!

Sooo it’s just another day at the office, taking a little mental break, having a read on Facebook as one does! Slightly ashamed to admit from time to time I check out Space Weather to check out solar activity 🙂 (For those of you wondering what in jeebuses name I’m talking about, the Aurora Borealis is caused by solar storms so I’m often checking solar activity to anticipate Aurora Storms!)…

So anyway, I’m checking out spaceweather, when I see a featured photo on the front page, a beautiful Aurora Borealis shot taken by Aurora Hunters:

© Andy Keen from Aurora Hunters

So I’m thinking wow what a beautiful image, what’s all this about Aurora Hunters? So I check out their website, Like their Facebook page, get to commenting on some beautiful Aurora Borealis shots on the Facebook group and bam I end up speaking to Andy Keen the main man behind Aurora Hunters.

Not sure how it came along but I now have the opportunity to head up to Ivalo for a week in March to ‘hunt’ for the Aurora with these guys! Beyond excited! I’d get to help out with the tour groups and their photography gear!

Now…the problem….how to get the time off work…but surely I need to go to this right? Most people I guess won’t understand but for any Aurora Borealis lover you just have to find a way!

Hopefully some good news coming your way soon!