Adventure Stories

Traveling to See & Capture the Northern Lights

Written by Sara Alexis

I am sure you have seen photos of it online, the beautiful, vibrant colours that are splashed across the night sky. You dream of being able to see it for yourself one day. Finally you decide you need to book a trip to go chase the northern lights for yourself. Well you’re in luck, there are a few destinations out there that are perfect for that. But there are a few things you need to know when booking a trip based solely off the hopes of seeing the northern lights in action.

Seeing the Lights

Here is a little disclaimer for you, northern lights are not guaranteed. No matter what tour you book, which country you travel to, or what time of year, there is never a guarantee. The longer your trip, the more likely you will be to see them. Your best bet of seeing them is in northern hemisphere’s winter, between September and March. Some people swear you are more likely to see them in December and January, at like 1am to 3am. This is because that is when it’s darkest, and because of the prolonged nighttime hours. But to be honest, when living in the Yukon for a year, I was able to see them more often in March; and the best ones I saw were just after 9pm at night and we watched until midnight.

Northern lights in March 2015, in Carcross, YT

So my advice to you is that if you are booking a trip based on trying to see the lights, you should also find a few others reasons for going to that place too. Do your research, find the place that best suits what you like to do as a traveler, and hope that you are lucky enough to witness the northern lights while up there too. The tricky thing about the northern lights is that even if they are forecasted for a night, the weather forecast is a whole other story. If it’s too cloudy, raining, and your sky isn’t clear, there go your chances of seeing them, even if they are technically out. There are so many factors.

So you’ve decided on where to go to try to see them, great. Now book somewhere to stay outside of it. The lights from cities make it harder to see them, especially as good as you can see them. Can you see them in the city? Yes. I saw them outside my window in Whitehorse a few times. But will you be more likely to see them if you aren’t in the city, definitely. I saw my best showing of the lights while sitting in the Carcross Desert in the Yukon, with barely a light to compete with them.

Northern lights in March 2015, in Carcross, YT

Capturing the Lights

You’ve booked your trip, you’ve planned it all out. You can’t wait to see the lights and hope to capture them with your camera. Well I will tell you right now, it’s not as easy as it looks. My phone camera, iPhone 6, could not capture them, at all. Didn’t even look like there was anything in the sky. Maybe a little green tint but in comparison to what I was seeing, not even close. Now I know all phones are different, some may do better than others, and I am not sure but I have heard things about phone camera having the ability to change shutter speeds, which is fantastic. I just prefer my camera because it was guaranteed that when I saw the lights, I would capture them.

First time seeing purple in the northern lights in Braeburn, YT

What do settings did I use to capture my photos of the northern lights? That’s the tricky part. It will be different everytime. It took me a few times out trying to capture them on camera to realize this. You will have to adjust your camera settings each time, and honestly as the lights move and get brighter and darker. The first time I shot the northern lights my ISO was at 3200.  My aperture was f/ 5.6. The shutter speed all the way up to 30 seconds. My camera saw better lights than I did. And though my pictures were cool, I wanted a more accurate representation of what I saw. On my best night of shooting the lights, my ISO was between 800 and 1600. My aperture was f/ 4.5. My shutter speed varied from picture to picture, from anywhere between 3 to 8 seconds.

I barely saw red northern lights in the sky, but my camera picked it up this night.

The orange glow is from the city lights below, the green is all northern lights.

But the main thing about capturing the lights on camera, is you need a tripod. As soon as you are setting shutter speeds to have the shutter open longer, you are risking the photo being blurry when it’s in your hands. No matter how much you think you can hold it still, you can’t. And the smallest movement during those few seconds its open will render the photo blurry and to me unusable. If possible a shutter release remote would be even better so theres no shake of the camera when you press the button, but not many people outside of photographers actually spend money on that kind of thing.

Another quick tip, if you want pictures of yourself with the northern lights, if you are in the picture, don’t move. Stay as still as possible. If the shutter is open for a longer period of time, any movement will render you blurry while it’s open. And if you are by yourself, just set the photo on a timer for 10 seconds. Get in place. Stay very still, and you got it. Tripods come in handy for that kind of thing too.

Checking out the northern lights in the Carcross Desert, YT

I do urge anyone thinking of making a trip up somewhere to see the northern lights, to go do it. It’s indescribable and as amazing as the photos are, there is nothing quite like watching the sky come to life as you watch the lights dance across the sky. I remember hearing that the lights dance before I ever saw them. I did not quite understanding how that’s possible. You can only  understand when you actually see it with your own eyes.





About the author

Sara Alexis

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