In search of the Aurora

Whenever you read about seeing the Northern Lights you find your expectations being managed: it’s a natural phenomena that doesn’t occur every day; it might be cloudy; it might be too faint to see; it never looks as spectacular as the photos because they are long exposures. We’d tried to maximise our chances by coming to the least cloudy place in Sweden (Abisko) at what is statistically the best time of year (Feb/March) and in a year of peak solar activity (the lights are linked to energy released by solar flares, which seem to run to a ~11 year cycle). Still, I wasn’t too confident – I’d read a recent post by Paul Reiffer regarding his struggles to get a decent view.

As it turned out I needn’t have worried – we totally lucked out. The magic micro-climate around Abisko gave us clear skies on our first evening, while cloud banks boiled along the horizon on all sides. We finished dinner just after 8pm, pulled on all our warmest clothes (and I do mean all – we were well into the Arctic circle up there) and stepped outside to be greeted by the lights right overhead. We couldn’t believe it – it’s not supposed to be that easy!

We walked a little way down the hill to a spot we’d reconnoitered earlier in the day that seemed sheltered and had a good view of the sky. For the next 90 minutes we were treated to an incredible show as the lights ebbed and flowed from horizon to horizon; often green, but with purples and pinks bursting out too. Sometimes amorphous clouds, at others incredibly distinct ribbons with ripples of light shivering along their length. Light would pulse right over our heads, fingers of light reaching down to us like some kind of kaleidoscope. Some times the light seemed static, at other times it danced across the sky like a flag snapping in strong winds. A few times meteors flashed past behind the Aurora. Quite incredible.

Aurora over AbiskoLooking upLights in the WestClouds and spaceShooting star

Everything was shot in manual at ISO1600 on the D700, with the aperture as wide as it would go (f2.8 on my 20mm lens). Pushing the ISO up above 1600 brought in too much noise and I started to lose detail that I really wanted to retain. By and large I focussed at the hyperfocal distance to keep as much in focus as possible – and that’s quite a lot when you’re shooting at 20mm, even wide open. I found that exposures of 10-20 seconds gave incredibly bright colours, but at the expense of smudging the lights into amorphous clouds. I settled on 2.5-5 sec exposures to capture a good amount of light whilst giving reasonable definition to the shapes etched across the sky – this depends a lot on how bright the lights are, of course. If you do happen to get activity right above you I’d recommend a few shots looking straight up; you get a very abstract effect that you don’t see in most Aurora pictures.

If you fancy doing something similar, here’s how we did it:

  • We flew from Heathrow to Kiruna via Stockholm with SAS, hired a car at the airport (Avis, Hertz and Europcar are all represented) and drove the 100km along the E10 to Abisko (there’s a train too)
  • We stayed at Abisko Turiststation (aka Abisko Mountain Station), a posh youth hostel with private rooms and a good restaurant that’s superbly located on a small hill overlooking a vast frozen lake, well away from any city lights
  • Statistically Abisko has clear skies for 60% of the year – we stayed two nights and got a fantastic view first night, some cloud on the second. Probably better to stay a few more nights if you can to maximise your chance of seeing a good show (remember, happiness = solar activity + clear skies)

So far as getting aurora forecasts etc, I found the following pages most useful:

That’s another experience ticked off the must-do list :-)

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