Welcome to my full guide about how to see and photograph the northern lights in Iceland, the best places, period, months and hours,and some WRONG urban legends.
I will also write about some more advanced topics related to the northern lights such as why the northern lights appear in the sky, their relation with the sun activity and the sunspots, including all the tips i used to see it in the past years with great satisfaction during my 4 trips, 1 of which in Norway, and 3 of which in Iceland…..in particular, i will focus on the latter…Iceland!
DISCLAIMER: the present article has been realized in pure amateur form with a mere recreational, personal, non profit intention. Therefore, the author cannot guarantee in any case the absence of errors or the freshness of the informations reported. For this reason he strictly invites any reader to also search for more informations about the same arguments inside other external sources, and to report any eventual mistake to the author through the Contact page on this website. In any case the author will not be responsible for any action committed by anyone following the reading of the informations reported inside this article
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READ MY OTHER ICELAND GUIDES, RIGHT MENU, ICELAND SECTION ——->>
This is the list of article paragraphs
- INTRODUCTION PART (BELOW THE COMPLETE GUIDE):
- NEW ARTICLE UPDATES
- THE ONLINE VIRTUAL NORTHERN LIGHTS EXPERIENCE
- FIRST BASIC INTRODUCTION TO NORTHERN LIGHTS
- INTRODUCTION TO ICELAND: WHY I LOVE IT
- HOW I PREPARED MY TRIP
- COMPLETE GUIDE TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS:
- FIRST ENIGMATIC QUESTION: HOW MANY NIGHTS TO STAY
- SECOND ENIGMATIC QUESTION: WHAT IF I FAIL
- THIRD ENIGMATIC QUESTION: RAIN FOR 7 DAYS, WHAT NOW???
- HOW TO CORRECTLY CHECK WEATHERCAST
- HOW TO CHECK THE GEOMAGNETIC ACTIVITY
- BEST ICELAND PLACE, BEST MONTH, BEST WEEK, AND BEST TIME FOR NORTHERN LIGHTS
- FURTHER CONSIDERATIONS:
- THE HUMAN EYES: HOW THEY REALLY SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
- THE 11 YEARS SUN CYCLE: HOW IT INFLUENCES THE AURORA
- ARE 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 AND SO ON, NICE YEARS TO SEE NORTHERN LIGHTS?
- PREDICT THE NORTHERN LIGHTS WITH 27 DAYS SUNSPOTS CYCLE
- COMPLETE GUIDE TO PHOTOGRAPHY OF NORTHERN LIGHTS
BEWARE: THIS ARTICLE IS ONLY MY PERSONAL EXPERIENCE
Before proceeding i want to make clear that this article is ONLY the result of my personal opinion and experience in Iceland
I can’t guarantee that it’s free of errors or enough updated, and I strictly invite any reader to check other websites too for a more redundant information
SOME WORDS ABOUT ME AND MY NORTHERN LIGHTS JOURNEYS
I am an over 10 years experienced and internationally awarded photographer who is fallen in love with the northern lights in 2012. It’s possible to read my entire biography at this link Moyan Brenn Biography
This is a list of the journeys i have undertaken to see the northern lights:
- February 2012, Norway: saw the northern lights 2 nights out of 3
- September 2013, Iceland: saw the northern lights 3 nights out of 7
- March/April 2014, Iceland: saw the northern lights 2 nights out of 5
- September 2015, Iceland: saw the northern lights 3 nights out of 8 (also a solar storm, on September 11th, Friday)
MY ARTICLE FEATURED ON CNN!
I’m very happy that CNN has used my article as a reference to create their content by also interviewing me by email and by publishing an article about aurora and my tips too! I didn’t think it would have ever happened. After all i wrote this article just for fun! Here are 2 screenshots of their article:
THANK YOU TO FRIENDS WHO TOLD ME THEY SAW THE AURORA
I want to thanks all my friends who wrote me back to let me know they saw the aurora…I’m very glad i was able to assist them in better preparing their trip…..the best way i know to feeling closer to Iceland and aurora while i am at home, is being part of their plans…..it really lets me feel i’m still in Iceland…….
THE ONLINE NORTHERN LIGHTS VIRTUAL EXPERIENCE
While surfing on the web, one day i’ve found this online simulator realized by Goran Strand aurora borealis simulator ! Turn off the light, rise up the volume, and click on the “skip intro” button on bottom right corner. Then by holding down the left mouse button, it is possible to rotate the view all around and enjoy the atmosphere!
Goran Strand has done a very great job with it! i hope you will appreciate it!
ATTENTION: BEST PLACES TO SEE IN ICELAND
Dear friends, since many of you have asked me for a list of nice places to see in Iceland, i have decided to make a dedicated article. It is available here, please have a look and don’t forget that this is only a personal favourite list
A FIRST BASIC INTRODUCTION: WHAT ARE AND WHERE NORTHERN LIGHTS CAN BE SEEN
NOTE: in this paragraph there are only basic notions for a first reading. I have written more advanced notions in the rest of the article.
While at the beginning i wanted to simply understand where northern lights could be seen, i furtherly finished to be curious to know what the northern lights were from a scientific point of view…..Well, i have tried to satisfy my curiosity and found on internet the following informations
MY NORTHERN LIGHTS GALLERY CAN BE SEEN HERE
- What are northern lights, a little example: to make an easy example, imagine how a neon light works. Inside the lamp there’s a gas. Once i turn the switch on, the gas is flooded by electricity, which generates, as a reaction, the light in my room:
More or less i think the same happens with the northern lights
- What are northern lights, a further explanation: This is only a generic explanation summarized by me. In the atmosphere we have some gases, among which oxygen and nitrogen. Sometimes, due to some “energetic” phenomenons that happens on the surface of the sun, called sunspots, solar flares and coronal mass ejections or CME, the earth atmosphere is irradiated by electrons and protons, through an aerial flow which is commonly called “solar wind”. When they reach the atmosphere, these particles are attracted by earth magnetic poles areas where they forms concentric circles called Aurora Ovals, and where they continuously collide with molecules of oxygen and nitrogen. When this happens, the impact causes the release of photons, which are the particles responsible for producing the visible light which everyone can see. The more the strength of the solar wind, and the higher the expansion of the Aurora Ovals from the Poles toward the Equator, thus making Aurora, in very special conditions, visible even from North Italy (check below to see some photos of this, by clicking on the Cortina D’Ampezzo page link)
- What are sunspots, solar flare and CME: I’ve tried to figure out on the web what they are and to write my small explanation. I’ve understood that sunspots are regions on the surface of the sun of reduced temperature and energy which appear as dark stains when observed with our instruments, due to the fact that the surface around them is extremely bright. It’s similar to when i take a picture in counterlight: the sun and the sky look nice, while people look black and dark. Well, the same is with sunspots. They appear black for this reason, otherwise, if they could be observed isolated in the space, they would be 10 times brighter than the moon.
The reason for their formation seems to be that the sun, differently from the earth, rotates with different speeds from Equator throughout the poles, a property which causes its magnetic field to continuously warp and twist. Consequently, sometimes, we assist to the creation of smaller and randomly generated superficial magnetic poles in the area of the two middle latitude bands on either sides of the sun equator.
Sometimes, due to the excessive twisting of the magnetic field lines which compose the sunspots, and that continuously cross and reconnect, it is possible to observe the release of huge explosions called solar flare with an energy comparable to that of millions of hydrogen bombs. Some of them are so intense that they can even disrupt radio communications on earth. When it happens, they are defined as X Class Solar Flare.
Furtherly, sometimes sunspots can generate a second phenomenon called coronal mass ejection, or CME, which is the result of the breakage of these magnetic field lines, capable of making the sun plasma exploding and releasing massive energy
- Which colors are visible through the northern lights: following, is an explanation of the gases involved and the colors they are responsible for:
- Northern lights yellow/green colors: caused by Oxygen at low altitude
- Northern lights red colors: caused by Oxygen at high altitude
- Northern lights blue/purple colors: caused by Nitrogen
- Do northern lights appear under the clouds?: no! they appear very high in the sky, over the clouds although it can be spotted from an airplane during a flight
- Which is the average northern lights altitude?: between 80km and 300km
- Where are northern lights? in which part of atmosphere do they appear? do they appear in the space?: they appear in the thermosphere, which is above the mesosphere, the stratosphere and the troposphere and beneath the exosphere
- Where is it possible to see the northern lights: based on my experience, the “rule of thumb” seems to be, the more i move closer to the north magnetic inside the auroral oval, and the greater the chance to see it (although aurora oval is dynamic and it extends itself based on the intensity of geomagnetic activity)
This answer seems too much generic, so as a further information, some examples of places where aurora can be seen often are: Alaska, north part of Scandinavia, Iceland, most part of Canada, and Greenland.
Note: sounds strange but since it’s important to stay within the auroral oval, it looks like going too much closer to North Pole in turn would decrease the chances. To better understand why, just look at the auroral oval representation map below. As depicted in the picture, the auroral oval in the middle is empty
For completeness, it’s also interesting that in some very rare circumstances, when the energy in the atmosphere was very very high due to a phenomenon known as X Class Solar Fare, northern lights have been visible even from the entire Europe and USA
For example, in 1859, they have been visible even from Cuba and Rome in Italy, through a unique phenomenon which has been called the Carrington Event. That year, newspapers from all the world reported the phenomenon, and following an entire extraction of articles from that period talking about the solar storm observation
As another example, in 2003, someone has been able to photograph the northern lights even from the italian Alps and from Tuscany, Grosseto city. Here is the proof (pictures taken from italian location Cortina D’Ampezzo in October 2003):
Please read the rest of the article for more details about where northern lights can bee seen in Iceland
- Is aurora visible only on earth? what about other planets?: oh yes, sounds romantic, aurora can also be seen from other planets like Jupiter, Saturn and not only! Here below is a proof, a blue aurora seen from Jupiter thanks to the Hubble telescope!
ANY DIFFERENCE WITH AURORA BOREALIS??
No…..It’s just a different way to call the northern lights! it’s more an astronomical version of the name! that’s it!
NOW SOME WORDS ON ICELAND: WHY I LOVE IT
It’s time to talk about this country and why I love it so much:
- BETTER TEMPERATURE: the temperature is better respect to Scandinavian peninsula and North America, thanks to the Gulf stream that keeps it warmer. The statistical data of last decades are clear. Iceland is less cold than Scandinavian peninsula, Canada and Alaska. In particular it is possible to take a look to the historical statistics by checking this website
I tried to insert some locations to compare data for example between Reykjavik and cities like Anchorage, Rovaniemi or Toronto. The icelandic capital was clearly warmer in winter
- SITUATED INSIDE THE AURORAL OVAL: as depicted in the graph below, where the red ring represents the auroral oval traveling all around the earth, Iceland is still nicely situated inside this red ring, in a similar manner of Cape North, reason why, chances to see northern lights are good
Note: the auroral oval is empty in the middle, thus the perfect spot seems to be the area of Greenland, Iceland, north of Scandinavia and similar countries. As i have read somewhere infact, and also like “logic” suggests, it looks like going further than this toward the North Pole seems to lower again the chances in the same manner of going toward the Equator. Don’t know how much is true, but it sounds plausible :
The picture above shows a graphical representation of the auroral oval evolution on the north emisphere. It shows how the concentric circles of aurora spread over the world using the magnetic pole as their epicenter instead of the north pole. As far as they touch north of Scandinavia, they touch Iceland too
- CHEAPER (at least for now): Although things can change in the future with the fluctuation of currency change, probably thanks to the 2008 bankruptcy crysis, at present time my flight cost was quite affordable, especially from England or Denmark, and, more important, life cost in general for me was quite acceptable. I will never forget when I paid 35 euros for a cheeseburger, some potatoes and a coke in a Norwegian pub…..something like this has never happened to me in Iceland, in my last september trip, where for the same 35 euros, they served me a very nice main course of fresh fish, fried chips, and even an icelandic typical yogurt called Skir
Note: in my article “Iceland, 10 myths debunked”, i have reported the general price of some food in 2015 that i have found during my journey
- MANY THINGS TO DO: Iceland is so full of things to do that, although a tourist won’t see the aurora, i think he will be still happy with the trip itself. At the link below it is possible to see a list of my favourite things to see:
HOW I PREPARED MY TRIP
For more tips to prepare a travel in Iceland, i wrote 2 articles with all the necessary recommendations plus my entire travel story of my latest 3th trip:
FIRST ENIGMATIC QUESTION: HOW MANY NIGHTS I STAYED?
More or less within 5/6 nights i saw it in 2 different trips. During my first trip i even saw it in 3 nights. But in turn it also happened that my friend didn’t see it for 4 nights in a row.
Basically, it must be understood that sometimes it can be cloudy, sometimes it won’t appear even with a clear sky, and that the only strategy is to stay as many nights as possible based on one’s budget
SECOND ENIGMATIC QUESTION: WHAT IF I FAIL?
The winning strategy for me is to be “wise” and “down to earth”. It should be understood that “higher chance” is different from “100% certainty”. Therefore in my opinion it’s very important to organize a trip to firstly visit Iceland since it really offers tons of beautiful natural wonders
For this reason, i personally don’t like to focus the entire trip only on the aurora. It could be a useless loss of money. Even the most expert guy can be unlucky and not able to see it.
As a further suggestion, just to enjoy some time while waiting for a better sky, it is possible to visit the Northern Lights Center in Reykjavik, full of very interesting and accurate informations, plus some beautiful pictures on wide screens and nice souvenirs. I personally visited it and found it very interesting:
THIRD ENIGMATIC QUESTION: RAIN FOR 7 DAYS, WHAT NOW???
Ok, stop now……..there’s a good news you should be aware of: don’t check the weathercast for more than the next 12 hours….not joking……the weather in Iceland changes soooo easily that the weathercast offices are totally unable to predict the situation for more than 12 hours
Really, i’m serious, i can’t describe how many times they are wrong.
Weathercast in Iceland is reliable only for not more than 12 hours, except for some rare occasions when the weather is particularly stable (guess how many times?? eh eh eh easy answers!)
Icelandic people agree with me, i have interviewed some and they agree on the fact that the weathercast can’t be used for more than the next 12 hours
Concluding, if you are at home, ready to depart for Iceland, and the weather says bad for the next 2 weeks, don’t be sad, you can still find lot of sun….
It happened to me too for real!! 7 days of rain forecasted before i departed…….guess what……i found the sun in every place i visited!!!
HOW I CHECK THE WEATHERCAST
I like to do it in 3 foundamental steps. Let’s show them one by one:
STEP 1: Check the WINDYTY REAL TIME MAP below which show RAIN and CLOUDS:
To begin and try to figure out how to see the northern lights, before it becomes dark, as a first step I find very useful to check the Windyty real time map below. It provides very good and precise real time and/or forecast information about where there is a clear sky, where it is raining and where it is cloudy
1) Click on the map below to open the real time view of rain and clouds
2) Select the Time from the bottom right menu
3) Ensure that Cloud & Rain is selected in the bottom right menu
— Dark: clear sky areas (good to see the aurora borealis)
— Grey: clouds without rain (not good to see aurora borealis)
— Blue/Green/Red: rain (not good to see aurora borealis)
The reason why this map is important is that sometimes just 40 kilometers from the actual location where it is raining at the moment, the sky could be unexpectedly clean….by checking exclusively the weathercast of the actual place can be limiting. Instead, when i analyze the entire map and check the cloud and rain coverage situation, i try to find and reach with my car an area with a more clear sky, and that is why this website can dramatically increase the chances. It really happened to me while i was in Iceland….
One night in my guesthouse area it was raining. I checked the cloud coverage map. It said clear sky at about 40 km from where i was. I took the jeep, i got there, and i saw it! when i came back to the guesthouse, the receptionist couldn’t believe i made those pictures during that rainy night! For her, it was just raining outside!
NOTE ON RELIABILITY: it’s very important to keep in mind that although very useful, this real time map could lack of precision, because as maybe everyone knows, every technology has its imperfections. Just keep this in mind
WHEN AND HOW TO MOVE WITH THE MAP: Regarding when and how to move respect to what the map says, of course the best strategy would be to not book any hotel and to drive all day long toward places where the sky looks clear on the weathercast.
However, for my personal taste, during my trips I preferred to book hotels in advance and to chase clear skies with my car in a range of maximum 100 km per night, because i was interested also to visit famous places instead of just chasing the aurora. I didn’t want to stay in less interesting places for a long time just because the sky was clear. After all, i wanted to see Iceland as well, and all its beautiful things.
For this reason, i preferred to book some guesthouses in some “strategic points” from which it was easy to reach enough good places. For example, i really liked to stay in Hvollsvollur area, as well as in Klaustur area.
STEP 2: Check the Webcams of Iceland before it’s dark
As a second step i also try to check the webcams of Iceland to see how the situation is going in all the areas to better decide where i could think to go
It is possible to check a very long list of webcams at these 2 websites:
Iceland Webcam Galore: complete list of Iceland webcam with search engine also
Vegagerdin official Iceland Road webcams: webcams directly on the map for an easier research
STEP 3: Check the horizon with naked eyes
This is also a good step which helps to increase the awareness of the situation in the sky. By checking with naked eyes, although the viewing distance is limited, it’s possible to have a limited but very realistic view of the entire area when one is staying
EXTRA STEPS: A COUPLE OF MORE TIPS ON WEATHER
- The wind in Iceland can be very strong. I usually don’t stop in checking the clouds conditions. I do the same for the wind speed and direction every night which can be done from the same Windyty map above by selecting from the bottom right menu the “Wind option”. Watching the aurora can require some hours, and a strong wind can make it annoying or even impossible (it happened to me too). So i try to search for a place with a clear sky but at the same time with a moderate wind prediction on the weathercast map
- Buy an Icelandic mobile simcard with SIMINN or NOVA: having the 3G signal while driving is very nice to check the weather while far from the hotel. So, just in case the actual sim owned can’t be used in Iceland or in case it presents unconvenient fares, a new one with a local mobile operator like SIMINN or NOVA can be easily bought at the big department store of Keflavik airport (open also in the night) or onboard of a flight of Icelandair to install it on a mobile phone. There are also further stores throughout Iceland which can be checked on the official website reported below to buy it, although i haven’t personally checked this. It’s the perfect solution to have the 3G/4G connection available with a convenient fare all the time to be able to continuously check the weathercast, especially when staying far from hotels and wifi connections, or also other useful informations in case of emergency
Where to buy SIMINN or NOVA mobile sim card: as said, i found it onboard of Icelandair flights and on the department store of Keflavik airport. Apart from that, following is a list of SIMINN stores
Iceland mobile 3G/4G signal coverage map: following it is possible to further check also the coverage 3G/4G coverage map
How to use NOVA and SIMINN simcard: Nova is easier since it just need to be mounted and it’s already active. Rather, Siminn must be firstly activated by calling the assistance number and giving the card code (at least at present time)
How much do they cost: don’t remember the price of Siminn, anyway, Nova is around 14 Euros and it allows for 1Gb of internet traffic plus free call to another Nova sim number
HOW I CHECK GEOMAGNETIC ACTIVITY
Now talking about forecasts and predictions, i know of people using the KP Index prediction graph available online or also some websites which make available a prediction for the following hours or days. To use them, it is enough to constantly check the latest news on the following websites (there are even more on Google)
However, i personally don’t like to do it, since forecasts and prediction, in the same manner of TV weather forecast, are subjected to mistakes and errors for reasons that everyone can easily understand. What if they tell that aurora will be absent and, rather, it will show while i am sleeping because i though that it would have been absent? it would be terrible.….
So, my personal strategy is to stay under a clear sky, and check the sky by myself all night long, until i get tired, especially between 10.00pm and 2,00am when chances are greater (based on what i read somewhere on internet and also on my experience, since i saw it throughout the entire night)
However, just for curiosity, below are some link to aurora borealis prediction websites:
MY OPINION ABOUT BEST ICELANDIC PLACE, PERIOD, WEEK, MONTH, AND DAY TIME
- Best direction: In Iceland i usually check every direction with a greater attention to west, north and east since all the times i saw it, it appeared from these 3 directions. After all it makes sense…..since the northern lights comes from north, maybe there’s a lower chance it appears from south. I also tried to always search for a place with these 3 directions free of obstacles
- Best month: based on my study of a webcam situated in Tromso which reported a screenshot every hour for the last 2/3 years (it was called Tromso All Sky Camera, don’t know if still active), I found that the aurora was visible throughout the entire season between end of August and beginning of April. Personally, i saw it in February, March, April, August and September.
Furthermore, a study of the Earth’s Physics Department of St. Petersburg University in Russia has found that during equinoxes, the sun activity is a little bit higher, passing from an average of Kp of 175 to a peak of 200, thus increasing of a 15% (more or less) the theoretical chance to see it
Apart from this, the other thing to evaluate is the weather and the cloud coverage. For this reason, i have decided to study a little bit the historical weather of the website Weatherspark to figure out when to go to Iceland from a more theoretical point of view.
I considered both the data of Reykjavik historical weathercast and Akureyri historical weathercast to create some sort of average result for 3 periods during which i personally saw it: August/September, March/April, and winter. In particular, the first 2 of these periods are also closer to equinox like suggested from the study reported above of the St. Petersburg University
DISCLAIMER: the following is only my personal amateur study, prone to errors. These data should not considered in any case as “absolute”. I invite everyone to make his own study of the historical statistics
Average Min/Max temperature (Celsius):
– August/September: 6°/12°C
– March/April: -2°/4°C
– Winter time: -4°/2°C
Result: August/September seems better. March/April has
a little advantage over winter with a slightly warmer temperature
Freezing daily percentage:
– August/September: almost 0%
– March/April: 40%
– Winter time: 55%
Result: August/September less cold, March/April looks slightly better than winter
Cloud cover percentage (total and mostly coverage, partial coverage excluded):
– August/September: 65%
– March/April: 65%
– Winter time: 60%
Result: irrelevant gap during winter. It seems to not make a great difference
Daily precipitations probability (rain and snow combined):
– August/September: 70%
– March/April: 75%
– Winter time: 75%
Result: irrilevant gap. It seems that precipitations are present throughout the year
Snow precipitations probability:
– August/September: 5%
– March/April: 40%
– Winter time: 55%
Result: looks like August/September is free of snow, so easier for those
afraid of road conditions, while March/April looks a little bit less snowy
Average & Max wind speed in Km/h:
– August/September: av 4 max 9/11
– March/April: av 5 max 11/13
– Winter time: av 6 max 13/15
Result: moderated wind during August/September, March/April is slightly better than winter
CONCLUSION: it seems like the cloud coverage level is almost the same throughout the entire year as well as the precipitation level. However, the period of August/September, close to the autumn equinox, seems to still present some advantages, since there is very few or no snow (so better road conditions since the entirely precipitations is made by rain), a higher temperature, and more F-roads are open to access. The wind as well looks moderated respect to winter. In turn the period of the spring equinox, March/April, looks quite similar to winter, although presenting a little bit less snow and wind speed, together with a slightly warmer temperature, reason why it could be considered still preferrable to middle of winter, except if one wishes to visit ice caves. Furthermore, both the period of August/September and March/April are closer to equinox as suggested from the study above, reason why, in my strict opinion, they could be considered 2 possible nice periods to go in Iceland
- Best time of day: i saw it from early evening to late night, reason why, once it’s dark, i always get ready as soon as possible, although someone suggested that the peak period is around midnight, from 10pm o’clock to 1am o’clock. However, i think chances are enough good that it could appear also outside this hours range (as i said, i saw it around 10 o’clock as well as at 2 o’clock in the night)
- Best week: of course the one with dark moon to me seems more preferrable, although sometimes it can happen that the moon rise time is beyond 2 o’clock in the night, by not representing a problem. Moreover, while to only see it with naked eyes dark moon seems perfect, in case of landscape photography, having the moon in the sky could help to get a shining ground instead of a dark one, although the eyes will be negatively impacted. Concluding, generally speaking, moon can help with landscape photography but it also disturbs naked eyes, while a dark moon can help people to see aurora, but pictures will have a dark landscape ground
MOON CALENDAR: here it is possible to see the moon calendar to understand when there will be a dark moon.
MOON RISE TIME: here it is possible to calculate the moon rise time
- Best place: more or less aurora can be seen everywhere around the entire Iceland. However, Weatherbase.com eported that the south coast is the most rainy place with a greater level of precipitations, especially the area around Vik. However the general rule for me is “check the weather situation at sunset and decide where to go in advance”. As a further consideration, the north area is closer to magnetic pole, so it could offer a slightly higher chance to see it, although i am not really able to quantify it
MY FURTHER CONSIDERATIONS: THE HUMAN PERCEPTION OF THE INTENSITY OF THE GREEN COLOR AND DANCING EFFECT
I recently received some messages from tourists who managed to see the northern lights but more like a weak white trail instead of a green one. I would like to talk about this point by listing some important factors that for my opinion could effectively affect the experience:
- VERY DARK PLACE NEEDED: when I say “dark”, i mean “really dark”. Even the most stupid light of a house can change the experience. Aurora in my opinion is better if enjoyed with maximum of darkness, so despite the preference for a dark moon night, i always like to stay very far from even the most small source of light. As said in the article, in case of photography, the problem is less perceived, since the photocameras are capable of filtering out the disturbing lights to just emphasize the northern lights, at the point that even the moonlight instead of being counterproductive, it could aid in getting a better and brighter ground landscape
- FOG AND HAZE: i suppose these factors can influence the experience, so it is important that the sky is very clear, in a way that lot of stars are visible. However, i can surely say that i have seen the northern lights even from an airplane, and it was still “light green” and not intense like pictures on internet even with such high altitude
- EYES NIGHT VISION CAPABILITY: for sure i can say that my eyes get accustomed to the dark ONLY if i keep them in total dark condition for at least 2 minutes. For this reason, i can surely say to not use the mobile phone while waiting to see the aurora, or the LCD display light could negatively affect the eyes. Apart from this i must say that some people can see also red colors while some other not. For example, last time, my girlfriend could see very nicely the red color and not that much the green color. In turn, i nicely saw the green but not the red one
- KP INDEX AND INTENSITY CHANGE: as said the aurora must be strong for itself. There are 2 factors which influence this aspect. The first one is the KP Index (measurement of the strength of solar activity), which, for a good intensity, should be at least 4 or greater. A second factor is “how” the aurora explodes in the sky. In this sense, 2 types of aurora exist, and you must be lucky to catch the right one. The first type is called “diffuse aurora”, and it’s a generic appearance in form of static green halos and trails. The other type of aurora, is called “discrete aurora”, and it is characterized by the presence of a strong movement together with a “curtain” style effect. The latter of course, is the type of aurora everyone is searching for. Following, is a picture where the 2 types of aurora are compared. Check this link for more info:
- THE MYTH OF AURORA PICTURES: ok, i want to say it. Aurora is not strong as pictures i see on the web. Simply speaking, cameras are better capable of capturing it respect to human eyes, and also sometimes people like to use a little bit of photoretouching to improve the result. However, it is also true that it has different intensity depending by the night, so that if one night is very weak, that doesn’t mean that it’s all a big fake. Simply, another night it will be stronger. However, no matters how strong it is, i personally think that pictures tend to be, in general, stronger than reality
- MOVEMENT AND DANCING IS THE KEY, NOT THE COLORS: one thing people should understand is that the beautiful side of aurora is not the color itself because it appears in that way only on pictures, but the dance movement it makes in the sky (although as explained above, only the discrete aurora produces it). Infact, although the colors seen from human eyes looks more like a light green/grey, the movement of aurora sometimes can be impressive and very fast, by surprising even the most frozen heart! One night i found myself in the middle of a solar storm (11th Sep, 2015), and after a while the aurora started to dance like a crazy girl in the sky…i was so scared by this that i almost made a step back for the fear
NOTE: ok you won’t like this but it’s important to know it…..as for the colors, also the movement and dancing can change from night to night..…some nights infact the aurora is very static and appears more only in form of static green halos. However, if the night is the lucky one, you will see it dancing very very fast in a crazy manner!
Concluding, whatever thing happens, don’t lose hopes, and wait wait and wait!!
THE 11 YEARS SUN CYCLE AND THE NORTHERN LIGHTS: WILL 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019,2020 AND NEXT YEARS BE GOOD TO SEE NORTHERN LIGHTS?
- IN THEORY: what makes the northern lights appearing is the atmosphere electrons irradiation generated by the sun. Year after year scientists have come to the conclusion that the sun irradiation intensity follows a 11 years cycle, during which they observed both a minimum period of activity, and a maximum one (see graph below). I have read in many websites sources that to increase the chance to see it, it could be useful to organize a trip during the years with the strongest irradiation activity, although there are some proofs which seem to demonstrate that even with a lower activity aurora is still visible.
To have an idea of the intensity for the next years, below is the graph provided by NASA. Now we are at the 24th sun cycle, and as seen from the graph, beginning from the 2016, and following the next years, 2017, 2018, 2019 and so on, it seems that chances to see aurora could become somewhat gradually weaker until the next sun cycle will take place, after which it could be possible to assist to a new “peak of intensity” around 2025 (although it is very difficult to “quantify” the reduction in chances, and we are still talking about a gradual phenomenon, not an on/off switch situation).
In particular, it seems that this cycle, which is the 24th, as seen on the graph, has been among the weakers of the last century, but, luckily, aurora has been still visible and even strong during some nights.
- IN PRACTICAL TERMS: as i have learned in my life, many times theory and practice don’t coincide like we expect. Infact, apart from the “theory” above, i noticed that i have been able to see a strong aurora during September 2013 which wasn’t a very high period of the sun cycle. Infact by looking at the graph, during September 2013 the sunspots number was quite low, around 60.
Furthermore, apart from the graph below, at this link AURORA BOREALIS OBSERVATIONS BY AURORA HUNTER there is a graph where some aurora pictures have been added with the exact indication of the moment during which they have been taken. As seen from this picture, assuming that the author has been precise in providing this indication, it seems that even with a low number of sunspots he has been able to capture it
- A RECENT EXAMPLE OF HOW THEORY IS NOT ALWAYS GOOD: it’s unbelievable but i have just found myself in the middle of a geomagnetic storm KP Index 7 in Iceland in September 11th 2015 (Friday). Aurora started to dance in a crazy manner and it was very powerful (see picture below)……..now look at the graph…this has just happened now, in 2015, with the sun cycle being quite weak, with sunspots number smaller than 100…..this is another proof that theory sometimes can be wrong and not absolute and that aurora can get crazy even with a lower sun cycle power. Below as a proof is the graph of that day when i saw it, captured with my mobile phone
CONCLUSION: concluding, personally speaking, by talking in absolute terms, going there with a high number of sunspots would be better, no matters what. Apart from this, in consideration of the 2 proofs indicated above and the example of the solar storm that i saw in 2015 during a sunspots cycle weak period, reality seems to demonstrate that aurora could be still enough visible even when the sun cycle is weaker.
Apart from these considerations and real life examples, i have found no proof to mathematically demonstrate “how much” this is true or not
Anyway, I invite anyone interested to not stopping in reading my material, and to furtherly search on the web for more informations.
And just to increase a little bit more the enthusiasm, Iceland is still a beautiful country. It really deserves to be visited, no matters if aurora will appear or not in the sky
CAN THE AURORA BE DAILY PREDICTED WITH THE 27 DAYS SUNSPOTS CYCLE?
On top of the article i have explained that i don’t like predictions and forecast because they are subjected to errors. Considering now again the usual question “how to predict northern lights?”, a more technical answer is that the number of sunspots, which are the phenomenons responsible for causing the aurora in conjunction with their coronal mass ejections (CME) and solar flares, could be partially guessed, togheter with the presence or not of the northern lights in the sky, based on what happened in the previous 27 days, although this tecnnique present a high margin of error. This is because scientists have found that the sun follows a rotation which varies between 26 days at the Equator up to 35 days at the 2 poles. However, the astronomer Richard Carrington has furtherly noted that sunspots, in particular, responsible for the earth geomagnetic irradiation with their mass coronal eruptions, follow a solar cycle of 27 days, which is called the Carrington Rotation. Look for example at the graph below. It reports the kp index level day by day for the first months of the year 2014. As seen there is a period of around 27 days during which i have found pattern repetitions. However, from the other side there are also periods where patterns are no precisely respected as well.
Note: a good day to see the aurora in the graph is one with a Kp of 3 or more
I’m just back from Iceland, and i must say, before going, based on this analysis, I suspected that the aurora would have appeared during the first days of my trip (from 28 march 2014 to 2 april 2014). Well, I guessed it, we saw it for the first 2 nights and than no more. However, although for me worked nicely, after coming back home, and after studying further graphs of different periods, i have found that this technique it’s quite prone to errors and misunderstandings. Furthermore, being the prediction useful for a couple of months or even less, it would be difficult to book flights and hotels in such a short time frame, and to say the truth, for most people this graph is quite complicated to interpret.
Therefore, in consideration of these observations, I personally don’t like to use this prediction system
I just wanted to report this instrument for more completeness of the article and to write something more about the theory behind the northern lights.
To get the latest updated version of the graph click below
MY PHOTOGRAPHY TECHNIQUE FOR NORTHERN LIGHTS
- Introduction: sometimes aurora was quite fast so i needed to be as quick as possible to capture it because it could suddenly disappear. Furthermore, i’ve found that the longer the shot, the greater the smooth effect, which will eliminate the “curtain” effect. Therefore, what i usually do is a compromise between exposure and high ISO, instead of just relying on long exposure with low ISO.
- LCD and Histogram: firstly, i always like to reduce the lcd brightness. Being in a dark environment, without doing this i could believe that my shots are bright enough, while at home they could look very dark, although it’s important to always check histogram if possible, to confirm the exposure accuracy. By making this mistake, i could be forced to increase brightness via software, and doing this at high ISO levels, can seriously increase the final noise level.
- Aperture: I personally like to open the lens around f3.5/f4.0, a compromise between quality, costs, and depth of field capability since this is the maximum wide aperture on most generic “kit” lenses like my Nikon 16-85 VR f3.5-f5.6. Instead, just in case i don’t trust my camera ISO and i want an extra noise level quality, if i have some money to spend i could buy and use a lens with f2.8 or even f.2.0. In this way i will need a lower ISO and the quality will be greater, but the depth of field could be a little bit limited, and also buying a wideangle lens with such apertures could be a little bit expensive. Personally, since i own a D7000 which has a good sensor, i am very happy with the quality of high iso togheter with a f4 aperture, so i decided to avoid to buy a lens with a wider aperture. I think that it just depends by the expectation of a person, by the quality of the camera body, and by the size at which one wants to see and print the pictures. I think that everyone should try for himself the camera at home and see if he is happy with high iso results
- Exposure: i have evaluated the histograms of all the shots i have taken since today in 7 different aurora nights, and more or less, to make a shot that balances the histogram all to the right (like it happens in the ETTR technique which i personally like very much and often use), the exposure, in a total dark moon situation, with an aperture of f4.0, ranged in my case from a minimum of 30 seconds with ISO 800 to a maximum of 30 seconds with ISO 12800 when the aurora was still visible but not such intense. However, if there is still some dusk light or a half moon for example, probably a lower ISO could be required. Furtherly, since aurora constantly changes in intensity, these parameters must not be considered perfect. If aurora will be even stronger than what i saw, probably a smaller iso and a shorter exposure could be enough
Furtherly, as for wider aperture values like f2.0, also the exposure time could help with ISO quality. Infact, by increasing the exposure time from 30 to 60 seconds for example, it could be possible to reduce the ISO value. However, by doing these, the longer the exposure, the higher the “smooth” effect of the aurora which will produce only a green halo in the sky. Personally, i don’t like to go beyond 30 seconds, (or maximum 60 seconds in particular instances), but again, as for the aperture, is a question of tests and trials. I would always try my camera at home and see how much i can push the ISO, so that i can clearly decide to expose to 60 seconds to gain some quality, and at the same time to buy a wider lens with f2.8 aperture capability. In my case for example, with a D7000, i have been very happy to shoot at f4.0 and 30 seconds, by using a higher ISO, since this camera produces very good low noise shots
As a final note it’s useful to remember that most cameras, like Nikons, don’t allow to go beyond 30 seconds except if an external remote controller has been bought
- Preview at home: I always like to have a preview of my camera quality at high ISO, so i don’t wait to go to Iceland. Instead i make some nightshots test at home and try to understand the maximum acceptable parameters before the quality loss becomes too much for my taste
- Reflex is better: apart from the human mistakes, often the quality of a shot depends by the camera itself. Useless to say, I only like to use a reflex, even the cheapest one. For my personal taste even the most cheapest reflex camera like the D3100 offers me a better result than a compact camera…..again, probably it’s just a question of personal taste.
- NOTE: did i use a full Frame camera to take aurora pictures? Personally speaking, for my taste, i believe that using a full frame camera is surely an advantage, no matters what. However, after learning very well how to use a non full frame camera (DX/APS-C models), especially by correctly exposing a picture and by applying techniques like the ETTR, and also by buying a very good one like the Nikon DX D7000, i’ve been happy with the final result without spending more money. Following are some high resolution samples taken with my “non full frame” DX D7000 camera, which is very cheap nowadays. For me, the quality is more than acceptable, and if i look inside my pockets and see how much money i have saved, i find it to be even better
As always, taking some night pictures while still at home to check the quality is the best thing to do in my opinion
- Tripod: no need to tell, camera must be put on a tripod with the stabilizer turned off! By forgetting it, pictures will be blurred
- Extra ISO tips: there’s an extra point i apply to furtherly reduce the noise. I like to enable the long exposure noise reduction function (very different from the standard NR function), with which the camera, after taking the picture, and before processing it, takes a second totally black picture to better understand the noise ratio signal and to be better capable of removing it (on Nikon cameras like D90 or D7000 this function is called “long exposure noise reduction”, and during this process, after the shot has been taken, the message “JOB NR” alert will appear on the top display for a time equal to that of the exposure. During this time, the camera will be unavailable to operate. Just wait for it to finish)
- Raw Mode: Another trick to get an extra high ISO quality is to shoot in RAW mode. Latest softwares like CaptureOne or Lightroom, contain very good noise reduction algorhythms which allows to concretely gain that extra quality on shots respect to the standard compressed quality of in camera JPG. Furtherly, they also allow to apply the noise reduction on precise areas instead of to the entire shot with the “local adjustment” function, so that it is possible to save as much details as possible. Personally, i use the RAW format all the time. Its quality at 100% of size, if compared to a JPG for me is unbeatable
- Auto-focus: i usually tend to create a composition and put in focus a precise subject, which can be a house, a tree, or whatever thing i want. In particular, when i wanted to focus on my jeep for example, to use it as the subject of my night shot, i used the following methods:
Friend’s help: if i am with a friend, i usually ask him to enlight my subject or simply to use and keep the mobile camera flash light turned on toward my subject (there are some mobile apps on GoogleApps which allow to use the camera flash as a light), so that i can focus directly on it. Then when i focused, i tell him to go away and take the shot
Putting the ring of the lens at infinity: ( it’s the horizontal 8 symbol on the lens ring). This is a technique used by many photographers although i personally don’t like it, since it gives me the impression that it lacks of precision. Maybe Google can help, personally i am not interested on it
- Focal lenght: since the Aurora will be high in the sky, it’s easy to imagine that wide angle lenses are recommended. Based on my experience I think that the very least focal lenght to use is 18mm on DX/APS-C cameras, and a 28mm lens on full frame. Useless o say, smaller focal lenghts like 16mm or even 10mm could be only better since they could allow to take a wider amount of sky. It’s only a question of budget. I always used a 16mm on DX, and my cousin, very low in budget, has opted out for a 18mm DX with quite decent results for his expectations. If a person doesn’t have any special demand, probably he can be happy with 18mm. As always is a question of tastes. If one wants to take the most beautiful aurora picture out there it’s clear that a 18mm is not enough. Otherwise, if one prefers to be happy without exceeding in costs, a 18mm could be ok. Talking about me, i have choosen a middle way to balance cost/benefits, by using a 16mm DX (i’m happy with it)
- Battery and camera protection: i always make sure the battery is fully charged and sometimes i could even consider to buy an extra one. Often i also like to protect my camera from strong cold, rain or snow if i’m going there in harsh conditions. Here is my personal trick: I wrap my camera in a transparent food bags to maintain a warm temperature. (in Italy they are called Cuki Gelo). I put the aperture of the bag on the side of the lens, and fix it with an elastic. Eventually i make some little holes with the scissors close to the buttons to make them easy to be pressed….I have found this system very good, and for me it worked very well.
- Condensation from outdoor to indoor: it is important to keep the camera in the bag while coming back from an outdoor place to indoor, like in the hotel after a night outside in the cold. Infact, due to the strong change in temperature, while the camera is still cold, the indoor humidity could penetrate inside it by producing condensation. To make an example, the same happens when a driver enters inside his car in the night: while breathing, he gets the window glass completely fogged due to the condensation phenomenon. That’s because the window is still too much cold, and the humidity of the breath get sticked to it. Personally, after coming back indoor, i like to keep my camera closed in the bag for a while until it becomes warmer, and only after i take it out from it
IN CASE OF FREQUENT BLURRED PICTURES I HAVE WRITTEN A PERSONAL GUIDE WITH THE TIPS I USE TO AVOID IT: “BLURRY PICTURES: MY GUIDE TO AVOID IT”
I consider the approach described above as a good one to rise the chance to see the aurora and take a nice picture as much as possible. I used it 4 times, with the result of seeing it 4 nights out of 7 when I visited Iceland the first time, 2 nights out of 5 the second time in March 2014, 3 nights out of 8 the third night (including a solar storm), and 2 nights out of 3 when i visited Norway…I keep myself at disposition if someone wants to ask me for more help.
Thanks for reading!
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