The majority of every traveler’s bucket list includes seeing the Aurora Borealis, more commonly known as the Northern Lights. But where can you find them and when is the best time to go looking for these ethereal illuminations?
Because light is easier to see in darkness, it makes sense that the Northern Lights might be visible where there is a good deal of darkness. In winter when the earth’s axis is tilted away from the sun in the Northern Hemisphere, some places like Alaska may have up to 67 days of darkness! Obviously, the further north one travels the more darkness, so let’s use Alaska as an example:
Juneau, the state’s southernmost city, has about 18 hours of darkness on the shortest day of the year (December 21). On that same day, Anchorage, which is a little further north than Juneau, experiences approximately 19 hours of darkness. And if we look at Barrow, the northernmost Alaskan town, we’ll see they actually have 67 days in a row of darkness.
Another ingredient that is needed to witness Aurora Borealis is solar wind. The lights occur when the sun experiences reactions between electrons and protons. These explosions escape the sun’s gravity and are carried toward earth by the solar wind. Most of these electrically charged particles bounce off the earth’s atmosphere, but the magnetic field of earth is weaker at the poles. The sun’s particles enter there and collide with gasses within our atmosphere. That is why the Northern Lights are seen most frequently near the north pole during the winter (September to April) of the northern hemisphere. And Southern Lights (Aurora Australis) are seen near the south pole during the southern hemisphere’s winter (March to September).
The best places to view the Northern Lights are in Alaska, northwestern Canada, the northern coast of Norway and the waters off northern Siberia. On rare occasions when the solar wind is exceptionally strong, Aurora Borealis has been seen as far south as New Orleans. The Southern Lights are more difficult to view, as they occur mainly over Antarctica, although they have been seen from southern New Zealand and Australia.
Grab your camera
Now that you know where to see this amazing phenomenon, and have arrived at a prime viewing site, how will you record it for posterity’s sake? Here are a few tips to capture the perfect pictures of your adventure, so you can share the experience with others:
- Reference the Aurora Forecast website for your best chance of seeing the Northern Lights from your location.
- Look for a location where you’ve got a wide view of the sky, and if possible, place something in the foreground that would make a good silhouette at the bottom of your images.
- Use a DSLR camera on a tripod for the best shots, as you will need to manipulate your ISO settings, aperture and shutter speed.
- Use a wide angle lens, if possible (24mm or lower) to encompass as much of the night sky, because The Lights shimmer across great swaths of the heavens.
- Put your camera on Manual Mode with settings at 1250 ISO, an aperture of 8, shutter speed of 25 seconds (no longer than 25 seconds, as the earth is rotating and will begin to show star trails at any longer length) and the focus of your lens should be at infinity ∞. (Do not use auto focus, because it is not dependable in darkness, so preset your lens in the manual mode.)
- Set a 2 second self-timer on the camera or use a remote trigger so that the camera will not record any “shake” as you touch the shutter button.
Now you’re ready to experience one of the world’s most mind-blowing natural wonders — and capture great images to prove it!
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