Experiencing the Northern Lights

As it gets colder and colder, more people turn to travel to escape the dark winter nights at home. While some migrate further south to warmer climates, other people have more unique experiences in mind.

The Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights draw more people North every year. They are typically visible through the months of November to March, though they are most common in December, January and February. The Northern Lights require darkness and clear skies, so they’re not typically visible from larger cities. Expect to have some night time adventures in the wilderness for your best viewing opportunities!

The Northern Lights are visible from most high latitudes, including Northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, Alaska and the Yukon, but one of the most common destination to witness this phenomenon is Iceland. Reykjavik is only a six hour direct flight from New York and offers a multitude of well established tours to help visitors see these lights. Although visitors can travel around the country to see the Northern Lights on their own, I highly recommend going with a tour company. While there is no way to guarantee seeing the Northern Lights, these tour guides have the experience and resources needed to get the best chance at seeing activity- and if you don’t see if on your first try, most companies will allow a complimentary second trip out.

When I went on my trip to Iceland, I traveled with the tour company Gray Line. While I enjoyed my experience, it was a large group tour and I suspect that we might have had some better viewing opportunities in a smaller vehicle; the large bus limited the locations we were able to visit. It was a little cloudy when we went, but I was able to spot some activity towards the end of our tour and the guides allowed us to stay until the lights faded despite being scheduled to return to the city.

While some phones have a night photography function, the best way to capture the Northern Lights is with a tripod and a camera with a manual mode. You’ll want to set your aperture as wide as it goes (usually f/2.8 or f/4) and set your shutter speed at around 30 seconds. ISO is a bit tricky as increasing ISO also risks increasing grain. I suggest starting at around ISO 2000 and adjusting from there. As your shutter speed is very slow, its important to set your camera on a tripod to minimize any blurring. Admittedly, I’m not the best at night photography so use these numbers to start with and then experiment with what works best for you!

The lights themselves can vary greatly from day to day. Don’t forget that photographers post the best possible pictures from their trip- and even then they’ll edit it at least a little bit. That’s not to say that the Aurora Borealis isn’t spectacular to witness, but it’s a good idea to temper your expectations.

While I had a great time in Iceland and was lucky enough to see the Northern Lights on my first attempt, I’d love to one day visit Finland’s Kakslauttanen Resort with their famous glass igloos and tons of winter activities!

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