People have been watching the skies and wondering what's up there since we could look up. We delight in believing that there's something out there bigger than ourselves.
In the north, the auroras most commonly appear pale green in color to the naked eye. This has perhaps led people to believe that the lights in the night sky belong to the dead. For example, the Inuits of Greenland imagined the souls of dead children playing in the sky. The auroras have always commanded respect among people in the north, and in times past, a good dose of fear as well.
It’s easy to understand how legends have emerged in far-north countries, as attempts to explain this seemingly mystical phenomenon become creative.
The Myths behind the Northern Lights...
The Northern Lights have inspired some of the most dramatic tales in Norse mythology. The Vikings celebrated the lights, believing they were earthly manifestations of their gods.
Odin was the chief god and ruler of Asgard, revered by all Vikings. They believed he lived in Valhalla, where he was preparing for Ragnarök – a series of events that would precipitate the end of the gods and begin the world anew. In Viking legend, Ragnarök was predestined and would be Odin’s greatest battle, so he needed the bravest warriors at his side.
During every battle on Earth, Odin would pick the warriors who would die and join him in Valhalla. The Valkyries - female warriors on horseback, who wore armour and carried spears and shields - were tasked with leading Odin’s chosen warriors to Valhalla. The Vikings believed the Northern Lights illuminating the sky were the reflections of the Valkyrie's armour as they led the warriors to Odin.
In Finland, the name for the Northern Lights is revontulet, literally translated as ‘fire fox’. The name comes from the rather beautiful myth that Arctic foxes produced the Aurora. These fire foxes would run through the sky so fast that when their large, furry tails brushed against the mountains, they created sparks that lit up the sky. A similar version of this story tells that as the fire foxes ran, their tails swept snowflakes up into the sky, which caught the moonlight and created the Northern Lights. This version would have also helped explain to the people why the lights were only visible in winter, as there is no snowfall in the summer months.
In Icelandic folklore, they believed the Northern Lights helped to ease the pain of childbirth, but pregnant women were not to look directly at them or their child would be born cross-eyed.
In Greenland, people held the belief that the lights were the spirits of children, who had died in childbirth, dancing across the sky, while in Norway, the Northern Lights were believed to be the souls of old maids dancing in the heavens and waving at those below.
Whichever amazing tale captures your imagination, one thing is certain, the Northern Lights whether a sign of good or evil, the lights were as magical and revered as they continue to be today.
What Causes Them ?
At the center of our solar system lies the sun, 150 million Kms away, the yellow star that sustains life on our planet. The sun's many magnetic fields distort and twist as our parent star rotates on its axis. When these fields become knotted together, they burst and create so called sunspots. Usually, these sunspots occur in pairs; the largest can be several times the size of Earth's diameter.
Great storms on the sun send gusts of charged solar particles hurtling across space. If Earth is in the path of the particle stream, our planet’s magnetic field and atmosphere react.
When the charged particles from the sun strike atoms and molecules in Earth’s atmosphere, they excite those atoms, causing them to light up.
What does it mean for an atom to be excited? Atoms consist of a central nucleus and a surrounding cloud of electrons encircling the nucleus in an orbit. When charged particles from the sun strike atoms in Earth’s atmosphere, electrons move to higher-energy orbits, further away from the nucleus. Then when an electron moves back to a lower-energy orbit, it releases a particle of light or photon.
See the Video below...
The auroras in Earth's Northern Hemisphere are called the aurora borealis. Their southern counterpart, which light up the Antarctic skies in the Southern Hemisphere, are known as the aurora australis.
What causes the colors?
Variations in colour are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding.
The colors most often associated with the aurora borealis are pink, green, yellow, blue, violet, and occasionally orange and white. Typically, when the particles collide with oxygen, yellow and green are produced. Interactions with nitrogen produce red, violet, and occasionally blue colors.
The type of collision also makes a difference to the colors that appear in the sky: atomic nitrogen causes blue displays, while molecular nitrogen results in purple. The colors are also affected by altitude. The green lights typically appear up to 241 km high, red above 241 km; blue usually appears at up to 96 km; and purple and violet above 96 km.
Where & When
The aurora borealis most commonly occur between 60°-75° latitude, but during great geomagnetic storms the auroral oval expands equatorially and can reach 30° latitude or further.
In North America, the north western parts of Canada, particularly the Yukon, Nunavut, northwest territories and Alaska are favourable. In Europe, Scandinavia, particularly the Lapland areas of Norway, Sweden and Finland is very good for aurora viewing. Iceland is also a good place for auroras, and Auroral displays can also be seen over the southern tip of Greenland. During periods of particularly active solar flares, the lights can be seen as far south as the top of Scotland and even northern England.
On rare occasions, the lights are seen farther south.
Areas that are not subject to 'light pollution' are the best places to watch for the lights. Areas in the north, in smaller communities, tend to be the best.
The Northern Lights are actually active all year round. But because they are only typically visible in the aurora zone between 60° and 70° North, they are not visible from April through August when the aurora zone experiences nearly 24 hours of daylight. People just tend to associate Northern Lights with the cold since they are visible in the winter months, but i have seen them in August in very comfortable temperatures. The lights are known to be brighter and more active for up to two days after sunspot activity is at its highest levels.
The lights might be observed any night from dusk until dawn as long as it is dark, which excludes north summer nights (May-July). It also requires clear sky to witness this display.
Usually the best time of night (on clear nights) to watch for auroral displays, is between 10pm to 2am. Although they can, and quite often are, seen either side of these times.
How to photograph the Northern Lights ?
Don't chase the lights. If the conditions are ok, choose and go for the location.
When heading out to hunt for Northern Lights on your own, ensure you know which direction is north. The light tend to start its movement from north to south. The Aurora is unpredictable and can be very short lived. And when it is dim, it can look like a wispy gray or white cloud so it can also be easy to miss.
Yet another misconception people have about how to see the Northern Lights is that you can’t see the Aurora when there is a full moon. I’ve shot the Northern Lights on multiple occasions with a full moon and actually liked the effect. The moon illuminates the foreground and produces a much more blue-black sky.
Any DSLR camera can be used to photograph the Northern Lights. Entry-level cameras such as the Canon 600D and Nikon D3300 will do the job, as well more advanced full-frame DSLRs like the Canon 6D MkII and Nikon D850. Either way, you will also need a wide-angle lens, with a good wide aperture. Wide-angle lens with f2 to f4 works fine. Mirrorless cameras can also be used, as long as they have manual mode controls, such as the Sony A7 III.
Also a nice sturdy tripod and a cable shutter release are required.
I’ll give you some general settings you can use to photograph Northern Lights and they’ll probably work in most situations.
This is a good starting point for photographing Northern Lights for beginners.
Set your camera focus to infinity. Setting focus is probably the most challenging step of night photography, since your camera will not focus well in the dark. If you don’t do this right, you won’t get sharp pictures. You can focus on a distant light pole or something, if you have it avaiable, also you can use a lantern and put it in front of you about 10 to 15 meters. At this distance with a wide-angle lens it will automatically focus to infinite. Then put the focus in manual mode.
Set your camera to Manual Mode for Northern Lights photography (M on most cameras) and make sure you set the aperture as wide as possible. So at 2.8 if you have a f2.8 lens or at f4 if you have a f4 lens.
Depending on how bright auroras are, you might need to adjust your camera’s ISO settings. If you have a half moonlight try shooting at ISO 500, if auroras are very bright. You may need to increase ISO to 1,600-3,200 or even more, if it’s really dark or fade aurora display.
With some moonlight and bright aurora ( KP 4 or higher ):
f2 | ISO 250 | 6 to 10s
f2.8 | ISO 500 | 6 to 10s
f4 | ISO 1000 | 6 to 10s
Lower clarity situations, you should rise the ISO accordingly.
If aurora moves slowly, try a 15-25 second exposure or more. If aurora moves fast, 6-10 seconds might be more than enough.
I recommend setting the white balance manually between 3500 and 4000 K.