Will there be magnificent northern lights in the sky tonight? Find out how to capture your holiday memories with a perfect northern lights photo
“Northern lights whisperer” Kai Kiiskilä shares with the readers of Saariselä Sanomat his best tips for northern lights photography and reveals the best locations around Saariselkä to get your pictures.
IT professional Kai Kiiskilä, originally from Espoo in Southern Finland, got his first film camera just after he started school. His passion for photography was ignited right away and has now lasted for almost five decades.
Five years ago, Kiiskilä realized his long-term dream and trained as a mountain guide. Nowadays, he lives in Saariselkä during the winter, where he leads northern lights photography trips in addition to his main job.
In this story, he gives his own tried-and-tested tips for hunting the northern lights and capturing them on camera.
1. WHEN CAN THE NORTHERN LIGHT BE SEEN?
On a week-long holiday, you can be pretty sure that the northern lights will be visible at some point.
Usually, within three days, the chances of seeing the northern lights are good. At the moment, the Sun is very active, so in the next few years you should see a lot of northern lights.
On average, the peak of northern lights activity is around midnight, but the best time depends on how the arrival of the solar storm in the atmosphere is timed and how long it lasts. Last year, good auroras were quite often seen even in the early evening, sometimes from six or seven countries.
The northern lights are basically in the sky almost every night, but they are best seen when it is cold and dark. It is because there are usually no clouds, and the air is dry. That's the downside of hunting the northern lights, that you always have to be in the cold. The auroras are less often seen in the southern sky. In general, you should look to the north, east and west. The northern lights season at Saariselkä is from September to April.
Among the apps that can be downloaded on your phone, I recommend My Aurora Forecast in English. From there, you can easily see how likely it is to see the northern lights in a certain area. In addition, it is good to have an app on the phone that shows a real-time cloud map, for example Windy.
2. PREPARING FOR YOUR PHOTO TRIP
To hunt auroras, you need warm clothes, a warm drink and an insulated pad so that you can comfortably wait for the northern lights. When it's cold, thick gloves and good, warm shoes are necessities, because usually fingers and toes are the first to freeze.
Before leaving for a trip, you must remember to charge the battery of your camera or phone, and even better, if you have one, take a spare battery with you. Also check that there is space on the memory card or take an empty memory card in your pocket. Also remember to clean the camera lens.
Autofocus does not work when photographing the northern lights, so focus the camera manually beforehand. You should focus the camera as far as possible, and one good way is to focus it on the stars in the early evening. Then fix the focus ring in place with strong tape so it doesn't move.
Watch the video
Kai Kiiskilä's timelapse video of the northern lights. Timelapse videos are a series of images combined from several individual photos. The pictures in this video were taken in the centre of Saariselkä, near the starting point of the ski tracks in the northeast direction.
3. PHOTOGRAPHY EQUIPMENT
Today, you can take surprisingly good pictures with a modern smartphone. Some phones may even have their own separate setting for the northern lights. Personally, if I shoot with a mobile phone, I use manual settings or night mode.
When shooting with a digital camera, I think the most powerful and wide-angle objective, or lens, is more important than the camera itself. With a large-aperture lens, the size of the aperture is larger than usual, so in low light more light hits the camera cell and you get brighter pictures.
When photographing the northern lights, a support or a tripod is helpful, so when shooting with a long exposure time, the camera does not shake so easily.
4. CAMERA ADJUSTMENTS IN NORTHERN LIGHT PHOTOGRAPHY
When photographing the northern lights, the size of the aperture is adjusted as large as possible, which means that the f-number is then as small as possible. If you want to include people in the picture, you have to reduce the aperture and correspondingly increase the exposure time and/or increase the sensitivity (higher ISO value).
If the northern lights are not very clear at first, I start shooting them with a fairly sensitive ISO value (3200) and a relatively long exposure (4 or 8 seconds). The pictures will probably be overexposed, but it's a good starting point to adjust the settings and improve the picture quality. You can also try the same settings in your smartphone camera with the professional function (pro).
With these settings, it is also good to see if there are aurora in the sky at all, if they are not yet visible. The camera sees more than the naked eye. When the northern lights intensify, the ISO value must be reduced so that the images do not become too grainy. At the same time, the exposure time must be shortened.
There are slow and fast auroras, and they require different exposure times. Slow-moving northern lights can be photographed with a lower ISO value and a longer exposure time. Fast-moving northern lights should be photographed with a higher ISO value and a short - perhaps less than a second - exposure time.
5. GREAT LOCATIONS AROUND SAARISELKÄ
If it's possible to go by car, it's worth starting from the top of Kaunispää and park in the lay-bys along road number 4. For example, from the rest-stop on Magneettimäki, there are great views in all directions. Kiilopää is also a fantastic place to photograph the northern lights, if you feel like climbing to the top of the fell.
For your own safety and the safety of others, you should never stop the car on the side of the road, but always drive to the nearest lay-by or car park. It is advisable to wear reflective clothing or arm bands, but at least you should have a lamp with you that you can turn on if a car comes and you are not visible.
If you don't have a car, good photo locations in Saariselkä are around the starting point of the ski tracks - Aurora-tupa, Kaunispää and Iisakkipää. Basically, anywhere without too much light pollution and where you can see the northern sky from west to east is good.