Chasing the Northern Lights

As a planetarium astronomer I have seen the aurora many times… in the planetarium. When presenting shows talking about the northern lights, how the interaction of the solar wind (from the Sun) and the Earth’s magnetic field causes these beautiful light displays, people would always come up to me afterwards and tell me about their experiences. They would tell me how amazing the aurora are and I would smile and nod, and eventually have to admit I’d never seen them for real. One day a gentleman was telling me how he’d seen them in Cornwall and I snapped! I decided then and there that my next holiday was going to be a quest to see the aurora borealis. This winter, instead of going somewhere warm and sunny on holiday I wanted to find the coldest, darkest place I could go and see the northern lights! I booked myself on a trip to Norway, where I would spend a week above the artic circle and started planning. Not only did I want to see the aurora, but I wanted to photograph them as well. I had been inspired by last years Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition, which had some really amazing aurora photographs and I wanted to try my luck. There are lots of great how to guides online for photographing aurora, so I did my homework, treated myself to a new digital SLR camera (and some thermals) and crossed my fingers that I’d see something worth photographing. I hoped that because in 2013 the Sun is approaching a period of maximum activity (in its 11 year cycle) I’d have a good chance.

Canon 600D with a 18-270mm f/3.5 lens at 18mm, ISO 3200 and a 9 sec exposure

Canon 600D with a 18-270mm f/3.5 lens at 18mm, ISO 1600 and a 4 sec exposure.


As luck would have it, on my third night in Norway I saw a really intense display of the northern lights. It was just as amazing as everyone had told me it would be. Even better, all my preparation paid off and I was able to capture this beautiful phenomena with my camera and was very pleased with the results of my first attempt at astrophotography! In the end my northern lights show lasted about 2 hours so I was very, very lucky. I was also very, very grateful for my thermals as most of the time it was -8°C! Now when people come up to me in the planetarium and tell me about seeing the northern lights I can press a button and show them my very own aurora photos on the dome!

Canon 600D with a 18-270mm f/3.5 lens at 18mm, ISO 1600, 4 sec exposure.