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Yorkshire based Professional Landscape and Wildlife Photographer

When is the best time to do Aurora Photography ?

Posted on 22/03/16

As a photography guide here in Northern Sweden (working for Lights over Lapland) I often get asked "when is the best time to photograph the aurora?" (or the dreaded question of "what time does the aurora come out?" - but that I'm going to ignore that one for now).

In simple terms the best time to photograph the aurora is when it's dark. You might say "but don't you need clear skies?" and of course you do but it's a very common mistake that people stick their head out of the hotel see it's cloudy then retire to the bar for a drink and an early night. Then only to find out at 10pm the clouds broke and there was a great display. Sometimes aurora viewing is easy last week we had a 6 hour display and last night we had 98% clear skies only the smallest bit of weak aurora until 11PM then boom we had a huge display which lasted all of a few minutes (and therefore a lot of people would have missed it but our clients went home happy).

Again time of year is a big question. This far North there is 24 hours sun in the Summer so that is definitely not a time to come for aurora but from September to early April there are dark nights so aurora can be visible. In December to January the nights are very long and no sun at all so from a number of hours of darkness that increases your chances. Saying all of this the last month has been completely bonkers from an aurora perspective and all of the below images are from the last month!

Another consideration is the moon cycle and I do hear a lot of photographers with opinions that you should only go to do aurora photography when the moon is either not showing or not during a bright phase. I don't agree with this statement but as the above shows you can really use the moon to your advantage (taking 1 day off a full moon). If I'm shooting with a lot of moon light it lights up the foreground amazingly so I use it. It does mean that your stars are less visible and there is less contrast with the aurora but if you get an interesting composition I don't think this is a problem.

Being in Abisko helps too as we are so far North that often the aurora is bright enough that the moon cycle will not impact the contrast aurora much at all.

I do find that composition is very important in aurora shots too. I always advise clients to study a site as soon as we arrive because you never know when the aurora will show. So if you arrive and nothing is showing learn what would be the best composition if the aurora is going to come from any direction it might not just appear to the North. In both of the above shots these compositions where both in my head before I took the shot and involved me moving. If you don't do this you won't maximise your opportunities.

If a big aurora storm (or called a corona) develops and we have had these at all times of the season, you need to be ready to get you camera to be pointing straight into the middle of it. This is quite difficult to do as these are when the aurora is at it's most magnificent and in some ways fiddling around with the camera is not the best way to enjoy it! The coronas move really quickly too so faster shutter speeds are required or the picture will not capture the definition. Danger of slipping into a camera blog so I'll stop!

Another key consideration is the rest of the environment. Do you want shots with open water? If so you need to be here in November to December (lake starts to freeze in December). Or do you want to take pictures from the lake if so February onwards. Warning I would not recommend heading out to the lake to these of the track locations with out a guide. The lake changes each year and in some places the lake may not be safe.

The next 3 shots are taken from the aurora sky station about 10 days ago and there does illustrate another point to timings. It can be quite a bit colder and windy up there and this whole are can be quite cold. So you should factor in how well can you deal with the cold? If you aren't very good in the cold the look at the slight warmer months like March (although it was back to minus 20C last night).

Some of it just comes down to luck. Because you never know what is going to happen we don't need KP5 (KP is a measure of how strong the aurora is going to be and KP5 is meant to be a geomagnetic storm) most of the shots in this blog have been when the KP has been 1 or 2 so very low. The below shots are from the 1st night of last weeks multi day trip and these guys got the lucky night of the season smile No real storm had been forecast and the weather forecast showed 100% cloud but the Abisko micro climate showed the forecasters wrong (again) . The below photographs where taken about 45 minutes into the tour.

This sequence around the teepee are probably my favourite aurora images I've taken.

On that same night another huge corona above here I used the trees to try and frame the shot too.

Below is another example of what can be achieved when the moon is at it's brightest. It's also an example of who you can use wide angle lenses and perspective but that will have to be a different blog....

So basically I think during the Autumn, Winter and beginning of Spring aurora is very very possible in Abisko. Probably the biggest considerations are the environment you want to shoot in and also factor in what else you want to do (for example if you want to go dog sledding you need snow!).

Hope that's useful and the pictures agreeable. Any questions or feedback let me know.

Happy clicking,

PS I'm going to be leading some really interesting tours in Iceland this September with fellow photography Mat Richardson details can be found here

  • Some beautiful Aurora images! I like the fact that they are not over saturated like a lot of Aurora images are these days. I can’t wait to come back to the Arctic Circle to photograph again. How do we find out more about the Iceland tour specifically? Prices, itinerary etc. I clicked on the link but can’t find much about the Iceland tour. Many thanks!

    Stephen - 22 March, 2016
  • Great blog Ollie.

    geraint evans - 25 March, 2016
  • Please can you let me know if I come in late March 2017 will you be able to be the tour guide and also will we be able to see the Northern Lights .thanks

    Narindar kaur - 23 May, 2016
  • hello oliver,
    i stopped your blog by accident…..clicking to the wrong link
    would like to reach your blog again.

    brodbeck andreas - 31 December, 2017
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