Not sure if you’ve seen the Northern Lights?

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© Sarah Engler and Christa Rüegsegger


Were you looking up to catch the Northern Lights, but all you saw was a grey cloud? Or was it green? I tell you how to figure it out. 

My friend Sarah and I were driving our car in the dark on a Finnish road observing the sky in the hope of spotting the Aurora Borealis. What we saw was a diffuse glow, like a grey cloud. We were not sure if this were the Northern Lights or not. Actually, we didn't know anything about it.


What is It?

It is a natural phenomenon which appears as a light-show in the sky. The lights are visible in different intensity, looking like a cloud, a quiet arc or even a moving curtain. Sometimes the human eye only sees a grey colour whereas sensitive digital cameras produce the same image in green. 

So if you’re not sure what you're watching, take a picture with your digicam and check the preview. 

Usually, the lights come into sight in green, rarer in other colours like red, blue and more. When the lights appear in the Northern hemisphere it is called Aurora Borealis, in the South, it's called Aurora Australis. Check out this video if you want to know more about the physics:


The Best Place to See it

It's best to go as far north as possible and away from light pollution. Living in Europe, the closest region is Fennoscandia, a Nordic region above the polar circle which stretches from Norway, Sweden and Finland to Russia. 

Somewhere I read that the best chance to see the lights in Europe is in Inari, that’s why we decided to try our luck in Finnish Lapland. On their tourist website they say:

On average, Northern Lights can be seen in northernmost Lapland up to 200 nights a year.
— Inari Saariselkä

That sounded promising. Our grey cloud was transforming into a broad green band over our heads. It disappeared when it started to snow. Not sure if we'd better stay at the hotel or not, we gave it a go and drove outside the village. The sky was clearing and revealed a green arc. We installed the tripod next to the road in a parking lot. Being excited and on edge to take a good shot, we had a battle with our camera settings. Sarah's system camera couldn't capture the lights at all, so we were sharing my mirror reflex camera. Finally, we took our first picture. But I am honest with you: the settings were on automatic, with a manual focal point and we made three shots at a time. Using the shutter release button caused a tremor. The first shot turned out blurred, but the third was all right. In the future, I'll use a remote-control release.

After freezing our toes off, we got back into our heated car. The sky was clouding over again, and we were heading back home. On the way, we spotted the lights again. This change in weather happened four times this evening, so we decided to be patient and waited a bit longer. We were rewarded with a powerful light raising from behind the trees and dancing up to the sky. It was a magical moment with pure astonishment. It felt like fairy dust was sprinkled above our heads. 

The following day we went to a frozen lake to have a more open view than in the forest. And we were blessed with luck to observe the spectacle once again. This time it appeared like a long curtain, flowing like a river, dancing and at the end drawing a swirl in the sky.


Best Time

From autumn until spring you have a good chance to see the lights. Most people in Finland recommend coming in December when nights are longer. We went out from 23.00 to 3.00 o'clock. 


Are you planning your trip to the North? You might want to check out this post to keep you warm!


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