Photographing the Northern Lights – Make it a Holiday

As most of you might have already heard, NASA researchers are predicting that 2013 will usher in the most significant solar event in over fifty years. The current solar maximum also brings with it the promise of some of the most shimmering, sensational Northern Lights that our planet has ever been lucky enough to host. As a direct consequence of this astronomical event, photographers from around the world are preparing in anticipation so that they can get a good seat at this once-every-fifty-years show. We are among them.

Of course the always tricky aspect of this photo adventure is that despite the scale of this rare phenomenon, it may still be a somewhat hit and miss affair given the nature and number of variables that we have to consider.

We thought it might be useful and reasonable to take a more in depth look at a few of the world’s top destinations for northern lights photography.  These places more frequently generate optimum aurora photography opportunities. With this short list, we might just be able to plan our travel schedules more accurately so that we have a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights.  All of these destinations are going to involve a good deal of time, expense, and travel depending on where you live, as northern lights are usually found in northern Scandinavia, Iceland, the southern tip of Greenland, northern Canada, Alaska, and along the northern coast of Siberia.

We must stress that while all of these destinations have distinct attractions, every one of them has a long history of past performances of awesome aurora borealis shows.  Your trip to these faraway places will present you with a much better than average opportunity to see and photograph one of the planet’s most awe-inspring natural phenomena.  You will also experience communities and cultures that have a good deal of experience when it comes to enjoying northern lights show. Also, each of these destinations seek to promote tourism. With that in mind, you can be sure that when you choose one of these excellent destinations, both your eager eyes and your primed camera will be very much welcomed.

Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada

First off, we thought we’d start with a location that might prove the most accessible for our western hemispherical neighbors who have their camps set up somewhere around the 46th parallel. This is also one of the most popular places to fire up your cameras: Whitehorse, Canada!

The northern lights over a lake in Yukon.

The northern lights over a lake in Yukon.

Located along the fresh, unsullied waters of the gorgeous Yukon River and nestled into the mountains, this “Wilderness City” boasts some of North America’s most thrilling views of aurora borealis. Due to it’s northerly location, it also has long winter nights that provide plenty of opportunity to get your shoot on!  In the summer time, the nights are very short, however.

Although it’s also a stop on the Alaska Highway, we recommend that you fly into Nielson International Airport.  It’s an approximately 9 hour flight from Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) with one connecting flight or 13 hours from LAX with 2 connections. If you really have a hankering for very long days of rugged Alaska Highway driving, the trip will take you over 30 hours of driving from Seattle, mostly through beautiful British Columbia.

A number of attractive tour packages are available in and around Whitehorse. These tour packages have a range of options that can accommodate almost any schedule and most holiday budgets.  This is a subarctic climate where average January temps are well below zero Celsius. If it happens to be your first time, we would suggest that you treat yourself to the “winter clothing” package option that most of the tours offer.   If you’re a winter weather rookie, there’s no need to stress as the good folks up there have been welcoming tourists for years. They know how to comfortably handle every condition with a hearty Yukon spirit. Tour packages include activities like dog sledding, snowmobiling, toasty hot spring spas, tasty local food, and hot grog for when you eventually return safely to home base.

You will be able to book comfortable hotel rooms or rustic cabins with plenty of hours of clear Canadian night skies on the agenda. You’ll also find that convenient transportation and lovely warm lodging are sprinkled everywhere along your way.

If you’re in North America and you want a grand scale photo holiday, this is a great bet and a relatively manageable travel option. The landscape is beautiful whether or not the northern lights make an appearance for you.

Tromso, Norway

For those of us looking for a more european flavor to our Northern Lights excursion, we’d say save up those vacation days. Open up a two-week space on your calendars then head on up to Tromso, Norway.

The northern lights as viewed from the outskirts of Tromso, Norway

The northern lights as viewed from the outskirts of Tromso, Norway

Just a brief two-hour flight from Oslo, Tromso is officially located north of the Arctic Circle (40ºN) but boasts a surprisingly pleasant subarctic climate. The average January temps hovers near zero Celcius, but most other winter months are well above zero with plenty of sunshine. Tromso’s winter offers some of the most beautiful scenic waterfronts on its island shores.  Because northern lights are never a sure thing, it’s essential to have a backup plan.

The northern jewel of the City center is connected by bridge and tunnel to the mainland and is quite easy to navigate.  Tromso has the advantage of having an excellent Northern Lights viewing windows due to its location. With optimum viewing in fall and winter kicking off around dinnertime and usually lasting to at least midnight, Tromso offers locals and visitors a very flexible shooting schedule.  The city is a tourist’s dream, with plenty of affordable accommodations, convenient transportation everywhere and a vibrant, thriving culture.  You’ll find a number of friendly outdoor festivals, great cuisine, shopping, and sight-seeing. English only?  No problem.  Your average citizen will be happy to accommodate you with their first class language skills.

Reykjavik, Iceland

Lastly, we’d also like to make one additional suggestion of a slightly more exotic location in which to grab some prime seats for this planetary matinee—Reykjavik, Iceland.

The aurora borealis as seen in Iceland.

The aurora borealis as seen in Iceland.

The capital city of this northern nation offers the very real, and some of the finest opportunities to photograph some of the planet’s most magnificent views of the northern lights. The average winter temperatures in Reykjavik range from -3 to 2°C. This is a notch warmer than the two aforementioned locations. Thanks to the warming effects of the Gulf Stream, Iceland is not as cold as it sounds.

The capital is the energetic, artsy, and creative cultural center of Iceland. It has a great deal to offer winter visitors in the way of world-class accommodations as well as hospitality.  One of the most attractive aspects for visiting photographers is not only Reykjavik’s dramatic landscapes and clear brilliant skies but also the availability of convenient viewing excursions.  Many northern lights photography tips can be effortlessly scheduled and are only a short, door-to-door drive from downtown or any of Reykjavik’s centrally located hotel or guest house.

Reykjavik is loaded with easily scheduled viewing opportunities for the novice photo fan, and it offers some of the best and clearest chances at shooting the northern lights. The committed traveler can fly into Reykjavik International Airport in the center of the city quite easily, as it is only a 5 hour flight from John F Kennedy International Airport (JFK) airport in New York, or a short 3 hour hop from London Heathrow Airport (LHR). It also has two separate seaports that are available to luxury cruise ship lines.  You may need all of two weeks or more for a cruise ship option. Understandably, choosing this option means that your schedule will not entirely be your own but on the other hand, complete comfort will be all yours. You can cruise into this splendid combination of breathtaking landscapes and heavenly dome of lights that stretch across Reykjavik’s beautiful panorama.

Visiting any of the locations mentioned above requires a tourist visa. However, citizens from certain countries are exempted from the required tourist visa to enter Canada, Norway, and Iceland. Before you book your flight, find out if you need a visa or not.

Here are some helpful links:

Find out if you are entitled to a Visa Exemption to Canada.
Find out how to obtain a tourist a visa to Canada.
Find out if you are entitled to a Visa Exemption to Norway.
Find out how to obtain a tourist a visa to Norway.
Find out if you are entitled to a Visa Exemption to Iceland.
Find out how to obtain a tourist a visa to Iceland.

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