When – where – how

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There are a few questions I get asked almost daily and as much as I love helping people out, I just don’t have the time or energy every night to give everyone extensive answers.

I feel really bad when I leave messages unanswered so I decided to write this blog post. I’ll try to answer all of the most common questions here, if there’s something you’d like to know that is not mentioned here or if you just want to chat about aurora photography or something, feel free to shoot me a message!

I will not be addressing aurora photography questions in this post.
You can find my free guide here: Aurora photography guide

Ok, here we go!

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When is the best time to visit your region to see the aurora?

This is not as simple a question as you might think. There’s no definitive answer, I can’t tell you a specific month or week to visit.
The aurora occurs all year, in summer and winter, day and night.
Awesome! Right?
It would be if we could actually see it.
Naturally, we can’t see the aurora during the day and this is the subarctic which means “a day” doesn’t always mean what you think it does.
Located far above the arctic circle, Kiruna experiences 1,5 months of midnight sun in the summer. During this time the sun stays above the horizon 24/7.
As if that wasn’t enough, there’s a considerable amount of time before and after that period when the sun only dips below the horizon for minutes up to a few hours. During those periods it’s still almost daylight all through the night.
We’re left with September all the way through to April, this is when our night sky is dark enough for the stars and aurora to shine through.

So when should you come?
It all depends on what type of experience you want to have.

In autumn, September,October and most of November, there’s no snow and lakes and rivers are not yet covered in ice.
This is a perfect time to visit if you want to see the aurora and starry sky over open water. The reflections are magical!
During this period you can also go hiking in the mountains but beware, it gets cold at night!

Midwinter, December – February, this is when you’ll get the real winter wonderland experience.
Tons of snow and it can be ice cold. Temperatures can drop down to below -30°C in town and below -40°C only 15 minutes or so outside of town.
You can go dogsledding, ride snowmobiles, go skiing, stay at the famous Ice Hotel etc.
In March it’s usually a bit warmer again but still just as much snow and in mid April our nights start getting brighter again.

These are the months when it’s technically possible to see the aurora up here but there are never any guarantees. I can’t stress that enough!
The aurora is a natural phenomenon and nothing we can control. It all depends on the solar activity and the weather down here on earth. If it’s cloudy you won’t be able to see it.

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How long should my visit be in order to maximize my chances of seeing the Aurora?

As I just said, we need a clear sky (or mostly clear) to see the aurora and the weather can change quickly up here.
I’d suggest you plan for at least 4-5 nights to maximize your chances. Still, there are no guarantees. You might get amazing shows every single night or you might just see a faint arch on the horizon or nothing at all. That’s one of the most frustrating things about the aurora but also one of the reasons I love it so. You just never know what you’re going to get and you’ll never see the same show twice.

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What should I wear? Doesn’t it get insanely cold up there?

Yes it sure can!
It all depends on what you find “insanely cold” of course. As I mentioned before, in midwinter the temperature can drop down to below -30°C in town, that’s cold!
But since you’re here to hunt the aurora, chances are you’ll be out of town at a darker location. Just a few minutes outside of town the temperature can drop down to below -40°C.
That’s “OMG it hurts to breathe”-cold, it’s “lose your gloves – lose your fingers”-cold, just trust me, it’s cold! But it’s an experience in and of itself. I’ve never felt so alive as when I’ve been out shooting in -42°C.

Layers, layers, layers!

It might not get anywhere near these temperatures when you’re here but it’s always good to come prepared.
If it does get that cold and you’re not properly clothed it is downright dangerous.
Fortunately those temperatures aren’t all too common and don’t occur all through winter. So how do you dress for extreme cold?
I would suggest your first layer consists of a good quality merino wool set. Don’t wear cotton as a first layer against your skin! Wear a warm pair of pants, avoid jeans, over the wool undies and a warm sweater. Over this you’ll wear good quality, warm, snow pants and a warm parka or jacket. If you’re shopping for your winter clothes in a warm country you might want to look online instead, and make sure you look for clothes made to withstand extreme cold weather.
A good pair of boots is essential. You’ll be standing still in cold snow for a considerable amount of time. Your winter boots should not be tight at all and you should be able to fit a warm pair of socks in there without feeling squished in.
The air in there is keeping you warm. You’ll also want thick, wool, insoles to keep the heat.

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Will my camera work in the cold?

It might or it might not. I use a Nikon D800 and a Sony a7s and I’ve never had any problems. The only thing I’ve noticed is that the batteries will drain quicker in the cold. Personally I don’t do anything to prepare my gear or to keep it warm but there are products made specifically for this purpose so look around online for gear that will fit your camera.

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Will I need a car up there?

I highly recommend you rent a car! Especially if you’re planning on staying here in town.
The aurora is definitely visible from town but you’ll get a much better view, much more vibrant colors and brighter lights, if you get away from the street lights.
Check out Sixt Kiruna at sixt.se, they have plenty of very nice 4wd cars perfect for the conditions up here. (Full disclosure, I happen to know them, great people! but no, I’m not getting anything in return for recommending them)

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Does the aurora really look like it does in your photos?

Yes! and no.
As I’ve said before, you never know what you’re going to get.
Sometimes all you see is a faint hazy cloudlike streak in the sky, other times you can see the most brilliant green and pink lights shooting rapidly across the sky. Sometimes it’s just a green arch on the northern horizon and other times it covers almost the entire sky, moving like cosmic waves above.
You just never know.
One thing you won’t see though is the intense red color our cameras pick up. Our eyes simply don’t have the ability to see all that.

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Do you do guided tours or workshops?

Sorry, no. That’s something I’ve never done simply because I can never guarantee we’ll see the aurora at all or that it won’t be cloudy. I wouldn’t know how to handle the disappointment, I’d be just as sad as the person who had paid me to teach them. That being said, if you happen to be in Kiruna during the season and the weather looks promising you can always get in touch and see if I’m available!

That’s just how I function, of course, if you want to go on an aurora tour there are plenty to choose from up here!
Check out Kiruna Aurora or Lights Over Lapland for example. The latter is located in Abisko
(Nope! They’re not paying me to say that either!)
I think that’s it for now.
If you have any additional questions, feel free to shoot me a message. I might add to this later on.

Good luck with your aurora hunting endeavours!

I wish you all clear skies

2 Comments on “When – where – how

  1. Great blog post. I’m thinking about going up into Northern Canada this winter and was starting to think about the clothing (my nice Hawaiian shirt won’t cut it), to wear. This post is timely. Thanks!
    @ArtTG

    Like

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