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Waiting for northern lights

As the nights get darker, northern lights can appear again. One night I was waiting for them with my friend. According to the forecast there should have been an amazing light show coming up due to a G2 geomagnetic storm. The auroras should be so bright that they could be seen even in Helsinki, and we were in Lapland! However, the sky was getting cloudy…

Internet and social media are full of beautiful photos of northern lights. However, photographing or even seeing them is not always a peace of cake. Clouds are the biggest problem. Great job if you’re in Lapland and it’s winter – your chances are really good. That’s why I was very optimistic that night.

We made a campfire on our yard and started waiting. The radio was on and we made some tea. But the clouds were coming and I started to wonder if we’re going to see anything at all.

Around 10 pm I took the first photos of the sky. I didn’t see any northern lights yet, but if there’s any light in the sky, the camera can see it even when the naked eye can’t.

And there certainly was something going on.

This was a good time to check that the camera settings were ok for some serious aurora shooting. Maximum ISO and F value, shutter speed about 5 seconds… and focus to infinity. Let’s try with that.

As I was adjusting the camera settings, the sky exploded – but only for a few minutes.

To the naked eye it did not look this green. As I said, cameras can see more than we can. That’s why photographing the auroras is so much fun, it feels like magic!

Before I knew it, the show was over. Reality check: it was way too cloudy.

This is how it can go sometimes – the nature decides whether we can see auroras or not. But nevermind, we had had a great evening anyways!

Christmas in Finnish Lapland

After 3 months of being on student exchange, the time had come for me to embark on a long-awaited Christmas adventure to snowy Finnish Lapland. This experience is literally the polar opposite of what it’s like in my home country, sunny Australia. I was especially looking forward to the untouched nature and of course the elusive northern lights.

On the long bus journey, we stopped over at Santa’s village in Rovaniemi and walked across the arctic circle. It can’t get any more Christmas vibe than this!

After over 12 hours of being on a bus, my group finally arrived at the pine-tree filled winter wonderland that was Saariselkä. We were staying in a rustic wooden log cabin complete with a fireplace and sauna.

Picturesque log cabins are where you can expect to stay at in Lapland.

There was fluffy snow up to the knees everywhere. Being above the arctic circle, this time of year is the polar night, where the Sun does not rise for several weeks. However, there were about 3 to 4 hours each day with twilight conditions. Being an avid aurora-chaser, it makes for an ideal opportunity to catch a glimpse of the northern lights – if only the clouds stay away at night.

The local area around where I was staying… so pristine and natural.

Beyond searching for the elusive northern lights, this place was an amazing location for a wide variety of activities that I tried, including husky-sledding, snow-shoeing, skiing, sauna, ice-swimming and of course nature photography. It was especially great to meet some husky puppies. But more than anything, it’s a place to wind down and take in the quiet and fresh air of the nature on short walks. It was indeed one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been.

I actually have a very funny story to tell about my phone whilst husky-sledding. After my turn on the sled was complete, I realised my new Finnish Nokia smartphone had fallen out of my pocket (duh!) and into the snow somewhere in the arctic wilderness.

Husky-sledding in the arctic.

After lunch, the tour guide and my friends decided to make a search party. Walking through the snowy wilderness in the fading light conditions at 2pm, there seemed to be little hope, but the untouched and silent nature was just surreal. Suddenly, at the very end of the journey we found just a tiny bit of the phone sticking out of the snow. It was basically a block of ice.

But it was still on! And to my great surprise — still at 75 percent battery. The next thing to do is typically Finnish — to take the phone to the sauna so the ice can melt.

And this plan worked! Because afterwards it was working perfectly fine.

Lapland with its photogenic forests.

On the first night, I was most eager to see the northern lights. There were good geomagnetic conditions for aurora, so it was promising. That’s until I stepped out of the warmth of the cabin to see that the sky was mostly full of cloud. Nevertheless, I went outside as there was a few gaps where I could see a star or two. After walking around the village and shooting photos without luck for over an hour in -10 degrees, it was time to head to bed.

Then I awoke suddenly to find my cabin-buddies announcing that the northern lights would be visible soon! Half-asleep, I looked out the window to see nothing. I thought the window was facing north, but it was actually facing south, a mistake that would bite me this night.

I managed to find my compass which pointed me north, and by the time I got outside, there was only a very faint polar light show, with cloud rolling in again. The others who reacted faster saw a much better show this night.

Finnish Lapland is one of the best places in the world to see the enchanting northern lights. Photocredit: Jonna Saari.

The next night, in even colder and windier conditions, more luck was on my side, but only for a good twenty minutes. The skies cleared briefly just at the right moment to see a band of aurora flickering overhead and down to the horizon. I managed to get this photo before it clouded over again.

No matter how many times I have seen the lights, or how impressive they have been, it is always immensely exciting!

A brief show of the northern lights in the forested fells of Lapland in the midst of the long polar night.

The next night had even better auroral conditions, but it was cloudy and snowing heavily so there was no point of going outside. The following (and final night) there was a few hours of clear skies in the early evening, but the auroral conditions were so weak that only those on the aurora tours managed to see them, and only briefly. Though I did hear of a couple who got engaged as soon as they saw them! That’s definitely a Christmas to remember for them. And for us, it was for sure an adventure to look back on!

The blue twilight hour falls relatively early in the afternoon at this time of year in Lapland.

Spending Time With Autumn

September was amazing and October has thus far been greatly rewarding. Autumn has kicked in, and in my opinion cannot overstay its welcome. Last month I managed to see the northern lights for the first time ever, right here in Joensuu and right above the city. The sunsets have been dramatic and the stars bright. Also, the fog has crept in and turned the routinely visible into the unknown. It’s official, this time of the year is now my favourite.

Here are some moments that I’ve been happy to capture:

Above: Waves crash against some rocks on the shore of Lake Pyhäselkä, Joensuu. The cloudy weather can often bring powerful, dramatic skies to a sunset.

Above: This is a place that I just can’t get enough of. This little island sits just off the shore from Kuhasalo in Joensuu. It’s perfect for if you’re looking to take a good picture. On this particular day the clouds were dramatic, the sun bursted through them and illuminated the island. I also found the green colour on the rocks to be a great foreground interest.

Above: My very first time experiencing the aurora. I went out looking for it, but it was only on my way home that I was treated to a show that I won’t forget. This is not the most amazing photo of the northern lights, but the moment will stay with me forever. The photo was taken in Joensuu, with the church near the centre of the image.

Above: On certain clear nights, the milky way is out to light up the night sky, possibly giving you that feeling of insignificance but simultaneously making you feel immensely grateful to be part of it all.

Above: Onkilampi is a great little lake/pond in Kontiolahti. Every time I go there, this old jetty seems to draw me in. It has a lot of character and appears to have spent its time with many visitors before. This photo was taken on a windy day at sunset.

Above: Another sunset shot on the shores on a lake in Joensuu, Finland.

Above: My second time with the northern lights. I was absolutely amazed at the show I was given. This photo was taken in Kontiolahti.

Above: Autumn has brought with it many different colours. The orange, yellow and red flora starts pop-out and introduce itself in a very bold manner, creating some interesting scenes to take in. Kukkosensaari offers much forest to explore.

Above: Birches lined up in the fog.

Above: A tree in the fog. Finland has been giving me some amazingly foggy scenes to appreciate.

So there you have it. Autumn has so far been fantastic here in Finland. With such a variety of things to see, it makes me wish that winter could somehow delay itself for a little while longer (and I think winter is awesome too). Every day seems full of things to appreciate and photographic opportunities to take. So see you out in the forest and remember to take your camera with you when you go! The Finnish nature is waiting for you 🙂

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Jason Tiilikainen on Instagram

Northern Lights in Silence

The majority of the world’s people have never seen northern lights with their own eyes. Only 2% of the world’s population lives in an area where you can see northern lights. The Finnish Lapland is one of them.

Electrically charged particles (electrons and protons) burst out from the Sun and enter the Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of up to a thousand kilometres an hour. This current of particles is called solar wind. The blasts of solar wind cause northern lights and other phenomena of space weather. A part of the particles penetrates the Earth’s magnetic field and is directed to the Earth’s polar regions, where they collide with particles of the atmosphere at an altitude of 100–300 kilometres. This creates an overwhelmingly beautiful play of nature as colours change from yellow-green to red.

In the Southern hemisphere, you can only see northern lights in the Antarctic. In the Northern hemisphere, northern lights are plentiful from the arctic circle to 75 degrees north. However, this thousand-kilometre-wide band is not accessible to all. The region is mostly sea, extending to Spitzbergen, central Greenland and northern parts of Alaska and Siberia where the population is sparse and communications poor. Canada in North America as well as Iceland, Finland and Norway in Europe are thus excellent places to observe northern lights.

The northern lights’ season begins in the Finnish Lapland in August, when nights grow longer.

Then it is possible to see ‘double northern lights’, which are northern lights in the sky and their reflection on the surface of the water. In the autumn, you can also see them as a reflection from the surface of black ice. We call this the double aurora effect”, says Ilkka Länkinen, proprietor of Arctic TreeHouse hotel, which specialises in northern lights’ tourism.

The Arctic TreeHouse Hotel is located near the arctic circle in Rovaniemi. Its rooms have been designed specifically for viewing northern lights. The northern wall of all the rooms is all glass. The rooms have been graded so that they give to different directions. All hotel guests see mostly Lappish nature from their rooms – and hopefully northern lights.

The Arctic TreeHouse Hotel is located near the arctic circle in Rovaniemi. Its rooms have been designed specifically for viewing northern lights.

The hotel monitors the northern lights’ forecasts of the Sodankylä geophysical observatory, and it also uses the local Aurora Alert application which notifies the hotel guests’ mobile phones at any time when northern lights are visible.

“I can say from experience that if you stay three nights in the hotel, you will see northern lights with a 90% probability.”

The northern wall of all the rooms is all glass. You can observe the northern lights in peace and quietness from the room. In the picture the reflection of the exit-sign can be seen in the middle of the northern lights.

On a clear night, the average probability of seeing northern lights in the Finnish Lapland at 9 p.m. exceeds 50%. The probability peaks about an hour before midnight, which is the magnetic midnight, and the disturbances of the Earth’s magnetic field are at their greatest. The possibility of seeing northern lights increases the further north you go.

According to the Finnish Meteorological Institute, northern lights are mostly seen in Finland in northern Lapland, at around the latitude of Kilpisjärvi. When the sky is clear, northern lights are observed there on an average of three nights out of four. In order to see northern lights every night you have to go to the Arctic Sea coast in northern Norway.

“We always emphasise to the hotel guests that northern lights are a natural phenomenon, whose occurrence does not depend on us. Till now the tourists have been understanding that they cannot always be seen”,  says the hotel manager, Katri Kerola.

“The guests come to the hotel in the winter mainly because of northern lights. Northern lights cause a nice kind of grouping among the guests. In a little street, twenty people meet in the middle of the night, thrilled and joyful, to view nature’s theatre. The Instagram account of our hotel is filled with visitors’ pictures of northern lights. I come from here, and I too stop to watch them, even if I was in a hurry to get somewhere. Northern lights are Lappish mindfulness.”

A silent nature experience

The gustiness of the solar wind causing northern lights is known to vary in eleven-year cycles. It is connected to the number of sun spots on the surface of the Sun. The probability of the occurrence of northern lights can be predicted by observing the Sun’s surface.If a blast is observed on the surface of the Sun, it can be deduced that northern lights will occur in one or two days.

Staying at the Arctic TreeHouse Hotel is a calming experience. Even if northern lights are not to be seen, you can lie on your large bed and stare at the beautiful forest landscape in silence. Watching television does not even occur to you.

“We have intentionally kept the hotel quiet. There are double-insulated double glasses and a grass thatch overhead, insulating sounds well. The television set is intentionally hidden in the rooms”, Länkinen sneers and emphasises that the hotel was specifically designed to give a nature experience.

“You can watch nature peacefully indoors, irrespective of the weather. The architect’s starting points were a good view, peacefulness and a safe nature experience. Nature comes very near, because the large window makes the guest feel a part of nature”, Ilkka Länkinen says.

Particularly Asians have found the hotel.

“In addition to the British, plenty of tourists from Japan and Singapore come here. China is growing at 300% annually. Many weddings and engagement parties have been held under the glow of northern lights.”

At the Arctic TreeHouse hotel, you can watch northern lights both in water and in the air. At the Metsäkyly forest spa, you can watch northern lights in a jacuzzi after the sauna.

Extreme experience. You can watch northern lights at the jacuzzi of the Metsäkylä Spa.

You can also climb up in the air.

“We offer the hotel guests the possibility to view northern lights at the height of two kilometres. A seven-seat light aircraft takes you on an hour’s trip to where northern lights appear. Because up in the air visibility is 50 kilometres, we will surely have a show of northern lights somewhere.”

Aurora Alert

The Sámis believed that northern lights are created when a fox waves its tail in the snow, creating sparks, “fox fires”, as they are called in Finnish. Picture from the norther lights-documentary from Arktikum.

Aurora Alert is a local northern lights’ forecasting system operating in Rovaniemi. It forecasts and observes northern lights and notifies the customer of the location of northern lights in the sky. Essential in the service is that it only indicates the northern lights the customer can observe.

“The forecast of the Sodankylä geophysical observatory indicates the probability of the occurrence of northern lights. Aurora Alert also takes cloud masses into account. It indicates when northern lights are visible with your own eyes”, explains data communications engineer Reijo Kortesalmi, the developer of the application.

Aurora Alert sends a forecast, probability percentage and alarm to the mobile phone. The application is based on signal processing and colour analysis. Aurora Alert uses its local sensors located in Rovaniemi, serving the northern lights’ tourists of the Rovaniemi area.

Aurora Alert combines data from many sources.

“An indicative forecast comes every night at eight o’clock. The probability percentage indicates what you can observe with your own eyes. A real-time alert comes, for example, if the local cloud curtain opens for five minutes.”

The application also indicates the intensity of the northern lights.

“Number one means that northern lights are clearly observable with one’s own eyes. Number five means that northern lights light up the whole sky. The intensity of northern lights may vary in the course of the evening. At 11 p.m., northern lights may be of level 1, but at 2 a.m. the intensity may be five”, says Kortesalmi.

The duration of northern lights varies as well.

“Weak northern lights may appear for a few minutes, but strong northern lights appear from half an hour to one and a half hours.”

Kortesalmi takes his holiday from April to July, when northern lights are not seen in Rovaniemi. Forecasting and alerting starts again in August.

“Aurora Alert definitely gives the most precise information on northern lights in Rovaniemi.”

Ari Turunen (2017)

This article was originally published by SlowFinland.fi

How to take good photos of Northern lights? These 4 easy steps will help you capture the magic of the sky

Northern lights are one phenomena which everybody should see at least once in their lifetime. Seeing auroras is always a bit luck. Even if the odds are in your favor, it’s never 100% sure that they will show up.

Lights hiding behind the trees.

Fortunately Finnish Lapland usually offers pretty good conditions for an amazing light show. Every now and then Northern lights are visible also in Southern Finland.

Location: Tampere, Southern Finland. Settings: ISO800, f4, 8sec.

Seeing is one, photographing another thing. Here are a few tips that can help you to capture the show.

I was photographing sunset and suddenly this aurora show started. Settings: Iso 6400, f4, 2 sec.

  1. Best time to capture the auroras

Polar night during the winter offers many hours of darkness, but it’s also cold. Very cold! Like -20 celcius degrees (-4 fahrenheit). Summer is out of the option: There is sunlight 24 hours a day. It is completely possible to photograph auroras during winter, but wear proper clothes. Also remember extra batteries. Cold drains them fast. My advice is September and October during autumn, and March to April during spring. Autumn is also time of colors and spring is great for snowy sunset photos.

Dim auroras and city lights. Settings: ISO 2500, f4, 25sek.

  1. Wait for the dark and clear skies – use Aurora forecast

There can be Northern lights during the day, but they are not visible while sunlight is still strong. Sometimes powerful Northern lights can be seen after sunset. Find a dark place and wait. Clear skies are also essential. If the clouds are too thick, you can’t see auroras. Be patient. Sometimes even a cloudy night can offer 30 minutes of clear skies and awesome light shows. They might appear in one minute and be gone in the next. It doesn’t hurt to use forecast service like Space weather.

Shallow clouds and auroras in Lapland. Temperature -20c degrees. Settings: ISO 4000, f4, 25 sec.

  1. Use a tripod or something else to hold the camera in place

While aurora show can be strong, it’s not as strong as daylight. You’ll need to use long exposure, which means holding the camera still for 1-20 seconds. Tripod is great, but you can also use ground or something else to hold the camera in place. And use timer! You don’t want to accidentally move the camera by pressing buttons.

Hossa National Park, Finland. Settings: ISO 2000, f4, 25 sec.

  1. Camera settings

The best quality comes with DSLR cameras, but you can get pretty good pictures with pocket cameras and even some cell phones. If you can set ISO, choose shutter speed and aperture, great! If you can’t, it’s ok. With pocket cameras / cell phones, just find a steady place and point to the sky. If you have a night mode and timer, use them.

For DSLR I usually start with these settings: ISO 1600, shutter speed 8 seconds and aperture around 2.8 – 4. If lights are moving fast, try shutter speed of 4 seconds. Remember to compensate by lowering or increasing ISO. You can also try 15 – 25 seconds, but too slow shutter speed could mean one messy light ball photo.

Auroras in purple and green colors. Settings: ISO 1600, f4, 30 sec.

Hopefully these tips help you to capture your own Aurora photos. Please check out my Instagram profile @anttiphotography and comments are more than welcome. Thank you and see you next time!

Sudden auroras over lake. Location: Lapland, Finland.