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Chasing the Northern Lights

Text and photos: Rayann Elzein

I am going on my eight consecutive winter chasing the elusive Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, all around Inari, in the very north of Finnish Lapland. Sure, I have also seen the Aurora in Norway and even Greenland, but every single winter I am drawn back to Inari for photography and to help people enjoy this magnificent show of nature. I am often asked “why do you always go back to Inari?” or “why don’t you try somewhere else?”. I always wanted to experience the northern lights, but at first the only thing I knew was that I had to go somewhere north. But where north? So after a long process and weeks of research I set my mind on Inari.

Inari is right under the Aurora oval

The Aurora Borealis appears under a huge doughnut shaped ring that is centred on earth’s magnetic north pole. Without getting too much into the science, this means that if you travel to a location right under the “doughnut”, or Aurora oval, you maximise your chances to see the northern lights, even when the activity is very low.

Inari is located at 68°50’N – 265 km (165 mi) north of the Arctic Circle. This positions Inari right under the ring, almost guaranteeing to see some northern lights on a clear night. This probability based on scientific facts is the most important criteria in my decision to visit Inari and return there so often.

An excellent road network

When you want to see the northern lights, you go “Aurora chasing” with a guide or your own car. In reality, it would be more accurate to say that you are chasing the good weather as you cannot see the Aurora if you are under clouds. Although I am no meteorologist, my personal opinion is that there are often clear nights around Inari. However, if this does not happen during your stay, don’t worry: there are several roads radiating from Inari to all directions. You might even end up on the shore of a fjord in Norway! This makes it very easy to chase the good weather.

Some words of caution: when you are driving yourself, be careful in difficult weather. You also have to be careful of reindeer and elk that are frequently standing or sleeping right in the middle of the road. If you don’t have experience with winter driving, or just want to relax and not worry about anything, then hiring one of the several professional guides is a safer idea.

Much more than just Aurora

There are many places in the world that are located under the Aurora ring but only few of them are inhabited and accessible. Despite being located so far north of the Arctic Circle, Inari-Saariselkä offers a full range of state-of-the-art tourism facilities: comfortable hotels, excellent restaurants, safari companies with a broad range of services. The entire area is also culturally rich, as the home of the Sami people. You can learn a lot about this at the Siida museum. And for a total immersion, an excursion with a reindeer herder will teach you more than any museum (you can even pet the reindeer!)

How to photograph the Aurora

With these few recommendations and just a bit of practice, it is actually quite easy to take some good Aurora photos. A camera with manual mode and a tripod are all that you need. The basic settings that you can use are the following:

  • Sensitivity: +/- 1600 iso
  • Aperture: the largest possible aperture (the smallest number on your lens, i.e. f/2.8-3.5-4)
  • Shutter speed: this one depends on the brightness of the Aurora. Start at 10 seconds and move up or down depending on what you see on your camera screen.

Focussing is the hardest thing to do at night. If you don’t manage to focus on stars, ask someone to stand about 30 meters from you with a flash light, and use auto focus on this light. Then switch to manual focus (MF) and don’t touch this setting anymore.

Tip: practice with your cameras before going out for Aurora, so that you know where all the settings are.

Aurora chasing

A frequent question is how often it is possible to see the Aurora. On a clear night, it is almost always possible to catch at least a glimpse of the northern lights. It might not always be some intense colourful outbursts, but if you are lucky you will see some light dancing in the sky. That’s why I always go out at night if there’s even the slightest chance to find clear sky.

My Aurora chasing usually begins in the early afternoon, when I browse through several weather forecast websites, and exchange text messages with other Aurora chasers all around the region. With this information I make an action plan and will usually start driving around 7 PM. I have often witnessed Aurora in the very early evening, so I like to be in position as soon as it’s dark! During the polar night, this can even be much earlier, like 3 PM or 4 PM.

Once in position, the waiting game begins (unless the Aurora appeared unexpectedly much earlier while still on my way!). Clouds might disturb the view to the stars, so I check the weather forecast once more, and call my friends again to have the latest update of their location. If needed, I will drive again.

The Aurora starts dancing in the sky. I am in my element now. I know how it moves, I anticipate its movements, I can be ready to take the best possible pictures. Sometimes it surprises me, actually quite often, and this is why I never get bored. I always return, and participate in the dance. You might even hear me scream “wow” or something in French. I take photos of my happy guests under the Aurora. I can never decide when to start driving back, because I know that another outburst can always happen. But I know that the Aurora will be there again tomorrow, and we finally drive back to the hotel, with beautiful images in our memory cards, and amazing memories in our minds.

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Inari-Saariselkä – Far in the North

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.

Rare but beautiful winter daylight in Lapland

Everyone loves Northern lights. Why not? They are a beautiful light show and only a handful of people live in the region where they are common. But there is also another beautiful light phenomenon that is not as well known but is also bright and beautiful: the polar night.

First light hits the trees

It’s not just darkness. Think it as a slow motion sunrise and sunset. In the South of Finland sunset and sunrise are over in 15 minutes, but in Lapland together they can last for hours.

Above the arctic circle sunrise lasts about 1,5 hours during the polar night. Just before the sun goes up, it starts to set for another 1,5 hours.

One other thing are late mornings. No need to wake up at 04 am for sunrise shots. You can sleep up to 10 am. Perfect!

I spent the Christmas week 2017 in Lapland enjoying polar night colors. Here are some photos of my trip to Kiilopää fell near Saariselkä. This was a 4 kilometer hike to get there and back.

Temperature was about -12 degrees Celcius. Put some warm clothes on and I was ready to go. Fresh snow made the landscape look untouched. Just a few animal trails here and there. Luckily I was the first to climb the fell.

I spent 1,5 hours just photographing the view. The colors were amazing! It was a little bit windy on the top of the fell, but still manageable. I didn’t see anyone until I started my descent from the fell.

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