Northern Lights: What You Need to Know


by Cecilia Yee.

The Aurora Borealis, or more commonly known as Northern Lights, is considered one of the most beautiful natural spectacles on Earth. The lights weave their way across the sky in various colours.

Northern Lights Explained

But what causes these lights to appear? The sun releases electrically charged particles, which get trapped by the earth's magnetic field. The collision of the particles with atmospheric molecules causes the light we know as the aurora.

What Does It Look Like?

The Northern Lights appear in various colours. Green is probably the most common one. But traces of red and purple may be seen at times depending on the type of ions being energised as they collide with the atmosphere. The Northern Lights also take many forms. It can be just a steady glow, but if you're lucky, you can see it dance across the dark sky.

Best Places for Northern Lights

The Northern Lights are more visible if you are near the northern polar latitudes, including Greenland, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Northern Canada, Alaska, and parts of Russia. Make sure to visit from September to April.

Photographing Northern Lights

Finding a good spot

Interesting but not overpowering foreground with minimal light pollution and enough open space that you can get at least a great 360-degree view of the sky. Get away from the city. Light pollution will decrease the intensity of the aurora you can capture on film.

Bringing the right equipment

A lot of people assume that they can easily capture the lights using their camera phones. To get a really good shot, I highly recommend a DSLR or any camera that is capable of long exposures. Top tips:

  • Manual setting set to infinity
  • Adjustable ISO setting. Ideally set it between 400 and 800.
  • Wide angle lens
  • Cable release
  • Small flashlight with green/red lights option to help you set up your camera when it's pitch dark in the field. Do not use ridiculously bright lights.
  • Fresh batteries (and spare ones). The cold will drain the batteries fast.
  • A sturdy tripod will be your best friend. With long exposures, you will need to set your camera very still to avoid blurry shots.


Dressing the part

It will be cold. Make sure you wear enough clothes to keep you warm. Thermals, outer jacket, wind breaker, boots, toque, several layers of hand gloves, scarf… anything that will keep you warm at sub-zero temperature.

Getting helps from apps

There are plenty of apps you can download to assist you on the lights movement. Factors that you need to consider include the weather (clear sky) and the sun activities. But don't rely on the apps too much. I've seen the lights in full glory on a supposed "low activity day".

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