Chasing the Northern Lights

After missing the northern lights display that the rest of the team were treated too on the first night (sleep called) I was determined that during this stage I would catch a glimpse of that elusive aurora.  That wish came true on our very first night chasing them!

Jouni, our ‘Northern light’ expert for the week would be taking us to different locations depending on the weather, teaching us (well me) important camera configurations and sharing with us his passion for aurora chasing. Not long after setting off on our first chase we pulled up alongside the road and hopped out the van, in true SWAT team fashion, ready to capture the activity in the sky.  As the others clicked away I took a little while longer to get set up. My inexperience shone as I wrestled with my partly frozen tripod, attempted to stop my head torch flashing the SOS red and trying to locate which pocket of my 7 layer outfit my missing glove could be in. After my faffing was over I thought I could relax and appreciate the clear starry sky above. Instead my heart sank when I heard the dreaded ‘low battery’ sound that my shiny new Sony camera was making. I had rather stupidly spent the 5 hour drive to Saariselka ‘practising’ with my camera ready for the week ahead - I do have some lovely shots of the back of Justus’s head and lots of out of focus blurry trees). Thankfully Jouni was carrying not one spare but two so Popil and I could use a DSLR’s to capture the lights. 

That first night we spent it by the side of Lake Inari, Finlands largest lake. Jouni helped set up my camera and instructed on the better techniques for capturing the lights.  This involved changes to make according to the intensity and movement of the activity. He left and then I was alone in the pitch black wondering how I’m going to use all my new found photography skills in the pitch dark… I did not have to wait long as the sky was suddenly lit by a swirling white band as it traversed across the sky. Rather naively, I had always assumed the northern lights looked like what you see in all these incredible photos. In real life that is not quite how it works. The lights are actually the result of collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth's atmosphere and charged particles released from the sun's atmosphere. Variations in colour are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding. The most common aurora colour is a pale yellowish-green which is what we witnessed on our first night.  The human eye views the Northern Lights generally in “black & white” but our DSLR camera sensors don’t have that limitation. This, plus the long exposure times and high ISO settings means the camera sensor has a much more dynamic range of vision in the dark than we do. Juoni said he's seen light shades of green, red, and violet/purple. The further North your viewing location, the wider range of colours you can capture as the aurora is stronger. We were at the most Northern point during our trip so we were hoping for some strong polar activity.

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The following morning saw an early start with a packed schedule and after a late night aurora chasing I blame my lack of sleep for my decision to wear skinny black jeans! This didn't seem like an issue as we drove over the snowy fells, a baby pink glow in the sky slowly waking us all up. That was until I stepped out of the warm mini bus to find it a butt clenching -27 outside. This was the coldest temperature I think I’d ever experienced. We met the lovely people and reindeers at the Inari reindeer farm. I was somewhat distracted by the cold to truly enjoy the sleigh ride we were taken on - picture says it all! 

Every day is a school day and that night I made sure I wore ever layer I had at my disposal. Sadly for me, this again proved to be the wrong choice as we hiked up the largest nearby fell with snowshoes.  The deep snow meant hard work and therefore sweat was a plenty. It was the polar opposite situation, where I was creating my own furnace inside the large Halti parka and 12 layers of various materials.

Jouni capturing the team capturing the lights

Jouni capturing the team capturing the lights

We often had to hike in the dark so we could see if there was any polar activity, which at first was quite difficult to trust your footing but all those carrots I ate as a child soon kicked in and I could see where I was going ( I checked with the group and apparently in China, Japan, Korea, Germany and Finland carrots don’t help your vision so maybe its just the British ones!) 

We reached the top of the fell as a team and were greeted with some inviting polar winds (yay for the layers!).  We’d worked too hard to reach the peak to give up and turn back so we all started setting up, hoping that the northern lights would make an appearance sooner rather than later. Despite waiting for quite a while we didn’t see much polar activity. We did however see an abundance of falling stars. Being at one of the highest points in the area we had an amazing 360 degree view and because we were in the east of Lapland we were only 50k or so from the Russian boarder. 

On the third night the plan was to head even further north but after an indulgent three course dinner we were quite late in leaving and we sadly missed most of the earlier activity. The ever optimistic Juoni took us to his scenic spot along side a gushing river - with a very precarious suspension bridge over it. The snow started falling quite heavily so we trudged back to the minibus once again with empty SD cards.

The #polarnightmagic team capturing the aurora 

The #polarnightmagic team capturing the aurora 

On our final evening aurora chasing we suited up in black snowmobile jumpsuits and hopped on. Venturing 6k into the wilderness to the edge of Lake Inari where Jouni and his wife had built a truly amazing cabin. Maria showed us around their stunning summer home, which included a separate sauna, guest house and picturesque kotta alongside the lake. Once the fire was ablaze and we got some sausages on the go we waited for the lights to appear with eager anticipation. Popil and I enjoying the warmth and a large box of cookies whilst the pros were outside setting up their cameras ready for the action. It started to get late and most of us had given up hope until we heard Juoni’s excited screams. We charged to action. Cookie in hand I ran outside to see a sea of white cloud dancing over the lake. I grabbed my again frozen tripod and headed to the woods, trying to frame my shot as my feet sank in the deep power marsh lands. 

The sky was alive and trying to keep up with the movement was exhilarating. I’d completely forgotten about my frozen toes as I lay on the snow adjusting my tripod after every shot trying to capture the extraordinary movement, testing the shutter speeds and assessing my composition as I went. As the camera revealed the vibrant colours above us we were all shouting in admiration. Jouni’s enthusiastically shouted positional instructions as the light dance climbed above us, making my already rash style even more panicked. Although the screen was small I could tell that some of my shots were okay and it wasn’t going to be a complete disaster. 

Chasing the polar nights is always going to be a patient task. Some nights it is just not your luck and you have to just have to dust that off and try again another night. The lights that I had captured on the first few evenings were nothing compared to what we witnessed on our final night and Jouni was telling us that it can get even better. It was a completely humbling experience where you feel truly awed by nature and the beautiful wonders that it can create. It is something I would advice everyone tries to see in their lifetime because it is truly incredible. At first I expected to see the lights as vivid as you see in the photographs but part of the process is the chase. The unknown of when it's coming, where its moving and the exact colours it will make is all so spontaneous and addictive. Each experience is different.

Jouni was a great guide, his passion for the chase, his depth of skill and knowledge of perfect destinations provided us with all the ammunition to capture this wonder.  The rest is left to the hands of pure nature itself to produce the final goods, which, for us it saved the best till last.