Ok, I admit it, I am just a little bit obsessed about seeing and photographing the Aurora. And I am not the only one! Over the past few years, probably due to social media, there has been an explosion in the number of people who are posting photos. This is coupled with more and more apps which let you know when an Aurora could be about to happen and indeed they give you a couple of days notice. You can even get real time data on sightings now. The very best app is Glendale Aurora, which was created and is run by Andy Stables on the Isle of Skye. I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that through his amazing work and dedication, Andy has probably helped more people across the world than anyone else, fulfils their dreams. I, for one will always be indebted to Andy. If you are serious about photographing or indeed viewing the Northern Lights then his app must be installed on your phone. The link is https://aurora-alerts.uk
The other main reason, well at least in my opinion for the increased awareness of the Aurora and more people photographing it, is that the sun is awake at the moment. Solar Maximum is expect to take place around July 2025, with a peak of 115 sun spots ( which are good for Auroras) and then it will start it's 11 year cycle all over again. The great news then, is that over the next 2 winters we should be in for some amazing displays. Or that is how the theory goes anyway!
As you all know, I run photography workshops and one of the main selling points of these is getting my clients into a position where we have the best possible chance of seeing this amazing natural phenomena. Of course, nothing can ever be guaranteed! The sky could be on fire with the most amazing display, but if it is thick cloud, raining or indeed snowing then we are not going to see anything. There is always a little bit of luck involved but I do everything that is possible to find the best places. All that I then need, is the sun to send lots of particles which are carried by the solar wind to interact with the earth's magnetic field and channel the said particles in over the poles, where there interact with the elements in our atmosphere and bingo we are in business.
The problem is, I advertise my workshops years in advance. At the time of writing, every place for 2023 and 2024 is sold out and place for 2025 are also starting to be snapped up. If you want to join me on one of these trips, then get signed up quickly. That's not a sales pitch by the way. Current availability can be found at :-
Back to the problem at hand then. When to arrange the workshops? I have a tried and tested method, which seems to work. I always try to run workshops over or close to the spring and autumn equinox's. If you look back at over the years, then there is a history of good auroras around this time. Now that isn't just by chance. You see the Earth's axial tilt, aligns us at the peak angle to accept the particles from the sun and as such the chance of displays increase. It doesn't really matter about the moon when you are in the arctic circle or close to it. The auroras should be over head and the moon actually helps as it illuminates the foreground and from a photography perspective this is good news.
I also try to avoid the coldest months of the year. This is more down to clients comfort and safety rather than a lack of Auroras. You can absolutely see and photography the Aurora during these months. In the Aurora season - late August to April, auroras can appear at any time. Iceland is conveniently placed right in the middle of the Aurora Oval that forms. No wonder then that many aurora chasers head to this amazing island. However being in the middle of the Atlantic from late December through until late February can prove to be somewhat challenging, incredibly cold with very unpredictable weather. Getting to Northern Noway is the same. So you have to make some compromises. I want my clients to have the best possible experience, to create lasting memories and to capture amazing photos. To do this, we all need to have the ability to endure the cold and have camera equipment that will do the same. That is why, I avoid the aforementioned months. I am not for one minute, saying you should do the same by the way, there are many amazing photographers who run fabulous workshops during these months, it is all about personal choice.
This years trip to Northern Norway had been planned for over 2 years. As it happened, this years spring equinox coincided with a new moon, so the skies would be their darkest. I have previously mentioned, that when you are in Arctic then the moon doesn't really matter. However, out of preference, I do try to avoid full moons if possible. Again this is to try and maximise the chances of being able to photograph the Aurora. Amazing displays, do not happen every night. Sometimes, you can only pick the aurora up on camera to the far North. If the moon is too bright then it could saturate the sky and photographing the faintest of aurora becomes almost impossible. But, back to this year. I had tried to line up all of ducks and we just needed a tiny bit of luck. I was pretty confident that over the course of 8 days we would have some clear skies and would get to witness one of the most spectacular sights that mother Mother Nature can provide. Never, in my wildest dreams did I expect the 23rd March to be utterly amazing. Talk about hitting the jackpot or being in the right place at the right time, it is a night that will live long in the memory.
The stats for the night of the 23rd had been good for a couple of days. I can't remember the exact sequence of events which happened. It was either a large sun spot that had been churning out lots of particles or an M class solar flare had taken place and it was in the direction of earth. As we got closer to the evening the stats increased and I even saw KP index forecasts of 7 - that would be nice, I remember thinking but never expected it to really happen. There is a lot more science that just looking at at KP number but in any event the first part of the equation was looking good, now we just needed the second part. That was clear skies. You always dream about perfect conditions but never really expect them to happen. The local long range forecasts were looking promising though. Next to no cloud was forecast. As the day of the 23rd dawned everything was still looking brilliant. The group and I had been up early for sunrise and after a fantastic morning, had headed back to our accommodation for some rest. I remember telling the team, that they better get some rest as tonight could be a late one. We had found ourselves on the road again around 4ish for sunset and then had eaten out in one of the local restaurants, waiting for it to get dark. I kept on checking the stats and really couldn't believe what they were showing, the aurora was getting stronger and it was forecast to last. The skies were also perfectly clear, but and it was a big but. From the restaurant, I could see a bank of cloud on the horizon. The weather radar on my apps also showed it, but all of them were showing the clouds moving in different directions. I just hoped that they would stay away. After diner was finished and paid for, we headed out. It was still light, we were at the end of golden hour and moving into blue hour. I checked the sky once more, it was still cloudless the bank of clouds to the north west, didn't appear to have moved. A quick check to the North East, literally stopped me in my tracks. The aurora was already visible, dancing over the tops of the mountains. I had to double check before telling the group who had joined me outside to look up!
I had already, planned where we would shoot that evening, we would start about 30km's North from where we were staying and if everything played out, would end up a few kilometres to the South. There were 4 or 5 great locations on route that we could stop at. There is always a bit of a gamble in moving and its hard to pull yourself away from a location when the lights are dancing but I wanted to ensure that the team got a mixture of images from different locations. Moving would also mean we could have 20 minutes or so of warmth whilst we moved in the car. The adrenaline that the aurora gives you is great but the cold does eventually overcome this and you do start to feel it a bit. For the next 6 hours we had perfectly clear skies, some of the most amazing aurora displays that I have ever seen, there was red, purple and green in the sky, ample opportunities to photograph the many coronas that appeared overhead. Time to refine compositions and make sure the highlights weren't being blown out. It really was amazing. You may be interested to know that for the majority of the evening we had our camera's pointed due south. There was activity to the north but the strongest and brightest displays were due south. Always a strange one that, photographing the northern lights in a southerly direction. Actually this is a simple explanation. The auroral electrojets were running just to the north of Scotland,. This is what you see, usually they are either overhead when you are in the oval but when the strongest of auroras appear they form further south - or so I have been reliably informed. Here we were in the arctic circle and fellow photographers in Scotland, 800 miles to the south were getting equally good displays, although they were pointing their cameras and looking north. This also explains why on the night of the 23rd March, the lights were photographed all over the UK and the same thing happened only a few days ago on the 23rd April. You might be forgiven for thinking, why bother go to these northern latitudes when you can photograph the aurora in the uk and it is a very valid question. It all comes down to probability and chance. The aurora on the night of the 23rd March was apparently the strongest geomagnetic storm that had been witnessed in Norway for 5 years. I am hedging my bets here but I think the one on the 23rd April might have been even stronger. I will go even further in predicting that over the next 2 years they will be eclipsed still further as we go through solar maximum. But here is the big reason why it pays to head North. On the 24th March we witnessed another amazing display, only this time we were facing North. There was very little photographed in the UK, only the top of Scotland reported sightings on camera. Had we been staying for another few nights, then we would have been able to photograph and see the aurora for 5 nights in a row before the weather closed back in. Nights like the 23rd March don't happen very often but my goodness, when then do, it makes all of the effort and planning so worth while. I have seen stronger displays in the past that lasted for a hour or so and then faded for a couple of hours before bursting back into life. The geomagnetic storm on the 23rd March just kept going and going. Sure, there were times when it was stronger than at other times of the evening, but for a sheer spectacle, it is a night that will never be forgotten.