17 Easy Steps to See & Photograph the Northern Lights Travelling in a Van 2019

Van Life + northern lights

Van Life + northern lights

The season is here, northern lights is upon us!

Last night kickstarted our first sight of the natural phenomenon on our current trip up to the arctic circle, and even with a fairly low KP of 2 we managed to spot it with our bare eyes and get some killer shots.

Nights like these as sunset lingers and the stars pop out brings back memories of our first encounter with the aurora borealis in 2014; camping up in the Lofoten Islands in our VWT4 we had no idea they would be visible at this time of year - but in all honesty all you need is darkness and the will to wait. 

KP Levels found on Aurora Service (Europe)

The northern lights are visible in the northern hemisphere, depending on geometric activity your chance of spotting them depends on your location in the north and the KP strength at that current time.

Where we are in the far north of Norway (68 degrees north) ensures that anything from a KP 1-2 is visible. The further south you have to rely on a stronger KP level.

KP levels fluctuate constantly, from 0 all the way through to 9. As you can imagine, a KP level of 9 can be visible all the way in Hungary and would be a fantastic display this far north.

Easy guide to spotting the northern lights

  • Cloud coverage - check the skies for clouds. If it’s a clear night your chance of seeing the northern lights is much greater than that of a blanket of clouds. Generally if you can see stars then you’re onto a winner.

  • Darkness - it doesn’t need to be pitch black, but it does need darkness. As you can see in this image we’ve captured them shooting over our van as sunset continued on the other side, so pitch black isn’t necessary but darkness is needed for them to pop.

  • Long exposure - if the aurora is on the weaker end of the KP spectrum (1-2) you may struggle to see it in all its glory with your bare eyes. You will be able to catch wispy glimpses of it, but if you’re able to set up your camera for a long exposure of 15 or more seconds then you can capture the lights when your eyes can’t.

  • Patience - this is probably the hardest part! The aurora doesn’t come out and stay out in the exact same place for the entire night. It dances across the sky, coming and going at will, strong and weak, fast and slow, close and far. You’ve got to be patient and wait. If you can build a campfire that helps to wait around and also adds for some epic photo opportunities too. There were evenings where nothing would happen until past 1am, then others where the lights were already dancing around at sunset!

Useful tools

Predicted Geomagnetic activity from Aurora Service

Predicted Geomagnetic activity from Aurora Service

In 2014 we didn’t have access to internet on our mobiles in Norway (this was when roaming rates were absurd and it cost £3 per day for a couple 100mb which we couldn’t afford for more than a couple days a month), so we relied on websites that we’d check on whatever WiFi we could find. Aurora Service is a fantastic website to check KP strength, solar winds, forecasts and a host of other information regarding the northern lights. 

As for Apps there are quite a few, but ‘Aurora’ is one we’ve been using recently that’s been pretty handy: sharing cloud coverage, KP strength, and even a map of the aurora across the world. This app is also free if you don’t mind the ads!

Here’s the IOS app, and the Android app.

How to photograph the northern lights

I’m fortunate in that my partner is a photographer, so he usually sets up the camera for me and I shoot some rather standard images before he shows me how it’s really done. Anyway...here’s what he said for shooting them on a DSLR.

  • Manual mode: when shooting the Aurora it’s important to be in manual mode on your camera.

  • Don’t trust your light meter: I like to fire of a few test shots before the lights come out so I’m ready. They can change rapidly and get brighter, so it’s important to adjust accordingly so you don’t blow your highlights.

  • ISO: Shoot on the lowest ISO possible for a clean image, but it’s also vital to not have too much of long exposure - anything over 20 seconds can blur the aurora.

  • Shutter speed: I like to keep the shutter speed between 5-15 seconds depending how bright it is.

  • Aperture: keeping to the lowest aperture is highly important to allow more light into the sensor. I normally shoot on an 11-16 at 2.8.

  • Keep it wide: a nice wide lens helps capture more of the aurora in the composition, as well as ensure the stars are nice and sharp.

  • Plan: I always think about what shot I want to achieve before it’s occurred, that way I’m ready if the conditions are right.

  • Patience: for the shot of the church I had to lie in a grave yard and wait on the gravel, but it was worth it. Most importantly: have fun!

If you’re trying to photograph people or your van in front of the aurora, this can be done in a number of ways:

  • You can take some really nice natural looking photos with the help of the moon when it’s out. The light illuminates the surroundings for a really wonderful image. 

  • If there is no moon light I will use my iPhone torch to light paint the object. Light painting can be tricky to make it look natural and a little goes a long way.

  • When photographing people on a long exposure remember to stay still. This may seem obvious, but when you’re excited by spotting the northern lights you can forget!

  • Location plays a big part in capturing the aurora, camping up in as wide open area as possible with little to no light pollution is ideal.

And that’s about it! We’re planning on hanging around in Norway for a couple of months now so hope to see many more displays.

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