Best time to see the northern lights

I am often asked what is the best time to see the northern lights. Unfortunately, there is not any easy answer to this, except than say: the northern lights can appear any time of the night, as long as the sky is dark enough. So I thought that instead of entering into complicated explanations, I would just illustrate this with my story of the night of 3 to 4 March 2017, during which the northern lights were visible all night long.

When the Aurora does not go to sleep all night long, then what other choice do I have than spending a sleepless night with the northern lights in Lapland? This March 2017 trip to Finnish Lapland was fantastic in terms of Auroras. There were bright displays every day of the week! In this blog post, I focus on one particular night, when I photographed Aurora all night long from just after sunset until right before sunrise.

Just after sunset

As soon as the sky became dark enough, I could see some vivid northern lights in the sky. It was 3 March at about 19.00. When I write “dark enough”, I mean that it was still quite a bright blue hour, but that did not hide the Aurora. There was already a big corona right above the cabin where I stay in Kaamanen!

Sleepless night with the Northern Lights in Lapland
At 19.02, a corona was already forming above the cabin. Early start of what will be a great night.

After that, some powerful Aurora started developing. Unfortunately this was behind the clouds. I could catch a glimpse of their dance before the clouds totally took over the sky.

Sleepless night with the Northern Lights in Lapland
It is not even night yet and some powerful Auroras are filling the sky.

So you see, if I had followed other websites recommendations that the best time to see the northern lights is between 10 PM and midnight, I would have missed this entire show.

(Limited spots available)

Drive to Ivalo

A quick look to the weather maps (which I had been doing all afternoon already as every day when I am up north), and a call to my friend Jouni in Ivalo, confirmed that the weather was clear there. From Kaamanen, the drive there goes through Inari first, and takes about an hour. Does it really matter when you expect big things from the Aurora? I took the habit of being ready to start chasing Aurora in an instant notice, so just a few minutes after taking the previous picture, I was already on the road. I found a nice spot to park the car along the shore of Ukonjärvi lake about 10km north of Ivalo. When I arrived, the Aurora was already displaying 3 broad bands in the sky!

Sleepless night with the Northern Lights in Lapland
When I see 3 large Aurora bands like this, it is usually a good sign for more intense activity later on in the evening.

My feelings were again right when suddenly the sky totally exploded in different shapes of green.

Sleepless night with the Northern Lights in Lapland
An explosion of northern lights around an already bright Moon.

Aurora works in “pulses” as I often noticed. After the previous picture, everything became somehow quiet for a little while, although some Aurora was still in the sky. I just kept myself busy by trying to get a selfie with the northern lights.

The calm before a bigger storm

Sleepless night with the Northern Lights in Lapland
Aurora selfie!

Composition tip: when I saw that it was making a V shape in the sky, I thought it was the right moment to just raise my arms towards the sky in a V shape too.

It was a cold and humid night, and I had forgotten to take along anything to protect my lenses from the dew (which eventually freezes over and ruins all the pictures). So I ran to the car to pick up another wide-angle lens. Of course, it’s during this moment when not ready to take pictures, that an enormous outburst of northern lights had to happen. Quickly running back onto the lake, leaving the gloves and hat in the car, I managed to take one more shot of the event.

Sleepless night with the Northern Lights in Lapland
So relieved I ran fast enough to catch this one!

So was this the best time to see the northern lights? Read on to find out why although it was a very good time, it was not the only one!

After this, the sky went calm again, and any trace of green disappeared. I waited for about an hour desperately wishing for more (and yes I did pick up my gloves and hat from the car), but nothing happened. Being very sleep depraved from the nights before, and still having to drive an hour before getting home, I decided to call it a night and get back to the car. After a few kilometres, it started snowing, and it did not stop until I arrived. Time to go inside and start editing the pictures of the night…

Back in Kaamanen

After editing some pictures and uploading them on my favorite website spaceweather.com, I decided to take a quick look outside before heading to bed. The sky was full of stars, and almost totally green! Quick… get dressed and run outside. It was just before 2.00 in the morning. My cabin was located on the shore of the river Kaamasjoki, so my best chances to take photos were to walk down the river bank and stand in the middle of the frozen river.

Sleepless night with the Northern Lights in Lapland
The Aurora just won’t go to sleep. 2.00 AM in Finnish Lapland. And this is just the beginning of the 2nd part of my night!

As you can also see, there are a lot more stars on this picture and the following. The Moon had set, allowing a lot more details in the photos. The green remained soft for about an hour, before some bigger things started happening after 3.00 in the morning.

Sleepless night with the Northern Lights in Lapland

It was so late, and I was already sleep depraved from the previous nights. My memories of what happened next are hard to put into words, so here is just a series of photos with the capture time as legend. This shows you the evolution of the Aurora throughout the end of the night.

Is 3 AM the best time to see the northern lights?
3.04 AM
Sleepless night with the Northern Lights in Lapland
3.53 AM
Sleepless night with the Northern Lights in Lapland
3.58 AM
Sleepless night with the Northern Lights in Lapland
4.17 AM

Dawn is another best time to see the northern lights

When you spend so many hours like this outside, even with good clothing, you start getting cold. I just wanted to prove with photos that you can see Aurora all night long, so I was fighting to stay warm (and awake) until dawn, when I took this last picture at 5.04 AM. Actually I took the very last one at 5.20 AM, but Aurora there was only barely visible.

Sleepless night with the Northern Lights in Lapland
Just before dawn… 5.04 AM.

Technical note about white balance

You will probably have noticed that the green of the Aurora does not have the same hue on all the photos. This comes from the fact that all these photos were taken in very different conditions: at dusk or dawn, with or without clouds or at the darkest of the night, or some with a strong moonshine. The cameras interpret this differently, as well as the human eye. I tried to set the white balance of each photo to reflect as accurately as possible what I saw with my own eyes during that night.

You can check out my guide on how to take pictures of the Northern Lights for more details.

Wrapping up

So yes, that night I was lucky. Aurora was dancing all night long. Of course this does not happen every night, and that first week of March was quite exceptional Aurora-wise. However, what we learn here is that Aurora can dance at any time of the night. Of course we prefer when it happens at the beginning, and then we can go to sleep! But for travellers who are spending only 2-3 days in Lapland, which seems to be a majority of the visitors, and who have the main goal to spot the Aurora, I can only recommend to watch the sky as long as you can stay awake when it is a clear night!

(Limited spots available)

So, according to you now, what is the best time to see the northern lights? Will you stay up all night if you don’t get lucky in the early hours of the night?

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