Many people wonder how I plan and what I do when I go chasing the northern lights in Finnish Lapland. Last winter in January I had an amazing night chasing the northern lights north of Inari, with some great displays. Here is the story of a somehow typical evening for me in Finnish Lapland.
The first thing that I always do before heading outside chasing the northern lights in Finnish Lapland is to check the weather forecast. In order to see the northern lights (aka the aurora borealis), you really want to avoid clouds as much as possible. Some clouds are ok, but you do not want the entire sky to be covered, because then it is not possible to see the Aurora. There are several websites giving weather forecasts for the area. Sometimes each website gives different information, making the decision of which direction to start the chase quite difficult. A good knowledge of the area, and of some locations that have in my experience always given good results in the past, really helps to be successful!
When we talk about “chasing the northern lights”, this is not actually true. We are rather hunting for good weather and clear skies. The Aurora shows up anywhere in the North, providing that we can also see the stars.
Of course before starting to drive I go through my check list of all what I need: camera, check, tripod, check. Handwarmers? Check! Especially on such a night when the temperature approaches -30°C (-22°F).
Sometimes things are very easy: you drive to your planned direction, and find the clear skies. Then you stop at a safe place and wait for the Aurora to appear. So off I go on the E75 road in the northern direction to Utsjoki and the border with Norway. As always I keep in mind that there can be reindeer on the road virtually anywhere.
That night proved to be one of those complicated planning missions. Areas that were supposed to be clear according to the forecast were completely covered with clouds. I even encountered some thick fog at some place!
Chasing the northern lights in northern Finnish Lapland
Luckily I know very well the E75 road between Inari and Utsjoki for having driven there countless times. The changing landscapes and altitudes generate different weather even when you just move 10 kilometres further. So I continued driving until I finally found some clear skies. The Aurora was already forming a beautiful soft arch in the northern sky.
This previous photo looks straight north. As you can see, there were clouds further north, but at the time they did not worry me. They seemed pretty stationary and I was expecting the Aurora to develop further overhead. This happened indeed, and this beautiful angel appeared about 40 minutes later!
This was shockingly beautiful, and I knew that I was about to have an amazing Aurora night. This is however before I realised that the clouds started moving in my direction, and very soon it became totally clouded. Thankfully Finland has an excellent coverage of mobile internet even in 4G and even over there in the middle of nowhere. So I took a quick look again at the weather forecast, and decided to drive even further north.
Next stop: just before Utsjoki
After another 30 minutes drive, I stopped at my next location. The northern lights were dancing all around the sky. It was such a large display that even my very wide angle lens could not capture all of it.
I barely had time to take this shot before it all became extremely clouded again! In these cases, it is important not to lose patience or faith for that matter. I knew how tricky this area is from previous quite similar experiences driving several times up and down parts of that same E75 road in search of clear skies.
Driving up and down the E75
I knew that I was around the location with the biggest chances for clear skies from what I had seen on the weather websites, but the forecast is never very accurate on the precise location. It seemed that driving further north would be pointless so I actually decided to drive back south. I drove under a completely clouded sky all the way back to the first place where I had stopped. Still clouded. What a disappointment! However I never give up.
I knew that clear skies were somewhere.
I had to find them.
I decided to head again in the northern direction, and finally there it was! The large patch of clear sky had arrived.
So I settled there and enjoyed a memorable Aurora show for the next couple of hours, as you can see on the next pictures.
I was running between these small trees like a happy child on Christmas Day. The show stopped around 9:30 PM. It was still quite early in the night, so there was no reason to drive home yet. Aurora can happen at any time, and become stronger especially later at night. Around 11 PM it started again, and I am so happy that I stayed outside!
I took one last photo around 11:45 PM before deciding to finally head home. Clouds were pouring in again, and I had an early flight to take the next morning.
I wish I had followed my own advice on Aurora photography settings… like a faster shutter speed to freeze it better!
This was quite a challenging night chasing the northern lights. All my experience doing this for the past 5 years really helped to be at the right places. Did you have a similar experience chasing the northern lights? Let us know in the comments! I will also be happy to answer your questions!