Northern Lights, a Magical Light Display

by Pål Brekke

Folklore about the Northern Lights

For thousands of years people in the northern part of the world have marvelled at the spectacular and fearful displays that occasionally light up the night sky, the northern lights, aurora borealis.  Every northern culture has legends about the aurora, passed down for generations. During the Viking period, the northern lights were referred to as reflections from dead maidens. The phenomenon was often referred to as a vengeful force. In ancient times, most people were afraid of the lights. The picture at the top of this post showing the Sami people is courtesy of Margarethe Wiik/Tromsø Museum.

640px-Saami_Family_1900 (400x294)The Sami people, who lived in the Arctic, called it ‘guovssahas’, the light you can hear. Many people still argue that they can hear some crackling sounds – often synchronized with the movements of the aurora. Since sound waves cannot propagate in space it should be impossible for sound to travel down to the ground. Scientists are still working on explaining this phenomenon.

Ch1-2-barn-U-Dreyer (277x400)

The Inuit people, who lived in the northernmost parts of Canada, believed that the northern lights were created by spirits, which, dressed in the mystical light, were having fun because the Sun is away, that they were playing soccer with a walrus skull. The rapidly moving auroras were called the dance of death. The picture on the right of children waving at the aurora is by Ulf Dreyer.

The Mandan Indians of North Dakota explained the northern lights as fires over which the great medicine men and warriors of northern nations simmered their dead enemies in enormous pots.

Arctic_Fox (400x297)The Finnish name for the northern lights ‘revontulet’, is associated with the arctic fox. According to a folk tale, an arctic fox is running far in the north and touching the mountains with its fur, so that sparks fly off into the sky as the northern lights. One romantic concept found in Danish folklore is that these lights were due to a throng of swans flying so far to the north that they were caught in the ice. Each time they flapped their wings, they created reflections, which created the northern lights. The Vikings, who lived in Norway a thousand years ago, christened it the northern lights.

The first realistic description of auroras is found in the Norwegian chronicle ‘The King’s Mirror’ from about A.D. 1230. It was originally written as a textbook, probably for the young King Magnus Lagabøte by his father.  At that time people thought the Earth was flat and surrounded by oceans. One explanation was that the oceans were surrounded by fire and that auroras were the light from those fires reflected in the sky.  Another possibility was that reflected sunlight from below the horizon illuminated the sky.  A third explanation was fires in Greenland.

DC6_1467 - feature (620x300)

How can we  take photographs of the Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis?

The beautiful photo above is taken by Pål Brekke. To capture the northern lights, aurora borealis, with a camera can provide a memory for a lifetime. Photographing the northern lights is relatively easy, but for the best results some basic principles should be followed.

The best results are obtained with cameras that can be put in manual mode (M), where you can control shutter speed and aperture settings at the same time. This makes DSLR cameras best suited for aurora photography even if many compact cameras will also work.

When taking pictures of an aurora, a tripod is absolutely essential. Deactivate the flash and automatic settings. Pre-focus your lens at infinity and re-adjust if necessary.  If you have a filter on your lens, remove it, as it usually causes undesirable concentric rings to appear on the images.

Fast lenses (f/2,8 or lower) with focal lengths of 10 to 35 mm are ideal. Whatever lens you have, set the lens to its lowest f-number and the ISO value fairly high. A good starting point is usually an exposure time between 8 and 30 seconds at ISO 800.  At higher ISO values, image noise starts to become a problem, and finding a good balance between ISO value and exposure time is therefore often crucial.

northern-lights (620x349)


Pål Brekke 

Pål Brekke is a solar physicist and a senior advisor at the Norwegian Space Centre. He worked as the Deputy SOHO Project Scientist for six years. He is also an adjunct professor at the University Centre at Svalbard.  His recent books “Our Explosive Sun” and “Northern Lights – a Guide” explore our stormy Sun and the northern lights. He is also a producer of a new documentary about the Northern lights – “Northern Lights – a Magic Experience”

pal-fishPål says: ‘The Sun has fascinated me for many years. This is perhaps not so strange since I walked my first steps at the solar observatory at Harestua, just north of Oslo. My dad worked there then. I became fascinated by how dynamic the Sun is, how it has fascinated humans for thousands of years, and how it affects our technological society. During my studies at the University in Oslo, my advisors inspired me to spend time doing public outreach. So it was my interest for sharing knowledge about the mysteries of the Sun that led to my writing two books. The Sun is a perfect entrance to natural science, since it affects the Earth and humans in so many ways. Solar physics interacts with many other scientific fields, such as physics, chemistry, biology, and meteorology to mention a few.’ Living in Norway, Pål enjoys the sea and beautiful scenery, also maybe catching a fish or two with his friends.