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    Northern Lights in Scotland

    5 min read

    By Mary Lawless
    More by Mary

    The best way to view them

    Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis take place when electrically charged particles from the sun travel in solar winds and interact with the magnetic fields of the Earth’s atmosphere. This creates an ethereal glow and dancing lights in the sky.

    When can you see the Northern Lights in Scotland?

    Autumn and winter are the best times of year to see the Northern Lights in Scotland as the nights are the darkest. Late at night or the early hours of the morning are generally your best chance of catching them. Here are our top tips for your chance to catch of glimpse:

    • Planning is the best way to increase your chances of seeing the Northern Lights. Follow @Aurora_Alerts and @aurorawatchuk for Twitter alerts.
    • Our favourite website gives you the detail of when to expect the biggest magnetic storms.
    • Don’t let a cloudy night ruin your chances of seeing something so spectacular. Check the weather for clear skies near where you are, or prepare to drive to a location where clear skies are possible.

    Where is the best place to watch the Northern Lights?

    Did you know Scotland is renowned as one of the top places in the world to view Northern Lights? We are on the same latitude as Stavanger in Norway and Nunivak Island in Alaska, so we’re in with a good chance of spotting the lights.

    • The best place in the UK are understandably the most northerly locations: Caithness, the North West Highlands, the Outer Hebrides, Shetland, Orkney, the Moray Coast and the Isle of Skye are all good spots to view the Northern Lights.
    • Aim to get to an elevated position, well away from city lights and light pollution.
    • A large number of our walking holidays are based in the locations best known for the Northern Lights.

    How should you position yourself?

    Once you’ve checked everything out and got into position it’s a case of waiting and watching. Certainly, the best time to see Northern Lights in Scotland is during long, clear, winter nights.

    • Take a compass with you and point north, or look for the North Star (Polaris) and point in that direction.
    • To find the north star look for the Plough and line up the outer edge and draw a line towards the edge of the Little Plough. The brightest star in the little plough is the North Star.
    • If you’re into photography and have seen the stunning photos of the Northern Lights then take your SLR camera and tripod and make sure you open up the aperture and set the shutter speed to around 30 seconds.
    • It’s likely to be chilly so wrap up warm. Pack warm clothes, hat, gloves, insulated jacket and waterproof trousers. Oh, and remember to take a torch.
    • Don’t forget to breathe…it’s an incredible and awe-inspiring sight that lights up the magic of the universe. Cuddle your loved ones and enjoy the show.

    What is the best way to photograph the Northern Lights?

    Have you done your homework? You have invested time and money to be in the best location at the right time of year and now it’s crunch time.

    Catching your hopes and expectations on your camera. As with any trip to the wilds, preparation is key. Whilst you may have the latest DSLR it may all come to waste if only a few basic things could have also been remembered.

    1. Research Read More

    Keep alert! I look at 3 websites daily to try and gain an indication that the aurora may be on that night.


    2. Know your camera Read More

    This may sound obvious but having read the manual and taking time to become familiar with settings and buttons will reward at the crucial time. This is especially true to those folk that have a basic digital camera and generally use the default point and shoot settings. Just take a little time as it will pay dividends.

    3. Remember the kitchen sink! Read More

    A checklist is very useful just to ensure that nothing is left behind.

    • Camera, bag and lenses
    • Head torch
    • Tripod – without a good tripod obtaining a clear picture may prove difficult with those longer exposure settings
    • Woolley hat and gloves – you will be at least in the north of Scotland at night and it can become very cold (although the excitement puts pay to a little chilliness)
    • Spare charged camera batteries
    • Thermos flask of warm drink
    4. Camera Settings Read More

    You are now set up and ready to shoot. We all have an idea of the image that we would like to capture and this will vary. Knowing how your camera is set up is crucial as this will allow you to alter specific settings to obtain the result that you require. The following is how I set up my camera. I then alter settings to suit conditions etc. Note that you could have your camera setup and ready to go before setting out thereby reducing faff.

    • Switch off the flash. If it cannot be switched off then put black tape over it.
    • Remove any UV or polarizing filters.
    • Lens type: wide-angle, ideally less than 35 mm focal length, i.e. a 14-42 mm.
    • Focus the camera manually. Pre-focus the lens to infinity. Switch off ‘Autofocus’ if you have it.
    • Set the camera speed to ISO 800 or above. The darker the sky, the higher the ISO setting should be.
    • Exposure time/shutter speed (Tv): typically 5-30 sec (possibly not adjustable on all cameras). If the Northern Lights are changing rapidly, use shorter exposure times. You may get some blurring but you may also like the effect. With ‘fast’ lenses(f/1.4) and high ISO settings (ISO 3200) exposure times may be reduced to 2 sec.

    As you get familiar with judging the intensity of the aurora, you can make pretty good guesses on exposure times.

    • If you have a delayed action timer, set it to 2 sec. It will reduce camera shake.
    • Recording mode: If there is a great variation in the intensity of the auroral displays, and you have a fast lens, you can shoot in Aperture Priority mode (Av), otherwise bulb or Manual (M) mode is required.

    Using Bulb mode: If your exposure exceeds the in-camera timer of 30 seconds, switch your camera to Bulb mode. Plug in your cable release. Your exposure will go as long as you hold the release button down.

    • Aperture: Use the widest aperture possible, i.e. the smallest f/no. – Usually f/2, f/2.8 or f/3.5, depending on the lens you have.
    • Shoot in RAW or RAW & jpeg if you are uncertain. Even if you don’t know how to process a RAW file, don’t worry. Someday you will be glad you did. Consider the RAW file like a negative. It will always be there and you can process it at any time.
    • Long Exposure Noise Reduction. In general, turn this on.

    “You can be forgiven for wondering why this noise reduction feature isn’t always ON at all times. The answer is that using it can slow down your shooting of one picture after another. Here’s why: to do its job, Long Exposure Noise Reduction has to re-energize your imaging sensor and in effect take a “blank” exposure, after your actual picture is taken, for the same length of time. During this time, you cannot shoot another actual picture — the red card busy light on the back of the camera stays on until the process is completed. If you shoot, for example, a 30-second exposure, the camera has to be tied-up for an additional 30 full seconds before your next picture can be taken.”

    • White balance: choose the ‘Daylight’ setting. OR Auto.

    Video of the Northern Lights in the Cairngorms

    Aurora at Cairngorm Mountain

    Stunning #aurora display last night in Aviemore and the Cairngorms. Did anyone else get out to see it?

    Posted by Wilderness Scotland on Wednesday, November 4, 2015

    Meet the Author: Mary Lawless

    “Mary grew up on the west coast of Ireland and after spending some time travelling around the world found herself studying for a masters in Tourism at Strathclyde University. Each season she hears herself saying ‘This is my favourite season’.”

    View profileMore by Mary

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