An Arctic Journey – photographing the Aurora Borealis by Leonardo Papera

This is how it all started for me. My own journey into photography began with my first trip above the Arctic Circle, to the lost town of Inari, in the north of Finnish Lapland. 

I honestly wasn’t prepared for such a trip: I set off with amateur equipment and an even more amateur mindset. I had seen some beautiful pictures of the northern lights on the web and I wanted to experience that extraordinary phenomenon with my own eyes. 

On that first aurora-hunting trip I was lucky enough to witness “the Green Lady” every night for a week – at the time I had not idea how rare that was. The only downside was the un-real cold that accompanied me throughout the trip, with temperatures regularly plunging to -35° Celsius degrees every night. 

A year later, I set off again on the hunt for the Northern Lghts, not in Lapland this time, but on an island that was just about to become one of the most popular places on the planet for photographers and nature lovers – Iceland. 

With a bit more experience I managed to capture a few decent pictures of the elusive phenomenon. I also discovered a hard truth that apparently no one is willing to say out loud: Iceland is not the best place on Earth to witness the Aurora Borealis. Not because of the latitude, but because of the weather. On more than occasion, I spent two weeks in Iceland without seeing even a glimpse of northern lights. I spent days trapped inside my room because of some big snowstorm. 

Photography locations in Iceland may be more “spectacular” when compared to the quieter, more peaceful Lapland, but winter storms are something you have to consider too. Although, Iceland is admittedly much warmer ( -5°/-10° Celsius degrees on average) than Lapland, since there’s the Gulf Stream to mitigate the climate.

I was so determined to capture the Aurora Borealis in a variety of Iceland locations that I spent my next three aurora hunting trips there: some were successful, others produced barely any sightings of northern lights. 

After my fourth trip to Iceland I decided to take a break from that country and explore something new to me: Norway. I had always heard that the Lofoten Islands in Norway were one of the best places on Earth to enjoy the northern lights but for some reasons they weren’t giving me the same “goosebumps” that the other countries were. 

Several trips later, I can confirm that I was completely wrong. For aurora hunting, the Lofoten Islands in Norway are the best place I have visited so far. They are higher in latitude than many locations in Lapland and Iceland, which means you have a better chance to see the lights even if the geomagnetic activity is weak. Temperatures aren’t as low as in Lapland as they are surrounded by sea and at the same time the weather is not as harsh as in Iceland. Lastly, the landscape seems sculpted as though it were created solely to be photographed under the northern lights. The whole archipelago is a true playground for photographers!

The mystical Northern Lights have played a major role in my photographic journey. They spark emotions within me that shape how I see the world as a professional photographer today. All I know is that I’m happy and honoured to have seen the Aurora Borealis so many times, and I hope to witness it even more in the future!

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