How to photograph the Northern Lights and was the igloo hotel (Kakslauttanen Resort) worth it?

The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are lights that are created by solar winds bombarding the Earth’s magnetosphere. The lights are amazing and something that one should check out if they have the time, means, and willingness to brave the harsh cold weather to do it. 

I was fortunate enough to go to the Arctic Circle in Lapland, Finland in March of 2017 with a few friends. Few facts to kick off this blog post: 1) Lapland is the largest and northernmost region of Finland, with the majority of the region lying above the Arctic Circle. 2) Average sunlight during the dead of winter is about 4 hours (10AM-2PM) and average temperature are between – 16 °C (3 °F) to 3 °C (37 °F). 3) There is a town in Lapland called Kakslauttanen where the Kakslauttanen Resort offers glass igloo rooms for guest to observe the Northern Lights.


Lapland 


Kakslauttanen Resort

Getting There

We used American Airline miles to get to Finland / Norway. This was a multi-country trip but in this article, I will focus on the Lapland portion. During winter season (off-peak), AA Saver Awards round trip to Europe is only 45k miles. Of course, you have to be flexible with the travel dates and book in advanced to ensure this rate. Once we were in Europe, we bounced around Finland and Norway using budget airlines like Norwegian Air and SAS.

For more information about getting AA miles and how to use them to redeem for cheap flights, refer to one of my favorite credit card guru, DoctorOfCredit.

There are many airports around the Arctic Circle. The closest one to the  Kakslauttanen Resort is Ivalo Airport (IVL). The reason that we flew into KKN was because the flights going to IVL during our trip dates were 2-3 times more expensive. Other airports near the Kakslauttanen Resort are SOT(1.5 hours), RVN(2.5 hours), KTT(2.5 hours), KKN(3.5 hours), ENF(4 hours), KEM(4 hours). If you are truly on a budget constraint but have ample time, you can also consider driving from Helsinki to Ivalo (12 hour drive). 

Flying into KKN was great as it was one of the most northern edge town of Norway. We got to see the Barnets Sea and drove across the border into Finland for this trip.

Flight Cost
JFK->OSL / HEL->JFK 45k AA miles + $44.56 in fees
OSL->KKN $100
KKN->HEL $110


Snow everywhere in Lapland!

Car rental

I highly recommend getting a car rental in Lapland, simply because it will make traveling around a lot easier. It will also allow you to chase the lights versus staying at a particular area / near the hotel when the lights may be elsewhere.

There were only a handful of car rental at KKN so options were limited. We went with Budget car rental. They gave us an automatic car even though we booked for manual. The car even came with studded tires, which is a necessity in Lapland. Most of their roads are not plowed during the winter. They know trying to beat the snow is a futile attempt. So they simply view snow as a matter-of-fact and learn to drive on it with the proper tires and mentality.  


Crossing the border between Norway and Finland. This was about as plowed as the road ever got during our trip in the Arctic Circle.

Accommodations

We were in Lapland for four days and three nights. Two of those night we stayed at a hotel in Ivalo and one of the nights we were at Kakslauttanen Resort at the glass igloo room. Airbnb wasn’t really an option in Lapland as there wasn’t enough people around the area to host their homes. The prices with Airbnb was similar, if not more expensive, than hotels around the area.

How to chase the lights

In general, the best way to see the lights is to find a really dark spot. There are also several apps that I downloaded to help us chase the Northern Lights. I highly recommend downloading them at home before you get to your destination to avoid any data or Wi-Fi issues.

Most of these apps are pretty intuitive and easy to use. The two that I used were Aurora Alerts and Aurora. 

Both Aurora Alerts and Aurora gives you forecast of kp number around your area. Kp number is a measure of aurora strength. It goes from 0-9, with a higher number representing stronger aurora activity. Both apps also offer Aurora Map showing where the Aurora activity is in the world right now. 


Aurora Alerts App


Aurora App

Both apps also allow you to drop a pin at any locations on the map to see their Aurora forecast. This is helpful when you drop pins at different locations near your hotel to see which area has the best Aurora activity at the moment. I personally like Aurora Alerts better because their interface is slightly more intuitive in my opinion. To change location on the Aurora Alerts app, you simple click on the map icon on the home page, as circled in red in the image. You can also have multiple locations saved in the app.

Aurora also allows pin dropping. But it is not as obvious. You have to click on the KP index box first, then it opens up a notification box asking whether you want to change the location. And you also cannot store multiple locations in this app. 

We were fortunate enough to see the Northern Lights two nights out the three that we were there. For the first night, after checking the apps, we drove to a location an hour north of Ivalo that had  kp number of about 3-4.  And the second night, where we were at Kakslauttanen Resort, the kp number was about 4-5. 

Photographing the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights are actually fainter than all the photographs that you have seen on the internet. That’s because the camera actually does a way better job than the human eyes can perceive and capture the lights. In real life, the Northern Lights are more like a colored haze. After your eyes have adjusted to the dark skies, the Northern Lights become easier to spot. They usually come in waves, with periods of strong activity follow by periods of low to no activity. When the aurora activity is strong, the colors of the lights become stronger and more diverse. The most common color is green. But during strong Aurora activity, you can spot purple or red colors in the lights. 

Equipment

If you only have a cell phone camera, the native camera app will not be able to capture the lights as they cannot perform long exposure photography. There are apps like the Northern Lights Photo Taker which is a camera app that has preset settings for performing these long exposures captures. I have not personally used them but the app is an inexpensive option if you do not have a DSLR.

For those with cameras that allow manual settings, this will be your best bet for capturing the Northern Lights. I was traveling light for this trip, so all I had was my Sunpak tripod, Nikon D5100, and wide angle lens Sigma 10-20mm, f3.5. For those that can bring better equipment, I highly suggest bringing your fastest wide angle lens, preferably with aperture f.2.8 or lower.

Settings

It took a few tries on the spot to get my photos to come out beautifully. Note that I had a full moon the first night that I was in Lapland, so it definitely helped to illuminate the snow and trees in the foreground but also may have drowned out the more dimly lit Northern Lights. 

With the full moon, super long exposure (15-30s) will capture a lot of the Northern Lights, but it will also blend everything together and remove any distinct patterns of the lights.


f3.5, 30s, ISO1000


f3.5, 30s, ISO3200
The long exposure here was too long, making it seem like day time, with the Northern Lights all blended together.

Whereas if you do a shorter exposure (5s), but keep the ISO high and aperture low, you can get better results. The high ISO may make the photo grainy, but you can fix that in post-processing.


f4, 5s, ISO1600

On the second night, where we had Aurora activity earlier in the night, thus the moon wasn’t as high or as lit yet. I had to change the settings to a longer exposure to compensate for dimmer skies and foreground.


f3.5, 13s, ISO1600


f3.5, 15s, ISO1000

Depending on the conditions that you are shooting, you will have to adjust the settings accordingly. As a blanket statement, I suggest 5-15 second exposure, with ISO1250-2000, and aperture as low as possible f1.8-3.5.

Think foregrounds and backgrounds

When photographing the Northern Lights, think about foregrounds and backgrounds! Your foreground shouldn’t be too busy to distract the viewer from the main highlight of the picture, the Northern Lights in the background! This sounds slightly unintuitive as I am calling the Northern Lights the background. But I am simply using this foreground/background nomenclature because the Northern Lights are at the back of the photo, hence background. And the foreground is the environment immediately to the front of the camera.

For foregrounds, I highly suggest finding a place with unobstructed views. Photographing the Northern Lights at a lake or any bodies of water would be best. You will have unobstructed foreground and the body of water may even reflect the lights, allowing for more light to enter into your camera. The second best thing would be to find an open field which is what we ended up doing. We were at an open snow field with some trees further away. The trees provided some context of the scale of the photo and the expanse of the Northern Lights in the sky.

With this foreground and background in mind, the Kakslauttanen Resort was difficult to shoot the Northern Lights because all the glass igloos are close together and did not provide that open field that I desired. Immediately beyond the glass igloos were tree lines so it added to a very busy foreground. These busy igloos present a unique challenge in photographing them but also provided a different view of the Northern Lights that made for some beautiful timelapses (see next section).

Timelapse

Don’t forget to do some timelapses too! Same settings as suggested in the Settings section. My camera had a timelapse mode where I set it to take a photo every minute for about half an hour. I later stitched together all the photos using Apple’s iMovie.

What else to do in the Arctic Circle

There are a lot more to do in the Arctic Circle than chasing the Northern Lights! We joined a Husky Safari and a Snowmobile Safari while there. You can also enjoy ice fishing, snow shoeing, reindeer rides, cross country skiing, and horseback riding in Lapland. 

I do suggest joining these tours at a local vendor instead of joining the ones at  Kakslauttanen Resort. They are cheaper and Kakslauttanen Resort actually just subcontract out their activities to these vendors anyway! The only advantage that the resort bookings offer are the transportation to and from the resort and the activity destination. But if you are renting a car already, why pay for that “extra” service? 🙂 

Here’s a comparison chart that I made (winter 2017 rates, all in USD) when I was deciding which company to join our tours at. Prices may have changed, but in general, the Kakslauttanen Resort rate was more expensive.

We went with Husky & Co for all our tours. They were reasonably priced and I enjoyed both the Husky and Snowmobile tour with them. 

Kakslauttanen Resort

The resort offers many different kinds of rooms for enjoying the Northern Lights. Anything from rustic log chalets with a glass igloo observation deck, to snow igloos, and to the most famous of all, glass igloos.

For this article, I will focus on the glass igloo that we stayed at, since that is also the selling point of the resort. The glass igloo comes in either two-person room or four-person room. We were a group of three people so we opted for the four-person room. The 2017 rate was 883euros for three people. I did a quick search for March 2019, and the rate is 954 euros for three people. 

The four-person room has a shower and a toilet. The two-person room only has a toilet. The room is pretty spacious with a privacy curtain on the bottom to block off yourself from the other rooms. The room was also HOT! It wasn’t an uncomfortable kind of hot. It was just hot enough compared to the -25 °C degree outside that you feel comfortable walking around the room in shorts and t-shirt. The room even has a kettle with tea bags. It has all the basic amenities you’d expect from a hotel, except for the TV. But who needs a TV when you are watching the Northern Lights all night long? The only small complaint I have of the room is that they are placed fairly close to other igloo rooms. So if you are unlucky and have neighbors that turn their room light on and off all night long, it will be slightly distracting.

The price includes a dinner and breakfast the next day. Here are some pictures of the three-course dinner (with bread).

The breakfast was buffet style.

Overall the meals were pretty good. And I had a great time watching the Northern Lights in the comfort of a warm room. 

Is Kakslauttanen Resort worth it?

The short(ish) answer to whether the Kakslauttanen Resort is worth it? If you are a photographer, no. But if you hate the cold but wants to see the Northern Lights; or if you are traveling with family with a wide age range and different physical abilities; or if you have already traveled to the edge of the world to see the lights, and might as well be bougie about it; then yes! I certainly enjoyed my stay there for the night. 

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