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Night Photography – How to Capture Milky Way and Northern Lights Together 

Those Arctic Nights when the Northern Lights meet the Milky Way

Living in the Arctic is not always as much of a dream as it may seem. Sometimes the weather and darkness greatly affect your daily life and mind, making even the simplest things to do more difficult. But those Arctic nights where the dance of the Northern Lights illuminates the starry sky, make you experience an incredible emotion, impossible to describe, that you have to experience at least once in your life.

Imagine that you are there, in front of a breathtaking landscape where nature dominates, and as you look at the sky, you see on one side the Milky Way and on the ‘other side the Northern Lights starting to light up everything green. I assure you that even though I have been observing and photographing this phenomenon in the Lofoten Islands for years, each time I struggle to stay focused on my camera equipment. 

It is about these nights that I want to tell you. In the last few years living in the Lofoten Islands, in the heart of the Arctic’, I have been studying and planning this original night vision, where both the Milky Way and the Northern Lights are visible.

Night photography being my great passion, I spent hundreds of nights out there looking for the darkest skies to best capture the Milky Way and, just as many nights under Arctic skies, enduring cold and frost, while waiting for the Aurora Borealis. When one night, after several trials and struggles with the weather, I thought I could create a 360-degree night panorama, capturing both’ Milky Way and Northern Lights.

After several attempts, the panorama that I call “double-arc” were born!

A 360-degree night panorama taken on the Lofoten Islands’ most famous road leading to the village of Nusfjord

Even living in the Lofoten Islands, it is not easy to find the right situation to create these kinds of night panoramas. There are so many elements that have to align, for example:

  • Clear sky 
  • No Moon
  • Best time to be able to make the Milky Way arc in the Arctic (September to December as soon as it gets dark)
  • Right solar activity
  • Wind and ice conditions must allow it

Needless to say, the night sky must be clear with no clouds but, in the Arctic having a cloudy sky is not that difficult. 

The moon must not be present in the sky, so we reduce our chances to about 10 days per month. I want to specify that the moon disturbs the signal of the Milky Way making it impossible to see and photograph but, it does not disturb the more powerful light of the Northern Lights. It is absolutely possible to see the Northern Lights even with a full Moon. 

The best time to be able to make a complete panorama of the Milky Way with a quite visible signal in the sky, is from mid-September to December. 

During these months you can still find the “summer” Milky Way by shooting as soon as darkness comes, with the core below the horizon (not visible), but still with the arc high in the sky. 

In the weeks before mid-September, you will find the night sky illuminated by the sun and no Milky Way visible. Instead, in January and February you will find only the “winter’ Milky Way with a faint signal and a low arc toward the horizon. 

From March, the “summer’ Milky Way will return, but the days will begin to lengthen and a few weeks later, around the second week of April, there will no longer be total darkness in the night sky, making it impossible to photograph the Milky Way.

A 360-degree night panorama taken at the Lofoten Islands as the Northern Lights and Milky Way showed above mountains and fjords

Now let us talk about the right solar activity, which is the most difficult factor among the elements that have to align. We obviously need the Northern Lights to photograph it but, it has to be weak and only northward (about west to east with north in the center), because if it increases by exploding across the sky or even just southward, it will no longer be possible to capture the Milky Way. This is because the Lights of the Aurora Borealis are much stronger and hide the signal of our Galaxy. 

So the Northern Lights must be weak and only to the North, and this is a very complicated factor. Sometimes this situation may last a few seconds or a few minutes or it may not show up at all. If it happens, the time you have to make the 360 night pan may be very short.

How best to plan for this situation? 

Now you know the best time, you know that on that night the Moon should not be in the sky, you have checked the weather and the cloud situation allows it. Well, all that is missing is the most difficult factor to manage, the Northern Lights. 

This article will help you learn how to plan and photograph the Northern Lights:

If you have confirmation of solar activity on that night and most likely the Northern Lights will show up in the sky, my advice is to arrive at the planned spot well in advance and wait for the first “dance” of the Aurora Borealis. Usually, it begins in the north and forms an arc, resembling a rainbow, stretching from west to east with the north in between.

Keep in mind that in most cases, the Northern Lights initially appear in the north in an arched shape. However, this is not guaranteed, but it happens most of the time.

During this time, besides planning your shot meticulously, you also need a bit of luck. The Northern Lights should start showing towards the north when it’s completely dark, allowing you to capture the Milky Way. Another element of luck is the duration of this phase. Sometimes, the Northern Lights intensify, covering the entire sky with light and obscuring the visibility of the Milky Way.

As mentioned earlier, this moment, if and when it occurs, could last for a few seconds, a few minutes, or even a few hours.

To summarize, you must start shooting as soon as the Northern Lights show and finish your night panorama as quickly as possible. Do not plan to use an astro chaser, you will take too long and also have exposure times that are too long to capture the Northern Lights.

Northern Lights and the Milky Way met above Uttakleiv beach in the Lofoten Islands

Let us now discuss how to plan in terms of composition, a 360-degree “double-arc” night panorama.

How to plan a 360 “double arc” night panorama

The planning is the same as for all 360-degree night panoramas, the only difference is that you have to think that there are two major players in the night sky instead of one, the Milky Way and The Northern Lights. 

A panorama must have the important elements well distributed in the scene, working synergistically with each other, to create a balanced final photograph that tells the story of the magic you are experiencing at that moment. 

Let me explain: let’s imagine that we have in the sky the two arcs of the Milky Way and the Northern Lights, each of them with a sharp mountain underneath. In this case we cannot place our silhouette and tent on top of one of the two mountains and underneath one of the two arches. Thus we will get an unbalanced scene on one side. We will then have to place the tent on the top of one mountain and under the Milky Way arc. You will stand on the top of the other mountain and under all-arc of the Northern Lights. 

You can make this type of night panorama either on a beach or on top of a mountain surrounded by fjords, the important thing is to plan the scene so that the elements are well distributed both toward the South/East (where you will find about the highest part of the Milky Way arc) and toward the North (where you will find about the highest part of the Northern Lights arc).

My most famous 360-degree night panorama with the Northern Lights and the Milky Way above the Lofoten Islands. Also published by NASA.
This is my first night panorama with the Northern Lights and the Milky Way together, taken in southern Norway
Another of the first catches, a 360-degree night panorama taken in the Romsdalem valley in southern Norway
One of the most beautiful Arctic nights of all, on a mountaintop with one of the most beautiful views of the Lofoten Islands . Imagine being there surrounded by the Northern Lights and the Milky Way.

Here is a step-by-step guide on how to make a 360 night panorama:

Conclusion

These kinds of 360-degree night panoramas are photographs that for me go beyond just a shot, they are experiences and emotions that stay with me all my life. In that moment, while I am shooting, I am having a unique experience observing what nature can be capable of. I can say that it is one of the most beautiful spectacles that nature has given me so far. 

The author

Giulio Cobianchi

Hello, I am Giulio Cobianchi, a full-time landscape photographer and co-founder of Gotophototour. Passionate about travel and photography, especially nightscapes photography, I enjoy combining these two elements by exploring and capturing landscapes where wild nature shines at its best. Through Gotophototour, I can pursue my passion, share it with others, and guide them to discover and immortalize the most fascinating places in the world.
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