2023's Best Pics of the Northern Lights
December 6, 2023
The aurora borealis is one of those magnificent sights of which it's often said that photography doesn't do it justice. The same goes for the Grand Canyon and your face in your passport pic.
Nevertheless, the 25 images selected for the 2023 Northern Lights Photographer of the Year awards from travel photography site Capture the Atlas certainly give IRL observation a run for its money.
Curated by Capture the Atlas editor Dan Zafra, the annual photo collection, now in its sixth edition, showcases shimmering shots of the northern lights above forests, mountains, lakes, and villages in Alaska, Iceland, Scandinavia, and beyond—including some unexpected, decidedly nonpolar places such as California's Death Valley National Park and Wales in the United Kingdom (where photographer Kat Lawman took the image above).
If this year's crop of winners, captured from September to April in the Northern Hemisphere and from March to September in the Southern Hemisphere, inspire you to seek out the northern lights in person, 2024 should be an excellent year for spotting swirling colors in the night sky.
From January to October 2024, activity on the sun—solar flares, solar winds, and such—is expected to reach the peak, or solar maximum, of its 11-year cycle, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and that could result in more frequent displays of the northern lights.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let's take an awestruck look back at some of this year's most dazzling images of the aurora borealis, along with some behind-the-lens intel from the photographers, courtesy of Capture the Atlas.
It's not easy to get a unique shot of one of the most photographed mountains in Iceland (located on the western Snæfellsnes Peninsula). But Marc Marco Ripoll managed that feat, thanks to a luminous green sky. "Initially, I framed the classic view of the location," Ripoll shares with Capture the Atlas, "but suddenly, the sky exploded over my head."
Giulio Cobianchi's "double arc" panorama gives us two mesmerizing astro-visions at once: the northern lights and the Milky Way over a mountainous spot in Norway's Lofoten Islands. Atmospheric conditions and the photographer's timing have to be just right. Cobianchi sets the scene: "Picture yourself at the summit of a mountain, positioned between the northern lights and the Milky Way, aware that this ephemeral moment may last only seconds or minutes."
Scenery-wise, Lake Michigan and the towering Sleeping Bear Dunes typically take top billing in these parts. But the sky steals the show in this composition by Michigander Justin Miller. "To secure the best lookout," he says, "I climbed a nearby sand dune just up the road from the barn. The aurora exhibited a nice glow right after dark, but had no movement." Eventually, though, the phenomenon "began to slowly dance with tall pillars moving across the sky."
For another impressive image of Norway's Lofoten archipelago, photographer Filip Hrebenda traveled to what he describes as the "lesser known" beach of Vikten. During low tide, "small pools emerge in the rocky paths carved by the ocean," according to Hrebenda, who waited until the aurora was reflected in the water to create an effect suggested by the photo's title: "Green Snakes."
MaryBeth Kiczenski's image of the northern lights as glimpsed from an ice cave is doubly fleeting. "The aurora comes and goes as the solar wind blows," as Kiczenski puts it, while the ice arch fronting the Castner Glacier Ice Cave southeast of Fairbanks collapsed in June 2023. "Knowing its days were numbered," says Kiczenski, "I prioritized a visit in March of this year."
Here's one last shot captured in Norway, this time in the Lyngen Alps east of Tromsø. Virgil Reglioni picked the date of the shoot not knowing that on that March day Earth would "experience the strongest geomagnetic storm in 6 years," a disturbance caused by a solar wind shock wave that would result in especially good aurora viewing. Even so, getting to the chosen spot meant ascending a steep snowy slope and enduring temperatures of -21°C (-6° F). But when Reglioni finally saw the northern lights dancing in the sky he had only one thought: "Jackpot."
To see all 25 of the 2023 Northern Lights Photographer of the Year winners, go to CapturetheAtlas.com.