How to photograph the Northern Lights

We already spoke about the Northern Lights a couple of times here at Big in Finland. For instance, we told you about the forecast and predictions to not miss them if you are in Finland. We gave you the, statistically proven, list of best places to see them in Finland and Lapland and the best moments of the year. But once you are there and actually seeing the Northern Lights, what you probably want to do is to snap a great photo. And since now is one of the best times of the year to see them, here it comes: a guide on how to photograph the Northern Lights.

Photographing northern lights in Joensuu, Finland

Photographing the Northern Lights

I haven’t been so lucky to see the Northern Lights yet. The only time that this phenomenon happened while I was in Finland, I was sleeping and I missed the chance. What a pity, I think every time I remember it. Since it’s one of the things I still have to do, I want to be prepared and I want to know how to photograph the Northern Lights in the best posssible way.

I am not the best photographer – in fact I am more drawn to Polaroids lately than to digital cameras. I went from having a half-decent fixed-lens camera to simply snapping photographs with my Nokia 625 (with which I am quite content). But when I finally encounter the Aurora Borealis, whatever camera is at hand, I want to be able to put the right settings to the camera in order to take the best possible picture.

Now that the Spring equinox, one of the best moments to see this phenomenon, is approaching, I thought it to be a great time to write this post. Let’s go.

Northern Lights Photography
This Northern Lights photograph was made with 30 seconds of exposition, f/2.8 and a 160 ISO Source (CC: by-sa).

The recommended settings: how to photograph the Northern Lights

The number one advice is of course to have a tripod. The Northern Lights are only seen at night and the light they emit, while being well visible for a human eye that is used to darkness, is not enough for a camera and any movement of the hand will make the photo shaky.

It is possible that the tripod will freeze at some point and will be hard to close, so you should take two if you can. Be careful with the moving top of the tripod, its head, which can also freeze. If you can snap the photo with a cable, do so, because it’ll reduce the camera movement even further.

The best camera, of course, is one where you can select the shutter time manually. Between 5 and 40 seconds are the best settings to photograph the Northern Lights. Try different times and check out the results.

A lens brightness of f/2.8 or faster will give you the most professional results. Regarding the film, an 800 ASA or equivalent in ISO (800 too) will provide the best results.

A photo of the Northern Lights above Ruka, Finland
6 seconds, f/3.2 and ISO 800. Source (CC: by-sa).

Northern Lights in the Oulanka national park
8 seconds, f/3.5 and ISO 400 with an Olympus E-M5 camera. Source (CC: by).

The lens focus should be adjusted to “infinite” or right before infinite. If your lens is a wide-angle lens, the photos will be even more spectacular. It is also good to include part of the landscape in the photos instead of photographing nothing but the sky. The trees or hills will provide a visual reference for the size of the Northern Lights and the photos will be better.

If your camera is digital you can choose the option of noise reduction and set the white balance to “automatic”.

Two things to pay extra attention to: The batteries last much shorter in he cold and it is recommended to take several of them. You should also be careful with the condensation on the lens: As it happens with the condensation on glasses when you go from one temperature into another, the lens will also get covered with condensation if you change temperatures. You can carry the camera in a bag to reduce the effect.

Incredible Northern Lights photography
A great photo of the Aurora Borealis. Source (CC: by-sa).

TL;DR : Summarizing

All said, the idea is to have the camera prepared beforehand at home or in the hotel. Start with an exposition time of 30 seconds. Make sure that the film is ISO 800 and with f/2.8. Put the camera in a bag to prevent condensation of the lens and have a tripod ready. Have a couple of battery sets ready, since cold drains batteries faster.

Of course, make sure you are prepared for the cold. Our post for what to wear in the Finnish winter will come in handy.

If you want to dive deeper into how to take photos of the Northern Lights, I would recommend to go to the source of the photos in this post and to click on “additional info“. You can then see the EXIF data of the pics and get an idea of how others did it.

How to photograph Northern Lights
40 seconds, f/2 and ISO 100. Thus, the light of the photo. Source (CC: by-sa).

The main source of information for this article was wikitravel. And here you can find a very comprehensive guide if you already are an expert on digital photography.

What’s your best photo of the Northern Lights? Show off in the comments! Do you have any other recommendations?



Kallio: Helsinki’s hipster neighborhood

Each city has a signature neighborhood where the people are young, good looking, and dress in the most fashionista way. You can see some Helsinki street styles on a page called Hel Looks, and you can find all the relevant boutiques in a single district, called the Design District of Helsinki. But all these hipsters reside, and have their shops, cheap bars and cool cafés in another part of Helsinki: the Kallio neighborhood.

Having a coffee in Kallio.

Preface: hipsters

I don’t like the word “hipster” very much, I don’t know why. Residing currently in Berlin, I’m confronted with it constantly, which is quite tiresome, especially when heard from tourists who came here attracted by things that they read online. They are the “post-hipster pack”, the followers. The pioneers came here between 2005 and 2007 when the word “hipster” was unheard of and it was better that way.

Hipsters in Helsinki
This is a photo that shows up when you look in Flickr for “Helsinki Hipsters”. Source (CC: by-sa)

The Kallio neighborhood in Helsinki

We suggest you start your exploration of the Kallio are where Google Maps puts its’ center and get lost in the area to find your most beloved corner by yourself. Google says the center is in the Suonionkatu street, next to the iconic Kallio church, and we believe it to be true.


See Kallio, Helsinki on a bigger Map

Gentrification happened to Kallio as it did to other blue-collard working class neighborhoods fairly close to the city centers.

It attracted students, designers and young artists (we are not sure how starving), that were in dire need of cheap bars and flats. These people brought onto themselves the carefully designed cool cafés and the young entrepreneurs and professionals, that had some money but still wanted to feel cool. Finally, all these people stay and start growing old, accumulating more money, and thus making the cafés become more expensive, the beers even more expensive, and the rents out of hand for most people.

Kallio, seen from the water.
Kallio, as seen from the water. Source(CC: by-sa)

It is “Ley de vida” (Law of Life) in the cities and the only thing you can do about it is to start looking for the next cool neighborhood or pay more. A process that ends when the city is expensive, everything is overdesigned and you can’t find a mom-and-pop style store anywhere. I have seen this happen in front of my eyes, and I am the “moving to the next neighborhood” kind of guy. So far.

Kallio isn’t that far into this process, luckily. It is near the city center and is accessible with the “touristic” tram (the one that passes through all the places that you must see in Helsinki), and thus it is one more stop for those who want to know the city center, in its widest meaning.

Kallio's park
A “Restaurant Day” in Kallio. Source (CC: by-sa)

I’m not going to suggest a list of bars and restaurants to check out. The best is to get lost in the area and go into the places that attract you by their look and atmosphere. There are no “must-see” places in Kallio, in my opinion, but there is so much diversity in terms of bars, restaurants, stores, boutiques, and thrift stores, that it is better to see and choose in the moment.

A restaurant in Kallio
Pic of the restaurant “Rytmi”, in Kallio. Source (CC: by)

Two specific tips, if this is what you are looking for. An iconic store called “Made in Kallio” (street: Vaasankatu 14), that combines a bar & café and a design shop; and also the Finnish saunas in the area to relax: They are called Arla (in the street Kaarlenkatu 15) and Kotiharju (Harjutorinkatu 1).

The hipster neighborhoods of other capitals in the Nordic Countries

If you are interested in the hipster ‘hood of other Nordic (or Scandinavian) countries, they are Södermalm in Stockholm, Nørrebro in Copenhague, Grünerløkka in Oslo.

Södermalm, in Estocolmo
Södermalm in Stockholm: filled with hipsters.

Do you like to go to the hipster neighborhood of a city you visit? It is usually a synonym of good cafés and good looking people, something that I can’t possibly object to.



Public Saunas in Helsinki (and Finland’s oldest)

If you go to Finland I’m pretty sure you’d like to go to a real Finnish sauna.

If you never visited one we encourage you to try this Finnish tradition – and this enjoyment – because, if there is a word in the Finnish language that has consistently made it abroad and you already know, it’d be “sauna”. Imagine the cultural significance behind this achievement.

Public Saunas in Helsinki

There is one sauna per three Finnish people, or so the statistics say. Many homes come equipped with their own sauna, and for the ones that don’t there is probably one per building to be shared between everyone who lives there.

A private sauna in a home.

Since, at least for a visit, having access to these private saunas can be a bit difficult, those who travel to Finland and would like to get some steam going can go to the public saunas: the easiest way to get into one.

The most well known Helsinki sauna, the one that you probably have seen in pictures, movies or documentaries (for instance in the famous “Miesten Vuoro” documentary about men in the sauna), is the Kotiharju Sauna, open since 1928. Its now classic neon sign on the streets makes it a landmark, especially at night. The sauna is also so close to the street that you can go out and roll around in the snow during the cold months of winter or just to go out to be a bit more fresh in summer.

It is located in the street Harjutorinkatu 1. It opens from Tuesday to Sunday from 14h to 20h, and you don’t need to make a reservation if you want to use it along with everyone. If you want to have a private sauna, you can reserve it. It costs 12€ and you can also rent the material you need (including some birch branches to hit yourself or others). This is its website. The type of Finnish sauna, out of the three types, is the wooden version.

One note: it is divided between men and women.

The Kotiharju sauna
The Kotiharju Sauna. Source (CC: by-sa)

This public sauna that we are going to talk about is also located in the Kallio district of the capital of Finland. It is the Arla Sauna (street Kaarlenkatu 15).

This is its official website, where we can see that it is also from the 20s. Founded in 1929, it is also separated into a sauna for men sauna and one for women. The entry fee is 10€ and you can stay as long as you want for the price. You can go at any time between Wednesday and Sunday, from 14 to 20h, and you can also get a sweet massage on the premises.

Public sauna in a hotel building
A public Sauna in a Finnish hotel. Source (CC: by)

The Hermanni Sauna is another public sauna in Helsinki. Built in the 50s of the last century, also comes with different sauna rooms for men and women. For this sauna, the admittance fee is also 10€, but its unique selling proposition is that it’s the one that opens more often: Monday to Friday from 15 to 20h, and Saturdays from 14 to 18h. You can rent towels and you can eat something in there after the sauna. For instance: some Finnish Makkara (sausages).

This is its website and this is its address: Hämeentie 63.

The sauna? This way.
Follow the indications to get to the sauna. Source (CC: by)

Saunasaari is the last sauna we talk about that you can find in Helsinki, and it is special. It is a sauna-island. Let us explain.

It is located on an island 15 minutes from the center of Helsinki, when you take an aqua-taxi. It has different sauna rooms made out of wood, in the traditional way, and that you can rent individually for a day, catering included. The price, nonetheless, is a bit higher compared to the other places: 100 euros per person if you are in a 6 person group (but groups can be bigger, too). This is the official website.

Sauna in an island
Island + Sauna. Settings for a horror movie… or for a delicious afternoon. Mostly the latter. Source (CC: by)

The oldest public Sauna in Finland is in Tampere

We include Tampere in this post for two reasons: Because it is easy to reach from different places due to the fact that Ryanair flies there – and this city was highlighted by the company as one of the gems to discover in Europe -, and secondly because the oldest public sauna in Finland is located there. It is still in use more than 100 years later and you can visit it.

This Sauna is called Rajaportti (a word that means “door at the border”). It is in the outskirts of Tampere, in the street Pispalan Valtatie 9. Opened to the public since 1906 (Finland was still Russia back then), the type of sauna you can enjoy there is the wood sauna.

In the sauna room you have a löyly: a human-shaped carved stone that you can throw water into and that will produce steam continuously. It is also called “the spirit of the sauna“.

The dressing rooms are different for men and women, but the sauna room isn’t, making it different to the saunas we have seen in this post. The price per person is 5€ for each session, and it is only open for half of the week: Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. The rest of the days you can rent it for your private use. There is also a café in the building and an available physiotherapist.

Sauna in Tampere
The entrance to Finland’s oldest public Sauna. Source (CC: by)

Have you ever been in a public sauna in Finland or in another country? How was the experience?



11 inventions you didn’t know were Finnish

You already know that the Sauna is Finnish, that Angry Birds are too and that the Linux operative system comes from Finland as well. Because of that, we will focus this blogpost on Finnish inventions and innovations that are not as widely known but are definitely interesting. Let’s go.

1. The Molotov Cocktail

Molotov Cocktail
This one comes with a recipe. Should I include it in our section of Finnish recipes? Source (CC: by-sa)

Known in Finnish as Polttopullo or as Molotovin koktaili – and, in some circles, as “the poor man’s grenade” -, this bottle full of flammable liquid, hand crafted in the spur of the moment, has been one of the Finnish contributions to warfare.

It was developed during the Winter War against the Russians, one of the pre-WWII conflicts in Europe. The Finns resisted the agressions of a much greater force with Sisu and intelligence, such as developing weapons like the Molotov Cocktail.

2. The IRC Chat Protocol

IRC chat protocol
A good conversation, 90s style. Source (CC: by).

Who said Finns aren’t talkative? Everyone, really. Finns included.

But even if that might be true, they still were the inventors of the first protocol for chatting on the internet: the IRC. When I was very very young, the IRC and the Messenger were everything. Meanwhile, times have changed and this protocol has lost popularity over the years. Nonetheless, the seed of the idea to communicate and chat on the Internet with short messages was Finnish. They even had a proto-Facebook called IRC Galleria (SPA).

3. The dish draining closet

Dish draining closet
Draining the dishes in a little closet. Practical. Award winning.

The “Finnish Invention Foundation” named this closet “one of the most important Finnish inventions of the millennium”. For real. A Finnish inventor called Maiju Gebhard invented this closet during the later years of the WWII to improve the drying process of dishes. It was developed within the “Finnish Association for Work Efficiency”. For real. I am not making this up.

Although we recognize here that it is very practical and – since it was an award-winning invention – important, we must admit that it hasn’t been adapted worldwide yet – unlike two Spanish inventions: the lolly pop and the mop.

4. The electric solar sail

Solar sail cruising the space
Sail away. Source (CC: by)

This new kind of solar sail hasn’t been used in a real-world mission yet, but apparently it will allow artifacts to travel much faster than usual while cruising space. To put it in perspective, this new kind of solar sail will allow space probes to reach the end of the solar system in the same time that it took old ones to reach Saturn without using an extra power source. Will Finns be responsible to for a new era of space travel? Only time will tell.

5. The first Internet Browser with a user interface

Different internet browsers
All these browsers are illegitimate children of the Finnish browser. Source (CC: by)

The first Internet browser that had a user interface (UX) – in other words, that it wasn’t all lines of text – was Finnish and its name was Erwise.

It was the final project of three students from the University of Technology of Helsinki, and it was launched in 1994. They abandoned the project once they graduated and, even though the creator of the World Wide Web encouraged them to go on developing, they presumed that without funding they couldn’t keep doing that. Nobody could pick up the project either, since all the documentation was in Finnish. Nonetheless, it was the inspiration for everything that came after it.

6. The pulk or pulka

Two pulks (or pulkas)
A couple of pulkas, taking a rest. Source (CC: by)

A sled that replaces a backpack when you travel through snow: that is the idea behind this Finnish invention. And believe me, that was a problem worth solving. People use the pulks (in Finnish: pulkka) to go hiking, when going for an excursion or for a polar expedition. It was invented to carry any kind of equipment during trips in winter easily, pulled by humans or animals.

It is also very popular with athletes in winter: you put something heavy in your pulk and do your regular training in the snow while pulling it.

7. The circular lock

A circular lock from the Finnish brand Abloy
What would a lock embedded in a brick wall open? I chose this picture to show the circular key-hole. Source (CC: by-sa)

One of the most difficult locks to pick is another Finnish invention. It was invented by Emil Henriksson a century ago and is commercialized by the Finnish company Abloy (that is why it is known in some places as the “Abloy lock”).

What makes these locks special is that they don’t have springs. Therefore they are good for any kind of athmospheric conditions (oh, Finnish inventors, always thinking of the harsh winters) and thus can be used outdoors and to protect places that are outdoors.

8.-The Bubble Chair

A bubble chair
A couple of chairs of Finnish design. Source (CC: by)

You’ll probably remember the chairs on the Episode II of Star Wars. There were extraterrestrials – technically everyone it these movies is extraterrestrial, of course – with long necks. The chairs they were sitting in were not just science fiction, but the works of Finnish designer Eero Arnio in the 1960s. The name “bubble” comes from the feeling that one has while sitting on one: being suspended from the ceiling and seeing through a sphere. They are commercialized by the Adelta company, in case you want one.

9. The satchel charge

Explosives used during the Winter War

All these toys were used during Finland’s Winter War. The satchel charges are the first ones from the left.

Another type of explosive that the Finns invented throughout the Winter War, besides the previously mentioned Molotov cocktails, were the satchel charges. The root of this invention was the need to blow up heavy static targets, such as bunkers, bridges or trains.

10. The Savonius wind turbine

Savonius wind turbine
A wind turbine of Finnish design. Source (CC: by)

These wind turbines are used to convert the wind energy to electricity, and were invented by the Finnish engineer Sigurd Savonius (thus, its name) in 1922. They are the old version of the electric windmills of today.

What make these wind turbines interesting is that they are very simple and require almost no maintenance. They are used when efficiency isn’t important, but cost is. You’ll rarely see them producing electricity, but for sure you have seen them on top of vans, as a cooling device.

11. The heart rate monitor

A heart rate monitor
Heart rate monitor and the strip to hold it to the chest. All ready to go out and do sports. Source (CC: by-sa)

Athletes throughout the world that want to become really good – or that were already – monitor their heart rate during sports. That would be impossible without a Finnish person who invented the heart rate monitor. How many world records can be indirectly traced to the Finns who invented this device?

It is maybe the first piece of wearable tech – if we don’t count a normal watch as one. It is another of those primal ideas that have been improved over time, as we have devices today that are able to measure almost everything.

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This list comes out of the category on the Wikipedia that deals with Finnish inventions. You can follow that link to learn some more, but these 11 are the ones we liked the most (and that we didn’t talk about yet).

What’s your favorite Finnish invention from the list? What is the best invention from Finland in your opinion, and the one that you like the most and use often?




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