Someone ran into the hut, clearly electrified. Words were exchanged, eyebrows were raised, and people started to file out. I paused over the soup and bread we were all eating and asked my dining companions at the long table what’s going on. “Someone said the aurora is outside,” a woman told me, and that was all I needed to hear to abandon my soup and run out the door.
I’m not sure exactly where we were. We had been staying in a small city in extreme northern Norway called Tromsø, 400k north of the Arctic Circle. [Often of course spelled “Tromso” or Tromsoe”] It’s a destination for people seeking artic type activities involving perhaps dog sleds and reindeer, but probably the main reason people come is to see the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis. My wife and I traveled to Tromsø for just that reason, but so far we had been less than lucky.
One activity every winter visitor does in Tromsø is a Northern Lights excursion. You can’t see the lights right in Tromsø or in any town–there’s too much light pollution. You need to get out in the middle of nowhere where there are no other lights around, and you need certain conditions, mainly a clear sky. There are dozens of operators in Tromsø who will make that happen. They run cars, vans, and buses out into the nowhere, plotting their ever-changing route by daily weather data in search of those perfect conditions. The lights are anything but guaranteed. It’s probably a 50-50 chance that you’ll see anything at all.
The excursions vary in: price, size, and amenities.
- Price: from 950 -1400 Norwegian kroner (€105-155, or $112-165 USD)
- Size: from several busloads to a minibus or van, or even just a car for the very small ones
- Amenities: everyone provides some hot drinks, but some have more food, perhaps some soup or even a full meal. Some provide warm clothes, since it’s freezing. Some build a bonfire. Some will provide tripods and other photo equipment.
They all start around 6:00 or 7:00 pm, and you’ll get back between midnight and 02:00.
Choose your excursion wisely. I didn’t. Partly because of what was available on that day (not much), we went with a company called NorthernShots Tours, which promised that if we didn’t see the lights, everyone gets 50% the next day’s excursion, a neat deal. I would not recommend them. They were the cheapest, the largest, and had zero amenities beyond some hot drinks and cookies. In the replay of my life, I would choose another company. Whatever you choose, book early, because they fill up.
Nota Bene: This small travel blog tends more towards the budget traveler. Traveling far north, especially in Scandinavia, is anything but cheap, and there’s only so much money you can save. Of all the northern destinations, Tromsø, at least has a few hostels and cheaper, though still not cheap, food options (such as grocery stores), but be aware that seeing the Northern Lights is simply not a low-budget trip option.
For all activities around Tromsø, check the Visit Tromsø site and do your booking there. They have the most complete site, seemingly listing everyone. It will take you time to compare all the options, and it’s worth it. My recommendation is choose one that looks like it has a smaller group, and that emphasizes the photography aspect, whether you’re a photographer or not. These ones will likely get you better views.
Our NorthernShots Tours had three large buses. We drove for just under two hours, almost to the Finland border, and then stopped at a pullover on the side of the road. Eh? I had imagined we’d be taken to an isolated environment such as out in a field, but no, we were just on the side of the two-lane road, meaning cars and trucks were rumbling by us.
There were no northern lights visible then, but still this was our destination. Our bus tour guide told us the only thing to do is wait and maybe they’ll appear. If we wanted to move off the side of the road, we’d have to trudge through the 1/2 meter deep snow, and that’s what most of us did, moving up an incline into some bare trees, just to explore. There was nothing else to do. It was freezing, and there were no warm clothes provided in this tour. Be aware that Tromsø, though extreme north, is coastal and thus protected by the Gulf Stream, but move inland and temperatures plummet. If your excursion doesn’t provide warm clothes, bring everything you’ve got.
After perhaps two hours, I saw a glimmer of light toward one end of the sky, and set up my tripod and camera. The lights were dim, but clearly visible.
The Northern Lights, with cloud cover.
After a bit, the clouds broke in the middle and the light peeked through. The buses, right next to us, kept turning on their running lights, trying to ruin my photos. There was no room to get away from them.
And that was it. The buses simply drove us back to Tromsø. That’s a lot of money for a simple extended bus ride. We had seen the lights, technically, so there’s no 50% discount for tomorrow, and I wouldn’t want to repeat this experience anyway.
But there was more for us. Our second time seeing the lights was a surprise, happening two nights later. Another of the very expensive activities we did was a dogsled expedition, an activity involving yet again being driven in a bus out to the middle of nowhere.
For this, we went with a company called Lyngsfjord, after a few other companies failed to answer my emails. Lyngsfjord has day and night schedules, and we went for the night, being picked up at 5:00 pm and returned around midnight.
Dogsledding is wild fun. It’s not a passive activity, as you have to control the dogs, the speed, and help push on the uphills. It’s awful expensive (1750 kroner, €193 or $207 USD) and utterly worth it. This company runs “Camp Tamok”, which is a wilderness center a 75-minute drive from Tromsø where you hang out before and after the activities, and thus that’s where we returned after the sledding. They then feed you a hearty soup in their round wooden buildings heated by a central fireplace.
That’s where it happened. During a mouthful of soup, I noticed something was going on. Word spread through the room that the aurora was making an appearance, and people ran outside. We all looked up into the sky and saw it, the green streak of light stretching overhead across each horizon.
My initial photo, handheld
I travel with two cameras, a full-frame Nikon D610, for serious work, and a smaller pocket camera, a Sony RX100. On that evening, I didn’t have the larger camera with me, only the Sony, and no tripod. But that Sony camera is my vote for the best compact travel camera around. It is fully manual and has a large sensor and a super-sharp lens made by Carl Zeiss, one of the best.
I put the camera in manual mode, cranked up the ISO and aperture, set it for a long exposure, then packed some snow on a table to make a sturdy base for it, angling it up of course. And it worked.
The northern lights don’t zoom across the sky. They somewhat just appear, fading in and out, and move across the sky like a ribbon. You can set up for one shot and then, whoops, they’ve moved around. Longer exposures will make more of the sky lit and give a silky image to the lights.
One of my strongest recommendations is to spend at least one night of your visit in a place out in the middle of nowhere, some place where you can just stick your head outside periodically and see if anything is happening. This Camp Tamok, where we saw the nights, has overnight stays (when combined with an activity) and I dearly wish we had done that. I’ve read reports from other people who just search for a cabin to rent out someplace. The weather seems to change in the Artic every half hour, cycling through every condition. The lights are visible only certain periods, and it’s clearly better to spend more time in a good area, thus increasing your chances.
How to shoot the lights
Whatever your method is, be patient and take lots of shots. A certain percentage of them simply won’t come out for some reason, so up your chances by shooting more.
Your camera phone just isn’t going to work very well unless the lights are rather bright, and even then you’ll get a shaky image.
If you have a point-and-shoot camera, an automatic one, its’ still going to be hard. Your camera will try to adjust for the darkness by going into a nighttime shot mode (or, set it to nighttime mode yourself). All you can do is keep the camera as steady as possible while shooting. The best way is to prop it on something solid and be seriously gentle pushing the shutter button. See if your camera has some exposure compensation function, and up it.
If you must hand-hold any camera, plant your feet well and lean back into something (a wall, a tree) to prop your body, thus turning yourself from a bipod to a tripod. Don’t hold the camera straight out in front of you, arms extended, like everyone else does. It will never be steady that way. In fact, stop taking all your photos that way, nighttime or not; it’s dumb. Instead, bend your elbows near completely and tuck them into your body, relaxing your arm muscles. Squeeze the shutter button oh so very gently.
What you truly need for a good photo of the lights is a camera that can go into manual mode. D-SLR, mirrorless, whatever. For a good shot, try this:
Use a tripod. Borrow one if you need to. Even a cheap mini tripod sitting on a table is fine.
Use a remote release. If you don’t have that, go to a 2-second (or even 5) delay.
Use the widest lens you have. I travel with a 16-35mm, but a fisheye is not too much.
Get away from any light source. If someone around you is shining a flashlight around, ask them to stop.
Go into mirror-up mode.
Your camera won’t autofocus this. Turn the focus to manual and set it to infinity. Turn off any vibration reduction on your lens.
Open the aperture as wide as you can (the lowest number possible).
Start with an ISO around 3200 and a 10-second shutter speed.
From there, just shoot and see how it looks. The best is if you can reduce the ISO to, of course, the lowest possible. I eventually got it down to 800 on some shots, but only by bumping the shutter speed to 15 seconds. Be aware that anything longer than that can give you slight star movement. I also had an advantage that my lens aperture went down to 1.8.
Don’t just shoot the sky. Get some foreground in the frame. A photo of the lights has no perspective without some land present.
Shoot in RAW. If you don’t know what that is, learn and start right now. Don’t have your camera create only JPEGs, or you’ll lose information, and you absolutely must do some post-processing to your images.
The post-processing areas I focused on were:
- Getting the foreground recognizable. Your foreground may be way underexposed, and you want people to see it. You may have to sharpen it.
- Noise reduction. Because you bumped up your ISO, your photos will have noise. See if you can reduce just the color noise, without affecting the luminosity.
- Stars. Having lots of stars visible can make your photo pop. Work on bumping up the sky highlights without making the aurora look weird.
Final Note: You may not see the northern lights on your far-northern trip, so make sure that you’re not traveling just to see the lights, but also traveling to a neat destination. If you travel someplace boring just to see the lights, you might just end up just bored.