Seeing the Northern Lights – Aurora Borealis

The Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis

It is rare that humans have any contact with other planets which is what makes seeing the Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis such a wonderful treat.

When charged solar particles collide with atoms in Earth’s atmosphere, they cause electrons in the atoms to move to a higher-energy state. When the electrons reduce to a lower energy state, they release a photon: light. The effects arrive in the form of magnificent displays of coloured light.

aurora

They’re extremely beautiful…there really isn’t any other way to say it. To stand in the freezing cold, pitch black, look up and see the sky illuminated by waves of coloured light, dancing and morphing through the blackness. I can honestly say that I was truly lost for words (except when I’m writing a blog post…obviously)! Everyone on planet earth needs to see the Aurora at one time in their life; it should be a bucket list essential!

There are many places around the Arctic Circle where you can almost guarantee to catch the Aurora at certain times of the year, and others like Scotland where you may get extremely lucky. We chose the Norwegian City of Tromsø to watch natures very own light show for a few reasons:

• We only had three nights and wanted to make absolutely sure to see them. It’s one of those holidays where failure isn’t an option!
• It would be my first time above the Arctic Circle
• Finally, Norway is bloody beautiful and why not

map-of-norway

THE FINANCIALS…
Norway isn’t cheap so don’t bother booking flights if your budget doesn’t equal the experience you hope to have. Accommodation costs are mental, food costs are insane and the cost of a pint of beer is just silly. I’m ashamed to say the first night we shared a GBP12 Burger King meal to keep costs down. But like any trip, there are ways to save money such as bringing your own drinks, taking snacks so you don’t need to buy lunch (and/or dinner), booking a hotel with included breakfast, and taking the shuttle bus from the airport. Apart from this you just need to accept that the holiday will cost you $$$, and if you really want to see the northern lights you’ll need to get outside of the city and to do this, you’ll need to book a tour.

Northern Lights

WHERE TO REST YOUR HEAD…
We stayed in a hotel in the centre of Tromsø but the city really isn’t big and everything can be accessed on foot. The Thon Hotel Tromsø will set you back GBP120 a night for a twin room. They include a killer breakfast so eat as much as you can and why not make yourself a roll for lunch while you’re at it. Rooms aren’t big, there isn’t a pool, but they have Wi-Fi and it’s clean and comfortable.

WHAT TO PACK…
Common sense should dictate that it will be cold so it should come as no surprise that you’ll need to stay warm. There’s nothing worse than being cold waiting for the Aurora when you should be excited. Layers will keep you warm, that and decent winter (or hiking) boots. Typically I wore top and bottom thermals, trousers and ski trousers over these. On my feet I wore a thin pair of socks, followed by a thick pair and then boots. On my top I had a long sleeve warm shirt, jumper and ski jacket, plus hat and two pairs of gloves. I hate being cold so I was prepared but it was a chore dressing and undressing.

WHAT TO DO & WHO TO BOOK YOUR NORTHERN LIGHTS PACKAGE WITH…
We landed in Tromsø, north of the Arctic Circle in February under a flutter of snow. An airport bus transfer will cost GBP25 per person or a taxi will cost GBP70. The city looked magnificent covered in white; it’s amazing how all places on earth look so beautiful covered under a blanket of snow. The city itself is beautiful but there really isn’t that much to it. Streets are lined with warm cafes to relax in when the cold becomes too much, and the snow-covered mountains directly Tromsø offer a magical backdrop.

Norway

Norway

I recommend walking across the bridge and buying a ticket for the gondola. When you’re on the mountain, it gets incredibly cold and windy but the views are magnificent and it helps paint a picture of Norway’s geography. There’s a cafe where you can escape the cold and there is also a trail you can follow around the mountain if you’re prepared to brave the elements.

Norway

Norway

We stopped by a glass blowing workshop called Blåst Glass Blowing studio which I found interesting. There perform live blowing demonstrations and the chance to purchase items.

Northern Lights Tours


The first night we walked towards the lake under recommendation from the hotel staff. It was darker than the city and close by, plus it’s a good place to set up a tripod and if you really don’t have the money to book a tour, it’s a good option. We saw a very mild display but there was some artificial lighting which doesn’t help with a long exposure.

We actually booked two tours to avoid missing out and maximise our chance of seeing the Aurora. In truth over the 4 days we spent much more than we expected but when you fly all the way to Norway, it seems a bit silly not to do everything possible to see the Northern Lights. The tour companies track them and have an idea which part of the peninsula is likely to give the best display; this is why you need transport and why a tour company is your best bet.

Specialist photography Tour – Creative Vacations
We booked (in advance) with a company called Creative Vacations who give advice on camera settings, lend tripods if required and help set up shots. The evening started with a visit to their house where they run through camera logistics for those that need it. The maximum group size is 7 people and cost is GBP134 per person. We were treated to a beautiful display of swirling green lights colouring the sky which made the money we spent for the second night a bit of a waste but hey ho.

lights

Northern Lights guided tour – Northern Shots Tours
The third night we booked one of the many packages around and weren’t so lucky with this night. There was a lot of cloud about and the company didn’t feel as organised as the previous night. I suspect that anyone with a minivan in winter is capable of organising Aurora tours, even if their methodology for tracking them isn’t up to scratch. We paid GBP94 and I would travel with them again.

PHOTOGRAPHING THE NORTHERN LIGHTS


If you’re going all the way to Tromsø for the Northern Lights, you’ll need to make sure your camera settings are on point, so here are a few handy suggestions and camera settings:

You will need:
– A modern DSLR camera which can be set to manual
– Sturdy tripod
– Wide angle lens (16-35) with a minimum aperture of f4 (f2.8 is better)
– Cable release is optional
– Turn off image stabilisation
You’ll need to set the camera to a high ISO as light levels are low

Camera settings:
– Set the ISO to 1600 minimum
– Set the camera to M for manual
– Set the lens to the widest aperture f2.8 for example
– Set the shutter speed to 20secs
– Engage Mirror Lockup for maximum sharpness

How to compose your image:
So you’re aim is to photograph the night sky so if you have too much land in your image it could cause you problems. The best ratio is 1/3 to 2/3rd land to sky. Be sure to take a few test shots and look at the image; is the focus sharp? It can be tough to focus with it being so dark so the only way to get this sharp is trial and error. A good place to start is to focus as far on the horizon as possible and then take it from there, oh and be sure to focus on something in the centre of the frame. Shutter speeds can be set as fast as one second when the activity levels are high and will mean that the aurora is sharp in the picture. Be sure to play around with shutter speeds as they typically range from 15 to 30 seconds.

For anyone looking for an epic adventure over the course of what is essentially a long weekend, don’t pass up the chance to visit Tromsø during the winter to watch the skies light up!

Happy travelling folks!

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