In Search of the Northern Lights
In Search of the Northern Lights – I’ve wanted to see the Northern lights for a long time. We’ve all seen the pictures of the Northern lights, the Aurora Borealis on the internet, in books and magazines. For me, there is something captivating about the swirling mass of light, quite often green, with some purple and pink thrown in. The way the ribbons of light arc across the sky has been on my bucket list for ages.
This blog post includes how I’m doing it, the camera gear I will use, hotel choices and lots of hints, hacks and tips to make your trip as smooth as possible. Because hey, who wants the hassle?
How to see them?
As the name would imply, go north! Being based in the UK, to keep the cost down it would have to be Northern Europe. A quick look on the map narrows that down. Although at this point, it’s worth pointing out the difference of maps. I have two maps in my study as reference points, they are a standard Collins world map and what’s known as a Peters map which is far more accurate in terms of size and land area relative to each other. The two pictures below are from the maps of my study wall, you will see exactly what I mean.
As an example on the Peters map, the equator is actually in the centre of the map! If you’ve got another world map on your wall take a quick look and you’ll see what I mean most maps are very Northern centric with the Equator over halfway down the map
Yes, everything you know is wrong! I had that moment when I first saw a more realistic map! It’s hard to take it in as we have all been looking at that same map all these years. At least in the northern hemisphere! Of course, no map is perfect. You can’t really show a 3D thing in 2D that well.
Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Finland were the most likely candidates. However, it also needs to be somewhere that’s easy to get to. Iceland was ruled out even though it’s perfectly possible to see the Northern lights from there, I wanted to get as far north as I could, and I could go north more.
Greenland was ruled out due to being just a bit too far away and not having great flight coverage. Sweden and Finland were contenders but as I say I want to get as far north as I could. I’ve been to Stockholm in Sweden but didn’t see any. Norway, however, curls around the top of Sweden and Finland. So, Norway it is.
I’ve been to Norway before, Bergen to be precise. It was a great place, and the waterfront is a joy if you have never been there. But, I want to go more northerly than that. So somewhere easy to get to and as far north as I could, I went for Tromso. Which is actually inside the Arctic Circle. Thus ticking off another bucket list item. I’ve never been inside the Arctic Circle before!
But it’s quite hit and miss!
The other thing to remember is that there is never a guarantee to see the Northern lights. The weather also has to cooperate. If it’s cloudy, we won’t see them. So, therefore, it has to be a place with something to do. Tromso, being a fairly large town fit the bill nicely. At least I hope. There is an Arctic Cathedral there. Also the Polaria, the worlds most northerly Arctic Aquarium and the Tromsø University Museum.
As you can probably tell, I’m writing this before I go. And that’s the worrying thing, will I have anything to see? Apart from the aforementioned sights? This is a Northern lights trip. However, there are no guarantees to see the Northern lights! I’m planning to show you lots of lovely pictures of the northern lights and arctic landscapes. But who knows! So, that’s why I have done my research and have back up plans. There is a link to my adventures in Tromso at the bottom of the page.
This trip was in part, paid for by my scholarship money from Trover. A $500 prize! You could win it too! If you haven’t come across Trover before, it’s a sort of social network where members share great photos, tips and inspiration. Go and sign up, even if you are not into photography. It might show you some breathtaking vistas from your next holiday destination.
Also, a novelty for me, I’ll be flying a non-Oneworld Alliance airline, Norwegian. I’ve never flown with them before so that will be a voyage of discovery! Also, being a spoilt old Hartley, I’m not used to sitting in the back in economy, so it should be fun!
The flights are from Gatwick to Tromso via Oslo. There is a 5hour stop in Oslo, not really enough time to do anything but long enough to get bored. Total times are 2 hours London to Oslo and 2 hours from Oslo to Tromso. A total travel time of 9 hours. I’m not a great flyer but have overcome my fear of flying. Thankfully!
Hotel choice was based on location. I used my go-to Hotel website, Booking.com. Use this link to get some money off! The Sydspissen is on the edge of the island of Tromso. As can be seen below, the views look good! Sunsets over the water – if there is the sun that is! Also, it has a couple of buildings on a promontory, which should make some nice fore to midground interest in the photos. Yes, that’s also a consideration at the planning stage – where can I get great shots and not have to travel too far?
I don’t need to be in the city centre, I’m not popping down the pub at all! Have you seen alcohol prices in the Scandinavian countries? Like Wow! Take out a loan! At Stockholm airport once, I went for the cheapest wine and it worked out about £10 a glass. A small glass too!
Also, having checked the bus routes in town, the bus stops very close to the hotel. I’ll reiterate it again, Scandinavia is expensive and any way to reduce the cost is good, therefore, buses instead of taxis!
The Aurora Borealis
The Northern lights or indeed the Southern lights are caused by the solar wind hitting the magnetosphere. For the full lowdown in a non-technical form see here. There are some great websites to find out what’s going on with the Northern lights, including forecasts. The screenshot below is from https://www.swpc.noaa.gov/products/aurora-30-minute-forecast. Also, Spaceweather.com is a website that gives information about the sun and earth and forecasts the possibility of Aurora action.
Of course, I’m taking a few bits. Tripod in two sizes, large and small. DSLR Camera, a Nikon D7200, with lenses. I’ll take a 10-20mm Sigma, an 18-55mm Nikkor and a Tamron 70-300mm. That should cover all the focal lengths I need. I suspect for the northern lights it’ll be the 10-20mm mainly, that gets in as much of the sky as possible!
In the picture anti-clockwise from bottom left are;
- 2 tripods – large and small
- Adjustable tripod holder for my mobile phone
- Battery Charger
- Black tape
- Spare Batteries
- SD Cards in a fairly indestructible holder
- Filters to protect my lenses
- A body strap so the camera doesn’t get heavy while carrying it
I’ll address that list in order.
- Phone Tripod holder. Never underestimate the humble mobile phone! It can take some cracking shots! See my mobile photography Tips blog. I use a Samsung S9 which can do some pretty amazing things.
- Black Tape. This is the normal electrical tape or LX tape. It covers the eyepiece to stop light getting in the back of the camera during long exposures. Also, I’ve used it for repairs and even used it to hold a tripod in a weird position.
- The body strap is a better camera strap which distributes the weight of the camera across the entire body.
- The Amazon list of these items are below. Feel free to click on them and find out more. you can buy these things by clicking the link. It costs you no more but I get a small commision, for guiding you gently and seamlesly into Amazon, to help keep the website running.
Camera Gear for the Northern Lights
For the full list of what I use, see My Travel Camera BagI read online that the camera settings were broadly similar to Astrophotography! Well, that’s handy! I’ve have done that before! See my Astrophotography – Shooting the night sky for more info on that. The Northern Lights are a ‘dark sky’ phenomena too. So, understandably, the settings are the same.
But the basic settings I will try in search of the northern lights are;
- Camera set to Manual
- Wide Angle Lens
- Maximum Aperture – F2.8 or as low as you can go
- Focus to Infinity – that ∞ symbol
- High ISO – Start at ISO 1600
- Set shutter speed to 20 seconds
- Use a Tripod
- Take photos with a remote release or self-timer to avoid camera shake
In search of the Northern Lights – Conclusions
If you are reading this before the Mid February 2019, I haven’t been yet! I will let you know with some links about how it went. Yes, I’ve planned it carefully but trying to see an intermittent natural phenomenon is fraught with the possibility of disappointment!
That’s the joy of it though I’m afraid!
However, Tromso will be nice, I’m sure.
For all my adventures in pictorial form Travel Gallery
My Adventures In Tromso
In Search of the Northern Lights
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