If you have ever seen the northern lights, you’ll understand what I mean when I say, they are like an illusion. At first, you are not sure if you see them. They fade in and out. Your eyes and brain struggle to connect. Finally, it’s unmistakable. A a ray of green streaks across the sky. It’s mesmerizing. So mesmerizing, you forget to take a photo.
Over the past 20 years I’ve seen a lot of this big beautiful world, but nothing compares to seeing the northern lights. To this day it’s still one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had.
This is my journey of chasing the northern lights through Norway and Finland to get the perfect photo. It includes the photography lessons I learned while trying to get that perfect shot, and you’ll see why I’m desperate to try again.
After doing our research on the northern lights, Jeremy and I agreed that Norway seemed to be one of the best places to see them. Specifically, the northern city of Tromsø.
As we had 10 days for this December trip, we decided to make an adventure of getting to Tromsø.
We started in Oslo and made our way by train to the city of Trondheim. From Trondheim, we boarded the northbound Hurtigruten ship to Tromsø.
In the Sky Came a Light
It was on the Hurtigruten that we would experience the northern lights for the first time.
The boat left Trondheim at mid-day, but it still took 24 hours to reach the small town of Bodo, our midway point.
Bodo was an amazing little place about 50 miles North of the Arctic Circle. The further we headed north, the shorter the daylight. By the time we hit Bodo, only around an hour of sunlight greeted us.
The boat stopped in Bodo for a few hours and we were on our way by 3:00 PM.
It was already pitch dark, so Jeremy and I went to the front of the ship hoping to see the northern lights. The freezing wind, had us questioning our sanity.
Stars twinkling in the crisp and clear sky was all we saw for about an hour.
Suddenly, like a figment of my imagination, a green haze started to appear. The color waned off and on ever so subtly. Jeremy couldn’t see it and thought maybe I had been out in the cold staring into the darkness too long.
Finally, the green haze became clear, bright, and intense. It delicately waved as if following the motion of the sea. We stood there breathless, captivated by its movement.
Without warning, the color intensified again. With a hint of red, it stretched out of the sky and towards the ship in what I can only describe as God fingers. As if we were being called into the heavens, the ship steered directly under the stairways of light.
Suddenly they were gone. If Jeremy wasn’t my witness, I would have thought I imagined the whole thing.
As if awaking from a daydream, I felt disoriented. There I stood, camera in hand and not one photo taken. Darn!
Must Get That Photo
We stayed out for another hour until our ship arrived at the next port. Nothing!
After a quick break in the town of Svolvær, we waited again at the front of the ship for the lights to appear. It wasn’t long before we grew tired and hungry.
Frustrated, we dropped off our gear in the room and headed to dinner.
It was on our way back from dinner that we noticed the mystic lights dancing in the distance.
Thinking quickly, Jeremy darted to our room to grab the camera and stand.
I became acutely aware of the rocking of the boat as I tried to set up the stand on the deck. There was no way to get the camera steady for a decent photo of the northern lights. We obviously had not thought this through.
Nonetheless, it was an exciting night, and now we were really looking forward to Tromsø.
Into the Night We Searched
Convinced it was practically impossible not to see the northern lights in Tromsø, we stayed only two nights. We wanted to be in Oslo for New Year’s Eve.
Though Tromsø was a relatively small city, there was still enough light pollution to hinder a view of the northern lights.
We booked onto one of the northern lights tours and waited eagerly in the lobby of our hotel for pick-up. It was a perfect night; by the time it was evening the sky was crystal clear.
It was a small tour with only about eight other people. The guide drove us far out of the city.
It seemed like it was about an hour before our guide stopped the van. Apparently, the lights were spotted earlier in the area.
The group took turns waiting in the bitter cold as the other half warmed up in the van.
“Let’s head a little further,” said our guide. We piled in the van hopeful the next spot would be more rewarding.
Quickly jumping on the radio, our guide questioned other tours in the area. No one was having much luck. We stopped three or four more times until we were close to the Swedish border. Still nothing.
The guide did the best he could, but it was time to call it a night. On our way back to Tromsø, he stopped the van once more in a desperate attempt to salvage the night. Half the group was already asleep, sadly we found no reason to wake them.
On our final night in Tromsø we went kick sledding. It was snowing so heavily, there was no chance to see the northern lights, but it was fun nonetheless.
Let’s Try Again
Though I loved our Norway trip, it’s an amazingly beautiful country, but I also felt unsatisfied.
As the following winter approached. I couldn’t stop thinking about the northern lights. Our time on the boat felt unreal. I desperately wanted to see the Aurora again.
Jeremy took some convincing. He was looking forward to a warmer winter destination. “Maybe we should visit your family in Florida,” he pleaded. “Nonsense,” I thought, “we’d have absolutely no chance of seeing the northern lights in Florida.”
After a bit of negotiating, Jeremy was onboard with another cold weather destination.
Learning from our earlier mistakes, we wanted to have a little more daylight on this trip. Plus, it would be better to find a destination where we wouldn’t need a tour to see the lights. We also knew we had to give ourselves a little more time. Even above the Arctic Circle, seeing the northern lights was not a guarantee.
After a bit of research, we booked flights to Ivalo, Finland for five days at the end of February.
Getting Ready for Ivalo, Finland
To give myself the best chance of getting a great photo, I once again headed to the Internet, this time for some photography tips.
One thing was clear, I needed to learn how to shoot in manual. Up until this point I was getting decent with using the aperture setting, but never tried full manual.
About two weeks before our trip, I excitedly bought a new DSLR camera. Plus, a remote shutter release to help with those steady shots. I also bought headlamps with red light capability. These are perfect for night photography as typical flashlights may interfere with others taking photos.
We also found an amazing holiday resort cabin on the edge of a frozen lake. Remote and dark, it would be a perfect place to watch for the northern lights.
Everything was coming together.
Setting Up for the Northern Lights
Covered in dark grey, the sky dropped a heavy snow on our first night in Ivalo.
Luckily, our second night was more inviting. At 3°F (-16°C) the air was freezing, but the sky was crystal clear.
The owner of the Ukonjärven Holiday Village where we stayed, gave us a tip to check for the lights around 7 pm that evening.
Eagerly, we walked down to the frozen lake just before seven. It was so dark, and we were the only ones out. I set up my tripod and took out my camera.
To keep my gear from developing condensation, I put everything in resealable storage bags before leaving our super warm cabin. This allowed my gear to slowly acclimatize to the temperature drop.
As I set up my camera, I gently wrapped it in a scarf and pointed it towards the mountains across the lake.
Then we waited.
My Chance to Get the Perfect Shot of the Northern Lights
Unlike our experience in Norway, there was no gradual illumination. One minute the night was dark, and the next minute, an amazing green light led a pathway through the sky. It was as if someone just turned on a flashlight.
It was so exciting; I temporarily lost my mind and aimed my lens straight up into the sky at the green arc of light.
Grabbing the remote shutter release from my pocket, I excitedly clicked my first photo. As the camera processed, a green blob flashed on my tiny camera screen. Yay, looks good to me. I clicked away again and again.
Fortunately, I was only a few clicks in when I realized that this wouldn’t make for an interesting image.
As the lights ducked behind some trees at the edge of the lake, I re-angled my camera to put them in the foreground.
We watched the lights for about an hour and a half before they disappeared.
A Night of Lights
Back in the cabin, I flipped through my photos on the mini screen on the back of my camera. I could tell some were blurry, but for the most part I had a beautiful green light through my images, I was so happy.
After spending a couple of hours getting warm in our cabin’s sauna, we popped outside again.
The lights were already in full dance. This time we sat in the small forested area for a bit as they illuminated the tops of the trees.
When we walked out on the frozen lake, the Aurora filled the sky. It was very different than what we saw earlier in the evening.
Earlier it was static. Similar to a solid green rainbow beaming across the sky. This time the lights created patterns and shapes. They spun and danced through the air.
They were still going when Jeremy and I couldn’t take the cold any longer and popped back to the cabin to warm up.
We went out a couple more times, well into the early morning.
My Lessons Learned
I left Finland thinking I finally captured the elusive northern lights, and technically I did.
It wasn’t until I got home and saw the images on my monitor that I knew my search for the lights would continue.
The greens were blown out, the foreground way too dark, and there’s hardly any movement. Most disappointingly, the photos are blurry and I didn’t pay enough attention to the foreground.
Nowadays, I travel with a laptop, it’s easy to check photos in between shoots. If I had a laptop back then, I could have made corrections as I went. At the very least, I wish I would have zoomed in to the screen on the back of the camera.
As I’ve improved my photography skills over the years, I’ve often thought about where I went wrong and what I could improve for next time.
My Biggest Mistake When Shooting the Northern Lights
I turned the lens to manual focus and set the focus ring to the infinity symbol as per the advice I read online.
This advice was only partially correct, or at least only partially understood by a beginner like me at the time.
As the northern lights are so far away, infinity is the best focal range. That part is correct.
What I didn’t know at the time, it typically takes some fiddling to find exactly where the perfect infinity focus setting is on your lens. Just moving the dial to the symbol did not get me a perfectly focused shot.
Infinity is easiest to set during the day. Focus on a very far away point, like the horizon. Manually adjust the focus ring until the horizon is in focus. Use a marker to mark the focus ring with the exact dial position. Having the exact dial position marked will help when it is too dark to fiddle with it when you are setting up.
I also must have knocked the dial at one point, probably with my super huge ski gloves. Do yourself a favor, check your ring every now and then.
Aperture Impacts Focus
Advice I read said to use the fastest aperture possible.
Though focus was my biggest issue by far, aperture is another aspect I’d like to correct next time.
At the time, I had a D7000 which is not a full-framed camera. I paired it with the NIKKOR 35mm f/1.8 as it was the fastest FX lens for the money.
Again, being a beginner at the time, I didn’t completely understand the nuances of Aperture. Though you do want a fast aperture to capture the lights, opening the lens at 1.8 makes it very difficult to get a focused night shot.
Plus, a 35mm on a FX camera was just not wide enough.
When I do it over again, I would opt for my Nikkor 24-70mm or 14-24mm depending on how much of the sky I’m trying to shoot. Both lenses are capable of f/2.8, which is fast enough for the northern lights.
Setting ISO and Speed
The articles I read at the time only mentioned using a long exposure. None of the advice said anything about ISO. Maybe they felt this was a given, but it wasn’t for a beginner.
At that point I rarely did night photography. I knew a high ISO could give photos a grainy look, so I nervously set my ISO around 800 to 1000. I figured the longer exposure the better, so most of my shots were at 20 – 25 seconds.
In hindsight, this wasn’t right, nor was it wrong, and probably the reason I couldn’t find specific advice.
Here’s the thing. The northern lights are dynamic. When we first saw them they were a static beam of green light. Later, they were dynamically changing and dancing in the sky. Sometimes the movement was fast, sometimes it was slow.
Your goal is the capture as much movement as possible without over saturating the colors.
When I next get my chance, I would still start off at a conservative ISO of 800 – 1000. However, I would experiment up to ISO 2000 when the lights are faster or dimmer.
I would also experiment with a much shorter shutter speed. Looking through my photos, I had the best movement in the shots I took with the shortest exposures between 8 – 12 secs, even at 1000 ISO.
My focus was just very poor. Plus, my lens wasn’t wide enough and I did a terrible job of framing the shots.
A Summary of Advice
If I had to sum it all up, this would be my quick check list to myself for next time.
- Dark place with very little to no light pollution and good foreground opportunities
- Ability to view the northern lights without the need of a tour
- A minimum of 3 to 5 nights available for scouting and photographing
- Camera with Manual mode capability / DSLR or mirrorless
- Wide angle lens capable of f/2.8
- Sturdy tripod
- Shutter release
- Extra batteries – cold weather can drain them quickly
- Headlamp with red light capability
- Sealable bag(s) for moving camera gear from warm to freezing areas
- A laptop to check photos between shoots
- Extreme weather clothing
- Hand warmers
- Northern lights app recommended for the region. Today there are tons of apps that can identify Aurora activity, such as My Aurora Forecast.
Getting the Shot
- Identify good foreground subjects; mountains, cabins, trees
- Know exactly where Infinity is for my lenses
- Set up the wide lens for f/2.8
- Experiment with ISO and Shutter Speed
- Start with ISO 1000 and gradually move up if needed, balancing the shutter speed
- Start off trialing shutter speeds between 6 and 13 seconds
Above All Else
As cliché as it sounds, practice and experimentation are the most important things when photographing something as challenging as the northern lights.
Get familiar with your camera, lenses and their settings, especially for night photography. Try photographing the night sky, or even better, the Milky way.
Have you photographed the Northern Lights? What was your experience? Did you get a photo you’re proud of?
If you have pointers for other readers, please leave them in the comments below.