Back in March, I stumbled across some photographs of the Milky Way on social media. To my surprise, the photographers were willing to share their settings and tips and it didn’t seem wildly complicated. Right, I thought – I’ll have a crack at that. And so was born, what my wife patiently refers to as “a new enthusiasm”; one that has steadily developed over the last 12 months.
Digital camera technology is now so advanced, you really don’t need to shell out a huge amount to get some impressive results. I opted for a mid-range mirrorless camera – easier to master than a DSLR and much more portable. A Father’s Day gift of an astrophotography course on the Jurassic coast and a summer spent honing my skills when the skies were clear, I inevitably began to dream of the holy grail of the night photographer – the Northern Lights.
And where better to see them – and, better yet, photograph them – than the Arctic Circle?
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The Northern Lights begin 93 million miles away, when an unimaginably powerful electromagnetic explosion occurs on the sun. A solar wind of charged particles hurtles towards earth and gets deflected by our magnetic field but a small percentage of these particles escape into our atmosphere at the magnetic poles. It’s the reaction between the solar wind and the molecules in our atmosphere that causes the lights – Aurora Borealis in the north and Aurora Australis in the south.
They are an unpredictable phenomenon, but to give yourself the best chance of seeing them you need to be in the “aurora zone”. In the Northern hemisphere, that falls between 66 and 69 degrees latitude. Tromso in northern Norway, at 69 degrees, is a thriving city, making a perfect base from which to explore.
The Northern Lights can be seen in the city centre if you’re lucky, but to get the best experience I’d recommend joining one of the organised tours to take you to darker areas where you have a better chance of seeing them. One night, my guide drove us several hours to Finland in pursuit of clear skies. As well as vital local knowledge, guides provide food, a camp fire, flasks of hot drinks and even thermal suits to make the experience comfortable. Although, as Tromso feels the effect of the Gulf Stream, it isn’t as cold as you may think given its arctic location. I’m here in early January and it’s around -3C at night. In any case, the locals have an expression – there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.
This is only partially true, as no matter how toasty you are, if it’s cloudy, you aren’t going to see the lights. So, to stand the best chance, be prepared to travel and be flexible with your plans. On the clearest night of my stay, I head to the Lyngen Alps, around an hour northeast of Tromso. The plan is to spend the night in a “crystal lavvo” – think wooden yurt with a glass roof, and a very welcome wood-burning stove. On arrival, the skies are clear, but there’s no sign of those elusive lights.
There is the faintest arc near the horizon that looks like a pale cloud. But the miracle of a digital camera sensor reveals it to be green. Not quite the blockbuster display I had in my mind, but my first sighting of the Northern Lights nonetheless. I’m pretty happy with my first photograph, but not yet feeling as if I’ve had the full “bucket list” experience. Francisco, my host, explains that the intensity of the aurora is measured by a scale called the KP index which ranges from 0 to 9. It is currently a 1, but forecast to rise. I decide I’m going to make the most of the clear skies and stay up as late as I can.
Photographing the lights is a challenge, as the intensity varies so much. At the minimum you need a tripod, and a camera which allows you to use manual settings. The three settings to consider are aperture (f stop), shutter speed (exposure) and ISO (sensitivity). You should make sure the focus is set to manual and on infinity.
To get the best results, you need a fast, wide-angle lens. I use an f2, 7.5mm lens for my micro four-thirds camera (15mm equivalent on a full frame). As the aurora is faint, I try the same settings I use to photograph the Milky Way back home: ISO 3200, a 20-second exposure at f2. I’m pleased with the result – a clear cool green rainbow across the sky. Clear to my camera if not exactly to me.
As the evening progresses, the arc becomes more visible to the naked eye. What began as a faint glow on the horizon has now started to spread across the sky. A long, ghostly ribbon now stretches right across the sky over my head – this is more like it. And then something truly extraordinary happens.
In a split second the static ribbon intensifies – almost as if it is squeezed together – and transforms from a faint glow, to an intense silvery green. With no prior warning, the previously underwhelming green arc fills the sky in a shimmering, dancing whirl. Great swirls shoot over my head, forming an array of shapes that circle and stretch and zig zag in a fraction of a second. These are the Northern lights I’d so desperately wanted to see.
Mesmerised, I temporarily forget I’m supposed to be taking photographs. My previous settings result in an over-exposed blur. I settle on ISO 1600 with a shutter speed of 2-6 seconds. The colours are definitely more intense on camera than to the naked eye but the magical shapes, speed and intensity of the shimmer just don’t translate to a still.
You need to be patient to see the Northern Lights, but part of the thrill is the chase. Over three nights in Tromso, my camera saw them three times, but I really only saw them once. I later find out the display I saw, peaked at KP 2.87. I can only imagine what a more intense display must look like. I suppose I’ll just need to come back and see for myself…
Norwegian operates direct flights from London Gatwick to Tromso.
A night in the Crystal lavvo costs 1,900NOKpp (£170), including dinner, breakfast, photography workshop, transfers, tripods, warm suits, boots and mittens.
Enjoy the Arctic offers Northern Lights chasing tours from Tromso from 1,400NOK (£125), including hot drinks, snacks, grilled sausages, tripods, thermal suites, pictures and a fire. Tour last six to seven hours. Cameras can be hired for an additional charge.