Norway: The Hunt for the Aurora

How to photograph the aurora

  • DSLR camera is preferred.
  • Camera requirement: big sensor (ex: ILC).
  • Tripod and ball head on the tripod are highly recommended with a shutter release cable so that you’re not pushing the button in the cold, and so that you can easily set up anywhere as the lights follow no pattern for showing up.
  • Many photographers recommend setting a sharp focus at infinity on your camera setting, though we enjoyed focusing on something in the foreground to give the photo more context than just the northern lights.
  • Set your ISO to between 800 and 3200, aperture between f/2.0 and f/4.0 (some place say up to f/5.8) and shutter speed between 15 seconds and 30 seconds. Note, we set the ISO at 800 and tried shutter speeds up to 3 minutes to experiment with some mixed results. My advice is to practice taking some photos of stars to see how much exposure is optimal for you.
  • Smartphones have mixed results and really depend on a very strong aurora, which can be rare. To be safe, try to bring at least an ILC and tripod.
  • The aurora photos on this blog were taken on a DSLR camera with tripod, 2 ball heads, equatorial mount, shutter release cable at ISO 800, aperture f/2.0 and shutter speed between 15 seconds 3 minutes.
  • Do NOT use a flash! That will destroy your, and if there is someone else near you, her, photo.
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Waves crashing on the shore of the fjord.

Throughout the night, our little red fisherman’s cabin at the Malangen Resort had shook against the wind that splattered a mixture of rain and snow against the windows. I had woken up several times, terrified that our cabin would blow off the cliff and into Arctic clouds. My Company had slept soundly, roaring with equal enthusiasm as the wind. The ocean lapped loudly against the rocks, a different and more violent rhythm than the usual sound of water on the Californian beaches.

We were in a wilder country now, far north of our Californian home, farther north than either of us had ever been.

On our second day in northern Norway and our first full day at Malangen Resort, we woke up in the dark and lay in bed for a long time, watching the little lights across the fjord shine against a struggling morning sun that would never fully rise above the horizon. At the end of December, we were living in the polar nights where the rays of the sun only reached us from 10:00am to about 1:30pm, emitting a weak light that tinted everything around us in blue and cast shadows across the surrounding mountains. We entered a world of sunrise, sunset, and night.

Looking out the window that morning, my heart sank. With the heavy cloud coverage, the lights were proving to be challenging to find: we had seen nothing the night before. In anticipation, I had left my glasses next to my bedside and the curtains drawn in our mostly windowed bedroom in case the northern lights woke me up. The hopes of sudden cloud disappearance had kept me on edge all night, and I had found myself waking up every few hours, putting on my glasses, and counting stars from my window, eagerly looking for any signs of an aurora outside. Instead, all I had seen were the enticing green tint of the clouds over the hills that teased me of an extravagant show happening that I could not see.

At breakfast, the hotel receptionist gave us some mild comfort when she noted that the previous nights have had beautiful exhibitions of the aurora despite the cloudy skies, “Well, I missed all of them,” she smiled, “The staff here keep joking that only the best shows come out when I’m not outside. But I assure you, just keep looking. They’ll be out when you don’t expect it. Only 10 minutes are needed for the lights to show.”

Over smoked salmon, fresh baked bread, and hard boiled eggs, my Company reprimanded me for looking at and lamenting about the weather again, “Look outside,” he groaned before getting his sixth cup of coffee, “It’ll either clear up or not, but you won’t be able to do anything about it.” Meanwhile, the sounds of the ocean roared all around us, never ceasing to remind us of its presence. Even in the gray fog, the air hung thick with activity.

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Fire lit hut in the dark night.

My Company and I spent the majority of our second day relaxing and staring out at the windy shores at the footsteps of our cabin. The rain and snow produced a frozen layer beneath every walkway and road, so each trip to the main hotel for wifi, coffee, food which generally consisted of white fish of the day in cream or wine sauce, salmon, reindeer, whale and root vegetables was a test of balance. We shuffled, and we skated, but we rarely made a trip without slipping.

We rented warmer clothing from the hotel, a ski-kit onesie that made us look and feel like warm, blue marshmallows. Many Lapland resorts suggest renting clothing since it’s usually -20C (-4F) outdoors. This year, however, a warm front hit Malangen and many other Norwegian fjords, melting all the snow. Instead of cancelling the activities, our brave and creative tour guides rearranged our days so that we would travel 1.5 hours by bus to the valley inland where there was still plenty of fresh powder, thick snow from earlier weeks, and a non-zero chance of getting frostbite for the “true” Norwegian experience.

That night, we embarked on a guided tour to Camp Nikka, a 25 minute hike from Malangen Resort, to hunt the aurora throughout the night. The previous night’s tour had seen nothing. Even though the clouds had cleared by 11:00pm, the aurora had stayed shy, as if inviting viewers to extend their trip another night for a viewing.

We were greeted at Camp Nikka with two tents enclosing open fires, warm drinks and food: picnic tables with reindeer fur made for a warm resting point while we grew cold of standing outside. Our tour guides, young travelers from all over Europe who had settled (for now) on the adventures of Malangen, split their time between helping us with our cameras, cooking us warm pancakes, fish stew and hot chocolate over the fire, and keeping watch for an appearance of the aurora. In the warm tents, we met other travelers and aurora hunters, sharing stories of what brought us together.

After an hour inside, my Company and I walked out to look at the frozen lake in the night with the strict warning from our tour guides, “Do not go onto the lake. We have no idea if it is totally frozen over or not, and you will not enjoy falling in”. Several others stood by us, and while my Company listened to the story of one of our tour guides, the clouds began to part. We counted the stars, one, two, three…a few minutes passed.

We could find Polaris. We saw the Seven Sisters and Orion’s Belt.

I grabbed a reindeer hide and placed it close to a viewpoint on a small hill. I sat down on it and watched as my Company took photos of the stars.

The night whisked pleasantly at my nose, and as the cold air swept through my nose and into my lungs and out onto my nose again through my mouth (warm now, alive now), I thought about another cup of hot chocolate. It was then.

Then…

…it appeared.

It was soft and unexpected at first, a small glow that looked like an illuminated cloud and indistinguishable from one. But soon, it began to grow, faster and faster, until it twisted and spiraled and all the while, the green began to shine brighter.

It shined against the trees and twisted against the clouds, turning them red and purple. The aurora moved through the other clouds and the stars, touched the edges of Orion’s belt and headed toward Polaris.

Everyone ran out of their tents, focused their cameras, and stared in awe at the northern lights ahead of us over the frozen lake. I felt my face sticky with tears that were freezing onto my cheeks: it was as no more, no less beautiful and magical as I had imagined it could possibly be.

It bled through the deep night. We were silent, some of us taking photos and others still with our necks anchored toward the sky and huddled together for a better view, quivering with excitement.

Then suddenly – as quickly as it arrived – as quickly as it had moved entwined with the clouds and through the stars, it was gone. It dissipated into the night and left us staring, our eyes pressed against the cold to see if we could find any trace of the green lights left.

We stayed that way, outside, for some time, even after the aurora long passed.

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Green aurora through clouds and trees.

The aurora can move like a large, slow river or like a narrow windy creek that falls from the sky. At first, it looks like an iridescent cloud, but as it unwinds itself into the atmosphere, the unusual cloud shines brighter than its surroundings and turns green, increasing in its color and intensity until the entire sky, forest, or body of water lights below it. The stars are outshined but still visible, and the few clouds that remain glow pink and purple with reflection. The entire air grows magnetic, and the breath from your mouth sticks to your nose as you inhale the Arctic night sky. The aurora weaves and curls, spreading itself moving from one end of the horizon to the other until finally, just as mysteriously as it had arrived, it retracts and leaves, bleeding back into the night or behind a cloud.

Why do people describe the aurora as dancing? Nearly everyone we met described the northern lights when they saw them as dancing across the sky. Every single person who had been in Northern Norway for a while had a favorite aurora sighting, and it usually happened when they least expected it: the aurora teases us with its unpredictability. Our northern lights tour guide, F, described it as, “One evening as I was trekking across Europe and had entered Northern Norway in the fall, I laid down to sleep after a long day of walking, and suddenly, it was there, from horizon to horizon, bright and green. It kept me up for hours.” Another British family told that their favorite sighting was during an evening of ice fishing in Sweden. Just as they were focused on catching their supper, the clouds opened up, the stars appeared, and a green, pink swirling of lights shined right over their heads.

Having seen it myself, I would say the aurora dances because it flows; the flow is the dance. The most magnificent display of it is its first appearance as it bleeds into the dark sky, lighting its way across the constellations and tracing its path to compete with those of stars.

Flow—water flows;

air, falling from the sky and from the trees, flow

invisible to human eyes and sweeping around us,

above us, beneath us;

The little red cabin shakes and rocks,

Dancing to a song,

Only the singing waters know.

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Open sky with trees and green aurora on the horizon.

I can remember moments in my childhood when I’ve felt I was truly dancing. I can feel hints of it, know that it’s there (somewhere in me, hidden now, but memories of it before and an idea that it will come again). But I suppose one day, we’ll each know what the dance is. We will find it, meet it face to face. Perhaps we find our childhood selves at the center of the dance, or we find another person that we’ve never met before and can say, “Hello – I’ve think I’ve known you a long while, and I’m glad you’re here.”

In the Arctic darkness, there is very little other than you and your memories. The stars come out in between the clouds, but in all other minutes, rubbing against each added second, you hear every breath you take against the night air.

With each breath, you feel the breath you had before, and you trace it – back now, back more, back again – until it reaches some inner cave.

There it is. There you are.

Aurora rising across the sky.

“Hello – I’ve know you a long while, and I’m glad you’re here.”

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