What I learned photographing the Aurora Borealis at -14C.

We all know and love the images of the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, we see all over the internet, especially during winter.

My partner and I wanted to go out and take some of our own. He had never seen the phenomenon before, and I had only seen it from the windows of a plane. My partner hates the cold, but finally made peace with the fact that to see it you have to move up north, and the farther up, the colder, usually at least.

We found a long weekend to go on excursion to Tromsø, Norway, located exactly on the Artic Circle. The closer to, or deeper inside the Artic Circle the better the chance of seeing it.

Here are some things I learned during our photographic ice adventure, list is not exhaustive:

  1. Know all the buttons and dials of your camera and what they do. You can practice this inside in the dark wearing proper gloves, or better still, outside in the cold.
  2. Know how space weather controls what we see on the ground. There are websites and apps to figure out what to expect. Space weather fluctuates just like earth weather, so keep that in mind.
  3. Not just exotic space weather, but simple earthly clouds determine the visibility of the Aurora Borealis
  4. Use the information about space whether to figure out where to best find the Aurora Borealis. Overlay space weather information on a geographical map with local weather so you have an idea of where to go.
  5.  Find a place with as little light pollution from cities and villages as possible.
  6.  Be patient.
  7.  Make sure that you have enough food and drinks with you, because you're never know how long it will take before you reach a good spot.
  8. The Arctic winter is a very dark and very cold. Have high visibility clothes available and wear them when you're out of the car. Always. Temperatures can be as low as -20 Celsius or even lower, so wear Artic clothing.
  9.  Don’t let your hands or feet get cold, once they are cold, they take forever to warm up again.
  10. Have your camera gear and tripod set up and ready to shoot the moment you step out of the car.  The Aurora Borealis is a fickle thing. It comes and goes as it pleases. Sometimes staying at one spot of minutes, hours or just a few seconds.
  11. Stepping back into the car make sure no condensation will form on your frozen camera, you could put a plastic bag over it.
  12. You spotted a good place to see the Aurora Borealis and are getting out of the car? Make sure to keep safety first.
  13. Make sure your image is in focus, do this every time when you get out of the car.
  14. Arctic nights are dark and you don't want to cause light pollution or the people around you, yourself included, so use lights sparingly. Best option is a headlight with a red filter. First point is practical in this sense.
  15. The northern lights are a natural occurring phenomena over which we humans have no control whatsoever.
  16. Be nice to your fellow photographers by not walking through their frames and always keep the light pollution as minimal at all times.
  17. Don't be obsessed by just taking the photo, make sure to enjoy this magical sight!
  18. Try to be with people you enjoy being with so that night spent without seeing anything would at least be a night spent with nice people, in the car.
  19. Sometimes it gets so cold your camera can actually freeze, to the point that even the shutter won't release anymore. In that case don't be a sore loser and instead help others and enjoy the show.
  20. Shoot in camera RAW when possible.
  21. The sensor of your camera works differently from human eyes, so you might be surprised what the camera shot when you thought there might nothing on the picture.

We choose to go with a guide (there are over 200 people offering Aurora Borealis tours in Tromsø alone) because we don’t know the area and don’t like driving in general, let alone in the near pitch dark in the snow.

It took me and my partner a while to make a shortlist of the tour companies we thought would be good. One site in particular grabbed my attention, but it took both my partner and I about 90 minutes or and a few emails back and forth, to make sense out of it. In the end we choose that one as it was clear this sperson has a passion for the Aurora Borealis that is unsurmountable. She promises to do all that’s in her power to give you a glimpse of the phenomenon. And there’s no time limit. Of course sometimes it simply can’t be seen.

During each trip (we booked two, just in case) space and earth weather are kept an eye on, this determines the general direction the minivan is headed so the chance to get to see it is optimal. On the second night for instance, we drove over to Finland because it was too clouded in Norway.

Both my partner and I loved the experience and can recommend anyone going up north to try to spot it when in season!

jwamsterdam