Green Aurora
Iceland,  Landscape,  Norway

On not seeing, and seeing, the Northern Lights

Is there a traveller or photographer anywhere who doesn’t dream of one day seeing the Aurora? It may be a scientific phenomenon, but the artistry of those beautiful glowing colours that seem to appear almost mysteriously in the sky can’t fail to induce awe in anyone who sees them. So when we heard that 2012 was going to be a great year for sightings we headed to Iceland on the trail of the Northern Lights.

We didn’t see them – but we saw so many wonderful sights that the journey was more than worthwhile. My abiding memory from that trip was the wonderful light in which the spectacular Icelandic landscapes were bathed for much of the time at least. It was February, so some bad weather was probably inevitable, but we were lucky to have sunshine on two of our three days. And with that sun so low in the sky throughout the day, the light was always warm and never harsh. Add to that the sharp silhouettes of icy mountains; rainbows dancing in the spray in a waterfall; waves crashing against a black lava beach; perfect reflections in the stillest of pools… Truly, I concluded, this is a photographer’s paradise.

My photographer’s paradise

I will no doubt write more about both that visit to Iceland, and a subsequent one in 2018, in later posts, but for now here are a few images to show just what I mean in describing it thus:

  • Mountain reflected in a lake
  • Moody shot of rocks and reflections
  • View from cliffs of black sand beach
  • Misty view of cliffs and rocks
  • White church with red roof against a snowy hillside
  • Large waterfall with rainbow in the spray
  • Tall waterfall
  • Steaming green landscape
  • Glacier in volcanic landscape
  • Large waterfall in snowy landscape

But we hadn’t seen the main thing we had come for, so the following year, with great Aurora sightings forecast once more, we decided to try again. So we booked a seven night trip to Norway, split between a hotel stay in Tromsø and a few nights cruising up to the Northern Cape with Hurtigruten.

And this time we got our wish, and the Aurora danced for us – on our very first night!

Northern Lights tour in Tromsø

We had pre-booked a Northern Lights tour with Creative Vacations for our first evening in Tromsø, choosing them because photography instruction was included. Our flight had landed under grey skies and with sleet falling, although this had stopped by mid-afternoon.

Wintery harbour scene
Tromsø Harbour in winter

The Aurora forecast was for only low levels of activity, so we set out for the meeting point with little expectation of seeing the lights. But we were still keen to do the tour as we thought the photography tips would be useful should we have clearer evenings later in our trip – and besides, you never knew …

Our group of five (two Australians, a guy from Chile and the two of us) were picked up at the Radisson Hotel and driven to the studio of the photographer, Vidar, in a small village about half an hour from town. Vidar welcomed us into the cosy room, offered us tea or coffee, and showed a short video about the science of the Northern Lights. Then he talked through some general photographic principles (most of which we already knew) and how to apply them to photographing the Aurora (which we didn’t know). As he talked, I saw through the window behind him a bright spot of light in the dark sky – a star! Soon there were more; the skies outside were clearing and I started to get more hopeful of seeing the Aurora, especially as Vidar seemed quietly confident.

After the photography briefing we set off. Vidar had checked the weather and the Aurora forecasts just before we left, and decided on the basis of these to stay fairly near to Tromsø rather than head inland.

The Aurora appears

Our first stop was by a little beach somewhere west of the town and there we saw some faint streaks in the sky. This was enough for Chris and me to feel that at least we were going to do better here than in Iceland. But after a short while Vidar suggested that we move on. And at our next stop we were rewarded with a wonderful display. The Aurora arced over our heads, first brighter on the right, then the left, and then both at once – awesome!

Green Aurora
The Northern Lights near Tromsø
Taking photos

Despite the earlier instruction however I struggled to get good photos. My bridge camera was fine for most normal situations, but this isn’t normal, and a DSLR would have made getting shots easier. Nevertheless, I think my efforts would have been OK except that my camera didn’t have a manual focus setting – my previous camera did and I hadn’t even realised until now that my recently purchased replacement did not (something I rectified with my next camera, the one I use today).

Chris meanwhile had even more problems, as his batteries gave out almost immediately and his spares straight after. Camera batteries do not like this intense cold. But fortunately mine seemed to survive it and after a while I got my camera set up in a way that would at least capture the scene sufficiently.

The important thing though was to enjoy the lights, so after taking quite a lot of shots and hoping some would work, I joined Chris in simply standing and admiring.

When the display eventually faded somewhat we moved on. This time we stopped lower down by the water where we could get some reflections of the lights. In both places we stayed a good long while – Vidar never hurried us on this trip.

Green Aurora with van in foreground
The Northern Lights near Tromsø (taken by tour leader Vidar)

But again, eventually the lights faded, and we moved on, this time to the top of a small mountain. The Aurora was absent now, but the stars were fantastic, with no light pollution and a sky completely clear of clouds. Vidar distributed cups of hot chunky chicken soup and good crusty bread, followed by coffee and biscuits. We enjoyed these while standing around the back of the van and marvelling at the stars between mouthfuls.

Time to leave the Aurora, for now

Eventually though it was time to go, and we drove back through the silent countryside, passing just the occasional vehicle that had no doubt been out on a similar mission to our own. We finally got back to Tromsø at about 1.45 AM. We were very ready for bed (we had been up at 4.30 AM to catch our early flight) but very satisfied with our wonderful evening, during which we had at last seen the Northern Lights!

As it turned out, we were to see them twice more on this trip, but never again as brightly or as clearly as we had on the tour with Vidar.

I travelled to Tromsø in 2013

26 Comments

  • Forestwood

    Stunning photos Sarah and it is always a pleasure for me to read about Scandinavia and Iceland. It brings back happy memories. Funnily enough I was in Iceland in February/March some years back. Gullfoss was so very cold but not a cloud in the sky.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Sorry Amanda, this went into my spam folder (I have no idea why!) and I only just spotted it. Thanks so much for stopping by 🙂 We had one bright day in Iceland (not the day we went to Gullfoss however) but unfortunately even on that day it clouded over by the time it got dark, around 4.00 pm, so there was no chance of seeing the lights 🙁

      • Forestwood

        That was my experience. A cloudless sky but come evening, the clouds rolled in so not much in the way of Northern lights except when I stayed near the Blue Lagoon. Did you go there?

        • Sarah Wilkie

          We stopped briefly to see it on the way back to the airport but the weather was atrocious that day! I just took a few photos from the car. My husband got out and dashed over through the rain to grab one a bit closer, but that was it! I’ve been back to Iceland since (in 2018) and thought about going then but it was so expensive I decided on other ways to spend my money. I’ll have to post some takes and photos from that trip here some time!

  • Simone

    The aurora is such an amazing phenonema! I only saw it twice, both quite weak though, and both times from my garden. Once while living in Canada and one here in Sweden. Hope to see it so bright as you did one day!! So amazing! But I guess this means a visit to the north during the winter season some day 🙂
    Loved seeing your photos of Iceland! Many familiar places, but at the same time so different due to totally different weather conditions. Iceland is sure a photographers paradise!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Hi Simone – it must be amazing to be able to see the Aurora from your own garden, however faint! I’m pleased you enjoyed seeing my winter shots of Iceland – very different from your recent visit. Some time I’ll get around to posting here some of my photos from the VT meet there, which was in May, so a different season again. Whenever you go it’s a magical place for sure 🙂

  • Anna

    The lights really are an amazing phenomenon! I have always wanted to see them but the cold weather turns me off going! I like my holidays warm and toasty, a la 42c in Aqaba 😂😂😂

  • Easymalc

    The Northern Lights has to be on many people’s list of things to see, and whether you capture them photographically in the same way as you see them in real life is going to test the best of photographers. I’ve always wanted to see them and never have, but if I got photos like you’ve got here, I think I’d be more than happy..

  • TheRamblingWombat

    The Aurora (and Iceland) is high on my list of things to do. It is wonderful that you have been fortunate enough to see the lights and capture them so beautifully with your camera.

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