You’ve probably heard about the epic phenomenon called the northern lights (Aurora Borealis), but you never quite know what to expect when you do get the chance to see it for yourself. I don’t know if everyone shares a similar experience but I thought I’d share mine. It’s not actually as straightforward an experience as I imagined.
White Christmas 2016
I went to Lapland, the Tromso (Norway) part, over Christmas to experience a proper white Christmas, and to see Santa, of course. We even rented a luxury cabin by the lake from the Malangen Resort so that we have our own kitchen, a living room and a view we can stare at for hours!
In true planner fashion, we put a little itinerary together to make the most of our snowy adventure. And of course, northern lights watching was part of it, along with husky sledding, snowmobiling, snowshoe forest walking, fun sledding and all the other must-experience bits such as cooking by the campfire and building a snowman by an almost pitch black campsite in a snow blizzard!
Tips for Lapland trip planning
All good fun and most importantly, something different from our routine, convenient city life. Before I move on to talk about my northern lights experience, here are three tips for those of you who are planning a similar trip:
- Go with someone. It’s more fun having an activity partner whom you can share stories, embarrassment and food.
- Check the weather and the amount of daylight you’ll get when you’re there and pack accordingly. I was a little upset when I was told that there will be no actual sunlight throughout my trip. Rookie mistake! I did get use to it through. It’s not that bad.
- Fleecy thermal inner layer (from head to toe) is the way to go – you’ll appreciate the warmth and toastiness when you’re out in the cold.
Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis
Now, the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) – I was given a pretty lengthy explanation of the phenomenon by the locals but according to Discover the World, it’s the array of light that appears when solar wind particles collide with air molecules in the earth’s atmosphere, transferring their energy into light. Simple enough definition.
This nature’s light show is not something you see everyday, even for the locals. For those of us from the southern part of the hemisphere, it might be a once in a lifetime thing. So when it’s forecasted to make an appearance that night, you’d want to be in the best possible position (somewhere with the least light pollution), with your camera set up, equipped with warm clothing and some sustenance to keep you going, because it might be a long night.
Our journey started at 9pm. We venture up the hill, in the snow, at -15 degrees, in almost complete darkness (so that our eyes get used to the surroundings and to minimise light pollution). After a good 25 minutes hike, we arrived at the campsite. There’s a campfire and some hot chocolate going to keep us warm.
And then it was straight down to business. I stumbled in the thick snow to find the perfect spot to set up my new tripod and adjust my camera settings. Believe me, it is very tricky doing all that for the first time in the dark and bloody cold condition. After that, we waited, patiently… Taking in the silence and cold air. Enjoying the view of the night sky filled with stars under nothing but the flickering light of the campfire from a distance.
About 45 minutes later, we saw movements in the sky. Wave of faint light moving across the dark canvas. Together with the few other campers, we were cheering with excitement! Our local guide said “Wait till you see the photos”, which reminded me, START SHOOTING!!! It’s a challenge pointing at what seemed like a blank, dark space, with nothing to focus on. I was completely out of my depth! And then I learned, VERY quickly, a few rules around taking pictures of the Aurora.
Taking pictures of the northern light
I don’t have a super camera or any professional experience. Just a lot of interest and passion for good photos. Here’s what I’ve learned:
- Steady tripod is a MUST. Preferably something which allows a lot of flexibility and easy adjustments of your shooting angle. I went for a Vanguard and from my amateur perspective, it’s pretty good.
- Lens: Wide angle lens. I used my Samsung kit lense (18 – 55mm).
- Aperture: As low as your camera will go. F3.2 to F4.5 seems to work for me.
- ISO: Needs to be adjusted accordingly. I alternated between 800 to 1600.
- White balance: Set it to “sunlight”. It brings out the colours of the Aurora. A very handy tip.
- Shutter speed: Needs to be adjusted accordingly too. I shot between 15 to 20 seconds.
- Set to manual focus. Range infinity (if available).
Apart from that, it’s just patience. You never know when it will appear. So be prepared to wait in the cold.
All in all, it’s an epic experience. The breathtakingly beautiful scenery and the simpler, calmer way of living made me reflect on my own daily routine and priorities in life. I guess it’s experiences like this that we’ll remember when we look back years down the line; not the number of extra hours spent in the office, the targets and deadlines we managed to meet, nor the number of conflicts we resolved. A sense of professional pride is important but more importantly is a sense of perspective.
I’m glad that my 2016 ended on a high.