Chasing the Northern Lights in Tromsø, Norway

My primary reason for traveling to dark Norway in late December was to see the Northern Lights in Tromsø. Sure, there are other winter activities in northern Norway around Christmastime, but the Polar Night means the sun never pokes above the horizon, so even midday looks like twilight. The Northern Lights are the main attraction when there is so much darkness.

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On my second day in Tromsø, the weather seemed like it was going to be comparatively clear. I went to the tourist information center to figure out how best to see the Northern Lights. Several tour companies offer different Northern Lights tours from Tromsø. There are plenty of reviews of all of them online. Do your due diligence and find the one that is right for you. Some of the tours go to a fixed camp location, where you sit around a campfire with a meal. This might be fine on a perfectly clear night, but if that location is cloudy, you’ll miss out. Other tours take small or large buses of visitors on a hunt for the Aurora Borealis.

I opted for a Northern Lights minibus tour through a company called Tromsø Safari. They had great reviews on TripAdvisorimage 5616389 12525324 - Chasing the Northern Lights in Tromsø, Norway, and it seemed like exactly the sort of tour I wanted to do to make sure I got to see the Northern Lights. The tour would have a maximum of 15 people, so it wouldn’t be a massive group. They also travel all the way to Finland if necessary in order to see the Aurora.

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Our tour met in the lobby of the Radisson Blu hotel along the Tromsø waterfront at 7pm. Several other tour groups also leave from this same location, so make sure you get on the right one. While I waited, I looked at the photo instructions that Tromsø Safari helpfully provides before the tour.

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Ilsa, our guide for the night met us and led us to the minivan. We were the last group to chase the Northern Lights in Tromsø that night, which is actually a good thing. All of the tour leaders are in constant contact with each other throughout the night, telling each other which areas have good weather & where in the sky the lights can be seen. You are at the mercy of weather & space for your entire tour, so there is always the potential that you won’t get to see anything. While it is possible to see the Northern Lights in Tromsø itself when the aurora is strong, you really want to get away from any city lights.

As we began our long drive to the east, Ilsa told us about the Northern Lights. The most simple explanation of the aurora is that charged particles in the upper atmosphere move & change, thus emitting light. For the full scientific explanation, go here. The most common green colors are formed by oxygen molecules around 100km above the Earth. At lower altitudes, nitrogen emits pink & purple light. The strength of this show is determined by changes in the solar wind, so the strongest solar activity can result in an amazing show in the northern skies.

We drove for about an hour and 40 minutes to a place known by locals for its rain shadow. This area behind a tall mountain range is the driest place in northern Norway, thus it is more likely to be cloudless. A colleague of Ilsa had said there was activity in this area, near Skibotn. However, when we arrived, the sky was cloudy again, so we continued heading east toward Finland.

Just 500m from the Finnish border, along the road to the town of Kilpisjärvi, we made another stop. The sky was clear, so we headed into a field to get a bit more darkness and look to the skies to views of the Northern Lights. Up above us, there were faint smudges of white. This is the aurora. The activity wasn’t strong, thus the colors were not visible to the naked eye. I was able to pick up a little bit on my camera.

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We stayed there for about 30 minutes. Then it got cloudy again, so we started heading back toward Tromsø in search of more of the Northern Lights above Norway.

Within minutes, the skies turned clear again. Pulling off to the side of the road, we could see a sky filled with stars. With the minibus’ lights turned off and no other cars on the road at the moment, there were thousands and thousands of stars above us. In addition to searching for the aurora, a Northern Lights tour also makes for amazing stargazing when the skies are clear. You can use an app to let you learn about what you can see.

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Soon it became clear that the Northern Lights were visible as well. We ended up staying here for the rest of our tour. Those who had come with decent cameras like I did used tripods to take photos of the show. I had brought my tripod with me so I didn’t have to share with anyone. With the naked eye, the Northern Lights were still just white streaks on this fairly quiet night. I asked our tour guide how the aurora compared with usual nights. She said that they were somewhat below average.

It was with my camera that the Northern Lights truly came to life. While you of course will want to gaze to the heavens, this is the one time that staring at an electronic screen is not necessarily a bad thing!

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Most of the time, I find a camera can’t quite capture what I see with the naked eye. Here, a long exposure allows more of the colorful light to be captured. Essentially, you want to overexpose each shot with the widest aperture possible. Use either a remote or a timer so you don’t shake the camera by pressing any buttons. In a situation like this, you’ll have some time to mess with the settings to find what looks best, but research what you can beforehand.

There are lots of articles out there with full photography tips on shooting the Northern Lights. Read up on them and learn your camera’s settings. In my case, I was using my travel lens, a Fujinon XF 18-135mm 3.5-5.6 R LM OIS WR. For the most part, I love what this lens can do since it’s so versatile, but it wasn’t the best for shooting the Northern Lights. Longer exposures lead to more star trails, thanks to the Earth’s constant rotation, but I had no choice. A wide angle lens with a wider aperture would have helped, but the lack of a very bright aurora in my photos was also a result of the night’s show being a somewhat below average.

It might sound dumb to travel all that way to see the Northern Lights in Tromsø only to then spend time looking at a screen, but it really does help you see them better. There were many people on our tour who did not have cameras with them. They seemed somewhat disappointed by the tour, since they weren’t able to really see any colors. Those of us who had decent mirrorless or DSLR cameras were in awe, as we could truly see their magnificence. On a night with high solar activity, this is not necessary, but set yourself up with as many options as possible so you aren’t disappointed.

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We must have been stopped in this spot for a couple of hours. I lost track of time since I was looking at and photographing the Northern Lights. Our tour guide also took photos of everyone, which was helpful, since there are some lighting tricks to get both a person & the lights in a photo. We also had hot chocolate and a snack.

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Finally, it was time to head back to Tromsø. We left our spot around 11:30 and got back around 1:30am. It was a long night, but it was worth it. It was the one time where my difficulties in getting over jet lag so far north in December came in handy, as I was still on Pacific time.

This is the map of the area we covered, mostly along highway E8.

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Even though the aurora strength wasn’t particularly great on the night I went to see the Northern Lights in Tromsø, I still finally got to see them, so I was happy. I learned a few tips along the way that might help if you want to go chase the Northern Lights yourself.

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My tips for seeing the Northern Lights in Tromsø:

  • Go with a tour. Yes, you could rent a car and go hunt for the Northern Lights yourself. On a clear night with a strong aurora, it wouldn’t be too hard to find them. But it’s good to not have to drive yourself around, plus their local expertise and connections will give you a much better chance of spotting them.
  • Bring a good camera. The people on the tour who didn’t have cameras weren’t as impressed.
  • Learn how to use your camera’s settings beforehand. If you’re not used to shooting manually, you’ll definitely want to figure out your settings. Even those who shoot manually on a regular basis will find themselves using settings they may not have used before.
  • Download a stargazing app on your phone. An app like Google Sky Map or SkyView will show you details of everything in the sky above you. You can identify constellations, stars, and planets even if the Northern Lights aren’t visible.
  • Dress warmly. You’re above the Arctic Circle, so it’s cold all year round. I was lucky when I was chasing the Northern Lights in Tromsø. The temperatures in the city were above freezing, which is insane for late December. Climate change might be destroying the planet, but at least it meant that even inland, temperatures were not unbearable. That said, be ready for some very cold weather. Even if it’s as warm as it was when I visited, you’ll still want a good coat, thermal underwear, and good, thick or double socks. Pants & shoes/boots that are appropriate for the snow are also helpful, as you might find yourself heading into some snowy fields.

Even though the strength of Northern Lights wasn’t at its brightest (somewhat frustratingly, they would get stronger on other nights later in my trip, so strong that I could even see the Northern Lights in Tromsø itself), seeing and photographing the aurora borealis was an experience I will never forget.

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