Chasing the Northern Lights

Northern Lights by Ngaire Ackerley

It was never going to be easy. Some things you can’t plan for. Like when I decided to go see Prague the second time to try capture it covered in snow. I did not see a flake of snow on the city and lost that love I had for the city from the first time I visited on St. Patricks day of 2008… but that’s a different tale. This one is about those swirly colourful colours that some see in the northern hemisphere if they are lucky.

The first time I tried to capture the Northern Lights or Aurora Borealis as they are called, I thought I was set. Tripod, camera, cheap travel deal including a Northern Lights tour – in Iceland. I’d never even considered Iceland before and with this cheap deal it sounded like a really unique cool trip. So the problem with these tours can be not doing the research. On the one evening we had booked there was a massive bus load of people all piling out into the snow to capture the green swirly lights in the sky off and on as we drove around in the dark of night.

Iceland - Blue Lagoon. Copyright Ngaire Ackerley

Blue Lagoon in Iceland

Did I see the lights? Yes… briefly. By the time I got out of the bus and set up my tripod I saw them long enough to capture a completely different colour photograph before they disappeared. I pride myself on my travel photography. I didn’t get proper proof of seeing the Northern Lights. I got a red smudge on black. On the positive side, I made up for it by going snowmobiling on a glacier and relaxing in the Blue Lagoon.

Okay, so having seen the mistake of returning to the same place in the hope of a change in weather when I went to Prague the second time, I decided to opt for a different location when I tried to capture the Northern Lights again. This brings me to my recent trip to Tromso, Norway. This time I did my research. As far north as I could fly into, small tours, one of which gave you all the photography knowledge you could need to capture the right colour of the lights, one of the best winters for Northern Light activity, near the new moon and not far off the spring equinox. I thought I had it sorted. I was going to see the Aurora Borealis in all their bright and glorious colours.

No one warned me how much it snows in the Arctic Circle and how bad February and March can be weather-wise. I probably should have asked someone prior to the night before I flew out. Hindsight is a beautiful thing.

Snowy hill in Tromso

Snowy hill in Tromso that was our downfall

My first experience with the snow in Tromso is an entertaining one. Imagine a pair of Aussie and Kiwi girls, one with a large backpack and one with a heavy suitcase filled with 15kg of clothes for the weather (I’m sad to admit to being the one with the suitcase, but there was no way I was going to freeze given the blizzard warning I received the night before). These two girls get dropped off a bus at the bottom of a hill covered in snow; the hotel they are staying at is just up over the hill. The question is do they take the road or traipse up over the hill of snow? Without a second thought we began our journey up the hill of snow. While I was not the first to fall, I have no idea how my suitcase or me for the matter would have achieved this feat had it not been for a young Norwegian jogger who came to the rescue when we reached halfway. Just as he took my suitcase I face planted flat into the snow. I had to laugh; I was covered tip to toe in snow and was trying to walk up an ice path that was below the snow. A few more face plants for both my friend and I and a helping hand from the nice Norwegian and we eventually got to the top of the hill.

Less be said we didn’t try that again.

However, this tale is about the lights, the purpose of the trip.

After a few more dramas (it’s all part of the experience) and another two friends joining us, we ventured on our first tour, a photography-focused one, where we learnt all the necessary camera settings. There was not going to be a red smudge repeat on this trip! Despite the -12 degrees outside I was layered up looking like an Eskimo/Teletubbie and determined to see the lights. We waited on a lake with mountain ranges all around us and sure enough spots of lighter clouds came out, and my camera captured the greenness in these clouds even if it didn’t really look green to me. So this time I didn’t feel I properly ‘saw’ the lights. I wanted the combination of seeing and photographing them at once!

Luckily, there was the next night and another small tour. We drove and drove and drove some more. It was snowing a blizzard and I was getting so disappointed. But this tour wasn’t without its excitement at all. Turns out the van that we were in was hired for that night and had no special wheels or shovel for the snow. So when we stopped, it got stuck in the snow. Sure enough in true Norwegian style a tractor saved the night and pulled the van out of the snow. Driving further on, the clouds finally parted and then the show began. Pale green lights bursting out of the darkness moving overhead, spreading across the sky, then twisting and turning into curtains. Incredible and one of those moments that I’ll never forget.

This trip showed me that it is worth trying again when certain travels don’t work out the first time the way that you had hoped. No doubt there will be lumps in the road to get over, but the experience can be amazing and truly rewarding.

Though I didn’t capture a timelapse, I did put my photographs into a video below to share. If you’d like to see more of my photographs of Norway check out the Norway and Northern Lights gallery on my website here »

If you want to know more about how to photograph the northern lights I wrote a blog post detailing all the specifics so that you don’t get a red smudge – check out the post ‘Photographing the Northern Lights’ »

Northern Lights Photography from Ngaire Ackerley on Vimeo.