Hunting Aurora Borealis : a Cookbook

I wrote this guide after a journey to Tromsø, Norway. My dream was to see Aurora Borealis, or Nothern Lights, but the price of the proposed Nothern Light Chase excursions (where local guides take you by bus to secret spots to see them) was prohibitely high; I was sure you could see them by yourself. Funny thing, at first we didn't find many information on how to bypass those organized tours ;)

You'll find here the techniques and the spots near Tromsø to see some Auroras without the tours.

Animated sequence of photos taken near Tromsø

 

We booked a car at the airport, and went on the hunt. The first two days were completely unsuccessful : even with a clear sky, we could not catch any glimpse of a green moving light.

A key discovery. After a few days of frustration, we realized that bad luck was not the only factor. While talking with a local waitress, we were told that northern lights are similar to rainbows : under the right meteorological conditions, it is rather common to see them. We also learnt that spotting those lights is best done using a DSLR (a Reflex camera), a totally new information! As surprising as it may seem, we started seeing Auroras right after that :)

If you're on this hunt yourself, good luck !

 

Structure of this guide. This is a cookbook, a step-by-step guide, rather than an verbose article. Tips on the hunt are organized in chapters and sorted by importance.

Step 1 : The obvious

Step 2 : The kinda-obvious

Step 3 : The non-obvious, black-magic part

Step 5 : ???

Step 6 : Profit

You definitely do not need to use the organized trips, which are expensive and constraining; while we lost two first days not really knowing what to do, and probably missed a few auroras, the two last days were a success. Plus, it seems much more fun to be hunting on your own, rather than following the bus guide surrounded by a crowd of noisy tourists (we actually followed a bus with the car once, that was fun).

Step 7 : Additional information

7.1. Camera tuning

Setting Value
Focus Manual (Automatic doesn't work with low contrast scenes anyway)
Focus Point Infinity (remote objects are sharp, close ones are blurry)
Vibration Reduction (VR) Off (not needed on a tripod)
Aperture Biggest aperture (2.8", 3.5")
ISO 800 (maybe 1600 but not higher to avoid noise)
Exposure time around 5-10sec, to be tuned on the spot

7.2. How a weak aurora looks like to the human eye

The left column shows degraded pictures, trying to mimic what I saw.

Human eye DSLR

7.3. Spots were we saw auroras

This is our lucky spot, we saw beautiful ones two days in a row at KP1/KP0.

 

This is one of the spots were the Nothern Light Chase buses go. The scenery is nice, but expect a few buses of people waiting (also they all say "ahhhh" when one arrive, which might or might not be a good thing)

 

This is known to be a really nice spot (the Norvegian waitress pointed us there), but we didn't see anything.

Generally speaking, the island of Grøtfjord has really nice spots for aurora photography.

Ludovic Barman
Ludovic Barman
written on :
22 / 02 / 2016