Tuesday, November 25, 2014
Having just returned from Tromso, Norway, I can tell you that the lights are not nearly as elusive as you may think. In a three night stay we managed nice photos every night with no prior experience or a guide. That said, here are a few tips to help you along:
1) Geography matters. You will ideally be in a location, like Tromso, that is in the belt of northern light activity.
2) Clouds block the lights. There are no northern lights under the clouds. You need clear skies. Once you have tackled the geography issue, you need to find clear skies. Assuming you don't already have them, you need to travel to a location that does. Tromso is a bit of a cloud magnet, but the islands (Sommaroy) nearby or the Lyngen Alps (also nearby) are typically more cloud-free.
A little advance research on normal weather in the area you're considering will go a long way in assisting your accessibility to clear skies.
3) Light pollution is an obstacle. While there may be displays which are sufficiently bright to be seen even with the interference of city lights, I'd say they are more rare and not to be counted upon. If you can see tons of stars and there are virtually no competing light sources, you're in a good viewing spot. In most places sufficiently north to see the lights, you probably won't have to drive long to have adequate darkness.
4) Time of day. Each zone has their optimal viewing hours. That said, they are quoted as after 6pm for Tromso. Yet we had a killer viewing session at 3:30pm (already dark) near the island of Sommaroy, just outside Tromso. To see this display required me looking at the sky as we left a restaurant, and drive back toward Tromso until we had dark skies. Pretty simple. The photo at the top of the page came from that session.
5) Luck is mighty handy. In the course of a few minutes the lights can go from barely noticeable, to stunning, to nothing. As a result, you need to be "in the game" to optimize your chances. Any number of outdoor activities can accommodate this, as can simply having a drive and having an occasional glance at the sky (while parked).
6) Have other activities to enjoy in an area will make a stay much more fun. In addition, it takes some of the pressure off seeing the lights. We were quite fortunate to see them every evening, but if we hadn't seen them at all, we enjoyed our day trips photographing the area in the daylight enough to justify our trip.
7) If it's not already obvious, you need to rent a car, unless you're going to hire a guide. Having a car gives you tons of flexibility as well as an opportunity to do other exploring as well.
Getting a guide is basically outsourcing the transport and geography work. But bear in mind...there are no magic spots. This is not fishing. However, if you aren't comfortable driving in an unfamiliar place, or trying to track down clear skies, you may feel warranted in paying to have someone help you.
Bonus tip: If you plan on photographing the lights you will need a tripod (and mountable camera). Ideally one that can be weighted down in case conditions are windy.
For anyone wanting more in-depth information, here's a link to a resource I used: http://www.aurora-service.eu/aurora-school/best-place-to-see-the-northern-lights/
Good luck. It is a pretty amazing experience. Enjoy.