A local’s input on the best time to see northern lights in Norway, the best places to see them & how to photograph it all
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Experiencing the northern lights, or Aurora Borealis, is magical and deserves a spot on everyone’s bucket list. I grew up in northern Norway watching them on a regular basis and I still get goosebumps whenever they appear. It’s just nothing like seeing the lights dance across the sky like in some kind of psychedelic musical.. Pure magic.
Now, I may be biased, but Norway is an amazing destination for those hunting for the northern lights. Our days up here are short in the winter, and one of the few perks that get us through those dark and depressive months are the chance of seeing the northern lights. (Another perk is the midnight sun in the summer, but we’ll get to that another time). If you want to hunt for the aurora you should know that the best time to see northern lights in Norway is in October, February and March. Why, you ask? Keep reading to learn everything you need to know about seeing the northern lights.
The Perfect Place To See The Northern Lights
The first thing you have to do when looking for the northern lights is finding the perfect place to see them. Want to hear a secret? There isn’t one. I see many travel bloggers inform their readers about “the perfect place to see the northern lights” and it honestly pisses me off. Some of those posts are misleading and give the impression that you’ll definitely get to see the lights if you choose this or that location.
The truth is that like any other natural phenomenon, the northern lights lives its own life and doesn’t really care about us weirdos down here who want to observe it. There simply are no guarantees you get to see them no matter how much you want to. HOWEVER, that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways you can increase your chances. How? With the choice of destination and choice of when you travel there. If you’ll allow me explain:
WHERE TO SEE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
It’s no coincidence that many people hunt for northern lights in Norway.
The Aurora Belt
If you didn’t know already, your best bet to see the lights is by traveling somewhere within the so-called aurora belt. Due to the scientific nature behind their existence, the northern lights occur most frequently in a belt-shaped area centered on the magnetic north pole. This aurora belt is huge and extends across Iceland, southern parts of Greenland, northern Canada, Alaska, the northern coast of Siberia and northern Scandinavia – including Norway.
Although I’m sure all of those arctic destinations are wonderful to visit in their own way, they aren’t all as approachable for the common traveler. Some of them are simply too darn cold, too hard or too expensive to reach. That may be some of the reasons why so many choose to chase the aurora in places like northern Norway or Iceland. Our coastal climate in this part of Europe is much more mild thanks to the Gulf Stream (thankyouthankyouthankyou), making a visit here a little less harsh than Siberia, for instance.
The Perfect Place.. For You
Since there are no guarantees you get to see northern lights, you should ideally spend your time and money on traveling to a destination within the aurora belt that you want to explore no matter what – northern lights or not. That way you wont be setting yourself up for too much disappointment in case you won’t get to see the lights. Do loads of research before booking anything and pick the perfect place for you. I can’t speak for the other arctic regions, but both Iceland and Norway have loads of other cool things to see and do in addition to chasing the northern lights.
Where To See Northern Lights In Norway
Although you sometimes can get lucky and see northern lights in southern cities like Oslo or Trondheim, those cases are quite rare and they are not the norm. Your best shot of seeing northern lights in Norway is by heading to north, above the arctic circle. I can personally recommend visiting Tromsø, Lofoten, Finnmark, Narvik, Svalbard, Vesterålen, Senja, Hamarøy and Bodø for great outdoor experiences and (hopefully) seeing the northern lights. Tromsø is without a doubt the ‘easiest’ Norwegian aurora destination as they have a ton of tours available for their visitors. The other cities and regions have fallen a bit behind in the race, including my hometown Bodø (sorry guys). On the other hand these less known destinations are better alternatives if you’re looking for more “off the beaten path” locations in your hunt for northern lights in Norway.
THE BEST TIME TO SEE NORTHERN LIGHTS IN NORWAY
Although there will never be a guarantee you get to see northern lights in Norway, there are some precautions you can take to increase your chances.
Choose The Best Months To Visit
The northern lights are active all year round, but since the skies have to be dark in order for the human eye to actually see them, choosing the right time to visit your destination of choice is extremely important. Since the arctic have pretty much 24 hour daylight in the summer months you should schedule your arctic trip to the darker months. The exact timing varies a little from place to place, but it typically means from late September to mid April. Historically speaking, the absolute best time to see northern lights in Norway is in October, February and March.
Find A Clear Day (If Possible)
In order to see northern lights in Norway the sky will have to be somewhat clear, so that no clouds stand between you and the aurora (literally). Make sure you pay close attention to the weather forecast once you’ve arrived at your arctic destination, and pick a clear day to go hunting for northern lights. I recommend keeping a flexible schedule if possible. The weather changes fast in this part of the arctic, so a clear day can suddenly get super cloudy, and vice versa. The upside is that there is always hope of seeing northern lights, no matter if the weather forecast of your trip looks hopeless to begin with. Experience also shows that the northern lights shine most often and strongest a few hours before and after midnight, so don’t go to bed too early.
Track The Solar Activity On Your Trip
There has to be a certain level of solar activity to see northern lights in Norway. The northern lights are influenced by solar activity, and strong solar winds will intensify the northern lights, thus increasing your chances of seeing them. This process is obviously out of human control, but you can contribute by tracking the solar activity on your trip.
There are several so-called aurora forecasts out there that help you predict your odds of observing the aurora in your location, like this website. I recommend the app My Aurora Forecast & Alerts (iOS / Android) which has real-time aurora information and much more. For those going to northern Norway I recommend Norway-Lights.com which provides aurora forecasts & weather forecasts at the same time for many popular destinations in the region.
Find A Great Spot To Enjoy The Show
This means getting away from any disturbing light pollution, like lights from cities or towns. Although city lights aren’t a major problem in northern Norway, I still recommend you find the most secluded spot possible at your destination of choice. Any light pollution may ruin the experience, especially if the aurora is weak, so why risk it. And don’t be afraid to ask locals if you’re uncertain of where to go.
Cities like Bodø or Tromsø in Norway are a larger however, so get out of the city centre to increase your chances of seeing the northern lights. You can get lucky and see them right in the city centre but making an effort to get out of town often pays off. The easiest thing is to rent a car on a clear night, or booking a northern lights tour.
Booking A Northern Lights Tour In Norway:
Is It Necessary?
There are a ton of amazing northern lights tours in Norway to choose from. But are they necessary? Since this is a question I get regularly I thought I would elaborate.
Is A Northern Lights Tour Necessary?
The short answer here is no. All you need in order to see the northern lights is a dark and clear sky and a good dose of luck, A.K.A. some solar activity. No tour on the planet can fight the laws of physics and guarantee a sighting of the aurora, nor do they claim to, so you can have an incredible northern lights experience without booking a tour. Take a local bus or rent a car and drive away from the light pollution – create your own adventure. Hey, you might not even have to leave town: If the lights are strong enough you can even see them from the middle of a city.
Why You Should Book A Tour Anyways
What a tour can do, however, is make the entire process easier and less stressful on you. They’ll take you to a great location with beautiful views and less light pollution, so you wont have to worry about renting a car and driving on slippery winter roads yourself. Tour operators have a ton of knowledge they love to share, and they will help you stay warm in the freezing arctic night. They will also help you out with your camera settings, or even take photos on your behalf. Booking a tour with local experts can truly lift your experience to the next level.
The best part about booking a northern lights tour in Norway is that it can help you get an exciting experience while looking for the aurora. That way you’ll have a great night regardless, and the potential disappointment of not seeing the lights will be smaller. Things to do while looking for the aurora includes enjoying a cozy campfire, sailing, reindeer sledding, a 2-day dog sled adventure, a cable car ride, spending the night in an ice dome, hanging out with 300 huskies, or reindeer feeding & enjoying a traditional Sami dinner.
How To Photograph The Northern Lights
The pictures in this post were all taken by my brother and I at our cabin in Hamarøy, Norway. As we were celebrating Christmas the northern lights suddenly appeared in the sky, creating an insane light show for us. I had never seen them that strong before and it was an incredible sight even for us who grew up watching the lights frequently. We threw on warm clothes, grabbed our DSLRs and ran down to the shore, having the best time photographing it all before it suddenly stopped an hour later.
Now, I’m no expert, but that is kind of the point: You don’t need to be an expert to capture the northern lights successfully. It’s not as hard as you think as long as you’re prepared for it. I’ve only tried it a couple of times in my life, but we still managed to get these photos the first time we really tried.
My 9 Best Tips On Photographing The Northern Lights:
1. Wear Warm Clothes And Shoes
Trust me, you won’t last long if you don’t dress appropriately. I recommend thermals, wool socks, a hat, gloves and warm and waterproof winter boots. Read the instructions from your tour operator if you’re doing a northern lights tour. Some of them include clothing, but not all.
2. Choose The Right Camera Gear
For high quality pictures you should use a camera with manual settings and interchangeable lenses. Use your lens with the largest possible aperture (lowest possible f-number), preferably f/1.4 og f/1.8. A wide angle lens with a large aperture gives you the best of both worlds!
3. Bring Extra Batteries
Batteries don’t do well in the cold so make sure you bring extra ones. Remember to charge them all prior to your adventure. Keep them warm inside your clothes whenever you’re not using them.
4. Shoot In RAW Format
If possible, shoot in RAW format. It stores so much more information than a jpeg, which comes in handy when shooting in dark surroundings like this.
5. Bring A Large Enough Memory Card
Trust me, you’ll want to bring a large enough memory card. Especially if you’re shooting in RAW, those files are huuuge.
6. Put The Camera On Manual Mode
To get the best shots of the northern lights you need to put your camera on manual mode. Try these settings to begin with: ISO should be at 100-400, exposure time should be long (30 seconds or more), choose the largest aperture available (the lowest possible f-number), put on manual focus and set it to “infinity”. Play around with the settings as you go and find your personal style.
7. Avoid Any Movement
Get sharp images and avoid movement by using a tripod and a remote control shutter. Many cameras can also be controlled by an app but I wouldn’t depend on a smart phone or an app in the cold.
8. Don’t Overexpose Your Photos
That is photography lingo for not making your photos too bright. The brightest part of the aurora gets ‘burnt out’ easily that way, which means no information will be available in this area of the photo, making it impossible to repair even in post-production. I prefer to underexpose the photos instead. That way you keep more information in the photo and you can bring back the areas that you think are too dark by bringing up the exposure and shadows of the RAW file in Lightroom after. (You don’t have to do this but it can increase the quality significantly.)
9. Don’t Forget The Most Important Thing
Photographing the northern lights can be such much fun, but please don’t forget to truly enjoy the show when it happens. Trust me. You do not want to experience the entire adventure through your camera lens. If you want cool photos without the stress you can book a northern lights photography tour like the ones below:
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I hope you enjoyed reading my input on the best time to see northern lights in Norway, the best places to see them & how to photograph it all. Hopefully you’ll get to experience the aurora on your arctic adventure, fingers crossed!