Q&A: Northern Lights Chase in Tromsø

by Diego Ferioli.

 

ABOUT THE NORTHERN LIGHTS IN TROMSØ

Are you planning a trip to Tromsø to see the Northern Lights this winter? Read the most frequently asked questions from our guests, and get a few tips for your vacation in the Northern Norway.

 

Q: Is it true that Tromsø is the best place in the world to see the Aurora?

A: Yes! Tromsø is located right in the middle of the so-called Aurora Oval, which means that we can see the Aurora even when the activity is low. Other places further away from the oval can only experience the Northern Lights when the activity is much higher. In case of a strong solar storm (KP7+), the Aurora will be visible at much more southerly locations than Tromsø such as South Scandinavia, Orkney, or Southern Canada/Northern USA, generally lower on the horizon towards the North. Here in Tromsø you don’t need to look North low on the horizon, because the Aurora is usually right above our heads, and can stretch from one corner of the sky to the next!

 

While we do have bad weather in Tromsø sometimes, it is not as extreme as in other places, such as in more weather-exposed places along the Norwegian coast, or places like Iceland. Tromsø has an average winter temperature of -4°C and it never gets as cold here as in Alaska, Canada or Siberia, and rarely as windy as in Iceland. Compared to Greenland and other Arctic lands, then, we have many roads leading to a huge variety of different places, that are not only beautiful, but also with different microclimates and special weather conditions. From the city to the Swedish and Finnish borders to the South and East we only have 2.5h driving time, and the average temperature there is -13°C, which means much colder but also dryer and more stable weather than on the coast.

 

Q: Can I see the Northern Lights in Tromsø city?

A: It’s not impossible, but it’s rare. Even when the weather is good in town, we always drive outside to find better locations, no light pollution, and the perfect natural background for our photo sessions. There are places just about 3km from the city centre that are dark enough and where the conditions are better to see the Aurora.

 

Q: Is it possible to see the Aurora with full moon?

A: Yes! The situation is very similar to bright nights in late summer and early autumn, when the sky is still not completely dark. A brighter sky means less contrast and especially weak lights become less evident. With strong Aurora, though, there is hardly any problem, on the contrary: the bright, cold light from a full moon is the best kind of natural light that we can have for our photo sessions! The moon has both its advantages and disadvantages, but the advantages are many and important ones. The best advantage for photographers is that the whole landscape is lit and therefore more beautiful, while on a dark night it will be less visible. Full moon also makes it possible to shoot with very low ISO, similar to a daylight photography setting, which means that our pictures will have a higher quality and definition. Conversely, on a very dark night without moon we will have to increase the ISO, which on a normal camera will give us more grainy, “noisy” pictures. It is generally easier to shoot Aurora portraits without full moon, but according to our experience, full moon is great, and makes it also more pleasant to stay outside.

 

Q: Is there a “best time of the year” for seeing the Aurora?

A: Yes and no. The Aurora Borealis is a natural phenomenon that takes place in the magnetosphere, ionosphere and atmosphere of the Earth, and does not depend on the time of the year, but only on solar activity. When the sun is active it’s releasing electrically charged material that eventually reaches the Earth, and when this interacts with the Earth’s magnetism we get Aurora activity. Aurora activity can be registered in those places within the so-called Auroral Oval, and the Oval is more prominent when our region is on the night side of the Earth, i.e. in wintertime. Within one winter, the Aurora activity goes more or less regularly up and down every 5-10 days, so staying in and around Tromsø for about a week is usually enough to witness the maximum level of activity in that given period.

Northern Lights Chase in Tromsø. 18.02.17. Diego Ferioli.
Northern Lights Chase in Tromsø. 18.02.17 Diego Ferioli.

Q: Is it impossible to see the Northern Lights in summer?

A: We do get strong Aurora activity during the summer months sometimes. In order to see it, however, it has to be completely dark, and even in the middle of the winter, when we don’t see the sun for two months, we have to wait until late in the evening to see it. Darkness is not a problem from October to March, and already September can be good enough. Seeing in April and August is very rare, as it is not completely dark yet during the best hours of the night, but not impossible. We run tours from October to March open for everyone, and can organize private tours in September as well. During May, June and July chances are non-existent.

 

Q: Is there a specific time of the night to see the Aurora? Is it possible to know exactly when the Aurora will appear?

A: No, it is impossible to know exactly when the Aurora will appear. Some smartphones apps give a short-term, hour by hour prediction, but our experience is that it’s neither accurate nor useful. When the activity is low or moderate, we can have Aurora any time from 7-8PM until about 1AM, and usually it reaches a maximum level of activity between 10PM and midnight; when there is strong activity, however, the Aurora becomes more unpredictable and schizophrenic, appearing at unusual times, coming and going, and “exploding” once or several times during the evening.

It’s important to remember that the northern light is not a punctual, one-time phenomenon, but a very complex one that can last for a full night and take many shapes and intensities. At a first glance, many of our first-time guests often do not understand that there is Aurora activity until the guide tells them so. When the activity is low, the northern light can be very pale and it can be easy to mistake it for a cloud, or it can be obscured by clouds, the moon or other factors. It only becomes more evident when the activity becomes more pronounced, or in case of cloudiness, when there is an opening in the clouds in exactly the same position as the Aurora. Do not forget that, regardless of the activity, we only see what the weather allows us to see!

 

 

CAMERA and PHOTOGRAPHIES

Q: Do I need a camera to see the Aurora?

A: Both yes and no! Our tours are primarily photo tours, which means that the main job of our guides, apart from deciding where to go, is to take photos of our guests (preferably with the Aurora in the background!), so if you do not have a camera you will still take some professional photos home. We do not charge for photos and if the Aurora is strong enough, we take an Aurora portrait of everyone, which we share via e-mail after the tour. Another important part of the guide’s job is to help our guests set their own cameras, if they have one. You don’t need a camera to see the Aurora, but you should consider three important things:

  1. Sometimes, only at the beginning or throughout the night, the Aurora might be too weak to be clearly visible with our bare eyes, so a camera helps, because the camera sensor is a lot more sensitive to weak light than our eyes. Humans have very poor night vision compared to other animals, such as cats or owls. It’s like going bird watching without binoculars – you can still see birds, but you will see much more with a little help from technology!
  2. On our tours, there is a strong focus on photography, which means that those who do not have a camera and are not interested in photography can sometimes think it’s boring to listen to detailed information about camera settings.
  3. While you don’t strictly need a camera, it’s definitely true that those who have a good camera will have a lot more fun on the tour, and will get 100% out of the experience. Everyone still gets professional photos though!

 

Q: Why is the Aurora only green on camera?

A: The Aurora is green, but to the first-time Aurora hunter, it seems to be never green enough! That’s because everyone’s expectations are often based on professional photos taken on exceptionally good nights, and the expectations can be very far from reality. Our eyes are not so sensitive to dim light in the dark, and that applies also to the Aurora. The green colour that you see through the camera or on photos is the real colour of the Aurora, it’s not a camera effect, but it’s not always easy to see it. Generally, the stronger the Aurora is, the more evident the green colour will be, while on camera it will always be green, even when the Aurora is very weak. That’s why a camera is important not only to take pictures home, but also to initially find the Aurora when activity is yet not strong enough. Strong Aurora often looks white, that’s because of the intensity and the sum of the different colours. The green colour is due to the interaction between solar plasma and low-altitude oxygen, so the green lights are those closest to us, about 80-200km above us, and in the foreground to the other colours. Other colours are red, blue, purple (a combination of red, blue and green), white and pink. All of these colours are visible only when the Aurora is very strong (KP4+), and are visible only on camera, except for pink. Still, pink is quite rare (on average once a month)! Just remember one thing: the colours are not everything!

 

Q: Which camera can I use? Should I buy a camera for my trip to Norway?

A: To take good photos home, you can use any camera where you can set the shutter speed manually, i.e. the camera should have an M-mode (manual). In the best case scenario, your camera will let you set everything manually, i.e. shutter speed, ISO, aperture, and focus. You can do that with al DLSR (most “bulky” Canon and Nikon cameras) and a manual mirrorless camera (Sony Alpha, Fujfilm, Leica, Panasonic, Olympus, etc.). The main difference between a “good” and a “bad” camera is whether you can take the lens off the camera body; if you can choose your lens, you are likely able to access all the settings necessary for night photography. Alternatively, you can also use much cheaper compact cameras, but beware that the latest smartphones on the market tend to have better camera features than most compact cameras on the market! If you don’t have any manual options, your best choice is looking for the Night Mode. GoPro Hero 4 and 5 have a night mode where you can set the shutter speed manually, and having a wide angle lens they do a very good job for their size and price range. If you only have a smartphone, the best option is to download a paying app for iPhone called Northern Lights Photo Taker which cost 0.99USD. Remember, though, that regardless of the kind of camera you own (but especially for good and expensive cameras!), a tripod is essential!

 

Q: Do I really need a tripod? Where can I get it in Tromsø?

A: Yes, you do! The reason is simple: we are taking long exposures, which very slow shutter speed up to 30sec. If your camera shakes during this time, even if you are trying your best not to shake it, it will, and it will ruin your picture. You will still have green light on your photo, but it will lack focus and detail. You can easily avoid this by purchasing a cheap tripod! For a compact camera (including GoPro and smartphones), you can use a light and inexpensive tripod, while a heavier camera definitely needs a heavier, sturdier one (especially in case of windy weather!). We do rent good tripods for 100NOK in our office prior to departure (not while on tour), so just ask our staff. Beware that you cannot buy tripods in Tromsø city centre, only rentals, and the nearest shop where you can buy one is in Jekta Centre, a big mall close to the Airport, about 15-20min drive from the centre.

 

Q: Can you shoot a video of the Aurora?

A: In order to shoot a video, you’ll need a professional video camera that can record at more than 12000 ISO. Anything below that will be completely dark. You can also use very powerful photo cameras such as the Sony A7Rii and A7Sii, but they have both pros and cons. We use Canon 6D for our tours, one of the best photo cameras on the market, which is great for photos but not for videos. We do not offer any video services, but sometimes we make a time lapse slideshow with our photos, and we publish it on our website. In order to make 1 minute video from a time lapse, you’ll need to process and stitch together over 500 photos, so it’s fun but it requires some time. We made a video this winter, watch it here. 

 

Q: How and when do we get our photos?

A: All the photos we take are edited by our guides and published with our watermark first on our Facebook page and Instagram. Within a few days you will have access to the photos on sharing site such as DropBox or GoogleDrive. We collect everyone’s e-mail addresses during the tour and send the link to you a few days after the tour. Our photos are included in the tour, and we cannot guarantee them in case of bad weather or weak Aurora. Pls. note that the photos will be available for a short time, so it is important that you download the pictures to your computer when you receive them from us.

 

Q: Do you take Aurora portraits on the tour?

A: Yes. If the weather allows it and the Aurora is visible we take Aurora portraits. It is our guests own responsibility to make sure the portrait is taken by the guide. He or she is usually not able to keep an overview of who has had their picture taken or not. Pls. not that if you pose for our guides, you automatically give them the authorization to publish photos of you (although most of the photos we have on Facebook and on our website are landscapes, not portraits). If you do not wish to appear on social media, you need to make this clear before or during the tour.

 

Northern Lights Chase in Tromsø. Aurora portrait. Diego Ferioli.
Aurora portrait. Diego Ferioli.

 

Q: Do you photoshop the Aurora in the background of photos on “bad nights”?

A: Absolutely not! We have strict ethical guidelines and we do not manipulate our photos in such a way. Our photo service is a complimentary one, we do not accept orders for photo manipulation. We do edit our photos with Photoshop Lightroom, but we never add the Aurora where there was none, we do not “paint the sky green” or anything of that sort. It is normal that the sky will look greener on photo than when you see the Aurora with your own eyes, that doesn’t depend on us but it’s a normal photographic effect due to the poor color sensitivity of our eyes in the dark.

 

GUIDING and TRANSPORTATION

Q: Does the guide speak other languages?

A: The guides in Arctic Guide Service all speak very good English, Norwegian, Spanish, Japanese, French, Italian and German. However, our Northern Light Chase is always in English for mixed groups, but you are very welcome to request a guide who will assist you in your language aside from the main guiding (i.e. guiding on board is in English, but once off the bus you can ask questions in the other languages he/she speaks). We are the oldest Northern Light operator in Tromsø, and we have some of the best and most experienced guides in the field. We can never guarantee 100% that a specific guide will be available on one specific night, but we will do our best to accommodate language requests. Private groups can of course request a private guide in any of our languages. On a big bus with more than 30 people we generally have two guides, who speak different languages.

 

Q: Can I go with a small group in a small bus?

A: That depends on the size of the group. If we have less than 15 people, we might go with a minibus, otherwise it’s most often one or more big buses. Most of the time the size of the bus makes little difference, as the sky is the same for everyone! In Tromsø there are now many Northern Lights operators, some using big vehicles and other small ones, and we tend to use different parking spots. There are places for big buses and places for small buses, and rarely a place where we want to go but cannot when we have a big bus! Small buses have the advantage of turning around quicker, but they don’t have an onboard toilet and often have to make 1h or even longer detour to get to the nearest toilet, which is often far away. Big buses stay much warmer, there is more space to sit, to place a bag and stretch one’s legs, and we even have wi-fi!

 

Q: Where are we driving tonight?

A: On our tours, there is only one person who decides where to go: our main guide, who calculates the itinerary based on the last weather forecast update released at 5PM, the Aurora forecast and works in a team with our drivers who know road conditions very well. Because we only do Northern Light Chase, it means that we often do not have a set itinerary: Our route changes depending on the weather and on first-hand information we get on the way, from our meteorologists and colleagues who happen to be elsewhere. According to our experience that’s the best way to see the Aurora! Other companies offer Base Camp tours, which are great in case of good weather and reliable forecast, but in many cases keeping on moving is the best way to success!

 

Q: Why do your tours last so long (6-7 hours)?

A: We run our tours in such a way to have the highest chances to see the Aurora within an acceptable time frame. The time we get back to town is not set, but it’s never later than 1:30AM. You can see the Aurora after 1AM, but usually that happens when the activity is very strong and sustained throughout the night, and that means that you’ll probably see it long before 1AM already. Generally, we are more likely to come back as late as 1:30AM when weather conditions are bad, and we have to drive to those places where the weather is better than in the city. The farthest place we go is 2,5h away from the city, which means that we have to drive for 5 hours to go there and back (sometimes more due to difficult road conditions), while when the weather is good we go to the most scenic places (fjords, valleys, beaches) about 30-60min away from the city.

 

Q: Is it possible to rent a car and go the Northern Lights in Tromsø by oneself?

A: Many of our customers have rental cars during their stay, which they often use during the day, and still prefer coming with us to avoid being driving in dark, snowy places without any experience driving in such conditions. We often see rental cars causing accidents, even without collision, being stuck in loose snow or in the ditch waiting for help. Just a simple wrong turn can cause you to wait for hours for a vehicle big enough to come and pull you out of a difficult situation, and it will cost you several thousand NOK even with a good insurance. Most Norwegians are members of a rescue organization, and pay an annual fee to have the security to be rescued to a small fee. We also see rental cars stopping to see the Lights in many places where it’s dangerous or forbidden. Unless you fill up a small car with at least 4 people, it’s always cheaper to join a bus tour, and for any tour leaving from Tromsø city centre transportation is always included.

Northern Lights in Tromsø. Diego Feriloi.
Northern Lights in Tromsø. Diego Feriloi.