FAQs: Northern Lights and winter in Tromsø

Is it true that Tromsø is one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights?

Yes! Tromsø is located right in the middle of the so-called Aurora Oval, which means that we can see the northern lights even when the activity is low. The Aurora oval actually stretched along the coast of Northern Norway, from Lofoten towards the North Cape. This means that Northern Norway is perfectly located to observe the northern lights. 

Photo: Gioel Foschi

When can we see the northern lights? 

In order to see the northern lights you need dark nights, which is never really a problem from October to late March. So this is normally the best period to experience the northern lights, especially during polar nights (mid-November to January) where the sun does not rise above the horizon and we have many hours of favourable conditions for seeing the northern lights.  Northern lights can also be visible during late nights as early as August/September and as late as the beginning of April. 

Is there a “best time of the year” for seeing the northern lights?

No, the northern lights are a natural phenomenon and do not depend on the time of the year, but only on solar activity. Within one winter, the northern lights activity goes more or less regularly up and down every 5-10 days, so if you stay for a week it is usually enough time to witness the maximum level of activity in that given period.

Is there a specific time of the night to see the northern lights? Is it possible to know exactly when the northern lights will appear?

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. Most often the northern lights can be seen after 18:00 in the afternoon. Do not forget that, regardless of the activity, we only see what the weather allows us to see! 

Can you see as vivid and colorful northern lights like you see in photos and videos?

When it comes to the northern lights a camera “sees” much more than the human eye. Because photos are taken with long exposure the colors of the northern lights are often more exaggerated than what you can see in reality. Most often you can certainly see good northern lights shows in green colors. But with decent solar activity you can also see the northern lights illuminate the sky in all its colors with your bare eyes. So the answer to the questions is yes, but not always. Sometimes you can experience it like in the photos, sometimes you can see it more vividly through a camera. 

How to photograph the Northern Lights?

Minimum requirements to capture the northern lights is a camera with manual mode functionality and a tripod. With the manual mode use these general camera settings for photographing the Northern Lights, play around and experiment: 

  1. To get sharp photos you should start with setting the lens focus to infinity. 
  2. Set your ISO between 800 and 3200. Note that higher ISO will cause more noise in the photos. 
  3. Set the aperture between f/2.8 and f/4. Preferably as low as possible to allow more light in the camera lense. 
  4. Run the shutter speed between 15 and 30 seconds. Or even lower when the activity is really strong. A slow shutter speed allows more light into the camera sensor. 
  5. Mount your camera on a tripod and use a remote control or timer to release the shutter.

PS! Batteries tend to run low in cold conditions, so it can be handy to bring extra batteries for your camera and keep them close to your body. 

Photo: Gioel Foschi

Can you take pictures of the northern lights with your phone? 

The results will not be the same, but it is possible to capture a decent northern lights photo with only your phone camera. Most of the latest generation of smartphones comes with manual mode within the camera app, these features allow you to take photos with night mode and slow shutter speed for long exposure photos. For those who don't have these settings, they can get a little help by using the app Northern Lights photo taker or Slow shutter speed for better results. 

How cold does it get in Tromsø during winter?

The gulf stream blesses us with a relatively mild climate given that Tromsø is located so high up north. The winter climate is very variable and during the winter months from October to March the average temperature ranges from +4.0°C to -5.0°C. The coldest period is normally in January and February where you can experience temperatures drop down to  -10°C - 15°C.

What to wear and what to bring for winter in Tromsø? 

The keywords for packing your gear should be warm, wind and waterproof. It is recommended that you wear several layers of clothing to make it easier for you to regulate the temperature by either adding or removing a layer. You should wear a warm base layer closest to your skin, preferably in wool, and keep adding layers of sweaters and jackets. Wool insulates and will keep you warm. 

Other essential items you should bring are winter boots, a warm hat, scarf, gloves or mittens. Keep in mind that mittens tend to be warmer than gloves, with mittens your fingers will generate more heat and warm up the shared air inside to keep your hands warm. Woollen socks could also come in handy. 

If you do not have any proper winter clothing you can always rent clothing packages, jackets, pants, warm suits and winter boots at Tromsø Outdoor.