They danced and shimmered above us in a complex, choreographed sequence that immediately enthralled. They teased and tantalised, constantly shifting. And, as quickly as they appeared, they could dim and disappear. A marvel of nature so unique and awe-inspiring that they leave you with a little bit of magic to carry away in your heart.
For centuries the Northern Lights have been revered. We had heard many a story describing their beauty but we just had to see for ourselves.
Driving up the Norwegian coast with the possibility of seeing these magical lights for the first time sure was something to be excited about. Here we were, on the cusp of the polar circle, about to enter the ‘northern lights hot zone’.
I had read my fair share of articles on the northern lights and was certainly left with the impression that seeing them is a chance occasion. You can have the textbook weather conditions and still not get to see those dancing beauties. This wasn’t the reason for our drive north, but if Lofoten was the cake, then seeing the northern lights would be our icing.
Practice Makes Perfect
We found a car park off the main road (E6) to spend the night just inside the polar circle and by 8 pm were enveloped by a still, inky blackness.
It was the perfect conditions for a practice run with the wide-angle lens and mirrorless camera. After some minutes of astro-photography, my gaze focused on a faint white glow in the north. Resting the camera on the car hood, I took a half-hearted shot. Wow! Unwittingly, I’d just captured my first green smudge … the northern lights were unveiled!
Ok, it wasn’t a shimmering, multicoloured light show but it was a start. A great start, and surely a sign of better things to come.
Reine – Location, Location, Location
It did turn out to be a good omen. A few days later, after ferrying from Bodø to Moskenes, we arrived at our destination, the Lofoten Islands. We had set aside a week to tour the islands with our first base being Reine, a village on the western-most island of Moskenoy.
Capturing the lights on film wasn’t all guess-work. We scouted possible vantage points during our day-time excursions and decided our best bet was to set up in a carpark only a few hundred metres from our accommodation.
We would overlook Reine with the sheer mountains forming the perfect, contrasting backdrop. Fingers crossed, we could avoid any artificial bright lights which you definitely don’t need when shooting long exposures.
I had researched the KP index (a predicted value of geomagnetic activity between 1 and 9) and the odds were swinging in our favour with a KP of 6 not long after sunset. You can roughly think of it as, an increased KP value = an increased chance of seeing the northern lights. The plan was solid; now, if only mother nature could meet us halfway.
The prediction was spot on. Around an hour after sunset, about 9.30pm, with a few scattered clouds peppering the sky, the curtains drew back, and the show began.
We spent the next two hours watching in amazement. Finally, the lights lost their will to impress, faded and bade goodnight.
Leaving Reine, we drove further east to our next destination, Henningsvær, on the island of Austvagoy. And how fortuitous, the verandah of our bed and breakfast was north facing with an unobstructed view, so we wouldn’t have to leave home for this shoot. It was slightly cloudy with a predicted KP value of 3. Our hopes were up. We had all the ticks in the box. Come on Northern lights!
They took us by surprise. The northern lights must have been attuned to our anticipation. As we were still marvelling at the last vestiges of a beautiful sunset, they materialised right above our heads. The lights were determined to draw our attention away from everything else – and it worked.
You then understand why people are left in such awe.
The lights appeared in different parts of the sky, for moments or sometimes minutes, with random patterns of both intense and subtle colours.
One part of the sky comes alive, then dims, to be followed by another somewhere else. It’s a complex, choreographed sequence that enthrals and yet as quickly as it all appears, can just as quickly dim and disappear. It’s a unique beauty.
Nyksund – Not All Smiles
We continued our Lofoten Islands wandering to the northernmost part of Langøya, stopping at the coastal fishing village of Nyksund. We were here to attempt Dronningruta (The Queen’s Route hike) from Nyksund to Stø.
The first evening here promised another night show – wind free, no cloud cover and a KP index of 3. But the Norse gods were not favouring us that night. Even with textbook conditions, we weren’t treated to any sighting whatsoever.
Swedish Lapland Delivers
Leaving the Lofoten Islands, we again drove east, leaving Norway and entering Sweden. We were staying at the Ice Hotel, Jukkasjärvi. Thinking that we had enjoyed our fair share of luck, we didn’t have any expectations that we would see the lights again. We were instead, focused on our night in an ice hotel suite. However, we were wrong and were treated to a final farewell show.
Looking back at the photos now still brings that feeling of awe and amazement.
You can understand why the lights are synonymous with magic and mystery. That feeling of seeing something so special and then afterwards you feel subtly altered. Maybe more in tune with the cycles of mother nature. Ah, the lights have worked their magic.
No wonder this experience makes so many bucket lists. Would we do it all again? In a heartbeat.
Finally, I’d like to dedicate a tribute to Lady Luck, who was definitely riding on our shoulder during our Lofoten adventures.
Note: the photos above were shot at sunset, early evening and night. I experimented with different exposure times on my Sony a6000. Coupled with the Samyang 12mm F 2.0 wide angle lens, this resulted in some variance in photo ‘brightness’.
Can you recommend other locations that offer fantastic Northern Lights viewing? Do you think the Northern Lights are worthy of making your bucket list?
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Being an Australian boy brought up in the country, I learnt at an early age to enjoy the freedom and beauty of nature. Leaving Australia at the age of 20, although I didn’t know it then, would be the beginning of a life of adventure. So join me here on our travels and see the world through my eyes.