I had a fantastic first week in Scandinavia. This trip is the start of a what’s-going-to-be a long travel as I go around and see the world. Europe has always been my main target destination since I haven’t been to enough places here and there’s lots to offer. I picked Scandinavia, mainly due to timing restriction of ~5 weeks, with Norway as my main destination, with short stops in Copenhagen and Stockholm.
The main purpose of the trip is simple. Go catch the northern lights. I missed the Aurora Australis when I traveled around New Zealand last year and this time I want to make sure I get to see them in the northern hemisphere. Statistically, October and March are the best months to go according to NorwayLights and I referred to Aurora Alert for places to go.
Based on the above, I chose the following places over about 3 weeks time, to maximize my chance to see the lights:
1. Alta (recommended, saw the lights in all 3 days, clear sky)
2. Tromso/Skibotn (recommended, especially if you go out to Esfjordbotn or outside the city)
3. Kilpisjarvi (didn’t go but the landscape is very dramatic which would make it interesting with the aurora)
4. Senja (saw the lights on both nights, very clear sky)
5. Narvik (didn’t go)
6. Andoya (they have the space center here. saw the lights both night. can be cloudy)
Here’s my tips for catching the aurora…
1. CHECK SOLAR ACTIVITY – Aurora Alert has up-to-date info. Bear in mind, a forecast is not always accurate to the minute. My experience show that sometimes there’s delays. But if they say it’s 4kp and you’re in 2kp area, chances are you’re gonna see a good one.
2. ALWAYS CHECK LOCAL WEATHER – www.yr.no is the main website for Norway. Clear, cloudless sky is key. It changes quite quickly, so stay updated.
3. ALLOW SUFFICIENT TIME – I allocated 3 weeks for this, and while I have seen the lights 5 nights in the last 7, the next couple of days is predicted to be very low activity.
… and some tips on photographing it.
1. I specifically purchased the Sony a6000 for this with Samyang 12mm f2.0 lens. My view is, you do not need fast lens. I would say anything around f5.0 would be enough
2. The aurora is so bright, at f2.0 and ISO 1,600 I rarely need more than 5 seconds exposure before overblowing the photo.
3. Always shoot full manual, where you have full control of everything
4. SETTINGS – Start by setting white balance to auto, aperture to f2.0 or f2.8, ISO to 1,600 (it’s Sony’s sweet spot so you gotta find your camera’s) and then adjust exposure according to the exposure meter. I did eventually adjust this down to ISO400-ISO500 and up the exposure to about 15 seconds to get crisp clear stars in the photo.
5. EXPOSURE – I like to keep the exposure to about minus 0.7 to minus 1.0, especially if you have bright foreground
6. FOCUS – Focus is the most important. You need to set the focus manually to infinity. Different camera and lens work differently.
7. MANUAL LENS FOCUS – The Samyang 12mm is manual, in which what you need to do is to check the focus through focus peaking, and manually adjust it to get the clearest focus. Point the camera to the brightest star, then turn focus ring all the way to infinity and adjust backward until you get the sharpest focus. It’s usually just a little touch off infinity. If you don’t have stars, then just set it to infinity and turn it back a bit.
8. AUTO LENS FOCUS – Some lens can actually focus on the stars, so try that before trying to manually focus via focus peaking. If focus doesn’t automatically locked, see Manual Lens Focus steps. If it locks, remember to changed to Manual Focus switch after it’s locked. You don’t want the camera to keep re-focusing every shot.
9. Take some test shots and see if it works and you like it. Adjust exposure time as necessary. This is the only variable you need to play with
10. The activity varies significantly, so you need to spend an extended period of time to catch the light when it’s strongest, unless its a major magnetic storm or if you’re just super lucky
11. I tried using my Samsung Galaxy S7 and you can kinda catch the light, but even at ISO800, it’s super grainy.
Within two weeks after I left my job, I have driven about 4,300km from Amsterdam to Senja in northern part of Norway. I have driven the entire 1,590km lenght of Sweden’s E4 highway from the Denmark border through to the Finland border. I am writing this from a lovely airbnb house in Senja with view of the snow-capped mountain and the fjord and northern lights. Life is good.
My first sighting of the aurora was while I was driving from Stockholm to Lovanger. About 8pm I saw very visible green things moving in the sky. Initially I could not believe that it is the aurora, but after stronger and stronger occurrence, I’m convinced! Apparently there’s some serious magnetic storms going that day that the aurora was at over 7kp (see here for kp explanation) and technically it can be seen as south as northern Germany! I was really lucky. So I stopped, and snapped some photos. This was the best show I encountered in the first 10 days here, with strong light everywhere in the sky, dancing and visible to naked eyes. Because the activity was so strong, I was able to take photos even when it’s just by the side of the highway which mean light pollution is terrible.
By the time I get to Lovanger, checked-in, I was determined to find a darker spot. Spent a couple hours about 10 mins away from my hotel doing timelapse, in the cold, though I had the luxury of sitting in the car with the heating on.
Alta gave the best sightings with 3 nights of light show. I stayed in an airbnb house (link) which is just in front of a beach and is facing north in the fjord. Fantastic. Spent the first 2 nights on the beach, with the final night somewhere long the E6.
I was supposed to go to Kilpisjarvi but then decided to stay in Skibotn instead. While Tromso is the most popular place for northern lights, most tours actually bring people to Skibotn every night. I found a gem of an airbnb (link) house with Marianne as the host. The house is beautiful, come with a sauna which I did try on my second night, and the best is the view from the veranda into the mountains. It makes the best stars and aurora photo.
The drive from Alta to Skibotn and to Tromso was really nice and picturesque. The Lyngen Alps was the first snow-capped mountain I seen in Norway. Skibotn is also quite picturesque with the mountain and fjord around. Initially I was supposed to spend a night in Kilpisjarvi but I eventually skipped it. Went for a lunch though. The sceneries from Skibotn to Kilpisjarvi are really amazing.
The first main stop of the trip was Copenhagen. It’s one of the most livable cities in the world and it was charming, despite the terrible weather. Incredible architectures around town, and castles everywhere! I’ll have to come back sometime in the future.
After Copenhagen, there’s Stockholm. Another 2 nights stay. I particularly loved Stockholm old town with its charming narrow alleys and cobblestones walkway. The night view quite amazing too. Stockholm too, like Copenhagen, has impressive architectures.
Another Swedish city I stopped by for a couple of hours was Uppsala, which really worth spending a day or two.
From Lovanger, my next stop was Rovaniemi in Finland, which is known as the home of… wait for it… Santa Claus. Driving along the Finnish Lapland is really quite incredible. Interesting sceneries along the way, which is mainly flat pine forest. Rovaniemi is very foggy, and terribly cold! It was supposed to be some solar storm that night that is perfect for aurora, but given the fog and that I just drove 740km from Lovanger, I couldn’t stay awake for too long and went to bed before midnight.
That’s it for this edition folks! Oh, and the answer to the question in the title? Because travel is fun.