Photographing the Northern Lights (…or not)

*All photos of the northern lights featured in this post are courtesy of my photographer-savvy friend, Rahul Bahua. I am seriously grateful for these shots!*

I know that it seems incomprehensible why someone would abandon the balmy tropics for the frigid Arctic. Few things beat lounging on a beach with a warm breeze tickling the straw in your pina colada. For me, the northward pull comes not from the low temperature – though I do miss it – but from the northern lights, which are simultaneously dazzling and highly addictive. Seriously. I remember penning them into my bucket list with a little check box beside them, and shame on me. They don’t belong on a list. It’s not like strolling through the supermarket and thinking, “Broccoli, great. Tick. Glad that’s done.”

Every time I see them, I want more.

Longyearbyen’s perpetual darkness seemed to offer a good chance of seeing them, but I was still told to get past the town “lights” to see them. This merited a walk to where the road ended, past the last streetlight for the best view.

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One of my favorite images: the aurora oval.

I’d actually spotted an aurora on my first walk through town at about 4:30pm, but I was feeling pretty icy. I decided that if I wanted to see them later that evening, I’d need to reinforce my layers.

I agreed to meet up with Rahul and Sathya at around 8:00pm in the hotel lobby to search for them. In the meantime, I compulsively checked my optimistic NorwayLights app, which monitors the aurora activity and tells you when your best chances are to see them.

Having seen a beautiful show in Iceland and a lucky little glimpse from a plane in Finland, I decided that instead of just watching them, I’d try to photograph them. I’d invested in a pretty handy Olympus DSLR and I’d packed the tripod. I’d researched camera settings for photographing the lights and located these settings on my camera. This would be a cinch.

At 7:45, while finishing a steak in the restaurant across the road, the aurora forecast suddenly flipped from TRY to GO. I hastily paid my bill and dashed across the street to layer up and grab my camera.

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The best thing to see on my NorwayLights app!

When I finally waddled into the lobby, I was pretty well-insulated: leggings, yoga pants, jeans, a t-shirt, a long-sleeved shirt, a sweater, a fleece, a winter coat, warm socks, gloves, hat, scarf that could basically double as a blanket. I was ready!

Rahul and Sathya had brought me woolen socks, which was very kind of them. I swapped my crappy ones out for those and off we went. Walking down Longyearbyen’s main street, I was feeling pretty optimistic. The forecast was good, my body was warm, my camera was…well, it was with me…this was going to be good.

We reached the end of the road and then made our way down across the frozen and snow-covered river, past the snowmobile shop, and finally past the last street light where, almost magically, the glittering lights of the town disappeared.

It was unusually immediate – we looked up and a bright green band stretched across the sky, exploding out in gloriously whirling swirls.

Rahul cried out and got his own camera ready. And here is where I realized how ridiculously unprepared I was.

I noticed that Rahul’s camera was already mounted to the tripod. He crouched down in the road, plugged in an external shutter remote, and was clicking away while craning his neck to see the lights.

Svalbard (29 of 35)

I hadn’t even taken my lens cap off.

This was the least of my worries. I hadn’t thought about how difficult it would be to attach the camera to the tripod with gloves on, so I took them off. Lens cap between my teeth, I fumbled to insert the tripod into the camera base. When this didn’t work, I decided I’d just switch the camera on and hope for the best.

Once on, I swiveled the setting to manual – and the camera died.

Seasoned aurora photographers would scoff at my amateur attempts. Any website will tell you – batteries do not fare well in cold climates. Many sites suggest carrying a spare battery in a pocket close to your body so you can keep it warm.

Rookie mistake.

At this point, Rahul had moved off the road and onto the frozen river. Me? My hands had frozen so quickly that I didn’t even notice my glove had fallen off. The fingers on my right hand were stiff and frozen; I could kind of feel them, but they felt weird. My claddagh was rattling around on my ring finger and I wasn’t sure how to keep it from falling off.

Later, I found it out was -21C that night.

It was a painful decision – literally – to turn back. Overhead, the aurora was pinwheeling beautifully in shimmering gimlet green. As I walked back toward Longyearbyen, I kept my neck craned so I could watch the show unfold above me. I trudged zombie-like over the river, up to the main street.

And then I got lost.

“But I thought you said the town only had one road,” you might be thinking. And you’d be right. I can get lost anywhere.

Desperately cold, I flagged down a mini-van to ask where my hotel was. Secretly, I was hoping the woman would invite me to climb on in and she’d take me back, but I imagine I looked rather frightening, wide-eyed and shaking and unable to find my hotel in a town so small it’s called a settlement.

When I finally made it back, I looked up at the sky one last time. The aurora was wildly bright and visible even in the light. For a few moments, I stood there arrested, because it’s so beautiful that you forget for a moment that you can’t feel your fingers. (It helps to know that your hotel is a step to the right.) What a spectacle to behold. In Norse mythology, they were the shields of the Valkyrie leading fallen warriors to Valhalla. In some cultures, they were seen as a good omen; in some, you hid from them.

I still wanted to photograph them, so I took out my phone. It promptly died. Sighing, I watched them until they disappeared, then went up to my room, teeth clattering together. I must be made of the same stuff as camera batteries.

On our way back to Tromso, we caught them from the airplane window. It was a warmer way to see the lights, and unlike in Finland, these were huge  and bounding over the plane and streaming down behind the wing.

I was reluctant to feature Rahul’s photo in this post, because everything in this blog should be mine. However, his photography is beautiful and for something as majestic as the northern lights, a picture is really worth more than a blundering post about being cold.

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2 replies »

  1. Nicole the pictures are beautiful.Uncle Billy came in to see what I was ooohing about.That is a dream of his to see the northern lights. Beautiful story ,makes you feel like you are almost there !!

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