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Friday, May 15, 2015

My Arctic Circle Story (Ep. 4 - Final)

This might likely be the last episode of my Arctic Circle story. I'm going to focus only on the topic of how to photograph the Aurora. And as I mentioned in my previous post, I'm not a pro-photographer, I only learnt these tips from YouTube and reading from internet. I just want to share how I captured the Aurora Borealis. So if you are interested, read on.

Aurora Borealis at Ersfjordbotn, in Tromso, Norway. The little red guy there at the bottom center of the picture is me trying to take a picture of the Aurora.
(Picture credit: Nikita Pere, another awesome solo traveler I met in Tromso)
1) Basic Equipment

- DSLR camera - or any camera that has the option for manual setting (i.e change aperture, shutter speed, ISO, timer, white balance). I used Nikon D7000.

- Tripod - a must have item.

- Wide angle lens, especially with f/2.8. The smaller this f number, the better. I used a 11-16mm f/2.8 lens for this aurora shot.

- Spare batteries - because in colder temperature the battery may dry out quite fast.

2) Camera Setting

- ISO: High ISO setting is required. It ranges from ISO1000 to maybe ISO2000 or higher, depending on the ambient lights at the surrounding.

- Aperture: I set it at smallest 'f'' number I can, based on the lens I used. In my case, it was f/2.8.

- Shutter speed: Similar like ISO setting, it varies depending on the ambient lights, as well as the intensity of the aurora itself. My setting ranged from 10secs to 25secs exposure. You have to keep on trying and changing the shutter speed setting to get the best exposure. Because of this long exposure requirement, that's why a tripod is a must.

- White balance: This was something I didn't know much. But my friend Nikita told me to use 5000K for the white balance setting to bring up the dark-blue-ish colour temperature of the night sky. 'Warmer' white balance setting will make the dark sky turns slightly brownish-yellowish.

- Change to manual focus on your lens, and set the focus to be at infinity. In the dark you cannot rely on the auto-focus as most of the times your camera won't be able to focus in the darkness.

- You can either use a remote shutter, or you can also the built in auto-timer on your camera (e.g. 2secs or 5secs). We do not want to have any vibration at the camera when the shutter opens for long period of time or else the image captured will be blurry.

3) Others

There's only one final thing.. well, perhaps two things.

First, wear warm clothing and use proper snow boots if the area is covered in snow. You need to be standing outside in the cold for hours.

Second, be patient. Be extra patient...

It may not be clear in this picture, but there were purple and blue-ish colors too in this aurora.

A shooting star decided to join the aurora party.

These are the very first set of pictures when  I first saw the aurora in my whole life. Taken at Skibotn near Tromso, Norway.
My camera setting were a bit haywire. I used auto WB therefore the color appears to be a little bit 'warm'.

My jaw dropped upon seeing the lights dancing and flickering in the sky above my head at Ersfjordbotn, Tromso, Norway.
Speechless moment it was.
That's roughly how I captured the aurora that I saw during my short trip to Tromso. However beautiful you may see it on a picture, it is much much much more beautiful and breathtaking in the real life. You just have to see it by yourself. It was such a spectacular and memorable experience for me.

I'm lost for words...

P/s: You can read about how to search or chase the aurora in my Ep. 3 here.


Thursday, May 14, 2015

My Arctic Circle Story (Ep. 3)

In this episode, I just want to quickly share about how I chased the Northern Lights while being in Tromso (that's my main objective for travelling this far away from my homeland), and perhaps if I have the time I can also squeeze in a few tips about how to photograph this beautiful natural phenomena called Aurora Borealis. Mind you, I'm not an expert, also not a pro-photographer either, I will just share how I captured this picture.

The Aurora Borealis seen at Ersfjordbotn in Tromso, March 2015
And before I proceed further, let me clarify that there are two basic ways to chase the Northern Lights.

1) Go with a tour group specifically chasing the Aurora. They will pick you up from the city center and bring you to wherever place they predict to have a clear view of Aurora for that particular day. Sometimes you may be on the road for 2 hours just to get to a place, and sometimes only 30 minutes. Plenty of tour package offerings you can find out from the net, and prices may range depending on group size, season of the year etc.

2) Chase the lights by yourself - which requires you to know more about how and when and where to go, plus with a little bit of luck. This was my choice.

Question 1: Where?

The Aurora Borealis is only visible inside the Arctic Circle (i.e. about 66 deg north of Equator). Based on my little search over the net, apart from Tromso in Northern Norway, other popular places to chase the lights are at Northern Finland, Northern Sweden, Alaska, and also Iceland.

So, once in Tromso, where did I go to find the Aurora?

The best place to see it is at the darkest place possible, i.e. away from light polluted areas such as city center and some small villages. You may choose to either go further inland (i.e. towards Finland border), or you may opt to go to the shore side. Make yourself familiar with the map so that you can make good decision on where to go.

I used Google Earth apps as a basic guideline to understand the geographical information of places I want to go
Once you know the darkest area (from searching from light pollution map from the net - sorry I can't recall what website I used), you may want to survey those areas during daytime to check for the landscape, or suitable parking area, as well as the time taken to drive there. This will be a good thing to do if you want to capture the picture of Aurora with a nice background landscape which may include mountains and fjords.

Question 2: When?

Generally speaking, Aurora is said to be visible normally during the time period of November to March. I went there in the middle of March, so I was really praying hard that the solar activity is still active by that time of the year. Outside of this time window, there may still be some aurora activities but the chance of seeing them is much lower.

Ok, another aspect to answer the question "when" is, 'when exactly' is the best time to chase the aurora? I think this is the most important thing to know, because aurora does not happen all the time or at the same time everyday. It's very random, as it depends on solar activity.

Upon talking to the guides at Tromso's tourist information center, they recommended me to check on these few websites as a guidelines. gives you some idea (with recent updates) on the general aurora activity at the Arctic Circle also provide very updated forecast of aurora activity.
The higher the Kp number, the higher the chance you'll be seeing the aurora.
I was a bit carried away with the chasing of Aurora, that I even checked the real-time magnetogram spectrum so that I know roughly about what time the solar activity is at its peak.

Google up "flux phys uit no", and from this Geophysical Observatory website you can find a lot of  information about geomagnetic data.
In this chart above, whenever you see big separation between the blue and green lines as well as peaks, it shows there are a lot of aurora activity going on at that particular time (on X-axis) - that's the time to look up into the sky.
Apart from the predictions of solar activity, another important aspect to consider is the weather of the day. Best day to see the aurora is when the sky is clear from clouds. When I was there, out of four nights, two of the days were very cloudy they even snowed. On the two clearer nights, I was able to see Aurora at two separate locations. So, here are some websites you can use to help with the weather predictions. is where you can find weather forecast for Norway as a whole.
Check for clouds and precipitation, and go to places with the clearest sky.
Any trace of clouds in the sky and you won't be able to see the aurora. is another good website you can use to predict the cloud movement, especially in predicting whether or not the sky will be cleared up from the cloud, which depends on the wind movement.

With these information, you should be able to intelligently plan for your aurora chasing activity. However, because this is a natural phenomena, there's no 100% guarantee you will get to see it.

At some point, you may have a slight feeling like you are becoming a meteorologist hahaha...

Anyway, I have to stop here. I guess I have to continue in another blog entry for the topic of how to photograph the Aurora. Good luck with your chase!

P/s: Read here for Ep.1 and here for Ep. 2

Sunday, May 3, 2015

My Arctic Circle Story (Ep. 2)

It has been a month since I returned from my trip to Tromso, Northern Norway. I have plenty of photos yet to share, but in this post I would like to share the places I went to.

My first trip into a Scandinavion country. It was exciting!

I started my journey from London, right after I finished with my conference. From Gatwick airport, I took a flight to Oslo above the very cloudy day. It was the same day as the sun eclipse happened, but unfortunately I couldn't see any of the effect from of the window during the two hours flight. 

Another two hours flight from Oslo to Tromso, getting inside the Arctic Circle zone.

After a quick layover at Oslo airport, I then hopped onto a domestic flight to Tromso. It took me another two hours to get there. I purposely booked for a window seat as I don't want to miss a view of how the land at Arctic Circle looks like. Below is one example of many other shots I managed to take from the flight.

Frozen lakes and snowy mountains entertained my eyes throughout my flight from Oslo to Tromso.

It was only end or March and I never thought there were still lots of snow down there and the temperature was still lingering below freezing point. I was slightly worried as I know I didn't bring so much of thick winter clothing except for one sweater and one jacket.

Anyway, I touched down at Tromso airport almost sunset time there. I rented a campervan, and the lady was kind enough to send over the campervan to the airport.

I was more concerned about the new place I just arrived and didn't have much clue about where to go or where to sleep later, but the lady's main concern can be summarized with this simple question, "Can you drive manual gear?"

Not wanting to make her worry about her brand new Volkswagen campervan (yes, I was the first person to rent this particular one), I had no other choice but to affirm her that I can drive manual car even with one eye closed. Ha ha ha.. (that's true anyway).

Her last words to me as I took the key from her was "Be adventurous, and keep exploring. I'll see you again at this airport in few days time".

And that's how my journey in Tromso began.

Places I went to: Tromvik, Ersfjordbotn, Sommaroy, Skibotn, and Finland border.

I didn't really do much in-depth research about the places I wanted to go. It was more driven by what I wanted to see. Three things made me want to come to Tromso:

1) Based on Wiki, Tromso is listed among the top ten best places on earth to look for Aurora Borealis. Wiki also said Tromso is an expensive place to go - yeah, no doubt about it. I was hunting for the Northern Lights each and every day I was there.

2) Tromso also has a few beautiful fjords nearby worth going to and only requires short drive (1-2 hours).

3) Like many other places in Northern Norway, Tromso is also a place where you may be able to see whales at the fjords - if you come at the right season.

I made my plans based on these three things I wanted to see. As you can see on the map above, I named the places I went to. The following places may not necessarily be in any kind of order, but the places I went to are:

How it looks from Google Earth apps.

Ersfjordbotn is a very small village by a fjord. Even with Google Earth you can imagine how beautiful it may look in the real life. Prior to coming to Tromso, when I searched for the best places to photograph the Aurora, Ersfjordbotn is listed as one of the best spot.

And yes, I would say this place is beautiful not only when you can see Aurora at night, but it is also beautiful during daytime.

Ersfjordbotn: I would say this is my favourite spot throughout my trip. Beautiful by day time, even more pretty at night with the dancing Northern Lights show.

I went to Ersfjordbotn on the next day after arriving Tromso to take a look, and managed to do some self potrait shots. Too bad the day was overcast, or else a blue sky would make this picture looks much better.

I went again to Ersfjordbotn a few nights later when the sky was predicted to be clear, to shoot the Aurora Borealis (I will share the pictures on another post, with some tips based on my experience).

Tromvik is a very small fishing village with only about 50 houses. I was hoping to see some whales at the fjord there, but I came a bit too late for their feeding season.

Next, I also made a short drive (around 1 hour) to go to a very small fishing village, Tromvik. On one blog I read, this guy managed to see a group of whales coming up to the surface at the fjord as he was driving towards Tromvik.

I stopped by the roadside at the fjord every now and then, and spent few minutes each time to spot for whales. Luck was not on my side. Later on when I was talking to a local, they said the whales have left the area since February when the feeding season has ended. Too bad I came a bit too late.

However, the drive towards Tromvik was fun and the view was fascinating. I departed from Tromso town very early in the morning, hence I managed to get some good sunrise view by one of the lakes there.

I drove East-wards into Sommaroy. The view by the roadside towards Sommaroy from Tromso was beautiful and I saw many people ski-ing up the mountains.

I also went to Sommaroy. Many tourists mentioned that this is another good place to visit in Tromso. I can't say much about it because the two times I went to Sommaroy, weather was not on my side. It was super cloudy and super snowy when I went there, hence I didn't have any chance to take many good pictures, and it was a bit disappointing that I couldn't see any Aurora Borealis from this little island or else I'm sure it would be great because this island is very dark and suitable for viewing the Aurora.

I spent one night sleeping inside my campervan at the yellow X mark on the map above. It was snowing quite a lot and pretty cold. My night ended early that day.

The next morning after spending the night at Sommaroy beach. I parked the campervan nearby this very small camping site with simple toilet facility.

From Tromso, I drove southwards to Skibotn. And the next morning, I drove further south into Finland!

I practically was hunting for Aurora Borealis each and every night I was there. One of the day, after a short discussion with the guide at Tromso's visitors centre, he suggested me to drive down south towards the Finland border to a place named Skibotn to look for it.

So, I drove down south for almost two hours to reach a small camping site. I actually met another tour van who was also on their way to Skibotn, so the guide was kind enough to let me follow them for their Aurora hunting.

Upon reaching the camping site, that was the very first time in my life where I see the amazing Northern Lights with my own two eyes. It was truly amazing, beyond words. I find it hard to explain with words, but I can still remember the moment very clearly in my mind even until today.

The show that night was not long, as the sky was quickly being covered by thick coulds. We made our way home after 1.5hours there, and it was already almost midnight.

While the tour group disappeared in the dark with their van back to Tromso city center, I was clueless of where to sleep for the night. I initially thought of looking for a petrol station at Skibotn but it did not open 24 hours, including the toilet. So, I drove in another direction and shortly I found a truck stop area where there were a toilet facility with running tap water, and I saw another campervan there so I thought it might be a good place to sleep for the night.

I arrived at this site at midnight to sleep without knowing how the surrounding looks like. The next morning, woke up to this beautiful view of mountains covered with snow.

This truck stop site is at Oteren, and I woke up to this view of snowy mountains.

Weather forecast was showing a very cloudy day with lots of snow that whole day. I initially made a plan to drive to Senja, another place famous for having many beautiful fjords. But I cancelled my plan due to the thick snow.

So, instead of heading west towards Senja, I drove further down towards Finland border. It was still snowing very heavily however I somehow like the experience of driving in the heavy snow. I was also actually looking for a better spot to look for Aurora at night, but too bad the whole day and night was forcasted to be covered with thick cloud all around the area.

Reaching the Norway-Finland border on the famous E8 road.

I drove further ahead into Finland for another half an hour before making a turn back at the first petrol station I met. That was the furtherst I drove throughout my whole trip.

I then made my self back to Tromso town centre and just explored the nearby places while waiting for the sky to clear at night to hunt for more Aurora Borealis.

That's all I can share about the places I went to. I may write more about other things in another posts, like how to hunt for the Aurora Borealis and how to photograph it. Stay tuned!