This article was originally published on Conde Nast’s Jaunted.
After a few nights of anticipation and washing down cod chips with Northern Lights beer, I finally saw the Polar Lights in all their glory about an hour outside of Tromso in the Arctic Circle. There are a lot of words to describe the evening: Powerful. Incredible. Fascinating. Colorful. Inspiring.
But mostly, it was overwhelming.
I’ll take you back to the beginning.
I told you last week that the Northern Lights are a fickle beast, but no matter how much I knew that to be true, I never really drank my own Kool-Aid. A part of me believed each and every night that I would see them, leading to a certain degree of disappointment when I went home with the sky still black. I said that I wasn’t going to leave until I saw them, but that was more dramatic than anything else. Truth is I had limited time in the Norwegian Arctic, just like any tourist that comes in search of the lights, and I was nervous. I traveled all this way and braved the cold. Was it really possible that I would leave with my tail between my legs?
On the third night, we drove slowly on the snow-covered roads from town with Tromso Safari to a forested area of Takvatnet, and there was a hut, big enough to comfortably fit all ten of us, with a wood-burning fireplace in the center. This is where I ate the reindeer stew, and once again settled into the all-too-familiar feeling of waiting. But there was something else lurking in the air that night, an annoyance that went beyond lights that wouldn’t shine. To be perfectly honest, I was ready to smash each and every one of my friends’ cameras.
No disrespect and nothing personal, but that’s how I felt. I thought they were all missing the point in a way, or that they had never heard of Google Images. Don’t you want to see it, I thought, I mean really see it? All this talk about shutter-speed, aperture, ISO and focus. I sure hope you get the fucking photo, I thought, because that’s the only way you’re ever going to remember what you experienced.
I was being a dick, of course. And I didn’t say anything — I kept my mouth shut. But when the lights did come out to play that night, I knew I didn’t want be anywhere near a camera. I tightened my boots and trekked into the forest, off by myself and away from everyone. I found a break in the trees and I put on my headphones. I danced. I sat. I got up and danced again. The lights waved across the sky. Mostly green, except when it fluttered, like someone going down the line on an invisible piano. That’s when I saw the purple.
It’s hard to describe. What you see in photos of the lights is a time-lapse, a representation of what it looked like if you could take a few seconds and piece them back together. When they’re strong and energetic, like they were this night, they move without barriers, constantly changing shape and morphing out of themselves. They can go from a small, waving dot in the sky to a swirling network of fingers in a matter of seconds.
And when I saw it happen, all I could do was laugh, literally like a madman, and dance. The dancing was how I dealt with all the emotions that came flooding. It was the beauty, it was how long I had waited, it was the cold, clear night.
I know this sounds pretty nuts, but I would highly suggest keeping your camera in your hotel room when you go in search of the lights for the first time. I know the thought of having a photo that you took sounds really sexy — and I’m as guilty as anyone when it comes to taking photos — but the distraction is not worth it. This is not a point and shoot operation, nothing like a stationary view where you snap an easy photo and then come back to reality to enjoy the moment. The movement and unpredictability requires your full focus, and “just one more” is an easy mentality to fall into. Before you know it, after three days of searching, the show’s over. Imagine if, when you look, none of your photos are good. I know because I’ve seen it happen.
For those of you who have seen the lights multiple times, or at least once, go for it. Bring you camera, have fun, shoot away. To first timers, I offer different advice. Leave the camera at your hotel — don’t even bother with it — and go out in the wilderness and experience it. Dance. Cry. Yell. Scream. Hug your friends. Remember that you’re seeing something people wait their whole lives to see, and that the photo that you “had to have” will probably never come off your hard drive anyway, okay?
THAT ALL SAID, since I’m a team player, I will pass on some tips I learned in the arctic for capturing good photos of the Northern Lights. There is indeed a process, and a few things to keep in mind. And I’ll also offer up a compromise — a way I found to have your cake and eat it to — for any of you out there that bought into my little spiel yet would still like a personal photograph to take home. You can read them here.