Northern exposure

David Nicolson

A journey to the frozen far north of Norway in search of the aurora borealis leaves David Nicolson with lasting memories.

The prospect of a trip to Norway to see the aurora borealis or the Northern Lights gave me three significant problems. The most demanding was how my wife in a wheelchair would cope with the difficult conditions of cold and uncertain terrain. The chair is power assist which is great in flat road conditions, but how would it fare in the snow and ice together with uneven surfaces?

Accessibility wasn't an issue for Meg Nicolson who thoroughly enjoyed the trip.

I wondered how we would handle the extreme cold - temperatures of -10c and lower.

And since the main reason for the trip was to see and photograph the aurora, what were the challenges of subzero photography?

We joined an escorted trip offered by science tour company, Fred Watson Tours. Dr Watson is astronomer in charge of the Australian Astronomical Observatory at Siding Spring, Coonabarabran and in conjunction with Marnie Ogg organises tours with an emphasis on astronomical themes.

Our journey to Sweden and Norway would see us embrace the Sami culture, Arctic landscapes, riding on dog sleds, whale watching, visiting the Polar Zoo and most importantly, seeing the Northern Lights. Most of the locations, hotel rooms and activities would be wheelchair accessible, only a few of the sites were difficult to negotiate.

The group met in the Swedish capital Stockholm, a most beautiful city.

After two days of sightseeing and getting used to "layering-up" with clothes to cope with cold, we travelled by air to Kiruna in northern Sweden and home to the world's largest underground iron ore mine.

We headed to the visitor centre, 520m underground, and saw an equipment display, museum and refreshments area.

Following the mine excursion we travelled to Jukkasjarvi, a short distance from Kiruna and famous for its Ice Hotel. Our accommodation was in the "warm" section of the hotel complex rather than the ice section which is built from 5000 tons of ice taken from the nearby Torne River and kept in storage over the summer months.

The group inspecting the entrance to the Ice Hotel.

That evening we had our first chance to see the aurora, and it was magnificent. The sky was filled with a green vale which changed from minute to minute. This was my first experience of photographing in very cold temperatures. The temperature was about -5c with no wind so the conditions weren't extreme.

The Aurora over the lake at Kiruna.

Taking photos of the aurora will push many cameras to the limit.

Depending on the brightness of the display, exposure times of 10 to 30 seconds will be needed. Several of our group were dismayed to find their cameras were restricted to one second exposure times when used in low light conditions. Even with relatively bright auroras, there still isn't much light so the largest possible aperture and high ISO settings are required.

Most lenses will have a maximum aperture of f3.5 but if you have the ability to use one with f2.8 or even f1.4, so much the better. (The lower the "f" number, the more light will hit the camera's sensor.)

Digital cameras can adjust the effective sensitivity of the sensor and it's not uncommon to have capability to shoot at ISO 3200 or higher.

The higher the ISO, the more noise - similar to the grainy effect on film, so it's best to find the highest ISO where the noise is still acceptable by taking a series of photos and viewing the images on a computer screen. A camera screen is too small to allow this judgment.

On point and shoot cameras, the best ISO you can expect will be about 400. Crossover cameras will take photos with ISO settings of 800 or perhaps a bit higher. Entry level DSLRs and quality point and shoot cameras will be OK with ISOs of 1600 and top quality DSLRs will allow photography up to 6400 or more.

Use the widest angle lens possible with the camera mounted on a tripod and use a remote shutter release or the inbuilt 10 second time to eliminate camera shake. Shoot RAW if you're familiar with the format since this will give you more flexibility when processing the image.

Set the camera to manual exposure and use ISO 1600, a shutter speed of 20 seconds and the lens wide open as a starting position. The focus has to be manually set to infinity which can be difficult in low light conditions. The best way to find this setting is to manually focus on a far off object during the day and note the position of the lens barrel so you can locate it at night.

Due to the cold, gloves are essential but this makes adjusting the camera difficult. Wear a thin inner glove allowing you to remove the outer layer to make the adjustments with the inner giving short term protection.

One critical recommendation which I ignored to my detriment was keeping the camera battery warm. Cold conditions reduce the capacity of batteries and a spare battery, protected by a small hand warmer, is essential. My battery ran out and I missed out on some good shots.

A winter wonderland in Kiruna. Gloves, including an inner, are essential for photographers in the cold.

Our next stop was Abisko National Park which we reached by train using the same track as the iron ore wagons. There was a special wheelchair compartment and a very helpful railway conductor who organised my wife into a comfortable and warm location on the carriage.

In the evening the group was taken under the wing of two experienced aurora photographers from Lappland Media.

This organization provided everything needed to brave the extreme cold and take photos. They had all the right clothes, professional quality cameras and tripods for all. Although the viewing site was within walking distance, they provided transport for my wife and wheelchair and then made sure she was able to get to the best location to see the aurora.

That evening gave us spectacular views of the lights over a nearby lake. It was very cold at about -12c so we were very thankful for the special gear.

The following day we toured a traditional Sami village where our guide showed us how the people survived in the bitterly harsh environment.

The tour group in a traditional Sami hut.

We set off to Sommaroy, stopping at the Polar Zoo to see some of the native animals - my wife received special treatment and was given a tour of the zoo by quad-bike.

A lynx at the Polar Zoo.

The lack of light made it difficult to photograph the wolves, reindeer, moose, Arctic foxes, lynx and a musk ox. Because the ground was white with snow, the ambient conditions appeared to be quite bright. But the camera's sensor responds to absolute levels and this resulted in settings which weren't conducive to photographing moving animals.

To get the fastest possible shutter speed, a must to "freeze" the movement of animals, higher than normal ISO settings were needed.

One little trick worth trying when photographing caged animals is to watch their movements since they will often track the same route over and over again. If they do this, watch for a place where they will stop or turn and use this as your shooting point.

An Arctic fox at the Polar Zoo.

Typical settings were, ISO 1600, shutter speed 1/125 with an aperture of f6.3. Because the animals were behind wire fencing, getting an unobstructed shot was even harder. You have to get your lens right up against the fence and try to shoot through a gap in the mesh.

An Arctic wolf plays with his handler.

Our next day at Sommaroy, which means Summer Island, was spent whale watching in a nearby fjord.

A fishing harbour outside Sommaroy.

The air was cold but clear, the waters were calm and filled with humpback and killer whales. At times there were three or more humpbacks within 10m of us - all seemingly happy to show off their gigantic tails and flippers.

A whale tail at Sommaroy.

Low light and a rocking boat made photography a challenge. We had a wonderful day, even though our photo "keepers" were at a minimum.

A humpback whale showing off in a fjord near Sommaroy.

After an overnight stop in Tromso, we travelled to Alta which is situated in the far north of Norway, well inside the Arctic Circle. The Gulf Stream made the town surprisingly warm at 0 degrees!

We rode on a sled pulled by incredibly eager Arctic Huskies and had our last look at the Northern Lights. To our delight, the display was the best yet with the sky filled with curtains of green. Relatively mild weather, our far northern location and our improved photographic skills meant the pictures taken on this night were superior to our earlier efforts.

The spectacular display at Alta.

My wife had realised a lifelong ambition to see the aurora and she accomplished this while in a wheelchair thanks to a lot of help from the airlines, bus drivers, train conductors and members of our group for which we will be forever grateful.

fact file

  • Auroras are caused by electrically charged particles emitted by the sun interacting with the atmosphere and are seen at the poles due to the weaker magnetic field.

The lights extend from 80 to 640 km above the Earth's surface and are best viewed in the higher latitudes under low light conditions meaning they can only be seen during winter.

In the northern hemisphere the display is called the Aurora Borealis and in the south they are known as the Aurora Australis.

  • Fred Watson Tours is at

  • Lappland Media are based in Abisko and offer a variety of photographic adventures. They provide all the clothing and equipment to make such excursions, including high quality camera equipment. See