Catching the light fantastic: the Northern Lights in Norway



The view from deck 9, MS Midnatsol. Photo: Belinda Jackson

I have seen the light! The Northern Lights! That shimmering curtain of luminescent green that cloaks the Arctic Circle in the winter months. 

Coy and as unpredictable as the Sydney bus service, we struck it lucky by spying the lights on our very first night on the ship. The lights made a brief appearance before dinner – which only keen watchers managed to catch – but put on a post-dinner show for all. They reappeared around midnight after the crowds had gone to bed, to dance and skate across the sky for just a few of us well-rugged travellers on the Hurtigruten, here in northern Norway.

“We waited six nights before we saw anything,” a fellow cruiser told me, while helping me set my camera to catch the phenomenon, which is the result of solar flares hitting the Earth’s atmosphere. ISO ramped up, exposure 10 seconds, manual focus, camera tied to a deck chair: for we photographic amateurs, it’s really a case of pointing, shooting and hoping that something shows up at the end.

But let me blow a few myths: if you were standing on deck in sub-zero temperatures at midnight waiting for a ray of green light to hit you in the face, you’d be waiting a long time. According to the ship’s guest lecturer Dr John Mason, most of the colours in the Northern Lights are invisible to our eyes: we just can’t see the red and turquoise bands with the naked eye. Green is the most apparent colour, followed by violet, but even then, when you look into the sky, they show up more like a hazy grey cloud against the clear black sky.

Point a camera at the grey clouds and you’ll see the eerie green rays appear in your final photo – and even then only when you open the lens for up to 15 seconds. It’s not always like this, otherwise the Lights wouldn’t be in Sami folklore, long before cameras became a natural extension of our arms.

The band of green light was a bridge between earth and heaven upon which departed souls would travel, a mystical, powerful force that is as strong a lure for us today. 

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