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A trip that’ll be frozen in my memory forever: I survived -27C chasing the Northern Lights (and here’s how to photograph them using only a smartphone)

Nothing prepared me for this extraordinary phenomenon.

With the moon bouncing just enough light off the snow to light my path, I gaze up at the Northern Lights for as long as I can withstand the cold. It’s -27C, I’m wearing six layers of clothing and my hair and eyelashes are coated in frost.

‘I’m here,’ I tell myself, alone in the silence as the group I’m with climbs back on the bus.

The aurora borealis occurs when energy waves from the sun react with the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere. That’s the science. The result when you see it? Being rendered speechless is likely.

Even here in the Arctic Circle, sightings are not guaranteed, which adds to the thrill of the chase.

MailOnline Travel’s Laura Sharman (above) visits the frozen wilds of Norway, where she dons six layers of clothing to gaze upon the aurora borealis 

The aurora borealis occurs when energy waves from the sun react with the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere. ‘That’s the science,’ writes Laura. ‘The result when you see it? Being rendered speechless is likely’

However, this year promises the best sightings in two decades as the sun reaches the Solar Maximum, bringing stronger aurora activity, I’m told by Northern Lights photographer Tor-Ivar Naess.

This is certainly the case for us, having seen the dancing lights during our first of three nights in Tromso, Norway, on a ‘bus chase’ with Expedia – where we follow the auroras and stop at a location to take photographs.

It’s ‘the best destination for seeing the lights’ as there are bigger geomagnetic storms that result in ‘stronger auroras for longer’, says Tor, who accompanies me on the hunt.

Delightfully dazzling: Laura captures this image using her iPhone 12

The Northern Lights photographed using an iPhone 12 

Above: Laura sets up a shot of the Northern Lights using her DSLR camera 


– Three pairs of long wool socks

–  Two pairs of thermal leggings

– Salopettes

– One thermal vest

– One long sleeve thermal top

– Two jumpers

– Puffer coat

– Snow boots

– Snood scarf, pulled over the face

– Long scarf, wrapped around the neck

–  Wooly hat

– Touch screen gloves

– Mittens and hand warmers

– Headtorch 

– All-in-one snowsuit, provided by the tour company for the Northern Lights chase, dog and reindeer sledding

Standing in the snow at 2am, snapping pictures of the luminous green swirls, he explains that we are currently witnessing ‘very low activity levels’ and rates it two out of 10.

I’m gobsmacked. ‘What’s a 10?’ I ask.

‘If there were a geomagnetic storm,’ he responds, ‘then, it can be like the Wild West up there.

‘Auroras will cover the entire sky, as though somebody spilt space stuff, and you can see not only green light but pink, purple and even red.’

After fumbling with my DSLR camera in the snow, struggling to adjust the settings in my gloves, Tor suggests I try photographing the lights with my iPhone. Surely not…

Removing my gloves and exposing my skin to the elements, I only have a few minutes to adjust the camera settings before I risk getting frostnip – a mild form of frostbite.

Snap. The results are extraordinary.

The photo shows the mountains beneath a neon-green blanket of light. But looking back up at the sky, I see only a faint glow.

‘It’s real, it’s up there,’ Tor reassures me. ‘We can’t see the lights so strongly with the naked eye but your camera, even on a smartphone, picks them up.’

Alternating between my iPhone 12 and my DSLR camera, fixed onto my tripod in manual mode, I enter into a five-minute photographing frenzy.

Then, it’s time to enjoy the show.

I look up at the sky and follow the green shimmers until I can no longer feel my toes.

Back on the bus, I kick off my snow boots and peel off some layers to let in the warm air.

Having witnessed the Northern Lights on the first night, everything else feels like a bonus.

And there are lots more bucket list experiences to be had, courtesy of Expedia, from dog sledding and whale watching to ice domes and fireside chats with Sami reindeer herders.

Under a pink haze, Laura rides through snow-laden valleys and vast snow fields on a sled pulled by five very eager dogs


1. Use a sturdy tripod

2. Bring a head torch 

3. Wear warm clothing

4. Be patient

5. Dim the brightness of your phone or camera screen so that your eyes are more sensitive to the Northern Lights

6. Know your phone or camera settings and set them up in advance

7. Once you are ready to take photographs, turn off all lights and keep light use to a minimum

8. Rent or buy a wide-angle lens for your phone or camera

9. If you’re in a group, ask if it’s okay to turn on your light before doing so

10. If you’re in a popular spot, you can share your position with others, side by side with your tripods

11. Use a remote shutter or timer to avoid camera shake

12. Experiment with composition, photographing from different angles or having a person in the frame to give perspective 

13. If using a DSLR camera or a smartphone with advanced camera settings, shoot in manual mode using:

* ISO: 800 to 1600 

* Aperture: F2.8 or faster (a lower number)

* Shutter speed: four to 10 seconds

* Set your camera focus to infinity

14. Invest in a guide for a full experience, with hot drinks, warm clothing hire and transportation. Or reach out to a photographer on Instagram who might offer to take you to the best locations for a fee 

Source: Tor-Ivar Næss, award-winning Northern Lights photographer

The trip had begun in earnest under the cover of darkness the previous night.

We touch down down at Tromso Airport where I can just about see the mist dancing in the light of the street lamps as the plane hits the runway.

Boarding the minivan to the hotel, I’m struck by its modern interior featuring leather seats and blue LED strip lights that wouldn’t be out of place in Magaluf.

What had I been expecting… a reindeer pickup?

Arriving at Clarion Hotel The Edge, our driver Viktor shares some parting advice: ‘In Tromso, it’s very slippery, every day, every hour. Be careful.’

It’s true. Taking three steps forward, I find myself slipping and sliding.

The following morning, we cross the Tromso Bridge in the dark on a one-hour bus journey to our first activity – dog sledding in Breivikeidet.

Laura’s clothing set-up for the chilly excursions she enjoys includes three pairs of long wool socks and a snowsuit

Laura’s hair is covered in frost as she steers the dog sled 

A sign reads ‘moose danger’. Seatbelt… check.

People are emerging from snow-capped houses and making the first snow footprints of the day. My clock says 8.30am, though it feels more like 5am.

The water looks like an enormous mirror, if mirrors were made of liquid. 

Later, it becomes shrouded in mist, making it appear as though we are driving above the clouds.

The sun begins to rise as we approach the site. Temperature check, -19C.

Under a pink haze, we ride through snow-laden valleys and vast snow fields on a sled pulled by five very eager dogs. And we are the drivers.

‘Whatever you do, don’t let go of the handlebar as the dogs won’t stop running,’ our guide warns. 

Heading back to Tromso, the sun begins to set, capping off just three hours of daybreak. This city doesn’t really wake up in winter.

Laura goes sledding with reindeer under the supervision of local Sami Herolina (pictured left)

Herolina shares stories about her family’s traditions by the fire in a traditional Lavvu tent

‘Hoofing’ around: A view of the mountains from the back of the reindeer sled

The big chill: The items Laura wears in a single day to stay warm in subzero temperatures

Arriving to the sound of church bells, we take the Fjellheisen cable car to a mountaintop viewpoint. Home lights flicker on as early as 2pm, as the sky retains the last glimmers of daylight.

Tucking into my soup at the Fjellstua Café Og Restaurant, it very much feels like dinnertime.

The next day, we go sledding with reindeer under the supervision of the local Sami people.

Your reindeer is Násti – not to be confused with ‘nasty’ – which means ‘little star’, our Sami guide Herolina explains.

After the 30-minute sled ride, Herolina joins us in by the fire in a traditional Lavvu tent and shares stories about her family’s traditions.

The canvas tents are used as shelter, she explains, when they travel through the mountains with their 3,000-strong reindeer herd on a 250-mile (400km) journey between their summer and winter resting grounds – in temperatures as low as -50C.

‘The water is shrouded in mist making it appear as though we are driving above the clouds,’ says Laura of the bus journey to Breivikeidet

It’s a portable alternative to the igloo shelters traditionally used in Canada. Genius.

Norway never went in for igloos – but it does have a hotel formed from ice domes.

It’s called Tromso Ice Domes. And does exactly what it says on the tin. 

We drop in and sit on furniture made from ice while enjoying local fruit juices served shot glasses made from ice.

Fancy staying the night? The beds are made from ice, too. 

That night, we set off on an odyssey to see more wildlife, embarking on an overnight voyage through the fjords onboard the MV Quest.

Wrapped up in my layers, with my snood scarf pulled over my nose and mouth to protect me against wind chill, I join aurora chaser Carlo Alberto outside on the front deck, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights once again. 

Laura embarks on an overnight voyage through the fjords onboard the MV Quest, where she looks out for the Northern Lights on the front deck (pictured)

Setting sail back towards Tromso, Laura returns to the deck to savour the final sunset

Sailing through the Arctic waters, he tells me we are standing beneath the Big Dipper and points at a warm light in the sky. ‘Jupiter,’ he adds.

It’s 2.30am. The clouds have rolled in, covering up any potential auroras, so I head to the captain’s cabin to warm up.

The crew seem glad for the company and invite me to sit in the driver’s seat.

‘It’s challenging out here,’ Captain Hordur Holm tells me as we gaze into the darkness catching the occasional red flashing light from a distant cargo ship.

The crew invites Laura to sit in the driver’s seat onboard the ship. ‘It’s challenging out here,’ says Captain Hordur Holm. ‘There is a lot of ice. It may be foggy, or snowing, and on top of this, we are mostly in darkness’

The ship sails through the fjords overnight from Tromso to Skjervoy, as indicated by the white line on the captain’s navigation system here

‘There is a lot of ice. It may be foggy, or snowing, and on top of this, we are mostly in darkness. It’s made me a much more confident seaman.’

Soothed by the gentle rocking of the boat, I retreat to my cabin and sleep through the night.

The morning brings a visit from a pod of sperm whales, swimming close to the boat off the coast of Skjervøy.

A sperm whale appears by the MV Quest and flicks its tail as it plunges back down

Laura watches whales gather and shoot jets of water into the air as they surface

First, a solitary whale shoots a jet of water skyward and flips its tail as it plunges back beneath the surface. 

Then several whales gather in the distance, identified only by misty clouds of water in the air. In a grand finale, a mother and her calf make a partial appearance above the water.

Setting sail back towards Tromso, I return to the deck to savour the final sunset and imagine what it would be like to live in one of the cabins I spot by the water’s edge.

Guests can stay overnight at this ice dome, in beds made from ice. Pictured: The dining hall

LEFT: The entrance to the ice dome. RIGHT: Laura is invited to try a local fruit juice served in a shot glass made from ice

Just chilling: All furniture inside the ice dome is carved out of blocks of ice

On the flight home the following morning, we catch the sunrise, a Norwegian classic – a peachy haze licking the horizon. Only this time, it is topped by a bright blue sky and I see the sun for the first time in four days.

It’s 12C when we touch down in Gatwick – toasty – and the magical extremes of the Arctic seem like a dream.

But frozen forever in my memory. 


The Northern Lights bus chase, dog sledding and reindeer sledding can be booked via Expedia.

Whale watching safaris onboard the MV Quest can be booked via Norwegian Travel.

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