Are the Northern Lights real?

Photo by Steffen Fossbakk, cropped

The british travel journalist for newspaper The Independent, Julia Beckley, wrote about her hunt for the Northern Lights in Tromso last week. She describes it as her most disappointing travel experience ever.

When Nordlys, the local newspaper in Tromso, wrote about Buckleys article, it started a turmoil in social media. Some people were fuming, claiming that the marketing efforts of the Northern Lights are nothing short of a real scam. -When you market the Northern Lights with amazing photos, created with the most advanced cameras available, and you are not able to see the same thing with your naked eye, it’s a scam some says. Others claim that the Northern Lights are even more spectacular when experienced in real life because it can fill the entire sky from one horizon to the other, something you can never capture with a camera.

Director of tourism in Visit Tromso, Chris Hudson, believes Buckley came to Tromso with Disneylike expectations. However, Hudson also says that it is their job to make sure that the expectations visitors have when they come to Tromso, is set at the right level and that it matches the product being offered.


Weak Northern Lights are grey

Truls Lynne Hansen

Truls Lynne Hansen has worked at the University in Tromso for 35 years where he has been in charge of Tromso geophysical observatory, also known as the Northern Lights Observatory. He retired 3 years ago, and has followed the discussions after Beckleys article last week.
-The pictures that are being published in newspapers and marketing materials are all the very best photos where both conditions and photographers equipment and skills are at it’s very extreme best, Hansen says to newspaper Nordlys. The usual Northern Lights that are visible to the naked eye, often seems just grey because our eyes are not capable of catching all the colours the Northern Lights have to offer.

Hansen explains that human beings have two sight components, one that recognizes black and white and one that recognizes colours. -The weakest Northern Lights looks just grey to the human eye, but a modern camera is so sensitive to light that it perceives a much wider colour spectrum. A camera always sees a wide range of colours, simply because it’s more sensitive than our human eye, Hansen says to local newspaper Nordlys.

Thats why you get a mismatch between what you see on pictures, and what you see with your naked eye. -A modern camera will exaggerate the brightness. The contrast between the black sky and the Northern Lights gets more distinct and clear, and you get the impression that its all far more amazing than it really is. Hansen believes a lot of the Northern Lights photos that are being taken, creates expectations that can’t be fulfilled. It’s not scam, but it’s simply not realistic for the average tourist to experience it. The tourist industry should be on guard, Hansen says, so that the expectations visitors have when they come to Tromso are at the right level.


Hunting the perfect picture

In many of the photos Hansen have seen, the Northern Lights are being reflected in water. In reality, that’s really rare says the retired Northern Lights expert to newspaper Nordlys. -The Northern Lights may sometimes shine bright and you might get reflections in water, but the reflections are mostly too weak to be seen by the naked eye.


The more typical Northern Lights experience. Photo by Gunn Bergheim


Hansen has also noticed that most of the photos that are being shared and published, have lots of hard work behind them. It’s amazing to witness how dedicated some photographers can become in their hunt for the perfect picture. They can hunt for a photo for years. They have found a background or foreground, and goes to that same place over and over again waiting for the perfect moment where the moon and Northern Lights line up perfectly the way they have imagined.

Sell the experience

Hansen has taken his share of Northern Light photos, but in his opinion the photos can’t match the real life experience. -There are three things I want to emphasize when i talk about Northern Lights, Hansen says.

-Number one is how big it is. It can stretch all over the skies from one horizon to the other. You will never be able to catch that in a good way with a camera.
-Number two is the colours. They are nothing like anything else you can see in nature.
-Number three is the movements. The movements and dynamics in Northern Lights will never be captured in a static photo.

Hansen believes Tromso should market the Northern Lights experience. The things you bring with you in your own memory, and not on a memory stick.

-A lot of photographers have good reason to be satisified with their photos, but they will never be able to capture the Northern Lights experience. Thats what we have to sell to our visitors, Hansen says. -I just hope its dramatic enough, he adds.