Alta: the town of the northern lights

Situated in the far north of Norway, Alta is a prime spot to experience the mysterious northern lights. And with our tips from resident photography expert Tor-Ivar Næss, dust off your lens and go in search of this natural phenomenon

The Norwegian town of Alta is the largest town in the newly created county of Troms og Finnmark (formed when two formerly separate regions, Troms and Finnmark, merged in 2020.) Located in the extreme northeast of the country at a latitude of 70°N, it sits well within the Arctic Circle and is one of our most northerly ports of call, making it an excellent base for a northern lights hunt. 

It was in Alta in 1899 that the Norwegian physicist Kristian Birkeland chose to open the world’s first observatory with the specific aim of researching the aurora borealis. In fact, the town is so well placed for viewing the famous phenomenon that it has earned itself the nickname of ‘the northern lights town’.

Being a natural phenomenon, displays are never guaranteed. But many locals have become experts in analysing weather forecasts and working out which locations will be best for viewing them on a given day. Our Northern Lights cruise holidays feature two evenings in Alta as well as shore excursions run by locals in the know to give guests the best possible chance of catching this beautiful light show. 

On the In Search of the Northern Lights shore experience, an expert guide will lead you away from the town to a Sámi camp called a lavvu where you can enjoy hot drinks and warm facilities while you scan the dark skies for signs of the lights. For the avid photographers, don’t forget to step out from behind the lens for a while and enjoy this breathtaking natural phenomenon with your own eyes – you won’t want to miss any of this magical experience.

With two evenings in port there is plenty of time to explore the town’s other attractions. Learn about the local culture and see the ancient rock carvings at Alta Museum before looking around the striking Northern Lights Cathedral, inaugurated in 2013 and shaped like a spiral coiling upwards, representing the aurora borealis. 

Alta is a playground for winter adventures, too. On the Alta Husky Adventure shore experience* you have the opportunity to experience the thrill of a husky-driven sled adventure through the winter wonderland of northern Norway, followed by comforting hot drinks around a log fire in a cosy Sámi tent, while on the Sámi Camp and Reindeer Sledging you can soak up the romance of a traditional reindeer sledge ride while learning about the Sámi culture.

Another popular attraction in the area is the Igloo Hotel, which is made entirely from snow and ice and is only open from mid-January to mid-April. It is rebuilt every year to a different theme to create bedrooms, a bar, lounges and even a chapel. During the day you can pay a visit to the hotel to explore the rooms and admire the incredible ice sculptures before having a drink in the bar – served in a glass hand-carved from ice, of course. For a once-in-a-lifetime experience, guests can also spend a night at the hotel, sleeping on a bed made entirely from ice on the Overnight at the Igloo Hotel shore experience. The temperature will be well below freezing, but with arctic sleeping bags and reindeer skins to keep you warm, we hear it’s a cosy experience.

Capturing the lights: tips from the expert

Norwegian photographer Tor-Ivar Næss has been living beneath the aurora borealis most of his life and is renowned for his land- and nightscapes. Here he shares some photography tips on capturing the magic of the northern lights through a lens.

‘My favourite kind of aurorae are the fast-moving ones and especially the ones that form curtains of green, purple and blue in the sky. To be a good photographer of the aurora borealis several qualities are needed, and patience is certainly one of them. It’s always worth the wait – seeing the lights is thrilling.

‘Solar-storm forecasts, such as, help to identify when conditions are optimal to see the lights. As for my favourite times and places to shoot, I prefer to get away from city lights when there is a full moon. Photographing the lights near water will allow you to catch good reflections. Capturing them up in the mountains will allow you to get a wider view of both the landscape and the sky.

‘If you are serious about photographing the lights, and you can purchase or borrow a tripod for your camera, do it. To capture the lights requires you to keep your camera still for several seconds. Another important factor is that you should figure out how to focus manually. The northern lights are far, far away and you want to turn your focus ring to the infinity mark in order to get a sharp photo of them. I always shoot in manual mode. This allows me to use the settings needed to capture the northern lights: I turn the aperture to f2.8, (the lowest I can go with my ultrawide-angle lens) and I turn the ISO setting to 1600. Then I adjust the shutter speed to a point where I am overexposing the scene by 4-20 seconds. The lower the shutter speed, the better. The aurora borealis move at speeds of 400km per second or more, so to catch details in the movement I crank up my ISO. The result is grainier, but this is worth it when I get better contrast in the streaks I call aurora curtains.

‘I’ll cross my fingers that there will be solar storms when you are on your cruise and I hope the weather will be kind to you.’

*These tours are seasonal and usually operate between the months of January and March.