Whenever I see a photo or video of the Northern Lights I’m in awe – it looks surreal, and it’s something I’ve longed to see with my own eyes! A cruise is a great way to seek out the Northern Lights as not only do you have all the comforts and luxuries of the ship for respite from the cold weather but you’ve also have the Captain’s Bridge surveying the sea and skies at night for you.
I've done minimal editing on my Northern Lights images (I've only increased the exposure and/or adjusted the crop and angle) to hopefully give you a good idea of what it was like...
5 tips for seeing the Northern Lights on a Cruise Ship:
- Book a Northern Europe/America cruise during the winter months (Iceland, Norway, Alaska…)
- Be patient and pack your thermals
- Find a spot away from any nearby bright lights
- Use your phone/camera lens as an extra eye
- Consider investing in a camera/lens that is good in low-light
1. There are cruises specifically for Northern Lights
The dark winter nights increase your chances of seeing the aurora borealis, particularly if you cruise up into the Arctic Circle where the sun doesn’t rise for some of the winter season and the skies are at their darkest.
I saw the Northern Lights on a Norwegian Fjord cruise in September – it was close to the horizon (looking north towards the Arctic Circle) so it wasn’t right overhead like it would be if you were further north, but it was still great to see with your own eyes!
There are numerous cruise lines offering Northern Light itineraries, but if you are planning to do a Norwegian Fjords cruise like me then I’d consider spotting the Northern Lights as a bonus – the scenery alone is incredible!
2. Be patient and be prepared!
If there’s a good chance of the Northern Lights appearing during your cruise, be patient, they can appear at any moment during the night and can come and go. During my Norwegian Fjord cruise they appeared after sunset (around 10.30pm) before emerging again around 1.30am the following morning. I stayed outside for a good hour before retiring to bed after missing the earlier sighting, only for the bridge to announce they had been spotted just as I was preparing for sleep!
Note: On my cruise they announced the Northern Lights had been spotted through the speakers in the public areas (outside the cabin), so I was lucky to have heard it – I don’t think I would have if I had been sleeping!
I’d also be prepared to leave your cabin at a moments notice by having your camera and warm clothes ready so you don’t feel like you have to rush to change. You could also pack a flask and have it waiting by your cabin kettle.
3. Find a spot away from bright lights
The lights on the cruise ship I found quite distracting, though I’d assume on cruises specifically geared around seeing the Northern Lights they’d factor this in so don’t be discouraged by my experience! The best area I found where the light pollution was most reduced was right at the front of the ship near the bridge (on the promenade deck), but some parts of the deck may be closed if there’s strong winds! Instead, I resorted to blocking out the lights with my hands pressed against my temples and waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.
4. Your camera/phone can help you
Your camera lens will probably allow in a lot more light than your eyes so you may see it better on your camera/phone screen. I think some people would be a bit underwhelmed by what I saw in comparison to what my camera picked up. For the most part I saw a thin belt of green haze across the horizon that occasionally changed shape and got brighter and darker. It did for a short while become much clearer and I got my best images from this moment but it was quite fleeting.
Taken on a iPhone (no enhancements/filters applied)
It was still an incredible experience and something I will cherish, but I think it’s good to not put your expectations too high as they’re hard to predict – especially if you’re on a cruise below the Arctic Circle like me!
5. Invest in a camera/lens that’s good with low-light conditions
My iPhone did a good job of capturing the aurora borealis, yes it was noisy (lots of grain) but you can still see what it is. My DSLR camera however I have a lot more control over – you have to factor in you are on a moving ship when reducing the shutter speed so I’d suggest experimenting with increasing the ISO, combined with the smallest aperture (f number) your camera lens allows.