I learned the hard way.
The first time I went hunting for the Northern Lights was in Kiruna in the far north of Sweden. On the third night, after two of unsuccessful hunting, the Lights finally revealed themselves, streaking the sky with green stripes. Armed with my camera, I swung into action, lining them up in my viewfinder and snapping away. It was a modest showing, and after three or four minutes, the sky went black. I was elated, but, if I'm behind honest, it was probably more so about the prospect of posting that shot to social media. Then I scrolled through my rolI: photo after photo of nothing but pitch black. That night, as I lay in bed, I wondered: Had I seen the Northern Lights—like really seen them?
The answer was no. I regretted it so much that I decided to plan another Scandinavia trip and, this time, to do it right: without my camera (sorry friends in my feed!)
I planned my redo in Tromso, Norway. I saw reds, greens, purples, and blues. The white of the snow and the sturdiness of the pine forest. I noticed how the lights danced across the sky, like a pair of hands crawling down in an invisible piano. I was also struck this time around by how ephemeral they were: People talk about how quickly they change but they also just as quickly disappear. Had I been snapping a million shots, one look away and I could've missed their final act.
Yeah, people say a picture is worth a thousand words (and there aren't many more sexier than a photo of the Northern Lights) but you know what's worth even more? A fully-lived experience. And while I'm not here to argue the merits of social media or our photograph-obsessed cultured, I will say this type of experience is best lived with just your own two eyes, the gleeful hugs of friends, and zero selfies.