Northern Lights

How not to photograph the Northern Lights

Written by Martijn
These days everybody seems to be talking about their endless ‘bucketlist’. I’m not really a person who likes to make lists of things to do before you turn 30 (or something like that), simply because it increases the chance of setting your expectations too high and moving onto the next item on ‘the list’ without actually enjoying the one thing you are doing. Of course, everybody has their own dreams and interests in things they want to see and do. One thing often mentioned on bucketlists, is seeing the Northern Lights. My interest in seeing this phenomenon actually awakened when I saw an image online reflecting the different layers of the atmosphere, but for many of us, the one reason for wanting to see them, is finding Northern Lights pictures everywhere these days. Just open Instagram or Facebook, they are all over the web.
When traveling all the way up north to Finland last year for the Nordic Blogger Experience 2015, I really wanted to get that one amazing shot, especially because I had been to northern Finland (also called Lapland) twice before and never saw the Northern Lights then.
To get an idea of the various layers of the atmosphere of the earth, you can find a lot of information on the internet, for example on this Wikipedia page. We all say we’d like to see the Northern Lights, but do we actually know what they are?
This polar light is produced when solar particles enter the earth’s atmosphere. The energy that is created, is what we call the Northern Lights. Clouds are usually 20 kms from the surface of the earth, while the Northern Lights usually occur at an altitude of at least 100 kms from the surface of the earth. The Northern Lights are also called Aurora Borealis and can be seen in the Northern Hemisphere, while the Southern Lights (also known as Aurora Australis) is seen in the Southern Hemisphere.
My perfect shots of the Northern Lights were everything but perfect. Here is a list of five mistakes I made while attempting to capture them.

Mistake 1: No tripod

Light = Right. So when I travel, I try to pack as efficent and effective as possible, meaning I won’t carry a tripod. Not just the weight, but also the size keep me from bringing one. A tripod is necessary to keep your camera as still as is needed to make the perfect picture. Luckily, one of my travel companions was kind enough to borrow me his tripod so I was still be able to shoot some pictures.

Mistake 2: Cold weather

We were in the Finnish region called Enontekiö. At night, the temperature dropped until -40 ℃ and when it’s this cold, it’s incredibly uncomfortable to be outside. You will even risk hypothermia at this point. I brought my camera-bag with a spare battery, however this one already died before I could even take it out of the bag. My advice: keep spare batteries closer to your body so they can stay warm. Note: -40 ℃ is pretty extreme …
cold weather in finland

Mistake 3: Darkness

To capture a good Northern Lights photo, you have to be at a dark location with as little unnatural light as possible. Because of the cold circumstances (see mistake 2) we stayed close to our accommodation, trying to avoid cooling down too much. Just when I had put my camera in the right position, it turned out that I saw a little bit of blue and red lights in the distance. Were this the Northern Lights? Or just the neon lights of a nearby gas station? Just try to find a spot that is as dark as possible, without putting yourself to the risk of hypothermia, of course.

Mistake 4: Know your camera

I had a lot of trouble with the settings of my Nikon, more specifically with switching off the AF (autofocus). The autofocus on my camera doesn’t work well when there is little natural light and it took me almost ten minutes until I found a way to switch off the AF light assist. By then, I could finally start shooting, without being told it was too dark. Those minutes searching for the right settings, caused a lot of stress. So yes, I really should have done better research…
Nikon AF-assist illuminator

Mistake 5: Background

After I finally got the settings right, put my borrowed tripod in place and stood at the right location, I was able to capture the Northern Lights. However, this time I made the mistake to point it at the sky too much, so the Northern Lights were just a green glow in the sky. Make sure you don’t point your camera too much up, but that you also include something that’s closer to you such as a person who can stand still for a while or a wooden shed.
northern lights
If you want a bunch of likes and shares on your Facebook or Instagram page, then don’t make the same mistakes I made. Having said that, I still believe that the Aurora Borealis is best witnessed with your own eyes, rather than through your camera lens. And that, my dear readers, is an eternal memory inside my mind.
Want to know how to capture the Northern Lights? These blogs will be a great help.
Tips for Photographing the Northern Lights via Luxe Adventure Traveler
Dare to switch your camera to manual? via Practically Perfect Mums
How to photograph the Northern Lights via Destination Unknown
10 Tips for Photographing the Northern Lights op Fodor’s Travel
Photographing the Northern Lights in Yellowknife, Canada via Exploring the Blue Marble
The Northern Lights in Ireland! via Vibrant Ireland.
Fortunately, I’m not the only one who failed capturing them. Check these for more stories:
The Northern Lights via Travel Rat
On cameras and equipment via Booze, Food, Travel
Want to read more? You may also like these:
Outdoors Finland: 10 Things to do in Saimaa
Things you just have to do when you are in Finland!
Winter in Alaska: the Iditarod
Thank you for sharing!


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