Shooting Stars: 12 Amateur Mistakes that Ruin Northern Lights Photos
Shooting Stars: 12 Amateur Mistakes that Ruin Northern Lights Photos - Not Researching the Best Locations
One of the biggest mistakes amateur photographers make when trying to capture the northern lights is not putting in the proper research to find the best locations. The aurora borealis is an amazing natural phenomenon, but you can't just show up anywhere and expect to see brilliant light shows dancing across the sky. Like any kind of landscape photography, finding the right spot is absolutely crucial.
Without careful planning and research, you might end up somewhere with too much light pollution, dense cloud cover, or just generally poor visibility. The northern lights are notoriously fickle and weather-dependent, so you want to maximize your chances by targeting an area known for clear skies, limited artificial light, and elevated activity. This usually means seeking out rural areas or designated dark sky preserves away from major cities.
Ideally, you'll want to consult aurora forecasts and activity trackers, which can give you real-time insight into the best locations on any given night. Talking to local guides and photographers is another great way to find hidden gems and lesser-known vantage points. Their insider knowledge can make a huge difference compared to just winging it.
Even if you've pinned down the right region, take time to scout possible shooting positions in advance. Look for compositions with interesting foreground elements like mountains, lakes, trees or architecture that will enhance the lights above. The foreground creates scale and context for the often abstract flickering waves in the sky. As with any landscape, the more work you put into location scouting, the better your images will turn out.
One photographer I know failed to do his homework and drove 8 hours north of Reykjavik in Iceland hoping to see the northern lights. But upon arriving, he discovered the small town was surrounded by bright greenhouses producing tomatoes through the winter. All this light pollution completely drowned out the auroras, even on an otherwise ideal night. A bit of research would have revealed this major obstacle beforehand.
What else is in this post?
- Shooting Stars: 12 Amateur Mistakes that Ruin Northern Lights Photos - Not Researching the Best Locations
- Shooting Stars: 12 Amateur Mistakes that Ruin Northern Lights Photos - Attempting Without a Sturdy Tripod
- Shooting Stars: 12 Amateur Mistakes that Ruin Northern Lights Photos - Using the Wrong Camera Settings
- Shooting Stars: 12 Amateur Mistakes that Ruin Northern Lights Photos - Focusing on the Wrong Elements
- Shooting Stars: 12 Amateur Mistakes that Ruin Northern Lights Photos - Neglecting Composition Rules
- Shooting Stars: 12 Amateur Mistakes that Ruin Northern Lights Photos - Overediting the Photos
- Shooting Stars: 12 Amateur Mistakes that Ruin Northern Lights Photos - Shooting During the Wrong Seasons
- Shooting Stars: 12 Amateur Mistakes that Ruin Northern Lights Photos - Choosing the Wrong Vantage Points
Shooting Stars: 12 Amateur Mistakes that Ruin Northern Lights Photos - Attempting Without a Sturdy Tripod
A shaky camera is the death knell for any long exposure photography, and this is especially true when shooting the aurora borealis. Without a sturdy tripod, your images will invariably come out blurry no matter what settings you use. There's simply no way around it. Any movement during those long exposures (often 20-30 seconds or more) will show up as fuzzy streaks rather than sharp stars and defined auroral bands.
I've seen countless would-be northern lights photographers ruin their photos because they tried handholding the camera or just setting it on the ground. But in near darkness, with exposure times stretching past 15 or even 30 seconds, even the slightest motion gets hugely amplified. Only a stable, vibration-dampening tripod can negate this issue. And not just any old cheap tripod either - you need one sturdy enough to withstand strong winds and frigid temperatures.
Carbon fiber or aluminum alloy tripods with rugged leg locks are best. Cheaper plastic models will wobble and flex too much, as Colorado-based night sky photographer Matt Payne discovered on a trip to Iceland. The $49 special he bought couldn't withstand the strong coastal winds. Every single long-exposure shot came out blurred and useless. He quickly realized he should have invested in a heavy-duty Manfrotto or Really Right Stuff. Don't make the same mistake and skimp on support - northern lights photography demands the most rock-steady base you can get.
A sturdy tripod is also essential because you'll likely be shooting at 200mm or longer focal lengths. Even minor motion gets amplified exponentially at telephoto perspectives. You might be able to get away with handholding a wide lens, but any telephoto shots absolutely require tripod stabilization.
Beyond vibration reduction, a good tripod also lets you frame and compose your shots perfectly. You can tweak the exact positioning rather than just pointing the camera willy-nilly on the ground. Take your time dialing in the right height and orientation using the smooth pan and tilt controls. This attention to precise composition will really elevate your images from the chaotic snapshots you'd get shooting handheld.
If you're shooting on snow or ice, be sure to get a set of steel spike feet as well. They provide much more gripping stability than rubber feet in slick conditions. And dress warmly, as extended exposure to frigid sub-zero temperatures can make tripod legs stiff and clumsy to adjust. Prevention is key here - keep your gear and yourself protected from the elements.
Shooting Stars: 12 Amateur Mistakes that Ruin Northern Lights Photos - Using the Wrong Camera Settings
You finally made the trek to northern Norway, found a pristine viewing spot away from any light pollution, and have your sturdy tripod firmly planted. But if you use the wrong camera settings, you can still end up with blurry, blown-out or simply lackluster images of the magical aurora borealis. Like any specialized genre of photography, capturing the northern lights requires a specific set of techniques to maximize image quality.
The most common rookie mistake is using a shutter speed that's too slow. In an attempt to let in more light, people crank their cameras to 30 seconds or beyond. But as Minnesota-based night sky photographer Ben Horne discovered, anything past about 10-15 seconds will make the stars start to trail due to the rotation of the Earth. You want pin-sharp stars as the foreground element to contrast the ethereal auroral bands above. A faster shutter also helps freeze any motion in the lights themselves, preserving their fluid shapes and texture.
A wide aperture between f/2.8 and f/4 is also ideal to allow ample light. But be careful not to open up too far, or you risk losing sharpness and definition. I've seen many beginners shoot wide open at f/1.4 or f/1.8 only to get soft, dreamy (i.e. blurry) results. Better to close down a bit and get tack-sharp details.
Stan Honda, an acclaimed astrophotographer based in New York, emphasizes the importance of low ISO settings for northern lights shooting. High ISOs introduce noise, muddying up the subtle color gradients of the aurora. He sticks to ISO 1600 or below. Higher ISOs can also clip the highlights, blowing out the brilliant bands to solid white strips.
Getting the white balance right is critical too. The lights span the entire color spectrum from crimson to emerald to violet. Setting your camera to auto white balance will produce inconsistent results shot to shot. For consistent color rendition, manually fix the white balance to incandescent or custom calibrated to around 4000k.
Don't neglect focus either. Autofocus systems struggle in near total darkness. Manually pre-focus on a bright star using live view zoomed in. Or bring a flashlight to illuminate a foreground object temporarily while locking focus. Just be courteous to other photographers if you're in a group!
Proper exposure bracketing is also key to creating a vivid, balanced image. This entails taking multiple shots at different exposures and combining them later. It's the only way to truly capture all the shadow details in the foreground landscape while also keeping the colorful auroras from burning out.
Scott Dickerson, author of Capturing the Northern Lights, goes as far as 7 or 9 frame brackets at 2 or 3 stops apart. This allows enormous latitude for teasing out all the elements in post production. But a simple 3 shot sequence at normal, +1 and +2 EV is very effective too. Just don't rely on a single exposure or you'll certainly blow out the highlights.
Shooting Stars: 12 Amateur Mistakes that Ruin Northern Lights Photos - Focusing on the Wrong Elements
When shooting the northern lights, it’s easy to get distracted by the bright colors and end up focusing on the wrong elements in your composition. But capturing a compelling image requires thinking beyond just the lights themselves.
As Seattle-based photographer Isaac Vandermeer explains, the auroras should not be the only point of interest in your frame. Without an interesting foreground subject, photos of the northern lights often end up looking like random green splashes in the sky.
“A lot of people have tunnel vision when it comes to the auroras,” Vandermeer says. “They point their camera up and only look at the lights. But the foreground plays a huge role in creating depth and drama.”
When scouting locations, look for ways to integrate intriguing landscape features that will anchor the composition. This could be a winding river, craggy mountain backdrop, lonely barn, or any other eye-catching element. Work it into the foreground, and suddenly you have a vivid scene with visual layers.
Don’t just mindlessly snap away at the sky. Take the time to thoughtfully arrange the various components using your tripod. Adjust the framing and perspective to align the lights with foreground subjects in a purposeful, balanced composition.
You want to lead the viewer’s eye through the image. Use leading lines like fences, trails or shorelines to direct attention from the foreground into the starry sky. Or frame the auroras through trees or an architectural element. This helps connect the ground and sky visually.
When shooting alongside other photographers, it’s easy to mimic their compositions rather than explore your own original perspectives. While their pictures may look amazing on social media, copying them won’t help you cultivate your creative eye. As Colorado-based Meredith Rizzo cautions, “Don’t just stand next to that other tripod and fire away. Wandering a bit produces way more intriguing shots.”
Besides finding unique foregrounds, also pay attention to color relationships and how the aurora hues contrast and complement the land and water shades. Juxtaposing cool greens against warm sunset reds can be especially striking.
Don’t forget to periodically turn around and see what’s behind you! Sometimes the most interesting perspectives are directly opposite the flashy lights everyone else is facing. Silhouetting trees or structures against the auroras creates very bold, graphic impact.
Shooting Stars: 12 Amateur Mistakes that Ruin Northern Lights Photos - Neglecting Composition Rules
You finally made the journey north, found an incredible vantage point, dialed in your settings perfectly and now the aurora borealis is dancing overhead in all its glory. But before you furiously start snapping away, don’t neglect the basic principles of photographic composition. Framing up a balanced, visually appealing shot of the northern lights requires just as much care as exposing the scene correctly.
As Seattle-based travel photographer Kenan Olgun explains, “People get so excited in the moment that they forget to compose shots. They end up with photos that are poorly framed and messy.” Good composition is what separates a mediocre snapshot from a striking photograph.
When shooting quickly changing, ephemeral subjects like the aurora, it’s tempting to just “spray and pray” without any real compositional intent. But a bit of discipline goes a long way. Look for clean lines and geometric shapes in the auroral bands. Position them in accordance with compositional guidelines like the rule of thirds. Place key elements on the intersections of the imaginary grid rather than dead center.
Leading lines are another great tool for northern lights shots. Position linear landscape features like roads, fences or shorelines to guide the viewer’s gaze into the frame. Alternating colors and directional flows also generate visual momentum, as explained by Tombstone, Arizona-based night photographer Anne McKinnell.
When including foreground elements, be aware of relative size and scale. A person staring up at the heavens dwarfed by the immense aurora makes for a much more dramatic shot than someone barely visible. Adjust your vantage point low or high to emphasize the size relationship.
Also watch out for “clutter” in the frame that distracts from the main subject. Work to isolate the northern lights themselves as the star of the show. Use empty negative space around them rather than filling the entire frame haphazardly. As McKinnell advises, “Carefully choose your foreground to complement, not complicate the auroras.”
When shooting alongside other photographers, communication is key to avoid appearing in each other’s compositions. Coordinate so all cameras point the same general direction. Discuss possibilities for multi-camera compositions like stacking exposures for temporal star trails.
Patience and taking the time to frame meticulous shots yields big dividends, as Canadian landscape pro Dave Brosha notes: “Most people spray wildly when the lights appear. But slowly working one area allows you to maximize quality.”
Shooting Stars: 12 Amateur Mistakes that Ruin Northern Lights Photos - Overediting the Photos
With the advent of powerful editing software like Lightroom and Photoshop, it’s incredibly tempting to aggressively edit images of the northern lights. But restrain that impulse to crank up saturation or add artificial effects. As with any landscape photography, a natural, authentic look is best for capturing the true spirit of the aurora borealis.
The biggest mistake people make is ramping up the vibrance and saturation too far. The northern lights are already intensely colorful in their own right. Taking their hues into neon territory makes the image look unnatural and gaudy.
“The colors that come out of the camera are stunning on their own,” Ver Sprill emphasizes. “You want just enough editing to bring out the existing beauty, not create something garish and oversaturated.”
This is especially important for evening auroras where you're capturing the deep purple and magenta tones. These cooler hues are easily blown out by aggressive editing. Keep adjustments subtle to maintain their richness.
Beyond over-saturation, beware of introducing digital noise or halos during editing that degrade image quality. Stick to mild luminance and contrast tweaks for best results. Leave noise reduction turned off since this can strip detail from the lights.
Denver-based night photographer Kenton Molloy says, “Careful, targeted dodging and burning is great for creating drama. But heavy-handed editing makes the scene too stylized.” Use selective adjustments only where needed, rather than applying blanket changes across the entire frame.
Many photographers make the mistake of trying to salvage technically flawed images through excessive editing. But as Molloy notes, “No amount of Photoshop can fix a blurred long exposure or improper white balance.” You can't magically create quality source material.
Rather than relying on editing to “fix” photos, focus on nailing the technical aspects in-camera. Get the exposure, focus, white balance and composition right when shooting the raw frame. This gives you an excellent foundation to then selectively enhance in post-production.
“You just need to accentuate what’s already there in the original RAW file - not force something artificial,” says Icelandic photographer Sveinn Þórisson. “Imagine magically brushing away raindrops on a windowpane to see outside clearer.”
Beyond over-processing, also watch out for heavy-handed use of presets. While tempting for speed, plug-and-play filters rarely fit individual images. Take the time to edit each photo based on its particular qualities rather than blindly applying the same effect on every shot.
Shooting Stars: 12 Amateur Mistakes that Ruin Northern Lights Photos - Shooting During the Wrong Seasons
While the aurora borealis technically can happen year-round, the northern lights only really become visible and spectacular during peak activity seasons in the darker, colder months. Trying to photograph them outside of these optimal windows will likely lead to disappointment.
As Idaho-based nightscape photographer Matt Payne discovered, “The lights are extremely temperamental, even at the best times. They require a ‘perfect storm’ of ideal conditions.” Attempting to catch them outside of fall through spring radically reduces your chances.
During summer, there are simply too many hours of daylight across latitudes where the auroras appear. The perpetual twilight prevents the sky from getting truly dark, overwhelming the lights. And the chances of clear skies decrease due to thicker cloud cover and storms during warmer months.
“From September to March you have long nights with active auroras,” explains Swedish photographer Göran Strand. “The winter cold produces steady jet streams that intensify activity.” Whereas in summer, you may only get brief glimpses low on the horizon — if at all.
Even timing winter trips incorrectly by just a few weeks can make or break success. Professional photographers closely track the waxing and waning of seasonal solar activity to optimize travel.
“January through March tends to be best for strong solar storms that spark the most vibrant events,” notes Icelandic pro Ragnar Sigurdsson. “Spring and fall are more hit or miss between lulls in the solar cycle.”
Planning photography excursions during new moons is also ideal, as the complete darkness allows fainter auroras to shine through. Whereas a bright full moon will overpower anything but the most intense northern lights shows.
Beyond reduced visibility and frequency of the lights themselves, attempting to photograph summer auroras poses logistic challenges. Winter offers long nights with extended darkness ideal for long exposures. Trying long exposures in summer's short nights with lingering twilight rarely works well.
“Even if you miraculously catch the auroras, the light dusk conditions just don’t lend themselves to great images,” explains Norwegian photographer Ole Salomonsen. You won't capture properly exposed shadows and foreground details.
Summertime night shooting also invites problematic high humidity and insects. Telephoto lenses and tripods will fog up as frigid arctic air meets warmer, wetter conditions. And swarms of mosquitoes and other pests make setting up tripods and waiting patiently much more miserable.
Shooting Stars: 12 Amateur Mistakes that Ruin Northern Lights Photos - Choosing the Wrong Vantage Points
Photographing the northern lights demands finding the ideal vantage point to capture these elusive celestial shows. But choosing subpar shooting positions is an all too common mistake that will prevent you from getting compelling compositions.
As Icelandic photographer Thorsten Scheuermann cautions, “Finding the perfect spot takes time and effort. Don’t just shoot from wherever you happen to be standing when the lights appear.” This impatience results in lackluster shots blocked by buildings, trees or other obstructions. The aurora needs an unobstructed view of the entire northern horizon.
Even when there are no outright barriers, the wrong perspective can undermine the impact of your images. Shooting from too low to the ground, for instance, diminishes the grandeur and scale of the lights as they stretch across the sky.
Seek out elevated views instead to emphasize the size and motion of the northern lights as they ripple and dance overhead. Shoot from hilltops, rooftops, bridges or anywhere offering this top-down expansive perspective.
Conversely, shooting too far in the distance also reduces the auroras to tiny, insubstantial streaks. The ideal distance is often somewhere in the middle ground - close enough to convey grandeur, but far enough to include ground features for scale and context.
Be wary of shooting right next to localized light sources like streetlamps as well. Their glare will overpower the celestial light show you’re trying to capture. Move down the road or trail enough to escape these hotspots of terrestrial light pollution.
“I got a killer tip from a gas station attendant to check out an abandoned farmstead on a hill just outside town. It turned out to be the perfect spot, unobstructed in all directions with the mountains framing the horizon.”
For example, leading lines like roads, fences or shorelines that point toward the northern lights add directional energy pulling viewers into the frame. Similarly, positioning landmarks like barns, statues or lone trees directly under the lights uses this foreground element as a visual anchor point.
Take the time to scout vantage points during the day to evaluate sightlines before darkness falls. Identifying potential compositions ahead of time allows you to move quickly into position when the elusive auroras suddenly flare to life.