HOW NOT TO PHOTOGRAPH THE NORTHERN LIGHTS

The first thing I should say is that none of the great photos you see in this post about the Northern Lights were taken by me. Not one of them. Despite the fact I recently spent part of the night standing in a cold dark field, watching the Aurora Borealis dancing across the night sky – my camera and tripod at the ready – I failed to get even a single shot. This was a shame, because I’d planned to write a blog about the whole thing and if nothing else, it would be an excuse to show off the stunning images, which I so naively imagined I’d take. In the end my photography trip turned out to be, as my kids might say, an epic fail.  This is the story of how not to photograph the Northern Lights.

Cottage and Northern Lights
Photo by Visit FInland

Finland is a great place to visit if you want to see the Northern Lights, because if the weather conditions are right, they are visible in all areas of the country – not just up in Lapland. This is good news for me and my family, as we live in eastern Finland (a long way from Lapland) and we’ve all been able to admire the Aurora Borealis from our back garden, but I’d never managed to get any photos. This is why I made a plan to photograph the Northern Lights the next time they came to town, and to do that I’d need to go to a place away from the street lamps and light pollution, where the display would look it’s brightest. One clear night when the solar winds were making their colourful show in the sky, I grabbed my camera bag and drove off to a quiet spot out of town, by the shore of a big lake.

I parked my car near the lake and was glad to see the area was suitably dark – all the better for my photography project. I grabbed my equipment and headed towards an open area of grassland near the shore, where I hoped to find a good place to set up the tripod. It was pitch-black and as I stumbled through the darkness without a torch (I didn’t think to take one), trying not to trip over any logs or fall in a ditch, I slowly became aware that I wasn’t alone in that quiet place. Squinting in the gloom, I began to see silhouetted figures – other Northern Lights photographers – clustered in pairs or groups of three. They were all standing still and mostly in complete silence, apart from the occasional whisper or mumble. Despite the slightly creepy pitch-dark setting, I felt pleased to be amongst fellow photographers; all braving the cold together on the same mission. This felt like camaraderie.

Northern Lights above a lake
Photo by Vastavalo/Visit Finland

I picked a spot on the shore where I could get a fine view of the Northern Lights and began to set up. I felt pleased with myself, that before leaving the house I’d made sure the camera battery was full, the flash was turned off and that I had plenty of space on the memory card – but these were the only preparations I’d made. It turns out I really hadn’t thought it through. Without any torch, it took me some time to get my tripod set up in the complete darkness and after finally managing it, I then had to spend an even longer amount of time attaching it to my camera. After this long delay, I was eager to get snapping, but it was so dark that at first I couldn’t even find the button to take the photo!

Eventually, I was ready to begin; finger on the button. I could now start to photograph the Northern Lights and impress friends and family with the results, but when I tried to take a photo, there was no click. Instead of taking a picture, my camera just made distressed whirring noises. In the darkness, I helplessly looked for other buttons to press on the camera, hoping it would help. All this button pressing meant I had to take my gloves off and my fingers got cold surprisingly quickly in the frosty night air. Eventually (and I don’t know why it took me so long, as I’m not normally that slow-witted), I realised my phone has a torch function.

Admiring the Northern Lights in Lapland
Photo by Harri Tarvainen/Ruka Saunatour

Aided by the useful light from my phone, I managed to open my camera menu and immediately set about randomly adjusting shutter speed, aperture, in fact adjusting just about every setting I could find. I tried again and again to take a picture, but nothing happened. Every so often I had to stop pressing buttons and put my hands back in my gloves, hoping to bring some feeling back to my fingers, before trying again. I kept hoping to find a magic camera setting, designed just for photographing Northern Lights – but of course there was no such setting. This whole sorry tale lasted about 45 minutes, until eventually I looked up to find the Northern Lights had gone.  At that point I also realized all the other photographers had packed up and gone too (I never even heard them moving – very strange).

It was then it occurred to me that the lens on my camera still had the Auto-Focus switched on, which was probably why it wasn’t taking any photos. The whirring noise I kept hearing was probably the sound of my camera trying in vain to focus in the dark. It was too late now, of course – the show was over. The Northern Lights and my fellow photographers had disappeared and it was just me alone on an empty dark lake shore, feeling like a complete idiot who doesn’t even know how to use his own camera. A little research beforehand about how to photograph the Northern Lights would have gone a long way.

Northern Lights in Lapland
Photo by VIsit Finland

Even though I could have stayed a while to admire the starry sky, I was cold, a little creeped out in the dark and not feeling very much like a photographer anymore – so I decided to call it a night and go home for a nice cup of tea.

If you would like to see the magical Northern Lights in Finland, we have many cottages in settings that are ideal for spotting these mysterious colours dancing in the sky. Book your front row seat for the show here.

Here’s our top 3 tips for photographing the Northern Lights:

1. Choose suitable location

It’s a clear night and the Northern Lights have appeared in the sky – fantastic! – but make sure you’re in the best location to photograph them. Find a place away from artificial light sources, where you’ll get the brightest display.

2. Take correct equipment

The right camera (it must have an option for manual settings), tripod (essential), torch (equally essential), plenty of warm clothes, snacks and a flask of tea or coffee. Bring some friends along too, so you don’t feel creeped-out in the dark.

3. Know your camera

Make sure you fully understand all the manual functions on your camera. The auto settings won’t cut it for this job, so research the correct settings for shutter speed, aperture, ISO, zoom & focus, and also consider remote shutter release. You’ll find guidance online.