I Screwed Up the Northern Lights. How Did You Do?

I Screwed Up the Northern Lights. How Did You Do?

Your social media feeds have probably been full of purple and green night skies that last few days if you're almost anywhere in the United States, or if you have U.S.-based friends. Chances are, they got a good glimpse of and possibly photographed a rare event: Northern Lights.

Except for me. I didn't get those photos. And as a photographer, I'm really kicking myself about it.

I started seeing the photos around midnight or so on Friday night. And then the messages came in from friends not even two hours away from where I was — beautiful skies that I thought I'd never get to see. The northern lights are a result of particularly strong solar storms that cause the sky to light up in various colors, and they're usually not visible as far south as New York.

And so, following my own advice to never wait to take that photo, I grabbed my Canon EOS R5 and Canon RF 16mm f/2.8 STM lens, knowing that the camera would also probably be able to see more in the sky than my eyes could. It was a little cloudy and a little bright where I was, but I figured I could drive to a less populated area with less light pollution.

I settled on one of Long Island's most recognizable roadside oddities: The Big Duck. Surely, this would add some visual interest to my photo. While that may have been the case, after fiddling for quite a while with different exposures hoping to get some color out of the sky, the best I got was only the faintest hint of purple from behind the clouds.

So much fail in one (composited) photo.
Definitely something going on in the sky back there (aside from lens flare), but nothing that really screams, "Northern Lights."

There was time. I should have driven off Long Island. Connecticut was only a few hours away, and I'd still make it somewhere without clouds for the 2 a.m.-ish peak. I had students drive 10 hours into the heart of totality for the solar eclipse; surely, I could have done this.

But instead, I tried for another remote Long Island town without lights and ended up with the photo at the top of this post in Calverton, N.Y. Clearly, no Aurora Borealis here.

I tried again the following night on Saturday, but struck out even harder, even though I trekked all the way to Montauk Point, the farthest point on Long Island, away from all the lights. The cloud cover was even worse.

So, to the readers in the United States, how did you make out with your Northern Lights photos? Share them in the comments below!

Wasim Ahmad's picture

Wasim Ahmad is an assistant teaching professor teaching journalism at Quinnipiac University. He's worked at newspapers in Minnesota, Florida and upstate New York, and has previously taught multimedia journalism at Stony Brook University and Syracuse University. He's also worked as a technical specialist at Canon USA for Still/Cinema EOS cameras.

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I set an alarm for midnight on Friday. It was nothing when we first showed up at the lake, but it was only about 10 minutes later the sky just blew up. The second photo is from Saturday night, which is much fainter. It didn’t look much like this with the naked eye, but the camera really picked up the color.

This is amazing! Where were you for these?

Omaha Nebraska, near Zorinsky lake.

I have a very similar story. I live in Florida so had zero expectation of the light show making it anywhere near here. Then around 11:30 Friday night as I was getting ready to go to bed I saw photos start showing up from different parts of Florida all the way down to the Keys. Like you I immediately grabbed my camera and headed out but didn't go to dark enough skies. Saturday I was very upset with myself. Although the conditions were not near as good for Saturday night 2 friends and I decided to try and drove to the darkest northern facing skies we could find in a reasonable distance (about 1 1/2 hours). We didn't think we were getting much but all of the sudden had a reddish blob on the horizon that was only visible in our photos for about 5 minutes. I later got a message from a photographer in Iowa that he had captured some tall pillars that briefly appeared at the exact same time. We think we caught the very top of those pillars far away on the horizon. Not an amazing Northern Lights shot, but to capture them from Florida is special.

I did alright here in Michigan's lower peninsula.
Friday night was magic for sure. At least until the clouds rolled in.

I think the smattering of clouds makes the shot!

Thank you! And I did actually enjoy having something more than just clear skies to break things up.
I will say that NEXT time, you will be ready, and next time is likely sooner than you think!
Take care, and I enjoyed the article!

I live in Metro Detroit here in Michigan. About 4PM Friday I decided to head north despite much of the state socked in with clouds. Since the upper peninsula was basically going to be cloudy all night I decided to head 3 1/2 hours north of my house to a spot I knew had lower light pollution and I have always wanted to shoot the aurora from.

Glad I made the call to drive north as I had partly clear skies for a little over an hour when dark enough to see the aurora before the sky completely clouded over. The texture with the light, clouds and water were to cool. A couple cool straight up shots too. See 1st and 2nd photos.

After waking up Saturday morning with rain and a soaked tent I decided to head further north 4 1/2 hours to the upper peninsula as the weather looked promising for clear or partly clear skies. Again, good call! Once dark enough, about 10PM or so, there was a good aurora and then close to 11pm it blew up even lighting up the beach the way a fun moon would with aurora lights all over the north sky and straight overhead. It was a challenge knowing where to point the camera despite picking out a couple ideas before dark. See photos 3 & 4.

The swirls on that first shot ... wow!

I also failed to get a shot of this special occasion. And definitely of my own doing....or more correctly, my own "NOT" doing. I received some images from friends who were in Pennsylvania, on Friday evening. So I checked the internet for reports of how far south they expected it to be visible in California, the reports I saw said possibly as far south as San Francisco. I'm a few hundred miles south of there and figured there wasn't any chance and just stayed home. The next day my wife informed me there were images from Borrego Springs, only around 530 miles south of San Francisco! Saturday I was just too tired, Sunday I had things to do. Monday I checked the Aurora Forecast and there was maybe a chance of continued activity and headed north to clear the clouded skies. I found a location I thought could make a nice picture with Northern Lights behind....well I will include my shot here, without the light show.

So as the author stated...."...never wait to take that photo"!

Also congrats on the great shots the commenters have posted, Beautiful!

Hey Wasim,
I live on Long Island only about 15 minutes from the Big Duck and I also failed to get any aurora photos. I kept checking the northern skies that Friday starting about 10 PM until 2:30ish and never saw anything out of the ordinary. Only clouds, quite a few clouds (and a few too many for my liking). I also took some photos just in case. My location is dark enough to see plenty of stars (but not quite like in the middle of nowhere in upstate New York) and suffers from some light pollution from security lights from a property north of me. My photos were interesting but unremarkable as far as northern lights. I tried again on Saturday. Some of those photos show some color near the horizon, but i think only due to incorrect white balance (which I left on auto). P.S. It would have been fun to have met up chasing aurora photos.

Indeed! I saw some photos out of Stony Brook and Port Jefferson that got the Northern Lights and so really needed to go further north I suppose.