Make or Break Your Shot: The Beauty of Night Sky Etiquette

Does it ever feel like you’re on a movie set? When you go out into the darkness to admire the night sky and photograph its wonders, do the hours feel mysterious, exhilarating or unique?

You’ve set up your tripod. You’ve carefully mastered your camera settings, getting the manual focus on point. You’ve got your fingertip on the remote, ready to catch whatever crosses the galaxy. Maybe you’ve even posed a subject carefully to capture a silhouette. Then the International Space Station passes, a fireball races across the Milky Way, and a brief Aurora darts above you with vivid color and form. You click the button. Unbelievable! Is it possible you caught it all in one frame?!

At that very moment, a bright flashlight blinds you and your camera, shining directly at your face at eye level. You look around, wondering about the source of this startling light, and find out it’s not a flashlight at all. It’s the tall headlights of an arriving truck. Your single frame is ruined. A surreal combination of night spectacles now appears on the back of the camera as one, huge blur of white artificial light.

Inserting artificial light into an night of photography will make or break the shot. Not only will it feel violating to the person who has been blinded by a flashlight, headlight or even a bright cell phone, but it will also overexpose any images on the camera. Some people may not care what affect this has on fellow sky watchers, but karma is real.

Someday, it could happen to you.

Why not be part of the solution? Take a few easy steps to ensure that everyone around you can enjoy the night sky, whether you know they are present or not. The beauty of night sky etiquette is that it will help you more fully embrace the night, it will add quality to your own photos, and it might even help you see things in the dark that you never realized were there.

Easy Steps for Night Sky Etiquette

Are you afraid of the dark? Now is the time to overcome your fear!

Dark skies are a rapidly disappearing resource, as more people install streetlamps and other artificial lights anywhere they can. But astrophotographers and Aurora Chasers benefit from darkness. In fact, the darker the skies, the better. Only in the darkest skies will you see the most vivid colors of the Northern Lights!

When you adventure out into the night, it’s important to enjoy the darkness the right way — with respect for dark skies, the land, the wildlife, and other people you may encounter.

  1. Be polite and treat others with respect.
    Spending time in the dark brings out many different emotions for different people. Above all, treat others with the same respect you would give to a close friend or family member during the day. The people you meet while enjoying the night sky may become mentors, supporters, or some of your closest friends.
  2. If you’re driving to a location, prepare to dim your vehicle lights.
    Learn what it takes to make your vehicle as dark as possible, from the exterior to the interior lights. Turn off the headlights when you enter a parking lot, as long as it is safe to do so, and know how to dim or shut down the interior lights in case you need to be inside the car. Keep in mind that turning your car off may not be enough, because it could be programmed to keep the lights on.
  3. When you arrive at your location, point your headlights the other way.
    Park your vehicle with the headlights facing away from the main attraction and other photographers. If you think you’ll use your headlights or turn on your interior lights to check messages or warm up inside, consider parking farther away.
  4. Use a blue light or a headlamp with a red light option.
    You can find blue or red lights and other night options are less disruptive in the dark. When you use a dimmer light, it will be gentler on your own eyes, the eyes of those around you, and wildlife that may be resting nearby. On your phone, you can also get an app or adjust the settings to make the screen dark, set it to night mode, or give it a red filter. These tools will help you maintain your night vision throughout the night.
  5. Switch off any lights when you are not using them.
    Avoid blinding others or ruining a photographer’s image. Point lights at the ground whenever possible, and avoid turning on lights in the middle of a photography shoot. If you are in the company of other photographers, ask them when it is okay to turn on a light. They will appreciate the gesture. Night sky photographers use long exposures to capture more light on camera, meaning their shutter may stay open for long instances, and the shutter may still be open when you point a light in that direction.
  6. Try to avoid using cellphones, devices, or other screens beside night sky photographers.
    If you want to check your device, you can take 5-10 steps backward and away from the camera, to minimize any residual light.
  7. Never walk in front of a camera.
    Aurora photographers use a number of devices to get the best photos at night, including automated time-lapses and remotes. A camera may be busy working even if it looks like no one is using it. Always walk behind the tripod, instead of in front of it. If you see a large set-up of camera gear, take the extra time and walk around it, instead of the straightest path.
  8. Consider others before you add sources of light to a scene.
    Often, it’s tempting to build bonfires or to bring other types of light into dark spaces. However, sometimes even having a fire can obscure the visibility of the Northern Lights. If you want to build a fire or hold other activities, discuss it with those around you, and move far away from the photographers first, so you can set up somewhere behind them. If you do use artificial light purposefully or as a prop in your photos, be considerate of others as you decide what direction to point the light.
  9. Leave no trace.
    As lovers of natural beauty, it’s up to us to protect the public land and resources available to us, so that it will still be there and remain accessible in future years. If you carry any items with you, make sure you carry out all the same items, including any trash you’ve created. Leave no trace that you’ve been there.
  10. Enjoy a friendly and welcoming atmosphere.
    Remember, many night sky enthusiasts may be experiencing the night for the first time. Share your enthusiasm, knowledge and support!

Everyone has different preferences when they wander out in the dark of the night. Keep in mind that some people prefer to be alone, some prefer to spend time in large groups, and some people may even be seeking quiet. Did you know that you can sometimes hear the Northern Lights? It’s true! But only if you listen closely.

On the other hand, some people may quickly find themselves in over their heads if they leave the house unprepared. Anything from bitter cold, punishing wind, broken gear, personal injury, or flat tires can threaten to ruin a night under the stars. Be patient, give each person the benefit of the doubt, and honor individual preferences. A little kindness goes a long way.

We are thrilled to have such a fantastic community of Aurora Chasers, and we hope the tradition of chasing the Northern Lights in the mid-latitudes can continue and grow for many years to come. Thank you for making our community safe, friendly and welcoming!

Author’s Note: The goal of this blog is to give practical advice for viewing the Northern Lights to beginners and amateur space weather enthusiasts, using the simplest terms, common topics, and popular sources. I draw upon my experience as a journalist and an Aurora Chaser, though I do not have formal training in the field. Photo by Red Charlie/Unsplash.

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