Friday, August 27, 2010

How to Photograph Aurora

I’ve had a great February and March. After waiting months for the Aurora to show, I was rewarded. My first night out I was amazed at the activity and brightness of the lights...this is something that keeps amazing me. I’ve been out maybe 7 or 8 nights photographing the Aurora and in those nights I’ve learned a lot on how to frame my photograph, how to wait and how to read them.

Now, to photograph these lights there are certain pieces equipment that are ESSENTIAL. Wide angle lens, sturdy tripod, cable release, flashlight, warm clothes, forecasts and patience. I am assuming that if you’re interested in photographing the Aurora that you have a camera that at least has manual controls.

You need the wind angle lens to capture the Aurora, they are huge. They stretch straight across the sky. A tripod, not any tripod...a good one. One that has no problems operating in the cold and is sturdy on snow. I have been using my carbon fibre tripod instead of my heavier aluminum tripod for one reason...the carbon doesn’t absorb the cold as easily as the aluminum.

A cable release is a tool that allows you to activate your shutter remotely without having to touch your camera and therefore reducing blur causing vibrations. But the best part of the cable release is that it allows you to take photographs over long periods of time. A flashlight helps you see what you’re doing around your camera since you’ve already found the darkest area possible to photograph from (light pollution hampers the Aurora). Now, on to warm clothes...I wear an Under Armor layer, then a thermal tight layer with a second over it. Then I have my outerwear, warm North Face winter boot accompanied with wool socks keep my toes toasty, snow pants are usually adequate for my legs and my down jacket accompanied with a good windproof shell keeps me protected from the intense nightly cold. Another great tool has been my poly pro gloves. They are small and offer ‘great’ protection from the cold. They’re small enough to allow me to manipulate the controls on my camera but warm enough to use during the coldest of nights (and I’m talking -30C to -35C)

I take advantage of a couple websites that help forecast the solar activity, which ultimately produce the Aurora, and rely on them for long distance forecasting. The best method of seeing if the Aurora will be active that night, is easy...just look out your window. It’s simple but sometimes it’s hard to do, especially since they come by late in the night now.

I’ve found the hardest part of photographing the Aurora is anticipating the intensity of the light coming from them. The more active they are, the more light they emit and the less time you’ll need to expose them. I have found my standard exposure is around 50-60 seconds at 500 ISO on at least F3.5. If you expose for longer your waves of Aurora just turn into a blurry mess. Make sure your white balance is set to automatic.

So if you find your way north in February, March or September, October bring your camera and your warm clothes and happy shooting!


Photography in the North

So here I am in the NWT...or now the NT. How did I end up here, you ask? I'm still trying to figure that out ha ha ha. But it worked out for the best. I'm finally in a stable environment now...a bloody cold environment, but stable.
I live in Hay River, on the south side of Great Slave Lake. The town is small and isolated but the people here make it for anything it lacks. I've been here for almost a year and my main objective is to photograph the North and all the aurora on the way.

This past weekend I made it to Hay River's neighbor, Fort Smith. It took me far too long to make it to this town. It's lovely. The best part for me is the Slave River. In four parts of the river close to Fort Smith the river features pelicans and rapids. I was only there for a short time but I was able to capitalize on the light that was featured.

So the trick for me here for photographing the rapids is long panoramas. I've been in a panorama phase ever since getting new software, my new camera (1ds mark III) and my new lens (16-15mm f2.8). Panoramas can be tricky without some practice and some knowledge. So I'm going to share what I know with you.

First, your gear. You need a tripod. NEED. Do not try and attempt this without it. A good ball head or panning head. There are more expensive dedicated tripod heads for panoramas, but they're not, but not necessary.

Second, you need to make sure nothing on your camera is on a priority or automatic setting. EVERYTHING has to be manual. Your white balance has to be set before taking your photos, your camera has to be on 'M' set your aperture and your shutter before taking these photos. So make sure to take a test photo on the brightest part of your panorama and make sure it's not overexposed. Then make sure your focus is on manual. You want EVERY image that you take for the panorama to be on the exact same settings. If you don't you're just causing yourself more headache. And I'd recommend taking any polarizing filters off your lenses as well.

Now start off on the left side of your image and proceed to take your photo. Make sure you can keep an eye on your horizon and where it will be in your next photo. Your next photo (moving to the right in your scene) should over lap your previous photo by at least 30%. You need this overlap because most lenses have a little distortion to the far edges, so this over lap should eliminate the distortion.
Continue to take your photos, from left to right, until you've completed the scene.

Here's what I ended up with:

Next you have the pleasure of merging the photos together! In some cases this can be very easy (if you've done everything right) or it can be a bust. I use CS5 for this feature alone. It stitches panoramics better than any other program I've seen in the past, although Canon has some great software for pano's that comes with their camera. When using CS5 be prepared to make some 'Warp' Transformations to make sure everything is lined up in it's proper place, like a straight horizon with straight trees pointing skywards.

*Remember, if you're stitching together images that feature water in them be aware that the water may not always align. It's a hard fact that I haven't found a solution to yet. And be prepared for large images. I'm working with images over 300-400mbs with these panoramas.

I hope you enjoy this. Panoramas are a great way to expand your photographic portfolio and a great new way to see landscapes.

These tips are by no means the 'be all and end all' of advice. All I know is that it's worked for me.