Archive for the ‘Nighttime’ Category

Photos in the Arctic night

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010
Photos in the Arctic night

During my recent trip out to Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, I only had two nights actually out in the field.  This placed considerable limits on my photo plans, because it often requires several nights to actually capture what I wanted to: star trails, aurora, general night sky, lighted tents, etc.  Add that the moon was half full complicated the star trails and aurora photo plans, especially when combined with the fact that we are currently in a down-cycle of the solar activity that creates vivid aurora displays.

For my goal of capturing star trails, I used my Hassleblad 503CX, loaded with Fuji Velvia 220 film.  (I have yet to process the film, but when I do, I will post the image here.)  So, for the first night, I took three hours for the star trails photo, then captured some images of the tent and faint aurora display with my Nikon D300.  The next night, with the assistance of my camping companions, Zak Richter and Seth McMillan, I caputured some shots of the tent, some with headlamps illuminating the interior and another set with Christmas lights adorning the tent. 

To power the Christmas lights, I had taken a Powerbase battery along with an AC inverter.  However, even keeping the battery in the tent was not enough to keep it warm.  After stoking up the fire and keeping the battery really close to the heat, I was able to warm up the battery, but only enough to provide intermittent power.  The lights would only light briefly when plugged in.  So, I had Zak plug and unplug the lights repeatedly over the 30 second exposure in order to display the lights for the photo.  For the headlanp shots, I had both Zak and Seth move the lights around so as to disperse the illuminating glow, rather than produce a spotlight effect on the side of the tent.

One of the joys of photographing the night sky in the Arctic is the simple clarity of the sky and the abundance of stars it allows me to see.  There are simply hardly any places left in the United States where you can photograph the night sky free of light pollution.  Even when I was down in Badlands National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park last year, nighttime photography was affected by the nearby towns of Rapid City and Boulder, respectively. 

What I really would have liked to capture is a time lapse of the night sky, which would have been especially successful given the half full moon.  But, I obviously need to work out some power issues under the extreme cold for any future attempts.  I am thinking that perhaps Winter 2012 will be a good time to return, as the aurora should be kicking back up rather nicely by then.  And rather than two nights, perhaps two weeks would be a good amount of time.  Then I could photograph under the bright full moon as well as the darkness of a new moon.  That’s the problem with photographing in Gates of the Arctic … there are always more things that I want to capture on a future trip.

The aurora borealis – myths, science and photography

Saturday, March 13th, 2010
The aurora borealis - myths, science and photography

I first saw the aurora borealis long before I contemplated the mystery of it.  I was working as a bartender at the Birch Terrace Lounge in Grand Marais during the winter between my two summers as a canoe guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  It was a Sunday night, and I was taking out the trash in preparation for closing.  I dropped the trash in the bin out back and lo0ked up into the crisp, cool November night to see dancing waves of green light in the sky.  I knew instantly that I was looking at the northern lights.  Why had I not really thought of these before?  How was I not spending every night out looking for them?  What wonderful, magical curtains of shimmering mystery they were, casting aside all thoughts of the dreariness of the tasks I had ahead yet that night.  When I was finished closing, I grabbed my camera, a Minolta X-700 and headed up the Gunflint Trail out of town to capture some images.

Unfortunately, I was not much of a nature photographer then.  And I certainly did not know much about nighttime or aurora photography.  I only had one other chance after that to capture the aurora when I was working and living in northern Minnesota that winter seventeen years ago, and the display was fairly faint.  During that time, though, I was watching Northern Exposure.  There was a memorable episode dedicated to the aurora and a particularly powerful display that occurred again and again over several nights.  During that time, it appeared that members of the town were swapping dreams, and some attributed it to the power of the aurora.  There I was introduced to the idea that people and cultures throughout the ages had attributed so many things to the aurora, and built strong mythologies around explaining its power and allure.   In the episode, “Mr. Sandman,” which aired in the fifth season, we find Marilyn, Dr. Fleischmann’s Tlingit assistant, telling a story about how her people believe that the northern lights were the spirts of people who had passed, and how you could make them dance by whistling to them. 

The Tlingit, along with the Kwakiutl and the Salteaus Indians believe that the aurora does represent the spirits of people, while the Yup’ik are said to believe that the northern lights were dancing animal spirits, particularly deer, seals, salmon and beluga whale.  The Yup’ik also believe that when Aurora is red, it indicates that “there will be war and blood shed” in the near future.  I also learned during a visit to Anaktuvuk Pass that the Nunamiut people believe that, if you are not wearing a hat, the aurora will chop your head off and play with it like a ball.  They also believe that you can manipulate the aurora by whistling at it.

The conventional wisdom has always been that the sun is on an eleven-year cycle, with the peak of that cycle creating the hyperactive sun spots that lead to the most brilliant auroral displays.  There are several websites that offer either the raw data you can interpret for yourself or the intrepreted data if you lack the faculty.  One of the more well-known raw data sites is Spaceweather.  On the Science-NASA site, there are some recent studies indicating the explanation behind the solar cycle may be changing (particularly with regard to why the low point of the cycle has been so low in activity).  One of the more well-known interpretive sites was created by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, the Aurora Forecast site.  You can also sign up for aurora alerts via email at the UAF site.  Spaceweather also has options for receiving text alerts for different levels of activity. 

With the proliferation of smart phones and various apps, I would be remiss if I did not mention some useful, free applications for Android or iPhone systems: Aurora Buddy and 3D Sun.  And, if you are on Twitter, make sure to follow @AuroraNotify (a network of Fairbanks, Alaska residents who provide real time information) and @Aurora_Alerts (automated and fairly accurate, provided by 

Having a passion for the mythos of the aurora and an understanding of the science will get you out at night, enduring those cold conditions waiting for long hours for the sky to produce the display of your dreams.  How disappointed you would be, though, if you ended up making a technical mistake that costs you the shot to share with others.  I learned some of those mistakes early on, when I was still shooting negative film before switching to slides, and ultimately digital. 

So, here is a comprehensive list of settings and other equipment issues you will need to know to take great aurora photos:

  1.  Lens selection.  You need a lens no slower than f/2.8 and as wide as 24mm.  Shooting at f/4.0 or slower will often produce too long of an exposure to get the brilliance you need for some of the less brilliant, but still lovely, displays, and it will create undesired star trails at exposures longer than 30 seconds, sometimes even 15 seconds depending on your focal length.  And having that wide focal length of 24mm or wider is key when you are trying to capture a phenomenon that encompasses the whole sky.  Disable your automatic focus and use manual focus, then set the focus point to infinity. 
  2. Filters.  Remove any and all filters from your lens.  We all like to put UV filters or some other neutral, clear filter on our lenses to protect them from damage.  But any filter of any kind on a lens will create a distortion, represented by concentric circles, in dead center of your image.  Somehow, the light of the aurora bounces back and forth between the lens elements and the filter during long exposures to create the undesired effect.
  3. Camera functioning.  The key to keeping your camera working is its batteries.  I always take at least three spare batteries with me when venturing out into the cold.  I keep them in a quart-sized Ziploc™ bag and tucked inside amidst the many layers I wear to keep myself warm.  As your battery power starts to wane, simply replace the cold battery with a warm one.  Also be mindful of condensation.  At extreme colds, your breath will fog up and frost the back of your camera, including the viewfinder and LCD display.  So, hold your breath when composing.  To prevent fogging and frosting of your lenses, either keep your camera and lens together in a camera bag when bringing back into your vehicle (and keep the bag away from a heat source), or simply remove your battery and leave everything outside.  If leaving your camera outside for extended periods of time, you may also want to cover your lens element to prevent frost buildup. One thing I will also do if I have my vehicle nearby is to run my camera directly on A/C power, running the power cable through an A/C inverter that is plugged into my “cigarette lighter” plug. 
  4. Settings.  With your aperture set at f/2.8 (or whatever is the widest opening on your lens), set your exposure mode to manual.  Then, set your exposure at 15 seconds and ISO at 400.  This is a good starting point, but, depending on the intensity of the aurora, you may need to slow things down or adjust your ISO up or down.  My most common setting is ISO 400 at 30 seconds.  If your exposures need to be longer than 30 seconds, then use a higher ISO before you set a longer exposure.  If your camera has the function, enable your High ISO Noise Reduction.  Also enable your Long Exposure Noise Reduction.  Set your white balance to Auto
  5. Tripod.   Of course, the basic rules of long-term image stability govern: tripod, cable release, and using the mirror lock up feature.  One of the more challenging aspects of composition for an aurora shot is ensuring that your horizon is level.  This can be accomplished by using (a) a bubble level for your hot shoe, (b) using the viewfinder grid in your camera (if you are lucky enough to have one; the Nikon D700 does), or (b) setting up your composition before it gets dark and waiting for the magic to happen.

The last thing I want to address is when you can photograph the aurora.  It is a common misconception that the aurora only “comes out” when it is cold.  It is always cold for the aurora, because it is in the vacuum of space.  In reality, the connection with cold comes from the fact that it is only visible when it is dark.  For northern latitudes where the aurora is most frequently observed, this means the winter months.  In Alaska, that means from mid-August to early April.  The farther north you go, like above the Arctic Circle, the later you have to wait before it is dark enough.  The first time I was in Gates of the Arctic was in mid-August.  It never got dark enough to see the aurora.  During my next backcountry trip the following early September on the Noatak River, it was dark every single night and I saw the aurora every single night.   And darkness inherently also includes periods where it is not cloudy, which in the wintertime also means cold, but clear skies.  Finally, it is best to photograph the aurora during a new moon than a full moon, because in these northern latitudes, a full moon puts out a lot of light pollution.

Architecture as art

Friday, February 26th, 2010
Architecture as art

While on the University of Oregon campus the last few days attending a conference, I had the pleasure of walking by a particularly beautiful building every day.  Opened in January of this year, the John Jaqua Academic Center for Student Athletes stands on the corner of Agate Street and Franklin Boulevard.  As Agate is one of the main entry points into the campus, the Jaqua Center is quite an exclamation of a welcome to a campus filled with stylish, “traditional” college buildings of brick and stone.

The building was named for John E. Jaqua, a war hero, lawyer, football star and, oh yes, founding board member of Nike.  Achievements certainly worthy of recognition on a football campus like UO.  It appears that the building has a two-fold purpose: to exceed minimum NCAA requirements for academic support to student athletes and to serve as a beacon to draw in potential high-caliber athletes to the Ducks’ athletic program.  It’s interesting to compare “traditional” media accounts of the public reception to the building with the comments among students on the campus blogosphere.  As discussed in the mainstream media, the building is opulent to the extreme, with questions surrounding whether the expense is worth it and whether it will accomplish its mission.  (One media source even referred to it as the “Taj Mahal.”)  On the campus blogosphere, it appears that there is some student opposition to the building, claiming that the 40,000 square foot building, by being open to a select few of the student body, discriminates against the general population and places clear, unfair preferences on student academic success.  A group called “UO Students for Equal Access” has formed a Facebook page called “NO to the John Jaqua Center” and has a developed following of 718 members.  On the other hand, students supporting the center have noted that the gorgeous building adds value to the campus aesthetically as well as providing a valuable service of “making life easier” for the student athletes who bring so much revenue and exposure to the school.  Supporters have also formed a Facebook page, but have so far only garnered 264 members.  You would think they would have more supporters just from the athletes alone.

I think that the pro-Jaqua Center crowd is closer to the point on the value of such a building.  We generally as a society do not question the value of art, particularly public art, and what it adds to the aesthetics of our community.  And I also think that architecture can also be an art form in and of itself.  Sure, sometimes building designs have a purely utilitarian quality – like most of the buildings in Alaska.  (I do not think some of these UO students would complain about opulent buildings if they spent a semester on the UAA or UAF campuses, which are replete with drab, practically Soviet-style purely functional buildings.)  But as a visitor to the University of Oregon campus, I was simply “wowed” by this building.  I stopped to admire it several times throghout the day, and took about a half hour out of my time one evening to study it with my camera.  To me, this building says something about the University of Oregon’s priorities.  No, it does not make me believe that the UO shows undue favoritism to its athletes, it shows me that the UO gives great concern to campus aesthetics and quality in its facilities.  When the UO decided it needed to have an expanded facility to provide academic support to its athletes, it could have merely provided a simple facility that still had the same space, room and facilities for academic pursuits.  But the administration decided to instead pursue beauty and quality.  When a university has the luxury of being able to do that, any prospective student or supporter knows that the university has the broad support and vision necessary to be successful, in whatever ventures it may pursue on behalf of its community.  And that is something that any UO student, staff or faculty can take pride in.

Camera works, I sleep

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009
Camera works, I sleep

One of the things I like about photographing star trails is that the camera does all the work while I sleep.  Really, though, the best thing about doing star trails is that it transforms the night sky in a way that our eyes are not capable of seeing.  This image was captured by setting my camera up for a 2 1/2 hour exposure, ISO 200 at f/3.o. I messed up when I stopped the exposure by turning the camera off instead of releasing the cable release lock.  Ideally, I would have let the camera do its Long Exposure NR (noise reduction) processing, which takes the same amount of time as the exposure.  Fortunately, though, with Lightroom, I was able to greatly reduce the noise procuced by such a long exposure.  I also played a bit with the white balance settings to represent what I think the color hues should be for a nighttime starry sky. 

It was a nice way to cap off a great evening.  I gave my second presentation at the Beaver Meadows Visitor Center as artist-in-residence.  I discussed my experiences and contributions in my three National Park Service artist residencies, and what I had given or still planned to give back to the public and the park from those experiences.  I found the crowd to be really attentive and appreciative of what I had to offer.  One of the great things about being a nature photographer is that I derive pleasure from the creation of the image, the processing of the image, and the sharing of the image.  A great nature photo is just a gift that keeps on giving to the artist creating it as well as those who see it and appreciate it.  And in that appreciation, I can hopefully help the viewing public more greatly appreciate the location being photographed, more greatly appreciate the need to protect such beautiful places, or be inspired themselves to explore or create their own images. 

I am all packed up and ready to go.  I will be heading out from the Long’s Peak trailhead this afternoon – destination, Chasm Lake.  I have a bivy site at the Mills Glacier, and will be up off and on attending to my camera to do a long term time lapse exposure.  I will explain more about the process tomorrow, when I will post the blog entry about the hopefully successful endeavor.  The weather looks good, the forecast is good, so let’s hope it holds out.

Badlands star trails

Tuesday, May 19th, 2009
Badlands star trails

In my waning days in Badlands National Park, I did a 4 1/2 hour star trails time lapse, setting up my camera to take one photo every thirty seconds.  In addition to wanting to create a time lapse video, I wanted to use some of the images to create a star trails photo by stacking the photos together.  Unfortunately, I could not use all of the photos during the time lapse, as a storm came through the area.  But, I was able to select 223 images captured over nearly two hours that were useful for creating a star trails photo.

Why use this method?  Since it was a near-full moon, the light pollution in the sky was too great for a longterm exposure.  Additionally, digital cameras simply cannot take ultra-long exposures due to noise.  My one long attempt, a four-hour exposure, simply had too much noise in it to be useable.  With this technique, a digital photographer could do a star trails photo covering four, five, six hours – the entire night if desired.  The main issue then becomes power, which I have resolved by using a Powerbase battery in connection with an AC/DC Inverter to power my camera.

BLOG UPDATE: I have selected this image as my Print of the Month for June 2009.  You can click here to purchase the print under my special rate for prints in that collection.

Nighttime time lapse

Thursday, May 7th, 2009
Nighttime time lapse

While the full moon may thwart my efforts in the last few days to capture a single-exposure star trails image, it sure does help make the nighttime time lapse work better.  Add in a storm with some rain, and then you really get something interesting.  While I slept, my camera worked steadily, capturing one image every 30 seconds for four and a half hours starting at 11:30 p.m.  During that time, the falling rain and moonlight produced something I have never seen before — a nighttime rainbow, called a Lunar Rainbow or Moonbow.  Fortunately for me, I had encased my camera body in a plastic bag in the event of rain.

For camera settings, I chose 400 ISO and set a manual exposure of 10 seconds at f/2.8, with the focal length set at 24mm.  I decided to push the limits of my camera battery, using just the one Nilkon EN-EL3e battery in the body to power the operation.  When I retrieved my camera shortly after 4:00 a.m., there was still one “bar” showing of power.  I then switched lenses, added the Powerbase battery and Brunton solar panel set up to power for a full 24-hour time lapse.  That started at 5:00 a.m. and will continue until sunrise tomorrow morning.

Here is the result of the time lapse from last night.  To see the stars in movement, it is best to maximize the video player.

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Starry night

Tuesday, May 5th, 2009
Starry night

Okay, so I will not be able to do a single-exposure star trails photo for the rest of the time I am here.  The moon is nearly full, and will be up pretty much all hours of night, rising in the late afternoon and setting just before dawn.  The light pollution produced from the moon was simply too much, even shooting a silhouetted formation.  It simply makes the sky too bright.  So, my next effort at star trails will actually be to take the images from my next and final attempt at a long-term time lapse.  With the bright moon, that will make it easier to get the right exposure for the nighttime portion of the time lapse to work, and I spent a good part of my midnight sojourn into the moonlight landscape to figure out those settings.

But, I figured, why not take advantage of the brightly-lit Badlands and get out there to produce some moonlit, starry landscapes.  Since the moon is merely shining reflected sunlight, I set my white balance at daylight, with ISO at 800, shooting my 24-85mm at its widest focal length, and wide open at f/2.8 for an 8-second exposure.  I wanted the shorter exposure time to minimize or eliminate star movement.  At 24mm, it woulud not be noticeable at 8 seconds, but it would be at 30 seconds.  So, I used the higher ISO setting to allow for the shorter exposure time.  I stuck to pretty much the pullouts between around Old NE Road and the Fossil Trail parking lot.  Here is a sample of what I captured in about an hour and a half.  Time for bed.  Sun comes up in less than four hours.

Nighttime time lapse

Thursday, April 23rd, 2009

Most photographers are loathe to share their failures with the world.  Rather, they post their best work on their web site or blog, leading to the belief that they always are successful.  As the Artist-in-Residence, I wanted to explore new techniques and share my creative process through this blog.  Today, I am sharing (another) not so successful effort.  It’s that darn night sky.  First, it was my less-than-successful star trails effort.  Now, it is my first time lapse featuring the night sky.  The objective was, through time lapse, to show the Earth’s rotation through the movement of the stars at night.

As I was not going to have a lot of sunlight during this exposure, I just used the Powerbase battery as my power source.  I set my camera to 400 ISO, aperture priority at -0.3 compensation, and f/4.0.  I was not sure if the aperture priority would adequately expose the night sky, but thought I would try.  That turned out to be not a good idea.  The starry night was severely underexposed.  Even adjusting all of the nighttime shots in Lightroom by increasing the exposure four stops was not enough to overcome.  Next time, I will set the ISO higher and use a manual exposure setting for the night sky to make it show more clearly.

The other problem I ran into was the plastic bag I used to protect my camera in the event it rained in the evening.  At some point in time, it became loose and started flopping about, forcing me to delete many images from the series at around the time of sunrise.  Where is a good roll of duct tape when you need it?  Again, lessons learned.

As dark as it is, you can still see the stars rotating and some aircraft moving through the sky.  You will need to maximize the slide show to see everything.  The pixelation is the result of a smaller format jpeg needed to create a smaller slide show that can be uploaded to the web.  Enjoy!

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Star trails, take one

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009
Star trails, take one

There are two challenges with photographing star trails with a digital camera.  One challenge relates to powering the camera.  There are two ways to handle it: one, be near an outlet where you can plug in the camera; two, take an external battery with you and plug the camera into that.  I chose the second option because I wanted to choose my location, and I had the Powerbase battery for that.

The second challenge relates to sensor noise.  The Nikon D300 has a feature called “Long Exposure NR”, or Noise Reduction.  Essentially, the computer processor of the camera will work to reduce the noise generated during the extra long exposure.  The NR feature will typically kick in for any exposure longer than ten seconds.  The time the NR function takes to complete its process is essentially equal to the time of the exposure.

For this exposure, I selected my 12-24mm lens, set the aperture at f/4.0.  I set the exposure to “Bulb,” and locked in the shutter for about 4 1/4 hours.  Obviously, this did not produce an ideal result.  I would not have suspected that the glow from Rapid City, some eighty miles to the west, would have impacted the exposure, but there it is.  Additionally, four and a quarter hours produced far more noise than I would care for.  The final factor affecting the result is my choice of lens.  The wider the angle, the longer the exposure must be in order to produce noticeable trails.

So, for my next attempt, I will point more directly north to avoid the lights from Rapid City.  I will also select a narrower lens, like my 24-85mm, so I can have a shorter exposure and produce the trails I desire.  This simply goes to show that photography is always a learning process.  So, I will try again tonight, as the conditions look good for another clear night.

Full moon and stars

Wednesday, April 8th, 2009
Full moon and stars

Well, one of the things about photography is that it is an ongoing learning process.  Even if you are a pro, you don’t know everything and you haven’t tried everything.  You often look to other photographers for inspiration.  You still attend seminars and workshops on occasion, depending on the content and who is teaching it.

Tonight was my first attempt to “test drive” a star trails shot.  I knew I wasn’t going to try a full exposure, which would be about five or six hours.  I thought I would start at an hour and a half.  I suspected that the nearly full moonlight on the landscape would cause some problems.  As you can see, and this image has been darkened a bit to bring the stars out more, full moonlight and star trails photography do not mix.  So, I will work on my star trails photos around the time of the new moon.  In the meantime, I will still likely go out and shoot moonlight landscapes.  There is definitely something magical about this park under a full moon.  There is a reason why one of the popular summertime programs is the night sky walk.

But, being up in the late of night gives you an opportunity to hear all sorts of interesting sounds.  Like the coyotes singing in chorus somewhere far to the east, or — and this caught me by surprise — the many frogs singing along right around the pond where I captured this photo.  Then, there was the owl hooting as I returned to my apartment at around 1:00 a.m.  Of course, before I could get to my apartment, I had to almost literally wade through a group of about eight mule deer.