Photo Cascadia Blog
Archive for the ‘Winter Photography’ Category
Abraham Lake is an artificial lake found in the Canadian Rockies. It can be reached by taking the David Thompson Highway off the Icefields Parkway and driving North for around 20 minutes. On the right, you will see a pullout parking lot called Preachers Point. This pullout is a great place to access the lake. From here, you can easily walk down to the lake. Once on the lake, there are many opportunities to photograph within a short distance of your car.
Over the past few years, I have had the chance to visit Abraham Lake in different seasons. By far my favorite season is winter because of the unique conditions that occur due to the colder temperatures. It can reach as low as -30 in the Abraham Lake area. These frigid temperatures create conditions to develop on the lake that is one of the most unusual natural phenomena of the world. The decomposing plants on the lake bed release methane gas which freezes as it gets closer to the much colder surface causing “Frozen Bubbles.” As the temperature drops the bubbles start to stack below each other forming a pretty incredible and unique sight.
Photographers from all over the world come to Abraham Lake to capture this unique occurrence. I’ve written this article to list some of my most essential tips for successful images when photographing Abraham Lake.
- Abraham Lake is often very windy and cold. Due to its geographic location, the wind channels through the valley. Winter temperatures can be extremely frigid with the windchill. Prepare to bring more clothes than normal to stay warm. Bring a balaclava or facemask to keep your face warm. Bring fingerless gloves so you can operate your camera while keeping your gloves on. I combined fingerless gloves with a second layer of gloves that are known as touchscreen gloves. I have included a link below for what I believe to be the best on the market.
- Give yourself lots of time to find compositions that will interest your viewer. The first comment that most people say to me on a workshop is how overwhelming it can be when you first see the lake. Due to its size and vastness, there can be many choices to photograph, which may seem at first very daunting. I arrive several hours early to explore several different compositions. I research ahead of time some of the images that appeal to me. I then work up a theory and pre-visualize the story I would like to translate through my image.
- Bring several camera batteries with you as the colder temperatures shorten how long a battery will work. It is not unusual to go through two or three batteries in one hour when photographing during the winter on Abraham Lake. It is helpful when trying to conserve battery life to keep a couple of spare batteries in a jacket. Finding a way to storing the extra batteries continually in a warm place will go a long way to extending the battery life while photographing.
- Related to the previous tip, bring hand warmers and feet warmers. I can’t stress the importance of using some accessory to keep warm. It can make the difference between a pleasurable time and a challenging one. With the combination of a good warm winter boot and gloves, you are ready for any conditions on the lake.
- Bring a good heavy duty tripod. Having a good sturdy tripod will help immensely in keeping your tripod from slipping on the ice. Place the tripod low to the ground to avoid vibrations from the windy conditions. As mentioned before, winds can get very active on the lake. It does not take much to make your tripod shake. The wind and camera shake will cause your image to go soft and blurry.
- In windy conditions, raise the ISO of the camera to 800 or even 1600. The faster shutter speed will help prevent camera shake and blurry images.
- Don’t be afraid to try several different types of compositions as you continue to look for ways to piece together elements within a scene. I will often try to keep the camera low to the ground at roughly a 45° angle. As I continue to try different compositions throughout my scouting, I develop a story of how I want to approach the final image.
- Bring a very wide-angle lens with you to capture the bubbles and enhance the size of the textures that are nearest to the camera. When using a wide-angle lens on the lake and photographing very close to the bubbles within the ice, the wide angle lens will accentuate elements that are near the lens and make objects in the distance appear smaller. The placement of the lens and camera near to the ground gives the image the appearance of three-dimensional depth throughout the scene.
- Have a microfiber lens cloth close at hand to keep the lens as clean as possible. Watch for any condensation that might build up on the front of the lens in colder conditions. Also, avoid changing lenses on the lake when winter conditions are present.
- It’s a good idea to bring a medium telephoto to photograph some of the distant mountain peaks in closer detail. The look of the longer lens will offer a different look than the wide-angle images that are often seen at Abraham Lake. I like to try different lenses at Abraham Lake to give the viewer several different looks. Also, don’t be afraid to bring a macro lens to photograph the unique textures of the bubbles found just underneath the ice.
- When exposing for the scene, I will often exposure bracket my images depending on the tonal range. In extreme conditions, I have bracketed my images all the way from three images to nine images for one scene. The highlights of the ice can be very bright as well as the snowcapped peaks. It is essential to capture several exposures of negative value to avoid blowing out the highlights. I will then use post processing methods to combine these images into one image with all tonal values combined.
- It is critical in winter to bring an apparatus that can be placed on the bottom of the boot. It can be any accessory such as spikes, crampons, or any other device that provides traction on the ice. Abraham Lake is very slippery and can cause serious damage if you try to maneuver without some sort of traction on your boot. I like to use spikes that I wrap around the bottom of my snow boot which allows me to walk comfortably and safely on the ice.
- Dress in layers, as you will find yourself quickly heating up while actively walking around looking for compositions but losing heat quickly once stationary in one spot. I use several layers of winter clothing that can easily be taken on or off depending on my activity at the time. For example, while actively searching for compositions I will expend energy and thus create sweat while walking around on the ice. Once I find something regarding composition I’m happy with, I might be stationary for time periods of several minutes or more. Having access to changing or removing clothing is critical to keeping at a comfortable temperature while photographing on the lake.
- Don’t be afraid to lie on the ice and try creative framing and pairing of elements. I often will find myself trying to explore new possibilities when composing images on Abraham Lake. Don’t hesitate to try new things, and photograph the lake in new creative ways. For example, I tried placing my camera on remote focusing at infinity and putting it on a timer or a remote to capture an image from inside the ice shelves to create the look of ice caves.
- Make sure to photograph during the twilight hours before sunrise and after sunset to expand the variety of images you capture. Shooting during the twilight hours will give many different moods to the overall look of the lake.
- Make sure on your LCD monitor to frequently check the detail of each image. I will often go in at 100% on the back of the camera to check that all elements are sharp and focused. Because of the wind, movement of the tripod can occur in small increments but enough to cause the image to move. Without going in all the way on the back of your camera LCD, it is hard to see whether it is sharp all the way through the image
- Use caution when exploring on the lake. The lake can be several layers thick with ice, use common sense if areas that appear to look less safe. For example, during warmer periods, melting and instability can occur.
- Bring snacks and meals with you in your bag. There is nothing very close to the lake regarding food. You will find your body, needs the extra carbs from the colder conditions. Having a snack in your bag that is easy to grab will help keep your body energized and prevent you from wasting time going back to your vehicle.
- Give yourself several days including sunrises and sunsets to maximize your opportunity of capturing several different images. Capture the lake in as many different settings as possible. One option is to rent a camper or RV so that you can be situated next to the lake. The other alternative is to look into accommodation near the lake.
- Try to remember to have fun and take the time to enjoy the experience.
Lucky number seven in 2016 for Photo Cascadia. Seven for the first full year with seven team members and seven for the number of years Photo Cascadia has been around. Speaking of luck it was honestly mostly luck in the beginning that this specific team of photographers formed, have become good friends and enjoy sharing experiences and knowledge with all of you for as long as we have. During this time we have seen similar groups form and fold. We hope this seven year stretch is only the beginning of our journey as you join us along for the ride. In the end it’s you, the readers, that continue to provide energy for what we do at Photo Cascadia. For this we are extremely grateful and thankful… thank you!
Where did 2016 take you for adventure and photography? I am sure it was similar to many on the Photo Cascadia team where we spent time in our own backyards, crossing state lines as well as some continent hopping. If you have been watching our blog for more than a year now you will know that mid December is when Photo Cascadia takes a break from our weekly posting until mid January. It’s our time to step back and reflect on the year that has past while winding down with family and friends.
As we reflect on things it’s a good time to remember that all the places we get to visit should be available for those that come after us. It seems 2016 we unfortunately saw a rise, at least in the media if not reality, around people doing permanent damage to places we all want to enjoy and photograph as well as companies and political forces looking to seize locations set aside for long term preservation. Now days, perhaps more than ever, we all need breaks into nature whether some of us realize it or not as the number of us living in a concrete jungle grows. With that I leave you with one of my favorite quotes.
“May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.” – Edward Abbey
We take this time to provide a year end visual show of where we have traveled with some behind the scenes clips. Take a four minute break and check it out.
May your year close out with many lasting memories and the new year start with a trail full of endless possibilities.
I did a blog post a number of years back on abstract nature photography yet it’s been a long time and thought I would revisit this topic. I really enjoy this type of photography especially when you find hidden gems that others may not have seen or might have passed over many times before you. Often what ends up being the final photo doesn’t jump out at you without surveying a scene for potential compositions. Sometimes I dig in and strike it rich finding those gems and other times I come up empty handed which is part of the fun.
Rather than a lot of typing for this post I will let the video do most of the talking this time around. I am not normally the video tutorial kind of person yet I am getting myself to branch out into this type of work. Below is the video and three photos I discuss in greater detail. For each scene I show several compositions I took leading up to the final to help understand my thought process to build a compelling abstract or intimate nature photo.
Standing Tall – In cold wet forest of the Columbia River Gorge in early winter
Desert Lizard – In the dry cool desert Southwest in Fall inside Zion National Park
Final Flames of Fall – Above a forest in the Columbia River Gorge during the final days of fall
Video covering the three photos above in much more detail. Happy viewing!
On social media I get asked all sorts of questions but one of the questions a lot of people are curious about is what happens when a photographer takes a photo tour and what can they expect.
So for this blog I am sharing my trip report from my recent travels to Fairbanks Alaska and what we did and some of the places we visited as well as the activities the group did together.
The 2015 Fairbanks Photo Safaris Tour started off with an introduction dinner at Pike’s Restaurant. This gave everyone a chance to know a little about everyone in the group. After dinner with a promising Aurora Borealis forecast for that evening we decided to get an early start and head up to a great hilltop view called Mount Skiland. This 360 view of Fairbanks and the surrounding area gave an excellent place to photograph Northern Lights. We had been blessed earlier in the week with a lot of new fresh snow and this really made for some spectacular winter landscapes. When combined with the Northern Lights we could not have asked for a better setting. The group was given an orientation on where to best to photograph the lights and had a nice hot cup of hot chocolate. It wasn’t long after the orientation that the magic began and the dark sky had now become dancing beams of vivid greens and reds. Our first night had been a success and we all headed back to the hotel exhausted but too excited to sleep.
The next morning we awoke to sunny skies and snowy surroundings. Some of the group slept-in while others enjoyed a breakfast. After breakfast the group headed out to watch Dog Mushing at the Alaska Dog Mushers Association. The timing could not have been any better as we got to witness a timed trial race where competitors came from all over the world to race. The race would consist of teams of four and six team dog sled races that would race against the clock and their times would be cumulatively added over the two days. Teams of dog mushers would come rushing down the tracks every two minutes with excitement in the racers eyes and voices. They had a way of communicating with one another that was fascinating to hear. We decided to split the group in half as some wanted to photograph the starting line and others wanted to shoot within the snow capped forest. The event lasted most of the afternoon and everyone came away with some great action shots of the dogs and the dog mushers. With everyone hungry from all the action we headed to a close Italian restaurant named Geraldo’s that served some excellent food that really hit the spot. It was nice as the also had a buffet that people really could dig into and really try different types of food. Later that night after some rest at the hotel we got together for a nice dinner at the Cookie Jar Restaurant. This experience will soon not be forgotten as we had a very funny waitress who was very forthcoming with suggestions and places to eat while in Fairbanks. The group ate well as we had another night of photographing the Northern Lights ahead of us. With full stomachs and dressed warmly we headed back to the same area as the night before. Mount Skiland worked out well as it offered a warm chalet for participants to warm up and eat while waiting. Inside the chalet the TV on the wall were hooked up to the webcams so that everyone could see whether the lights were happening. This was a really nice bonus, as we could all stay warm while we waited anxiously. Within a short period the lights had appeared as promised and we were given another magic show where no of the group left disappointed. With several different areas to shoot everybody got a chance shoot from multiple perspectives in photograph the lights in all directions. Although the temperatures were cold this did not matter to anyone in the group. After hours of dazzling light and excitement the group headed back to the hotel.
With are success from the past day of dog mushing we decided to head out and photograph the dog mushers again but try different viewpoints. We also got a chance to see some of the dogs come out of the kennels and hear some background history on the sport. It was a nice chance to see a wide spectrum of dog mushing and all the events that go into a successful event. After dog mushing we headed to the iconic Daddy’s Barb-b-Que for some excellent ribs. At the restaurant we got a chance to take lots of group photos and relive some of your favorite moments thus far. After lunch the group famished from a good meal headed back to the hotel for some rest.
Later that afternoon we all attended the Ice Sculptures and Carving that presented some of the world’s best ice carvers. We decided to head there around sunset so we could photograph the ice sculptures against the backdrop of the sunset, which turned out very nicely. As the sun disappeared and the night set in we then got to shoot the ice sculptures at night when the lights spotlighted the ice carvings.
After a full evening of shooting the ice carvings we went for dinner at the Pikes Landing, which provided some warmth and time to relax. This was well needed as we headed out for another successful night of photographing the aurora borealis after dinner.
The next morning the group packed up as we had a late lunch and headed out of Fairbanks to the Chena Hot Springs Resort. The resort has always been one of the top destinations in the world to view Northern Lights and has several winter activities to keep everyone busy during the day. Later in the day we got settled into our new rooms and headed back to the restaurant for some tasty food. We got a chance to all eat in a private room and enjoy some of the five star food. We all well knowing we had a exciting night ahead of us photographing the lights. The group assembled together as dark settled in and we had arranged a snow coach to take the group up to the top of the mountain overlooking the resort. The view was second to none and provided and excellent vantage point for shooting the lights. While waiting for the show to start we all enjoyed some hot chocolate inside the warm lit yurt. The group got a chance to listen to a live band while waiting. Shortly there after the sky turned vivid colors of green and the group got another night of shooting under the magic skies of Alaska.
The next morning the group got out together to shoot around the resort as the winter snow had provided some idyllic scenes for photographing. We got to shoot some frozen ponds, hoar frost trees, and the sun rising through the snow capped trees. It wasn’t long after that that our hungry was calling out for lunch while others enjoyed some time in the hot springs which was a highlight for some of the group. With a short rest the group met up again for a private tour of the dog mushing and history of the events. This was a nice chance to get to pet the dogs as well as photograph them. All of the dogs were excited to have company and provided lots of excitement. We met for dinner later in the afternoon and were met with excellent food again.
As the light faded and the night began the group decided to shoot the Northern lights around the resort to shoot different subjects with the lights. There was plenty to shoot as we had igloos, barns, abandoned cabins, rivers, birch trees, and even an airplane to shoot under the stunning sky. We shoot until the early hours of the morning before retiring for the night.
The next morning some of the group got together to explore the outer regions of the resort and find new possibilities for the upcoming evening of Northern Lights. With a stunning rustic atmosphere the settings could not have been better for shooting. The group throughout the day got some time to relax and take another dip in the Hot Springs. With some of the new possibilities the group headed out for another night of lights where the group leader had brought out his yellow tent and made some different options for subjects. The group huddled around the tent as the Alaskan sky had not let us down. The night had lit up and the night could be heard with cheers all night from its audience.
Night after night we had been fortunate enough to see the Aurora Borealis and capture it in some of the most stunning winter conditions. The group had a chance to photograph in a variety of settings and even had a chance to experiment with different settings
The next morning we all conversed about how lucky we had been to see the magic of nature and headed back to Fairbanks for one last goodbye dinner at the famous Pump House Restaurant. Here we relived the experiences and talked about our favorite things we had seen. We even got the opportunity to try some of the local food that was pretty impressive.
On a full stomach we headed back to the hotel for a well deserved rest. The photo tour had come to a rest but we knew the memories would last a lifetime.
I often get asked which is the best time to visit the Oregon Coast and why. Most people believe that would be the summertime when the sun is out and the days are filled with blue skies. But as a photographer we don’t want the clear blue skies that most ordinary people would want. This could not be more true for the Oregon Coast as the summers are usually filled with no clouds and just boring blue skies. In the winter is when you get the best sunrises and sunsets which make for great dramatic photos. Yes it is true this is when you get the most rain as well but it as the tail end of these weather systems that you are likely to get these amazing weather patterns that make for great photos. So when choosing a time to hit the Oregon Coast it is best to allow some extra time in the vacation to ensure you allow for some bad days. I usually like to go at durations of week or more to ensure I allow for all kinds of weather.
The motto as most photographers know is that the more unstable the weather is the more likely the sunrises and sunsets will be good. So next time the rest of the world takes cover from the rain this is the time to be ready to capture the best photos especially along the Oregon Coast.
Another advantage to shooting on the Oregon Coast in the winter is the extra amount of rain which makes for better reflections and tide pools. This is especially true after a recent rainfall that make for great reflections of the clouds in the tide pools. I time these with low tides where the beach is more likely to be exposed and add a variety of tide pools and beach patterns. The tide pools really add another dimension to the coastal images along the Oregon Coast.
The tide pools add foreground interest which really pulls your viewer into the image. That immediate draw tells a story by combining a foreground with the background through juxtaposition of elements. The tide pools also add a natural mirror to the scene and double the color and beauty of the scene.
This also adds depth to the image and really enhances the illusion of the 3-D in your images. Another advantage to photographing right after a rainfall is the sand and rain together create nice patterns in the sand. I looks for these patterns in the sand in relation to sand ripples and the way the lines lead through the image. I compose my images so that the ripples and patterns lead to the subject I am trying to highlight in the image. If you carefully compose your images at certain angles you can really take advantage of reflective color off the side of ripples that really draw converging lines toward the subject.
With so many images from the Oregon Coast you really need to think carefully how you are composing your images and making them stand out from other images from the coast.The rain adds a great reflective element to the beach and makes for great reflections. By using the weather elements of winter to your advantage you can really create unique compositions that stand out.
Another advantage to photographing the Oregon Coast in the winter is there is the number of people are much fewer. To photographers this is important as nature can best be viewed when one admires nature in solitude. I am a firm believer in this and that whenever I can get somewhere and be with myself I can connect with nature more. It is important to really figure out what each scene is telling you and then try to convey that in the story of the image. The absence of people also means the lack of footprints in the sand around your composition which is almost impossible in the summertime. I like the fact that when shooting after a rainfall the beach is again in pristine condition and lacking footprints.
Winter photography along the Oregon Coast also allows for the change of ratio and rule of thirds when composing images. To be more specific when i shoot during the summer months along the coast I am forced to compose an image where I try to not include much sky. Because there is never anything much interesting going in terms of just blue skies it forces me to compose the image to be one-third sky or even less and two-thirds foreground (beach). This really limits what I can do in terms of compositions and really hinders my creativity. In winter, with dramatic skies I can change my ratio to either emphasize the sky or foreground and that choice is mine. Using the mood of the sky I can really add creativity to the images with long exposures, reflective ripples, reflecting tide pools, and mirror reflections off the sand.
With so many advantages to shooting coastal images along the Oregon Coast with winter weather conditions make it a priority this winter to get out and do some shooting.
I know I have written about this in the past, but wanted to share some images from this past winter that I took down in the Palouse. Photographing the Palouse in the winter can be kind of tricky. It seems like more often then not, a good dose of snow will hit the area, and disappear as quickly as it came. Other times, it will snow really hard, but be so windy that it will blow all of the snow off of the hills, leaving them bare and brown.
Another problem is accessibility. They don’t plow most of the roads down there, and they never plow the road up Steptoe Butte. Therefore, the only two options are to snowshoe up, or attempt the drive in a 4WD vehicle with good ground clearance and good tires. I have snowshoed and skied up the hill, but this year I was able to make it up on each of my attempts in my FJ Cruiser. It was a bit sketchy a few times, but I didn’t get stuck.
My favorite time to head out is in the afternoon on a day when a storm system is moving out of the area. This gives me a chance to catch the sun at a low angle, but still high enough in the sky to light up the hills. I learned early on that, heading out only just before sunset can result in missing some of the best light of the day. Often times I find the light more interesting when the sun is high enough in the sky to light up the hills, which just doesn’t usually happen right at sunset.
The usual things still apply for photographing the Palouse during winter, such as a good strong setup with enough capacity to hold things steady in the wind. This means a very sturdy ball head, and very sturdy tripod. I use a Gitzo 3 series tripod, and a Markins M20 ball head for my telephoto shots. I also use a tripod collar, and have rigged up a steel plate extension and set screw for added stability to the barrel of my lenses.
This last image was actually shot last April, so not really winter but still some snow. As you can see, snow is a possibility even into April. This is the first time I have ever seen conditions like this in April. Usually during March and April, there is heavy rain and hail storms that move through the area. These are great fun to watch from high vantage points.
Despite the challenges involved in making good images, winter time in the Palouse is definitely one of my favorites. Last winter, of all the times I went down to photograph, I didn’t run into a single other photographer. I do see people around though, mostly locals, especially up at Steptoe Butte. My last trip down I ran into a local farmer and his wife up on their 4 Wheeler just taking a trip to the top of Steptoe Butte. We had a great conversation on their way down. Winter is definitely a peaceful time of year in the Palouse.
More of my images can be seen on my website: Chip Phillips Photography
Many techniques used on these images are demonstrated in my editing videos available here: Image Editing Videos
One of my dreams has always been to photograph the Northern lights under a fresh blanket of white snow. A few years ago I got a chance to photograph the northern lights in the Canadian Rockies. I happened to be on a workshop at Abraham Lake shooting winter landscapes when we received an unexpected stunning display of lights. At this point I had no experience and was not sure even how to do it; all I knew was the photography mantra, “expose to the right always”. So I made the mistake of shooting the northern lights for thirty seconds or more to get the scene exposure on the right side of my histogram. During my moments of excitement and panic I did not even think to look at the images, just the histogram. I learned a hard lesson that night as the final result was a series of images that had all been overexposed. This overexposure caused all the Northern lights to blend together with no detail or patterns. A lot has happened since then in terms of camera equipment technology and photographer progress. With the year 2014 being a great year for Northern Lights I thought I would write a brief article on my experience and what I have learned.
When it comes to locations and where to find the right places to shoot the Northern Lights there are a few places that always win the hearts of photographers for their visual beauty. As most know the Northern Lights are called that for a reason, because they are seen in the higher areas of the Northern Hemisphere. The areas that I find the truly most scenic are Iceland, Norway/Scandinavia, Alaska, and Canada/Yukon. Each has its pluses and minuses which are beyond the scope of the article.
This year has been predicted to be a fantastic year for Northern Lights so I decided to plan several trips based around photographing them. For my first trip I visited the countries of Sweden, Finland, Norway, and more specifically the Lofoten Islands. I had never been there and had seen all the images with fresh snow and snow capped mountain peaks. It was exactly what I had been looking for. From research I knew driving would be extremely difficult in the Lofoten Islands so I decided to take a photo tour where I would not have to worry about that. If you have ever photographed with me you know that was a smart decision. It was nice to be able to just be taken to places without worrying if I would end up lost and frozen somewhere in the night. Some nights it was -28 and a few seconds in this temperature and you felt the numbness already. The other advantage of taking a photo tour is the instructors will know the best places to go when the Northern Lights do happen. The last thing you want to be doing is trying to find a place when the lights occur. Not only was this advantageous to have instructors take you to the right places but they also have the knowledge of where the lights are most likely to happen and when. This was really helpful so that you did not have to stay up all night looking out the window when you have already been shooting all day.
So how are you supposed to photograph Northern Lights? With experience the following is what I have found works best.
The first thing I want to talk about is shutter speed and how long you should expose the image. This depends on the light available at each scene and the elements of the scene. The most important aspect I found to be essential to shooting aurora is to make sure you don’t overexpose. What I found works best to capture detail in the Northern Lights is anywhere from five to twelve seconds. Any more than this and the lights just blur into one another and you lose the stunning movements of the lights. I adjust the shutter speed based on how fast the lights are moving. When you get high action movement in the lights adjust your settings to have a shutter speed of five seconds. This short shutter speed will allow you to capture all the stunning patterns and movement of the Northern Lights. When the lights are barely visible I was up around twelve seconds. I adjust my ISO so that I would be able to get the proper shutter speed. I photograph with a Nikon D800 with a 14-24/2.8 lens, a good camera and lens combination for night photography. I found that most of my images were taken at ISO 1600 and a few at ISO 3200 for the short bursts of light. In hindsight most of the images that I took at ISO 3200 are too noisy for large printing. It goes without saying that newer cameras will do better with noise and low light situations. I also recommend using a lens that has an aperture of 2.8 or less. Shooting an f/4 lens I was not able to shoot the lights with minimal noise and fast enough shutter speed. If possible an aperture of 1.4 or 1.8 would be even better. For focal length I always use as wide angle a lens as possible. Using a 14mm lens I was able to capture most of the patterns in one image. I have seen plenty of fantastic images with a fish-eye lens as well.
So, what happens to the rest of the elements in the image when shooting specifically for the Northern Lights?
When shooting just for the lights, the rest of the elements went completely dark and had no detail. This meant I had to do another exposure just for the rest of the scene and manually blend the two images together in post processing. It is vital that you use a strong tripod with a sturdy ballhead to prevent any kind of movement during the shot especially when shooting on the ice. The first night of shooting Northern Lights we visited a frozen lake surrounded by mountain peaks. The creativity of shooting Northern Lights has been improving and the best images today almost always include the foreground. So being that I was on a frozen lake I looked for ice cracks that would provide great leading lines to connect the foreground to the background. To properly expose the complete scene you need to take at least two images. One image should expose for the Northern Lights and a second image that exposes for the foreground and the other elements in the image. A critical consideration for exposure in the foreground is the elements present. If there is plenty of snow, especially in the foreground, your exposure will be much less. After the images are taken I usually shoot another image with my hand in front of the lens to signify the end of the series of images. Later in Adobe Lightroom or Adobe Bridge I can stack those images as the same set or series. This is very helpful later on when trying to sort what image goes with what. So I shot the Northern lights at ISO 1600 for nine second and then exposed for the foreground ice, which was anywhere from thirty to sixty seconds. I then manually blended the two in Photoshop.
The next component to photographing Northern Lights successfully is Aperture and focusing. Aperture is a constant from my experience. I need to be at an aperture f/2.8 (lower if I had a faster lens) always to get a fast enough shutter speed to capture the patterns in the Northern Lights. Combining an aperture of f/2.8 and ISO 1600 allowed me to achieve a shutter speed of less then ten seconds. The trickiest part for me was the focusing. I started by focusing on the background first to make sure I got the Northern Lights in focus. I set this up by looking at my LCD live view and focusing on a star in the distant sky. I go in at 100% preview until I find a bright star and then rotate the focus until it is sharp. Once that has occurred you can shoot the background Northern Lights with the assurance you have those sharp. Double check after by checking the LCD review of the image at 100% to see if all the stars are sharp. You know you are in the right area if you are focusing on infinity and then pulling back a smidge from that. If that all seems like too much work you can practice test shots during the day and marking on your lens where the background is in focus and use that mark on the lens later when shooting Northern lights. There are other ways that people use to focus on background stars but I found these methods worked best for me. Once you are confident the background Northern Lights are sharp, refocus for the foreground without moving the tripod or the camera position. If you are going to later blend the two images together in post processing there can be no movement in the camera. In my experience this was the hardest part in the process. I tried a couple of images where I shot one image focusing only on the background but all my foreground elements would be soft. So I would say it is imperative to refocus for a second shot. Once I got the hang of that process I took it one step further and took several images focus bracketing at several different increments blending all the images in post processing.
How do you focus in the foreground when everything is in complete darkness? The answer is bringing some sort of light like a LED light or your headlamp. Find an object in the immediate foreground you will want to include in the image, shine the your light on it and then focus on that. Use the LCD preview at 100% to make sure everything is sharp. There are many techniques that people suggest when it comes to focusing on subjects in the foreground, but for me I chose the most important element of the foreground I wanted and used that. This works well except if you are in a group or a workshop where everyone is photographing in the same area. Shooting with several other participants in the workshop in a wide open space with head lamps buzzing everywhere lead to contamination of light in most of my images. Even though people are spread out, any kind of light that people use can show up in your images. No matter how far away I seemed to get away from the group I could see other photographers flashlights in my images. So be wary if in a group situation. For this reason I tried to avoid using any light and use my best estimate for focus. This proved to be a big mistake and I lost several images to the foreground being soft.
To overcome this obstacle I decided I needed to wait till the next day. I would practice during the daylight and mark my lens where the optimal sharpness point should be; choosing to focus on something one-third into the foreground scene. When testing I looked for a similar situation that I would find myself in while shooting the Northern Lights. I was looking for something where the foreground element would be similar such as a rock, ice crack, etc. This foreground subject would be right in front of me with the mountain peaks in the far background. Once I found the spot of optimal sharpness I marked this on my lens. I could then go straight to that focus point the next time I was in the dark and shooting in a group situation. I want to note this was not the ideal situation and the focus was not always a 100% but it was the best I could do under the circumstances.
The last thing I did was take some time to just enjoy the Northern Lights without doing any shooting. Just enjoy the amazing show that so few people ever get to see!
If you have any tips that you have found helpful when photographing the aurora consider sharing them in the comments as I’m sure others would love to read them.