Astrophotography Tutorial: Northern Lights Chasing in Iceland

There’s nothing quite as magical as seeing a bright green and pink Aurora Borealis dancing in the sky. One of the world’s most dazzling natural light displays, the Aurora is produced when charged particles from solar winds encounter our atmosphere, penetrating the Earth’s magnetic field, exciting Oxygen and Nitrogen to produce green and pink Auroras, respectively. It’s not only amazing to look at, but occasionally you can even hear it’s static-like pulses. There’s nothing quite like observing the Northern Lights in person, so of course you’re going to want to capture some amazing memories of it. One of the neat things about Aurora photography is that it’s always changing; there’s always a new dance to capture, and plenty of foregrounds to shoot from. My wife and I have been Aurora chasing for several years now, and have captured her over many trips to Norway, Iceland, and New England, with trips to Labrador, Finland, and more of the world on our short list. Along the way, we’ve picked up a few tricks, and gotten some practice in taking astrophotography in between.

We’ve spent the past two years raising our little girl, Lily, so we hadn’t been traveling internationally for while. This past October, we got back out chasing again (with a junior explorer), so I’ve been brushing up on my skills including my skills at developing these photos, which I’ve updated.


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How to Plan Your Own Photo Tour

Photography tours and workshops sound exciting and even romantic to amateur photographers looking to get away and come home with some fantastic pictures. The concept is appealing: travel around with a pro photographer who can show you all the great places to shoot. Tours can certainly be beneficial, fun, and provide good instruction, but one other option you may consider is planning your own photography tour and saving possibly ten thousand dollars or more.

My wife and I are planning our second Iceland tour, have been to different parts of Norway three times, Hawaii, London, and many other common workshop destinations. Planning these trips was not as difficult as you might think, and from a cost perspective, night and day. We also found many great benefits to doing it this way.

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Book Review: Sketching Light by Joe McNally


Joe McNally is a name you may have never heard, but you’ve most likely seen and been touched by his work. I guess the best compliment you could give to a photographer like Joe is this; that his work has touched you. McNally’s internationally celebrated career has spanned 30 years and over 50 countries; you’ve likely seen his work on the covers of TIME, Newsweek, and others, or been awed by his many photographs in National Geographic without even knowing it. Joe also created the well known 9/11 “Faces of Ground Zero” project, which went on tour a year after 9/11, and generated around $2 million for relief efforts. You’d think such an accomplished photographer would want to keep his 30-years of knowledge close to the vest, but to the contrary, Joe openly and generously shares some of his best techniques in Sketching Light, and also spreads a lot of inspiration.

Joe has a number of books about photography, but Sketching Light (2011) is one that has dramatically changed my own photography, not just because of the instruction found in this book, but also because of the meaning and depth Joe’s career has inspired me through. Sketching Light, at face value, is a book about both studio and on-location lighting techniques for portraits. If those words sound cold and uninteresting, it seemed that way to me as well when I initially picked up the book. I was previously only interested in landscape and commercial photography, and had no interest in portraits. In my mind, I wasn’t interested at all in snapping some snobby bride’s photos or doing mall portraits for the family dog. What McNally offered me, though, in addition to some great instruction, was also inspiration – something I had completely lacked in this area of photography. This book walks you through parts of Joe’s professional life in portraits, the stories behind them, the meaning many of them have to both him and his subjects, and only consequently also explains – in full detail – how he masterly lit them. You learn that there are portraits that have meaning, value, and depth. You get instruction and, almost contagiously, the inspiration to go and seek out this kind of storytelling in your own work. Since reading his book, I now seek out meaningful photography projects, particularly of the environmental portrait variety. Better than lighting, Sketching Light has instilled a sense of storytelling in me; that magic drive that you commonly see so prevalent in the work of legends. And he does all of this without even trying.

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Recovering Photos From Bad Storage Cards

A Guide for Photogaphers, Not Geeks

Most photographers have had at least one heart attack moment when they realize all of the photos they’ve taken on a shoot (or a vacation) are suddenly gone, and there’s nothing on the camera’s storage card. Perhaps you’ve accidentally formatted the wrong card, or the card just somehow got damaged. If you’re a professional photographer, there’s a good chance your’e also not a forensic scientist or a hard-core nerd (although it’s OK to be all three!). That minor detail doesn’t mean, however, that you can’t learn to carve data off of a bad storage card and save yourself a lot of money on data recovery. While there are many aspects to forensic science that are extremely complicated, data carving isn’t one of them, and I’ll even walk you through how to do it on your Mac in this article, with a little bit of open source software and a few commands. If you’re scared of your computer, don’t worry. This is all very easy even though it looks a bit intimidating at first. You can test your skills using any old storage card you might have on hand. It doesn’t have to be damaged, although you might be surprised just how much data you thought was deleted from it!

First, lets talk about how your storage card works. When you plug your storage card into your computer, your computer looks for a list of files on the card; this is kind of like a rolodex of all the files your camera has stored. This “catalog” basically says, “OK, this file is this big, and it starts here”. You can think of it like the table of contents of a book. When you format a storage card, most of the time it’s just this table of contents that gets deleted; the actual bits and bytes from the photo you took aren’t erased (because that would take too long). The same can be true when the file system becomes damaged; in most cases, it’s just the file listing that gets blown up somehow, making it appear like there are no files on the card. In more extreme cases, physical damage can sometimes damage the data from one part of the card, but the data for the other half of the card can still be recovered; your computer needs to be told to look past all the damaged data, instead of just giving you an error message.

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The Fan Club Effect

I’ve known for a long time that fan clubs affect my selection of a particular product or technology, and have been trying to articulate just how they affect the thought process involved in selection. My recent experience in the world of photography has helped me work through that enough to write about.

I generally remain neutral about the technologies I get involved with, as I believe each technology has it’s own place and purpose. I learned this holds true in computer languages, operating systems, and nearly everything else in life. It is interesting, though, to watch the fan clubs of all camps and the impact they have on neutrality and public opinion. In many cases, it actually works against many manufacturers to have such zealous fans. This too holds true of all things, ranging from computer languages to cameras.

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Why Not To Shoot at f/22 Anymore

Every “professional” photography book I’ve read makes it gospel that you have to shoot landscapes at f/22, in order to ensure that the foreground and background is in focus. Special thanks to these guys for teaching millions of photographers to create blurry photos. Lens Diffraction, and an explanation as to why shooting at f/22 (and higher than around f/11) is likely giving you soft photos, when sharpness is what you’re trying to achieve.

Check out for a more in-depth explanation. Most of my shots are around f/5.6 – f/11 these days, and have turned out much sharper, even with a foreground. Most lenses are at their sharpest only two or three stops down from their largest aperture.