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.
For Beginners: Night Exposure Primer
If you’re new to night photography, you need to be able to get a few things out of your camera in order to shoot the Aurora successfully. Shooting the Aurora requires manual mode camera settings, primarily because the computer inside of the camera isn’t smart enough to expose properly for the Northern Lights in any of its auto modes. You can probably play around with exposure control to get “something” out of it, but manual mode really gives you the flexibility to adjust the shot as you please.
The Aurora varies in brightness, and so the game is to let the camera sit on a tripod and let in enough light so that the Aurora shows up in your photo, but also finding a good exposure for your foreground in the dark. You can then pull out shadows and make other adjustments in Lightroom to develop a single shot, or merge a foreground and background shot together.
Exposure is a “recipe” with three main ingredients:
Shutter Speed: This is how long you let light into your camera. To shoot the Aurora, you’ll leave the shutter open for several seconds to let enough light in. Cosmos took 13 seconds of exposure with a very bright presentation of the Aurora. Most Northern Lights shots take 20-30 seconds with a wide open aperture to get a good frame.
Aperture: This is how wide your lens’s iris opens; the wider it opens, the more light it’s going to let in. A smaller f-number gives you the wider aperture. Typically, you want a lens that can shoot at f/2.8. If you go any wider (such as f/2 or f/1.4), then your depth of field will be so shallow that either your foreground or your background may be blurry – like opening your eyes really wide does. Really wide f-stops can also cause a lot of coma in some lenses, causing tiny pinpoints of light, like stars, to show up as flares. On the other side of the dial, the narrower f-stops are like squinting your eyes, giving you less light for your exposure. While f/2.8 seems to be the sweet spot, I’ve seen pictures turn out well at f/4, you’ll just have to boost your ISO or use a longer shutter speed. Other photos at f/2 can similarly turn out well, but your focus must be impeccable.
ISO: This is how sensitive you set the camera’s sensor to be to light. The higher the ISO, the grainier your picture, so you want this to be as low as you can get away with. Typically, Aurora shots require around ISO 1600 or even 3200, although if it’s really bright, I’ve turned my ISO as low as 200 and gotten good results. That is atypical, though. Most of my shots are ISO 1250 or 1600. Generally, the higher ISOs tend to give you better definition of the Aurora, due in part to the sensor being more sensitive, but also due to the faster shutter speed it gives you. So if you’re watching some amazing shapes take form in the sky, you might try ISOs 2000-3200 to capture some of that definition; you’ll just end up needing to be more aggressive with your noise reduction.
These three ingredients (shutter speed, f-stop, and ISO) affect how much light your camera takes in during a single shot. If it takes too much light in, your shot can be overexposed. Too little, and the Aurora will be too dark, or the foreground could turn out a dark silhouette (which may be desirable). Lightroom, Photoshop, and DxO are all great at pulling out shadows or adjusting your highlights to develop the frame. If you have a camera with good dynamic range, you can pull a lot of detail out of your image, even if it isn’t perfect. You’re also in a race against time. As the Earth rotates, stars move, and so to get a really clear shot of the sky, the typical rule of thumb is to expose for 30 seconds or less. Your foreground shots, however, can take as long as you like.
Most cameras, when put in auto mode, try and expose for the entire scene, and aren’t smart enough to know that you’re trying to shoot the sky. If you leave your camera on auto, you’re likely to just shoot a black sky. Manual mode lets you boost the amount of light coming in by manually changing these three things.
I can’t tell you how many times we’ve run into someone back at the hotel who saw a beautiful Aurora and came back with photos of darkness because their mobile phone (or tablet, yeesh) didn’t pick it up. While the Aurora can be quite bright to the naked eye, typical mobile devices just don’t have the ISO range to pick it up well. Most mobile sensors can only stretch to about ISO 640, and don’t have a long exposure setting by default. You can’t just take an Instagram of the Aurora, unfortunately – at least a good one. I’ve heard some people, with use of a long exposure app, have been able to get their camera phone to shoot “something”, but I wouldn’t recommend trusting such a unique and fleeting moment to a cellphone. There’s nothing more depressing than spending all that money on an amazing vacation, being surrounded by a gorgeous Aurora, then getting home and having terrible photos. I advise spending the money on a good camera system.
Any good SLR (and some mirrorless cameras), with a manual exposure mode, should be sufficient to capture a good Aurora. The only reason I say “some” mirrorless cameras is because many of them are unable to focus or show anything in live view in the dark, whereas a DSLR allows you to see through the lens to focus rather than on a screen. So if you’re looking at a mirrorless, make sure it can focus in the dark, and that you can actually see stars on your viewfinder.
I presently travel with a Nikon D850. It is the camera with, in my opinion, the best dynamic range available today (even over above the Sony a7R, the Canon 5DS, and most others). Dynamic range is very important when doing any kind of night shooting, as exposure is often a game of guesswork. Having good dynamic range means the ability to pull out shadows from underexposed photos, and recovering highlights from overexposed ones. For this, high end Nikons are king. Dynamic range suffers as you approach the higher ISOs as well, so squeezing every bit of DR that you can out of your camera can really come in handy. This isn’t a must – my wife shoots with a Canon 5D3, which has a very nice color rendering, but she’s also more limited in post processing capabilities and so takes a wider range of exposures to be confident in the results. The Canons tend to develop more color noise when pulling out shadows, while the Nikons are generally more uniform. At worst, I’ve seen the older D810s develop a slight magenta cast when pulling out extreme shadows, however this can be much more easily corrected than random color noise. It also seems to be gone in Nikon’s newer D850. If you have the perfect recipe, you can get a good exposure out of almost any camera, but the key is having the perfect recipe. When you’re out in the cold, with the wind whipping around, and have only a few minutes to make decisions, you’re almost never going to have the perfect recipe – even if you’re experienced. Good dynamic range covers over a multitude of sins.
One other thing you’ll need is a good tripod. I use a carbon fiber Gitzo tripod and Really Right Stuff pano head – in Iceland, we are subject to heavy gusts of wind, strong tides, and black sand whipping around and getting into all the things, so having a good solid tripod with steel spikes and good quality parts can really help to produce sharp photos and prevent equipment failures. When I say equipment failures, I mean my old Benro that literally snapped in half in the extreme cold. You’re going to be doing long exposures, anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, possibly exposed to wind, ocean tides, snow and ice, and so a sturdy and reliable tripod is a must to avoid irreparably blurry photos. It’s worth the coin.
While most shots don’t need to exceed the camera’s maximum 30 second timer to shoot the Aurora itself, you may choose to shoot a second frame at lower ISO to get a less grainy foreground. The shot Elemental isn’t a Northern Lights shot, it’s a Milky Way shot, but the same technique can be used. I took one shot of the Milky Way at 30s, and then exposed for the foreground at a much lower ISO for 8 minutes.
I did the same thing again with The Raven’s Nest a few years later. A 30-second exposure for the sky, followed by a 10-minute exposure @ ISO 800 for the foreground gave me good light, rich colors, and exceptional detail.
Shooting at f/2.8, ISO 3200 for 30s is also a good go-to setting for capturing the beams of light shooting from lighthouses. I used this setting in Illuminate, and then dropped the ISO to 320 to capture the lighthouse in better quality. I then applied a green filter to reduce the amount of red in the photo, and further desaturated the red in the lighthouse layer. A lot of people think the beams are faked in photos like this, but the camera, in fact, captured them superbly with this recipe. A lighthouse with a red lamp also gives you a beautiful purplish rendering of the sky.
I used the same technique in Piercing the Darkness. This time, the white lamp of the lighthouse allowed the colors of the Milky Way to be more pronounced. The residual light from the station allows you to drop your ISO without needing to increase your exposure time.
If I’m shooting something with a more defined foreground like this, I’ll typically shoot a second, longer exposure to capture it in a separate frame (I’ll explain merging later in this post), and that can take several minutes of shutter time. For this, you may need a remote timer for your camera. Some cameras (such as the D850) have a manual mode that can do >30s long exposures without a timer (on the D850, it’s designated as “–” past bulb mode), however having a timer will give you less arbitrary exposure times. Alternatively, you can just pull out shadows, however you may get slightly grainier results. This is what I did with Where the Wild Things Are. It looks fine on the screen, but I also have a large print of Elemental sitting on my wall, whereas this shot will probably not make a great gallery size print.
Lastly, a good lens makes all the difference. I shoot at night primarily with a Zeiss 15mm f/2.8 Distagon Classic. Another superb lens I’ve used is the Nikon 14-24mm. The Distagon is not a cheap lens, but has many benefits to night photography. A wide open prime at f/2.8, it is sharp from corner to corner and has very low coma. This is very important when you want the pin points of the stars in the sky to look sharp, where other lenses will show stars as blobs in the corners (although even the best lens can’t stop the stars from moving on you). The original Distagon 15mm “Classic” lens is now discontinued, but you can often find them $1,000 cheaper than the new Milvus lenses, and uses the same exact formula. The only differences between the two are the new, sleeker design, the rubber focus ring (I like my steel ring better), and weather sealing. I’ve shot my “Classic” since before it was called a classic, gotten it soaked at the bottom of several waterfalls, and not once did the lack of weather sealing present an issue. According to some reviews, the Milvus version of the lens delivers degraded optical quality for unknown reasons. With identical optical formulas, this could be attributed to production line quality, or more likely issues with the new anti-flare coatings. If you’re shooting astrophotography, you don’t need an anti-flare coating, so I kept my Classic to get a slight edge on image quality.
The 15mm and 21mm Zeiss Distagon ultra-wide angle lenses have a manual focus with a hard stop at infinity that do a good job stopping where they’re supposed to, at least in cold fall weather. A hard stop at infinity is really helpful at night, when everything looks pitch black through the lens. Infinity can be a tricky business, and depending on the materials used in the lens, true “infinity” focus can even vary with temperature. This is true of the Nikon and Canon lenses (and others) made with plastic or fluorite components. Zeiss lenses are all metal, and to my knowledge do not use fluorite elements (which can thermally expand, shifting focus). My other three Distagon lenses (25mm Milvus, 35mm Milvus, and 55mm Otus) go well past infinity, likely for reasons including defocusing, infrared, etc.
It’s always best to manually focus by eye when you can, but the Zeiss hard infinity stop is really helpful when you’re groping around in the dark, and can’t see a thing through your viewfinder; it’s reassuring to know that (with these two lenses, at least) you don’t have to mess around with your focus – you just turn the focus ring until it stops. I’ve heard some people in forums claim that it isn’t true infinity, but I’ve had very good results using it with these two Distagons. Much of it may still depend on environmental factors – the crisp cold night air certainly helps to prevent any lens elements from expanding or causing refraction problems, but I suppose shooting the same lens in tropical climates could potentially give you different results. At the very least, Zeiss’ stop should get you good results as narrow as 2.8 in cold temperatures. I’m sure someone could argue that a tiny bit of fine tuning is still necessary to get the ideally perfect focus, and this may be more noticeable in daylight. For low-light, however, the infinity at least works “well enough” for the many gallery photos I’ve printed, and I’m more likely to have issues with star trails or the tide shifting the sand under my tripod than I am focus.
This all sounds like a lot of expensive gear, and if you’re just a tourist type of person, this section on equipment has probably overwhelmed you and your wallet. If you’re just looking for touristy type memories that make good screensavers (nothing wrong with this), you can get away with an inexpensive DSLR and tripod, and spend less than $1,000. If you’re looking to produce gallery quality prints, obviously you get what you pay for in terms of equipment. If there is a law of diminished returns in photography, it’s buying expensive gear that you don’t know how to push to its limits… I recommend getting whatever gear complements your skill level, maybe with a little room to grow.
Tracking the Aurora
The Aurora is most active in the fall and winter months. People often say that it has to be cold, but I’ve found this to be only because the cold seems to drive away the clouds to create a crisper sky… I quite prefer some clouds in my astrophotography. The Aurora has shown up for us on evenings when it was as warm as 50F. Even the weather guys can’t consistently predict the Aurora (come to think of it, he can’t predict the weather very well either), so I wouldn’t put much weight on such advice. The slightly more reliable way to track the Aurora is to check these websites:
Space Weather Live Aurora Forecast http://www.spaceweatherlive.com/en/auroral-activity/aurora-forecast
University of Alaska Geophysical Institute http://gi.alaska.edu/AuroraForecast/NorthAmerica
NOAA 3-Day Auroral Forecast http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/products/aurora-3-day-forecast
NOAA Real-Time Aurora Map http://services.swpc.noaa.gov/images/aurora-forecast-northern-hemisphere.png
The forecasts can sometimes be hit or miss, but they’re a reasonable guide. It’s always good to keep an eye on the real-time map, as sometimes unexpected spikes in Auroral activity take place, and they will be visible only on the real-time map. Like I said, they still can’t predict it well.
Checking the weather forecast is important too, of course. If it’s going to rain, you likely won’t see much of the Aurora. In Iceland, the rain can let up for short periods of time (unless you’re in freaking Vik), and give you clear skies long enough to see the lights. The shot Aurora Over Kirkjufell was taken in between hail storms, in which our car was getting bombarded with wind, hail, and rain… then five minutes later the skies were clear and it looked like it was going to be a nice night. We got off maybe five photos before the hail storms started again. What an amazing night!
The most important tip I can give you when dealing with the weather is to never give up the evening. Storms unexpectedly clear, pockets of clear sky can creep by, and if you’ve given up and are lounging in the hot tub, you’re going to miss your chance. The hot tub will be much more satisfying if you know you’ve nailed your shots from earlier in the night. The earlier shot Where the Wild Things Are was one frame amongst 50 others that I discarded due to heavy clouds, car headlights from oncoming traffic, and tourists being idiots with their flashlights, wrecking half my shots. That one frame was worth the trouble.
If you’re planning on shooting the Aurora over a specific feature (such as a waterfall or near water), it’s a good idea to stay at a hotel close to your spot. Even on a bad night, the Aurora may still appear for 10-20 minutes, before being covered by clouds. We stayed at Hotel Gullfoss for one evening, which is a two minute drive from the massive Gullfoss waterfall. Geysir Hestar is a horse farm only a few minutes further away that also rents cute cottages. Both stays, we were able to hike out to the waterfall and shoot for an hour before cloud cover and rain set in. A clear sky was not on the forecast anywhere for those nights.
While in your hotel room, you can periodically check for the Aurora with your camera. You probably won’t see it with the naked eye from the inside, since they’re not adjusted. Instead, aim your camera out the window and shoot at f/2.8, ISO 3200, 10s. Just rest it on the window sill or hold it – it doesn’t really matter if it gets blurry. If you see any green, then you know the Aurora is getting charged up outside, and you can make your way to your shooting location. You could also just be a normal person and go outside to watch for it.
Another good place to stay if you’re in the area is Hotel Höfn; this hotel is at the end of a peninsula, with a nice rocky beach shore just across the street and down a short path. The water here is nice and calm, and makes for some great reflections with a strong, rocky shoreline. It’s only 15 minutes away from the Vestrahorn at Stokksnes, as well, which makes for some fantastic sunrise photography.
Composing the Shot
When shooting the Northern Lights, having a strong foreground can really make for a great shot. Watching her dance above the water, or a mountain, or something discernible, really adds a sense of scale to the photo.There is no short supply of bad Aurora photos with no foreground on Facebook, but my wife seems to create stunning artwork breaking all the rules, such as with A Little Magic… so take this advice with a grain of salt.
A Little Magic
Canon 24mm, f/2.8, 15s, ISO 3200
Some of my favorite places to shoot the Aurora are:
- Over still water, from the shore of a lake, pond, or lagoon
- Over a waterfall where you’ll get a nice sheen on the water
- Using the silhouette of trees or a mountain as a backdrop
- Any landscape you’d normally shoot during the day, that has high enough contrast to see some texture in the terrain.
- Any foreground with lines leading into the Aurora.
Most compositions I see are typically 2/3 sky, 1/3 foreground, or 50/50, however as with everything else, it all comes down to what you like. Some of my favorite shots are 2/3 foreground, 1/3 sky, but it works with the reflection.
When you’re near still water, look for the reflection of the Aurora. Especially when she’s dancing, you’ll find that shooting at just the right angle can make the reflection a fantastic leading line into the rest of the shot. When composing your shot, you can use Nikon’s live view to view the scene at a higher ISO, which may be better than looking through the eyepiece in some cases.
Turning your camera vertical will give you more sky to work with, or can also help you to bring the foreground in more dramatically when using a wide angle.
Focusing can be tricky; the goal is to focus out to infinity. If you have an auto-focus lens, it’s likely going to be too dark for the auto-focus to kick in, and so it will end up hunting, which will leave you out of focus. My wife shoots with a Canon 24-70mm, and so we’ve had a lot of practice focusing her lens. Unless you’re willing to spend the money on a Zeiss, I recommend one of the following methods, they’ve worked well for us in the past:
- Stars Approach. Turn the lens to manual focus, compose your shot, then turn the focus ring until the stars become tiny pinpoints. Take a test shot, then zoom in at 100% on your screen to ensure that you are really in focus.
- Flashlight Approach. Figure out what the maximum focusing distance of your lens is. If you’re shooting a wide angle, it’s probably around 15 feet. Now use a bright flashlight to shine light on a tree, rock, or anything past that range, and use your camera’s auto-focus to lock focus. Once you’ve done this, immediately switch the lens to manual focus, otherwise it will hunt again. Take a test shot of the sky, then zoom in at 100% on your screen to ensure that you have a solid focus.
- Find Anything Behind You Approach. As long as you exceed the maximum focusing distance of your lens, you can focus on anything you want off in the distance. If there’s a lit building behind you, that works, or if your car keys will work from where you are (and the car exceeds your focus distance), you can click the lights on for a minute to focus on it with auto-focus…. then switch to manual focus, take a test shot of the sky, and zoom in at 100% on your screen to ensure you have solid focus.
Be sure to frequently check your focus to make sure it’s still good. If you wipe some water off of your lens, you could easily throw it out of focus. Even on a dry evening, you’re going to likely be shooting at f/2.8 (to let the most light in), and so your depth of field will be quite shallow. If your focus gets knocked off of infinity, you could end up with blurry photos. What looks in focus on a 2 inch screen may be incredibly blurry, so zoom to 100% often. On one trip that was a family trip for us, my son lost an entire string of shots because they looked crisp until later on when he zoomed in.
Exposure and White Balance
Depending on the brightness of the Northern Lights, you’ll be anywhere from a few to 30 seconds. The shorter your exposure is, the more defined the Aurora will likely be (unless it’s behind clouds, in which case you’ll just have green clouds). Longer periods of time will get you a creamier Aurora. I recommend starting out with f/2.8, ISO 1600, 15s, and then fine-tune from there to get the right exposure. It is possible to blow out the Aurora highlights, so make sure to turn on your blinkies.
A note on ISO: The higher the ISO, obviously the grainier the photo. High ISO also reduces dynamic range, which you’ll want to pull out shadows in processing. On very bright nights, you may be able to drop your ISO by a lot and shoot longer exposures. One night, the Aurora was so bright, I was able to shoot her at ISO 200! You’re going to get the cleanest photos with the lowest ISO; the trade-off is that you’ll be shooting longer, so you’ll end up with a creamier Aurora. Take several shots at different settings, and figure out what you prefer.Another benefit to shooting at low ISO, when possible, is that you increase your dynamic range, making it easier to pull out shadows without grain. This is one reason I recommend taking a longer exposure specifically for the foreground, and blending it.
As for white balance, I strongly advise shooting in raw. Even with the proper white balance, you’re going to want to tweak it when you get it into Camera Raw or Lightroom. Developing Aurora shots will give you a bit of a monotonous green cast unless you adjust your white balance. Even if you nail the greens, there is so much green surrounding you that the true colors of the foreground tend to get bleached out. I tend to slide the tint up toward magenta (the opposite of green) or drop the color temperature a bit to reign in the greens and bring back the rich crystal blues of the icebergs, for example. There’s often a dissonance between what your eyes perceive and what your camera records, so minor correction is often necessary.
It’s important to shoot a gray card so you can calibrate in processing. I find auto-calibrating on a glacier or other white-gray object will get you in the ballpark, but a gray card is so much more useful in post processing. When the lights come out and you’re so excited to take some photos, just remember not to leave the gray card sitting in your bag.
Exposing for the Foreground
As I’ve mentioned, while shooting the Aurora, expose some longer frames of the same scene for the foreground. For shots with a very dark foreground, try a second longer exposure at lower ISO (around 800 or below), and then blend them together using Edit | Auto-Blend Layers in Photoshop, or a simple mask with some reasonable, but not overbearing level of opacity. As a personal ethos, I don’t believe in light painting. (I’ve tried it. It feels artificial. Maybe useful for very limited effects). So some exposures may take as little as 30s to get the foreground, while others may leave me standing there for 5-10 minutes. In my opinion, it’s worth it, and lets me render the frame honestly, but without the limitations of the technology I’m using. You can use a lot of noise reduction on the Aurora, but notsomuch on the foreground. Lately, more and more of my photos are done in a single shot, using a double exposure (calibrating for the sky, then re-opening the same photo calibrated for the foreground, and blending them), adjusting the noise reduction I use for each. You can try it a number of different ways until you find the process that works for that particular frame.
In manual mode on the Nikon D810, you can move the shutter speed past bulb to get “–” on the display. If you haven’t read your manual, this is actually a really cool feature. You can press (and release) the shutter once to begin the exposure, then press it again when you’re ready to end it. You can sit there as long as you want exposing in the mean-time, without a timer. While I wouldn’t recommend this with a telephoto shot, you’re not going to notice any camera shake doing this with a wide angle over a long exposure. It’s especially harmless if you set a timer and exposure delay mode to start the exposure, as you should be doing anyway.
One night, when the Aurora was very strong, we drove out to the black sand beaches across from Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, and took some shots of the Aurora lighting up the ice. Getting such a strong foreground required some focus stacking. This is where you take two or three shots: one for the Aurora, and one or two for the foreground, then change the focus of the latter shots so that different parts of the icebergs are in focus. You can then use Edit | Auto-Blend Layers to stack them in Photoshop.
Just as you’d need to overexpose a shot to capture the foreground, you may find that you need to underexpose a shot in order to tone down surrounding lights in the area. I’ve seen several professional photos where the photographer forgot to underexpose a frame for this; the lights always seem to draw the eye away from the real feature of the shot.
Cutting your shutter time (or better, your ISO) in half should get you somewhere in the ballpark; be sure to review your images to see what it takes to take the edge off of any background lights. You can then blend this with your Aurora shot to get a well balanced final.
Demo photos in tutorials rarely show what the photographer is actually getting straight out of the camera, so I thought I would cover that here. If you’re doing it right, you should already have a decent shot to work with straight out of camera, perhaps needing some white balance adjustment. If you’re having to do a heavy amount of post processing just to get here, review your camera settings and make sure your exposure is correct. Note: the exif tags are still intact if you want to visit the exact point I got this shot.
At this point, most of your processing will likely consist of camera raw tweaks: adjusting the white balance / tint to bring in the colors of the foreground, whites (to raise or lower the intensity of the Aurora), shadows (to bring out the foreground), tone curve adjustments, noise reduction, and perhaps a touch of clarity or dehaze, to add definition.
A few other things you’ll want to consider in processing are to turn sharpening to around 25-50%; now option+click+drag the Masking slider until only the stars and some of the foreground are masked in white. This will sharpen these things, but leave the Aurora alone. Of course, if you’re shooting ice or some other strong foreground, you’ll want to selectively sharpen for that. Ice sharpens well with a strong unsharp mask too (also have a look at “Smart Sharpen”).
For noise reduction, I recommend processing the foreground and the Aurora separately, even if you’re using the same image file. Reason being, you can be more aggressive with the Aurora than you can with the foreground. You may also want to have a darker and contrastier sky, without the shadows or blacks turned up. Grainy foreground shots can benefit from a high color noise NR (“Color”), with minimal luminosity NR (“Luminosity”). Aurora shots are the exact opposite.
To merge two images together, copy one photo’s background as a new layer into the other. You can then try the Edit > Auto-Blend Layers tool, although that only works well some of the time. I quite prefer doing it by hand using masks. Simply click the mask icon to create a mask, then paint black or white onto it in parts you want to either reveal or conceal. I often also mask using luminosity channels.
If you haven’t learned how to create luminosity channels yet, I use this technique to make targeted adjustments to various levels of shadows, midtones, and highlights, allowing me to fine-tune the photo’s balance. It’s also a subtle blending technique when using a particular channel as a mask. For example, if you have a photo with a developed foreground and one with a developed sky, you can use the highlights as a mask in this fashion.
To create luminosity channels, click the Channels tab in Photoshop. Command-click the RGB channel. This will select highlights. Create a new channel named Highlights 1 using this selection as a mask. Next, bisect the channel with itself using Shift-Option-Command and clicking on the Highlights 1 channel you just created. This will create an even deeper highlights selection. Name this channel Highlights 2. Repeat until you get three to five different highlights channels.
Once you’ve created the highlights, you can create channels for shadows by selecting the highlights again (Command-click the RGB channel), then invert the selection and bisect it in the same way to create multiple shadow channels. Lastly, to create mid-tones, simply subtract the shadows and highlights channels from each other. By the time you’re finished, you should have three to five channels for each. This works best by creating an action, or you could simply download the free TK-Panel to create them for you.
If the Aurora is particularly bright, the green may drown out the colors from the rest of the photo. Adjusting the white balance and tint when loading your raw into ACR will certainly help to subtly bring back some of the original colors. Additionally, you can use Photoshop’s Color Balance tool as well as ACR’s brush adjustment tool to make deeper corrections, if necessary.
One of the most useful tools I’ve applied has been using Threshold combined with Levels to reset the black and white points of the image. Brent Paull has a great tutorial on using Threshold. This typically restores the depth of the original colors, but can initially make the photo extremely grainy because it’s too brightened up. Further adjustments to levels can help to bring the photo back to its native brightness levels, while leaving the richness of the colors.
Another thing I’ve noticed is that the magentas can sometimes creep into your photo by using this method, turning blues to purple. You can use channel mixer to remove some of the reds and restore a blue sky, instead of a purple one (although purple and green does look pretty cool together).
Too much noise reduction can cause pixelation and banding. This is true of Photoshop’s NR, as well as many other software packages. Much of the time, what you really want is the opposite of noise reduction: introducing noise. Adding noise to a grainy spot on your photo (e.g. a cloud, fog, etc) can smooth out the area, reduce banding, and accomplish what you thought you could do with noise reduction. After you’ve performed modest NR on your photo and are finished with any other touch-ups, make a copy of the layer. In Photoshop, go to Filter | Filter Gallery and find the Spatter filter. Turn it all the way up to 25, with a smoothness of 1 and hit OK. Your layer will turn to mush. Now hit Option-Mask to create an all black mask, and choose a white brush with 20-35% opacity. Paint over the problem area with the brush and watch the noise you introduce smooth it out. You’ll want to be particularly careful around edges, as they can get lost if you simply paint over them. Dark edges can also cause the spatter to start appearing dark in some areas, so you’ll need to be careful to just add noise to the parts you need.
If you don’t want to go through all the hassle, I recommend Topaz DeNoise AI. It is by far the most superior NR plug-in I have seen, and outperforms Photoshop, Nik Dfine, and many others.
Another technique I’ve recently learned, that’s helped in a way I hadn’t anticipated, is the use of Orton lights. Orton lights have been long overused in photography to create the dreamy, soft-focus effect in photos. It has such an effect on Aurora photography as well, but because of the way that gaussian blur is used, it can also help to soften noise in waterfalls or other noisy areas in night shots.
To add an Orton layer to your photo, create a composite layer containing all of your current changes (e.g. Shift-Option-Command-E). Now use Filter->Blur->Gaussian Blur. Set the strength to them megapixel size of your photo (e.g. Nikon D810 is 36MP, so you’d use 36). The layer will become mush. Now add a generous amount of contrast and a small amount of brightness. Blend the layer on Soft Light at about 8-10%. You’ll see the dreamy effect show up pretty nicely. You may also choose to mask out the shadows using a luminosity channel so that the effect only applies to the highlights and midtones.
Using an Orton layer also helps to make the Milky Way look more, well, milky. By blurring the highlights a bit, you get away from those overly-sharp, and often sterile, looking star shots, and instead convey a really nice warm rendering.
So you’ve got a nice photo perfectly balanced, with the colors and contrast the way you like them, but it still looks somewhat incomplete. One trick I use to add a nice satin looking finish to my screen photos is to adjust the offset and gamma to add a nice cast over the photo. You can do this with the exposure adjustment layer in Photoshop.
Fine adjustments are all that’s needed. In the photo below, the left half is how the photo looks in post, the right half is after adding this finishing adjustments.
I’ve tried several different inkjet processes through various labs and photo finishing companies – none of them have been able to retain the green and blue highlights to my satisfaction. The Epson printer and paper did a halfway “decent” job on the greens, however completely clipped the blue highlights. Other labs would clip the greens, leaving the Aurora like a blob. Neither were suitable for gallery or customer prints. I tried calling Epson several times, but was unable to even reach someone who spoke English well enough to understand my questions.
The best process I was able to find was using a lab’s chromogenic process on darkroom paper (Fuji Crystal Archive). The Chromira prints offered by West Coast Imaging filled the bill here, and they were able to run all of my Aurora shots flawlessly and quickly for an upcoming gallery. It’s been argued that inkjets have a wider gamut than chromogenic, and that may or may not be true, but when it comes to these specific highlights, it seems that all inkjets I’ve tried fall short. Here’s the proof copy from WCI; you can’t see the intricate details I’m talking about, but this should give you a general idea of what you’re looking for.
When adjusting your Aurora photos for print, be sure to use your printer (or lab) color profile and soft proof it in Photoshop. Also be sure to turn on the Gamut Warnings option so that you can see all the areas (highlighted in gray) where your highlights are likely to clip. This can really help to get a decent looking image for print, even if you don’t want to pay top dollar for c-prints.
Be careful, and always carry a bright flashlight with extra batteries. If you’re in unfamiliar territory, bring a hiking stick with you. Even if there’s no snow on the ground, I strongly advise cramp-ons or ice bugs. Just hiking around the Flaajokul glacier left a lot of slippery frost on the rocks in the evenings.
Be especially careful to watch the tides when shooting on a beach. The tides in Iceland can be downright deadly, and if they don’t kill you the current will. The beach we shot on had eaten a car the year prior, and they never found the car. I always recommend unpacking the gear you’re going to use, then wearing the rest on your back, so you’re ready to run if need be – this has saved my gear (and my rear) a few times.
If you happen to shoot icebergs, like we did, be especially careful around them as they may still launch afloat when the tide breaks. These chunks weigh thousands of pounds, and one nasty wave can throw one on you.
Always do this with someone else, and consider bringing a guide with you who knows the area.
Do a lens check with your flashlight every ten minutes or so, to make sure that mist from waterfalls / waves / etc has not misted up your lens. Otherwise, you stand to lose your entire evening’s worth of photos from water spots.
Once you get back to the hotel, let your lens and camera dry off and come up to temperature before attempting to remove the lens. Otherwise, you run the risk of leaving sensor spots either from condensation or from direct contact with water. This is especially true if your camera has been near waterfalls.
Always bring lens and sensor cleaning supplies with you on a trip.
We haven’t had any problems with our lenses fogging up, but some other night photographers have discussed this in their own blog. I think the trick is to buy good quality glass, firstly, but also to give your camera and lens a chance to acclimate to the outdoor temperatures before removing the lens cap. If you’re keeping your hotel room a tropical rainforest, you’re most likely going to experience fogging when you go into the cold. Give your cameras just a little bit of time to get used to the cold weather. If you do fog up, just wipe it off and keep shooting – eventually it will adapt. I suppose defective lenses (or really cheap lenses) might have this problem more often… if you run into this, one photographer I know of apparently used hand warmers to keep the lens warm. This seems counter-productive to me, as you want the lens to cool down to ambient temperature so that it doesn’t fog up… this seemed to work for him at least.
Always bring extra cloths, as they become useless should they get wet after wiping down a misted lens a few times.
Be a Good Tourist
Please read this essay I wrote about how tourism has changed Iceland, and remember to be a good tourist. Remember that you’re a guest on other people’s land.
Having some great photos to take home is awesome – but don’t forget to take some time to just sit with your honey and watch the Aurora dance. It’s quite a spectacle!