Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Photographing Norther Lights

So I just got back from Alaska today, had a quick look over my aurora borealis photos and picked 2 quick ones to upload (some adjustments in Lightroom to increase contrast and bring out the green):

From aurora


From aurora


This was my first time photographing auroras... so it was an interesting experience. We signed up for this aurora tour ($90 bucks a person, includes a quick dinner) so they pick you up and take you out to their little ranch just outside of Fairbanks with a clear view of the skies all around you. Cool little place really, and having a nice warm room to wait is certainly appreciated :). Unfortunately it was cloudy all night but by around 12 or so, we started noticing parts of the sky was brighter, sort of this patch of light behind the clouds. This got all the Japanese tourist around us all excited (aurora borealis watching is big deal in Japan, so there are quite a few Japanese tours in the area everyday) and they started taking photos. I wasn't quite sure what to expect, but I figured I should just get a test shot to see what I can get (more of a test than anything else). To my surprise, the entire sky in the photo turned out green. I felt as if I've discovered gold and quickly sprang into action, readjusting my camera trying my best to compose the frame properly (more on this later). Keep in mind that with the naked eye you could barely see the light and there certainly wasn't any color... just a light patch of clouds. The colors are only revealed with a longer shutter speed (15-30 seconds). For the next 2 hours or so, I just kept shooting, I shot anything and everything... any part of the sky that was remotely brighter than others... it seriously was like digging for treasure and just not quite sure what you'd get when the shutter closes again. Sometimes you get nothing, sometimes you get a beautiful streak of green. Auroras can last anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours... we were extremely lucky that on this particular night it lasted close to 4 hours total. However, we were also extremely unlucky with the weather, with the heavy clouds you really can't see any colors. You just see patches of light, some faint, some strong... every once in awhile you'll see a long ribbon of light over your head, moving, dancing (but still no color). The real kicker is that the clouds cleared at around 2:30 and then the colors really came through... BUT I was in the car on the way back to the hotel already :( (no real place to stop along the highway... not that the driver would anyways). You could clearly see the strands of light dancing in the sky, you could even see the shifts in color as well (which is rare), the locals say it is one of the best displays they've seen in years... I guess at least I got to see it.

The second photo posted here should give some idea of what it looked like with the clouds clearing. This was the last photo I took that night, and this one was totally by luck too. The driver already came to get us and I was pretty much done taking photos anyways, they all looked the same, green blob in the sky. So as I turned around to head back in, my uncle mentioned that this will be a cool aurora, he assured me I had time for 1 more photo "always time for another photo" he said, the driver will wait. It is only because of him that I turned and took this last shot which is one of the better shots and one of the only shots I have that shows some form (to the naked eye, it was still just a colorless blob in the sky). I have the best uncle in the world and glad he told me to stay for another shot :).

Overall I'm happy about how it all turned out, I guess I'm the luckiest unlucky person that night... able to experience one of the best (and longest) aurora displays but not able to capture it due to weather. Hehe, sometimes you get the shots, sometimes you don't. You just can't plan for these kinds of things I guess.

Some techie details and lessons learned...
  • Due to the thick cloud, framing and auto-focusing was basically impossible. I couldn't see anything through the view finder and had to use the lights from the school (see that orange lights in the trees) as a reference point and pray for the best.
  • Manual focus is tough without live view, keep in mind that your infinity focus point actually shifts in cold weather so just using the default infinity mark is not sufficient. This basically turned out to be a guess and check exercise for me... and using a super wide lens helps to cover up any mistakes you have (I just shifted the focus to a tad beyond infinity and locked it in manual focus mode the entire night). 
  • Again, with the clouds, it was very difficult to pick up the lights so I pretty much had to shoot wide open at 30 secs and bump up my ISO to an unacceptable 1600 most of the time. It sucked, but noisy image better than no image...
  • For longer exposures, I was able to use a flash light to do some "light painting" on the foreground. For example, I was able to use the flash light to light up the cabin (basically just sweep over the cabin with the light as if you are painting with a brush) in the foreground so it will be properly exposed against the aurora.
  • Batteries die fast out there in below 0 degrees weather. Make sure you carry a spare (best if you can keep it in the warm room or at least in your pants pocket to keep it warm with your body heat).
So next time...
  • I need a better camera so I can shoot comfortably at ISO 800 if not ISO 1600. 5D Mk II anyone? :)
  • Rent out a faster lens. I was using EF-S 10-22 which shooting wide open gives me f/3.5. I should consider renting out EF 16-35 f/2.8 which would give me almost a full stop of light (meaning my 30 sec exposure just went down to 15) or perhaps even EF 24mm f/1.4 lens which would give me almost 2 full stops (now I can get down to around 7 sec for my exposure time).
Some other information can be found on the web (such as http://www.alaskaphotographics.com/how_to_photograph_northern_lights.shtml).  Perhaps with better weather, I'd be able to compose and focus much easier (as well as use a lower ISO setting). Either way, aurora borealis is truly a thing of beauty and I'm now addicted to photographing it... I'm already planning another trip back to Fairbanks, who wants to come with me? (I'm serious, if anyone wants to come, drop me a line).