Category Archives: Camera Control

Photographing Aurorae with a Night Capable Camera

Photo 1: Jupiter and diffuse, but bright aurora on our first night. f/3.5, 5 sec, ISO 4000, 20mm

This is part 2 of a multi-part series on observing and photographing an Aurora. Please read Aurora: The Bewitching Glow for background information including information about what an aurora is, when, how and where it can be seen, and photographs from Aurorae we observed near Fairbanks, Alaska.

So I Have to Get Lucky?

Before we jump into the details and the 3 keys for getting a good aurora photo, I think it is wise to set expectations about how likely you are to see a truly astounding aurora. Photo 1, above is one of the first captures I got on the first night on site (December 14). It was unexpected because the weather had been completely overcast all day. On December 17, the display was ASTOUNDING. I asked staff at Borealis Basecamp – which caters to aurora goers – as well as locals in Fairbanks, and I poured over the data to determine just how lucky we were to see the jaw dropping display we observed. The short answer is… “luck comes over time”. We used the Book and Hope method described in the first article to observe the aurora, arriving on December 14, 2023 and departing on December 18th – that is 4 nights onsite. But because we didn’t use the Monitor and Go method what we couldn’t have foreknown is how much the sun would cooperate with our aurorae dreams.

Diagram 1: M and X class solar flares in December, 2023.

Take a glance at Diagram 1, above from the archive. Fortuitously the most energetic solar flare (category X) in the preceding SIX YEARS occurred on the first day we arrived (and on New Years eve). The solar wind travels at over a million miles an hour (1.6 million kilometers per hour). But the sun is 92 million miles (147 million kilometers) away, so the effect of the flare on aurora production may occur in as little as 36 hours or as many as 4 days later. Even during a solar maximum events of this magnitude only occur infrequently. December 2023 saw two X class flares in one month – there were zero X class flares in the prior 5 months at all! The Kp Index exceeded 5 a total of 16 times in the 4 month period which means an exceptional once a week event might be a reasonable expectation during this part of the solar cycle.

Eli Fox, the chief photographer at Borealis Basecamp and the man who runs much of the Borealis Basecamp social media [Instagram] [Facebook] told me that exceptional aurora events occur on average about once a month or less.

A solid plan and good luck go hand in hand. But do not let that dissuade you. The displays we saw on two other nights were very pleasing and still produced great pictures.

Can I Get a Good Photo with ANY Camera?

Photographing aurorae is not different from the night photography we cover extensively on this site. If your camera is able to take acceptable Milky Way photos, it’s a good candidate – the aurora is generally much brighter than the brightest portions of the Milky Way.

Photo 2: Looking up. Bright fast moving aurora. Notice The big dipper at the left.
f/2.8, 2 sec, ISO 6400, 18 mm

While these articles are now starting to show their age, the principles still apply:

  1. High performing cameras (or see Which Camera is Better for Night Photography?)
  2. What to Look For in a Night Photography Lens

Surprisingly, some cell phones can do a respectable job and we will cover using cellphones in the next article in the series.

For any night photography the following minimums are recommended:

It also helps to become very familiar with the settings and controls for your camera and tripod – familiar enough that you can operate them in the dark with little or no additional light. That level of familiarity comes with practice… so if you are out of the habit, we strongly suggest practicing in your back yard (or in a dark closet). Practice while wearing the gloves that you intend to use! I discovered that merino wool glove liners were sufficient to keep my dominant hand warm even when the temperature dipped to -20F – but there was no wind and I avoided allowing any snow to remain on my glove liner – preferring to use my gloved hand or jacket sleeve when brushing away snow. Snow on my glove liner would have melted due to my body heat and made me miserable. I carried a pair of outer gloves with me, in fact, I kept a glove on my non-dominant hand at all times while my dominant hand had only the glove liner. The other outer glove remained in my pocked with a chemical hand warmer activated should my hand get cold!

Additional Photo Gear for Dealing with Excessive Cold

I brought quite a lot of gear to prepare for the affects of extreme cold on my person and my camera equipment. The camera equipment I brought included:

1. Five power banks – these were used to power “dew heaters” (aka lens warmers), as well as heated clothing.
2. Four of the powerbanks also were hand-warmers, most have built in lights.
3. Pouches in which I could keep the powerbanks, chemical handwarmers, as well as cables.
4. A large sealable plastic bag that can hold the entire camera and lens.
5. Carabiners to hold the pouches to my tripod.
6. And my standard practice of affixing velcro to key places near the top of my tripod with the mating velcro on the back of my intervalometer(s). This keeps the intervalometer in a usable place and prevents it from falling or catching the wind.

The pouches had operational electric hand warmers or chemical hand warmers to keep the power bank in them warm. I thought about, but did not use external batteries for my camera. Conceptually using external batteries permits using a larger battery (or using plug-in power) as well as keeping the camera batteries warm without warming the camera. The extreme cold is GOOD for your images. Deep sky astrophotographers typically use super-cooled sensors for their work, and your camera benefits from the cold, too, in the form of less noise.

If you use chemical hand warmers (charcoal, salt and iron filings), they need some airflow to keep generating heat – so don’t put them in a bag with no airflow. Indeed, if you want to reuse them, you can put them in as small a possible plastic bag to extend their life.

However I did keep spare batteries in my interior pockets where my body heat would keep them warm should I need to swap batteries. With the power banks, I also brought extra cables, an extension cord, and a 7 station USB charger. Of course all the regular stuff is needed, too… battery chargers for your camera batteries, cables, lens cloths and more. Another item I strongly recommend is gaffers tape which you can use to seal viewfinders, and lock down focus settings. And a large Ziplock bag. I also like to use a lens band (basically a large rubber band) to prevent focus or zoom settings from changing unexpectedly.

What Can Go Wrong?

Several aurora photographers wondered why I brought dew-heaters (lens warmers). These devices wrap around the end of the lens and via a power bank keep the lens warmer than the surrounding air to prevent dew (condensation) or frost from forming on the lens. Those with more experience than me typically did not use such devices because in the extreme cold dew is not typically a problem. BUT I did have complications I didn’t anticipate. In warmer, more humid climates, dew heaters can be the difference between getting a shot of “lens fog” and getting a great night shot.
The lens warmer is attached by cable to a power bank. More than once the pouch containing the power bank got bumped off my tripod yanking down on the lens ring which, unfortunately, altered either the zoom or the focus of the lens. In part for that reason I stopped using the lens warmer. But I did notice that more than once my breath crystalized on the outer lens surface. The take away here: in the extreme cold, keep your breath away from the camera as much as possible! And if you do use a lens warmer, find a secure way to attach it to your tripod so it can not yank on your lens.

From time to time I would use the viewfinder to frame my shot. But on my Sony Alpha 7R III camera, the frost from my breath condensed on the viewfinder resulting in two problems. The moist air from my breath froze on and made the viewfinder cloudy and I couldn’t see through it, and the sensor that turns off the back LCD when your eye is at the sensor got confused and refused to turn the LCD on. Effectively I was unable to use the LCD or the viewfinder to make adjustments. Fortunately this happened as the aurora was quiescing so I put my camera in a SEALABLE plastic bag, and brought it indoors.

Bag Your Camera! And Other Tips…

Why bag your camera? If you take your very cold camera indoors it will almost immediately form frost and condensation in the warmer more humid air – much like your iced drink glass forms condensation. Unfortunately condensation can occur INSIDE the lens and INSIDE the camera (e.g. on the sensor). Whenever I move the camera from a cold environment to a warmer one I bag and seal it and keep it in the bag until it has warmed to room temperature (about 1 to 3 hours). I can take it back out to a cold environment immediately if I wish. Keeping desiccant in the bag is not a bad idea, either! Oh, and you may find it advisable to remove your memory card and battery from the camera before bagging it so that you can examine the contents of the card or charge the battery while you have the bagged camera in a warmer environment.

Another unanticipated problem was that the extreme cold made the intervalometer cord quite stiff. It behaved more like a coat hanger than a wire. I strongly recommend using either a corded, or cordless intervalometer – you need it as a shutter release. The reason for the shutter release is to keep from adding any shake or wobble to the process of taking a photo – which occurs just by pressing the shutter button. A shutter release locked in “on mode” also allows you to take endless shots unattended which if you wish, you can assemble into a star trail like the photo below.

Photo 6: Applying Comet style star trails (with a satellite) (97) 6-second exposures. (each f/3.5, ISO 4000, 19mm) Total 9 min 42 secs.

Finally, I had difficulty adjusting the settings using the top dial on my camera – I believe also due to frost from my breath. I say “I believe” because it occurs to me that with my lightly gloved hand I may have been trying to rotate the function knob instead of the upper adjustment wheel. REMINDER: Get familiar with your camera before you get into the exciting environment where you may easily forget a step or two while gawking at the sky.

The Three Most Important Aurora Tips

Once you have all your gear, have a solid tripod (which you set up properly and securely) and are ready to begin photographing the amazing aurora… there are three very important things to NOT skimp on doing and double checking.

  1. Confirm (check) focus frequently especially after any bumps or changes in zoom.
  2. Do NOT judge the quality of the exposure by the display on the LCD. The only way to insure a good exposure is to look at the histogram (separate RGB channels is best).
  3. Adjust your exposure as needed to meet the circumstance. Aurora can go from dim to very bright and very bright to dim. They can move hardly at all, and they can dance about in the sky at a dizzying pace. So this means not only should you pay attention to those exposures, but you might want to avoid fixating on one area of the sky.

Tip 1: Checking and Setting Focus

The best way to check focus is to shoot an image and zoom in and check for the sharpness of any stars on the LCD. The best way to get focus right is to pre-focus at infinity when there is sufficient light (e.g. using a streetlight, the moon or a very bright star). While cameras can SOMETIMES successfully self focus most of the time they cannot without bright, motionless light in the distance. One way to get a good focus is to use live view, zoom in and hand adjust focus until a star is as compact as possible. But do not stop there… TURN OFF auto focus! You can set some lenses to “MF” or “Manual Focus”, but another strategy – perhaps easier – is to set your camera to do focus only when you press a separate focus button. Typically a camera is set to focus as you press the shutter – and that’s definitely NOT what you want.
If you’re not sure where to focus, we recommend either focusing on stars or if that seems difficult, you can focus on anything that is more than 50 feet away from you and that will be sufficient for wide-angle lenses.

Then take an exposure and confirm the focus is spot on. I took a whole sequence of exposures with lovely snow flocked trees in the foreground, but I made the mistake of not confirming my focus was spot on! It is also worth noting that the aurora may be diffuse and therefore not have a clear focus point… so don’t judge by the aurora! By the way, we also strongly recommend that you set a fixed White Balance (e.g. cloudy or daylight), disable long exposure noise reduction, and turn on high ISO noise reduction.

Some cameras have a “focus peaking” setting that you can enable. Focus peaking colors those areas of the image that are in focus (red is easier to distinguish in a night shot). This tip comes from Eli Fox, and is something I did not know is present on my Sony!

One last tip, focus MAY change as the lens gets colder or warmer – so do check periodically.

Tip 2: Verify Proper Exposure using the Histogram Feature

Diagram 2: An aurora photo with over exposed elements (see red pointers). The histogram (top right) shows a spike at the right – brightest end – of the range.

My modus operandi when shooting is to hand shoot a few images doing the focus check AND a histogram check before I set the camera up to take continuous exposures. I then periodically stop the exposures to double check the histogram. One additional help here is to turn on over exposure highlighting if your camera supplies it. With that feature on, over exposed areas will generally blink where there are overexposed pixels to let you know what areas are over. Overexposure is very difficult to recover from. The goal is to minimize the overexposures but get the images as “bright” as possible to capture the most information. I then usually shoot a shot with the lens cap on (or my hand covering the lens) so I can tell that I’ve changed settings or adjusted the field of view. Elements at the “bright” end of the spectrum by themselves don’t mean there are over exposures. By the way this is also why we strongly recommend you shoot your photos in RAW – or like we do RAW plus the smallest JPEGs.

Tip 3: Do Not Fixate

This tip has two parts. Do not forget to recheck at LEAST your exposure histograms periodically, and do not fail to look around in the sky. While you might have the perfect foreground, the aurora behind you or above you may be the most spectacular thing you will ever see. If you do not get a photo, it may as well have never happened! And while we are on this subject, do you notice how GREEN the snow appears in the right side of the photo below (as well as earlier photos)? They are reflecting the predominate color (557.7 nano meters wavelength) coming from the aurora. This is one of the possible problems with obtaining natural looking aurora photos.

Photo 5: The recorded color (right) gives an eerie green, but the left is hand desaturated in post processing.

As noted in Aurora: The Bewitching Glow (part one of this series), there are other colors as well. This can have the affect of making the landscape look “eerie”. Eerie landscapse can be combatted in two ways. One way is to be thankful for and take advantage of light pollution (or some moonlight), and the other is to post process the photo to desaturate the areas that look unnatural e.g. as is done above in photo 5. All the other rules of good photo composition apply as well. If the photo would look pleasing without an aurora, then it will be even better if there is an aurora. But if the scene is chaotic or not well framed, it will take an incredibly amazing aurora to save it. I think the main take away here is: experiment with different compositions, directions and settings.

One last point. The aurora can move very slowly or surprisingly rapidly. If you take a long exposure for a fast moving aurora it will “smear”. But a dim, slow moving aurora may require a longer exposure or a higher ISO or both. Consider the examples below. At the left is an approximation of one ten second, ISO-6400 exposure (f/2.8, 18 mm) created by combining 5 2-second exposures and the second is a single 2 second exposure. The “eye” of the aurora is overexposed and much of the swirly detail is lost. However even if the ISO had been dialed down or the aperture stopped down to prevent overexposure, the capture over the longer time interval would lose some of the fine detail – in much the way that a moving flashlight or a moving camera would create a smear. But do notice that more stars are visible in the longer exposure because 10 seconds is sufficiently short for an 18mm shot that the stars themselves are not smeared (much). To understand this a bit better, the best resource we know of is
described in our article: 600 Rule?

In fact, if you’d like to get an idea how fast an aurora CAN move in real time, here is a video sequence – not a timelapse – from Eli Fox

VIDEO: Real Time aurora used by permission from Eli Fox.

Well, that’s it for how to use a “night capable camera” to take aurora photos. But stay tuned, we have at least two more articles on the subject coming soon including:

How to Take Aurora Photos with a Cell Phone

All about Borealis Basecamp

As always, feel free to ask questions using the comments below. Thanks for the gift of your time reading this… and if you’ve found value in it, please do share the link with those you know who would appreciate it.

Aurora: The Bewitching Glow

First published 06-Jan-2024. Last revised 07-Jan-2024

Who doesn’t want a photo of a curvaceous near-earth phenomenon called an Aurora? Not you? Well if not, you need not read on. But if you’re thinking that sounds interesting then you’ve found a good place to hone up on aurora and aurora photography. We’ll address what aurora are, how to plan for them, equipment, and photography methods including how to get decent photos from night capable cameras and typical current generation cell phones. In many ways aurora photography is similar to trying to catch meteors – see: Coaxing a Meteor into Smiling for your Camera – only aurora are easier!

Until recently, photo 3, below was the only aurora photo I was ever able to capture, and it was in 2011 while travelling back by plane from the Royal Observatory in London where I had won Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2010. While flying over Canada, I noticed an odd glow that seemed to be moving unexpectedly. Suspecting it might be an aurora borealis, I covered the window up as best I could with a dark coat while simultaneously holding my camera against the window for a 4 second exposure on a bumpy flight. The camera immediately registered the tell-tale green color which wasn’t visible to my eye.

Photo 3: Window Seat Aurora Borealis

What IS an Aurora? and What Does it Look like “In Person”?

An aurora (which is named after the Roman goddess of Dawn) occurs when the sun ejects charged particles toward the earth. Those charged particles are warped by our earth’s magnetosphere which concentrates them like a lens and they then collide with components of our atmosphere (in the ionosphere and thermosphere) as high up as 1000 miles to as low as 30 miles above the earth. Note that the magnetosphere is centered around the earth’s magnetic poles, not the geographic poles. The north magnetic pole continuously moves and is presently near 81°18′N 110°48′W which is Ellsmere Island, Canada NOT at the geographic north pole (90°N). The location of the north magnetic pole within the North American continent is fortuitous for those of us who live in the extreme northern United States especially for those in Alaska, and Canada. Though the band of possible aurora sighting locations is broad and includes other northern countries and continents it favors Northern North America. Aurorae (the plural of Aurora) that occur in the Northern hemisphere are called Aurora Borealis from Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind. Those in the Southern hemisphere are named after the Greek god of the southern wind: Auster and are called Aurora Australis.

Other interesting places in the world to see the Aurora Borealis include the northern areas of Norway, Sweden, Lapland, Iceland, Greenland and Finland as well as the Siberian region of Russia. In the south, Aurora can sometimes be seen in New Zealand, the Southern tip of Chile (e.g. Tierra del Fuego) or the Falklands. In the south, however the best place would be on the continent of Antarctica.

All you really need to see an aurora is a reasonably dark sky and sufficient solar wind to produce a strong aurora. Aurora have no seasonality. The anticipated strength (brightness) of the aurora is forecast by the “Kp Index“. Unlike the apparent magnitude scale used by astronomers in which the smaller the number the brighter the object, the Kp scale goes from 1 to 9 with 9 being the brightest and MOST likely to produce aurora. During our sojourn in the Fairbanks area, the scale ran from 2 Kp to 5 Kp – and as I note below that 5 Kp event on December 17th was awe inspiring.

But what does an aurora look like in person?

Blurry cellphone photo of an Aurora:
f/1.8, ISO-3200, 4 sec
Photo 4: Aurora as it might appear to the eye. (Taken with a cell phone)

Most aurora will appear gray to the human eye which is poor at discerning color in dim light. A camera can capture the true color, and that color is generally predominately green due to the interaction of the charged particles with oxygen in the atmosphere. In Photo 4 you can see a peculiar diagonal glow that IS a diffuse aurora partially obscured by clouds and it is close to what it looked like to the naked eye – though the whole scene was dimmer in person.

What an aurora actually looks like depends on the overall sky darkness, the cloud cover, and the strength of the aurora. Just as seeing the true majesty of the Milky Way requires dark skies, the beauty and shape of the aurora is easier to spot in dark skies. A dim aurora might look exactly like the amorphous cloud in photo 4, above. In fact, many people who first notice aurora think they ARE clouds illuminated by moonlight or some distant city lights. A stronger, brighter aurora might have discernable hints of green, red or blue. And the aurora may also move quickly and chaotically about the sky in a display that can only be described as mesmerizing, and evocative. We got very lucky. Of the 4 nights we spent seeking the aurora we saw aurora on 3 of those nights, and the fourth night literally had this author in tears over the sheer beauty of what he saw. Don’t let this meager photo dissuade you… we’ll discuss in a bit how to get much better photos and show you much more delicious examples. We were fortunate in that there were two very large solar flares (class X) that occurred on December 14th

But here is a timelapse from the most energetic of the nights we watched. It zips along at about 15 times the actual speed.

Dance of the Northern Sky: December 17, 2023

Where can you See an Aurora? and WHEN?

Photo 5: Samsung cellphone Capture of Aurora at Borealis Basecamp, Fairbanks, Alaska

The short answer to the question is literally ANYWHERE with great good luck, but the the more accurate answer is near (about 20 degrees from) the north or south magnetic poles when the sky is dark and there is significant solar activity. The sun goes through an 11-year cycle from a quiet period (solar minimum) to lots of sunspots (solar maximum) and back to a quiet period. The sunspots are generally where the charged particles come from Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs). The next solar maximum is in 2024 and the previous maximum was 2013 but the years on either side of the maximum can be just as good as the year of the maximum -> so now you know why we went in 2023!

A more detailed explanation of WHERE includes these criteria:

  1. A place with non light-polluted skies
  2. near the arctic or antarctic magnetic poles but preferably not at the poles. The farther you are away from the magnetic poles, the less likely you are to see any aurora activity
  3. generally favorable weather (meaning at least some clear skies).
  4. a season when there is true night/darkness. For example August in Alaska would be a bad choice because it never gets truly dark – which is why it’s called the “Land of the Midnight Sun”. In late December through January Fairbanks and farther north could aptly be called the “Land of Perpetual Midnight”. The more dark, the better the chances!
  5. travel distance and cost,
  6. availability and cost of lodging,
  7. and if you’re looking for that primo shot, consideration of the foreground for your shot (a flat field may not be as compelling as a snow flocked forest with a mountain poking out in the distance).
  8. time on site. Aurora are a “Space Weather” phenomenon and that is apt in the sense that you might confidently book a one-night stay in Seattle, Washington and expect it to rain because it frequently does so, but the longer you stay at a site, the more likely you are to observe the Space Weather you’re interested in and hopefully the less likely that the snow, rain, clouds or fog are to completely blot out your aurora experience. The first night we were on site at Borealis Basecamp it had snowed all day and was a gloomy overcast, foreboding night. We thought it would be a bust and we could catch up on sleep, but at 2:00 AM it cleared enough that the Aurora was pretty awesome.
Photo 6: The first night after heavy cloud cover an aurora broke out. Orion is at the right, Gemini in the middle

One strategy is to book a place and hope that while you’re there you get an aurora. I call this tactic “Book and Hope“. But there is another tactic you can try, too.

Monitor and Go

Another approach is to pick where to go based on monitoring the Space Weather reports for strong solar events and correlating the aurora predictions with weather forecasts. You can immediately arrange travel to an accessible location in the US or Canada at the last minute since there are often 2 to 3 days between the observed solar activity (CMEs) and the increase in aurora activity. The Monitor and Go approach may cost more and require more flexibility. You may find that some of the best locations and tours are booked seasons in advance for those who took the book and hope approach. We are strong proponents of Having a Plan C – which means having alternatives pre-investigated in advance of any possible opportunity to see the aurora.

If not above latitude 45 or so the aurora will be low in the northern horizon. But the closer you get to the magnetic pole, the higher in the sky the phenomenon will occur. In fact, one driver in Fairbanks told me “we don’t call them the Northern Lights here we just call them The LIGHTS because for us they are usually overhead and seldom only in the north.”

If you don’t live in Alaska or Canada, but are lucky enough to live in the northern-most portions of the northern US the chances of seeing an aurora are pretty good on as many as 5 or 6 nights a year when there is significant space weather (Kp index forecast is greater than 5). It may just be a matter of figuring out what nearby location has the darkest skies toward the north. Some of my photo buddies in New England, Washington, and Idaho have managed several times through a year to get captures of an aurora when the activity level is high. See the Viewing the Aurora link, in the resource list below for a better understanding of Kp.

Aurora from New England captured by Brian Drourr
Brian Drourr captured this image near his home in Burlington, VT (used by permission) Click the image to visit Brian’s Facebook page.

Where Did StarCircleAcademy Go?

For nearly all the reasons cited above, we chose to go during the winter to the area near Fairbanks, Alaska, and specifically to Borealis Basecamp which is located about 20 miles north of Fairbanks. We chose December for it’s longer nights and snowy environment (better for interesting foregrounds) even though December in Fairbanks has more cloud cover than say March. We’ll describe more about Borealis Basecamp in the next article, including features of the “igloo” accommodations offered, as well as weather considerations.

Gray, overcast skies at the Borealis Basecamp north of Fairbanks, Alaska, with a cheeky self portrait and a not-live  Grizzly bear.
Photo 7: Borealis Basecamp accommodations. The grizzly bear wasn’t really there 🙂 This was created by combining a panorama with a photo from the Fairbanks Airport all in the Samsung cell phone. The panorama makes the igloo appear squashed (smaller) than it actually is. The model inside is the author’s wife.
Photo 8: The author in a Borealis Basecamp “Igloo” in pre-dawn hours with stars and multi-colored Aurora visible.

There is a downside to Fairbanks, Alaska. By going in Winter… there are only 4 or 5 hours of daylight, and the average high temperature hovers near zero Farenheit (-17 Celsius). Borealis Basecamp is 800 feet higher in altitude than Fairbanks, so is usually a few degrees warmer (cold air sinks and settles in low areas). Borealis Basecamp is situated north of Fairbanks which helps because the light pollution from Fairbanks only affects the southern skies. There are other areas worth considering in the vicinity of Fairbanks as well, like Chena Hot Springs, Chatanika Lodge, Aurora Borealis Lodge north east of Fox, and many more. You can also opt to stay in Fairbanks and charter expeditions that ferry you by van to the best available spots for photography. Or if you are accustomed to driving on ice and snow you can be brave and rent a car. Beware that locals don’t call them “roundabouts” they call them “slide-abouts”. The upside to residing in Fairbanks is that you can avail yourself of the variety of restaurants and amenities in Fairbanks and also get aurora photos. The disadvantage is that the aurora can pop up at any time so generally you’d want to be out from say 10 pm until 3 am to have a good chance of catching what does occur. In our case at the Borealis Basecamp (as is true at nearly ALL aurora oriented accommodations), they notified us by phone when an aurora was visible and it was a matter of looking through the windows to decide if it was worth donning all the layers of clothing and heading out of doors or just staying in bed and observing in comfort. Plus we had the advantage of retreating indoors for breaks or to rewarm as needed. Indeed, one morning the aurora display was dim but really awesome at 8 am!

Photo 9: Multicolor Aurora at Basecamp Igloo 301 – Glow from on site restaurant.

Resources and Links

Parts 2 and 3 of this Series:

2 Aurora Photography with A Night Capable Camera
   + What is a “Night capable” camera?
   + Equipment (Camera, Tripod, warmers, dew heaters, …) 
   + Aurora aspects that dictate settings.
   + Adapting to conditions – both of the Aurora and the weather.
+ What to pay attention to to get the best results (there are 3 keys!)
   + Batteries, camera controls and tripods.
   + Aurora photography goals and considerations for getting a better picture.
+ Preparing for Winter in Alaska
+ Is -20 F survivable? (Short answer, yes!)
+ What should I bring / how should I dress?
+ What is Borealis Basecamp like?
+ Tips from Borealis Basecamp staff.

3. Aurora and Night Photography with a Cell Phone COMING SOON
   + Cellphone cameras – are they usable for aurora photos?
+ Stablizing a cell phone for better photos (both hardware and posture!)
   + iPhone settings – “Night” and “Pro” mode
   + Android phone settings “Night” and “Pro” mode
   + Handheld or stabilized? 
+ How to hold a cellphone if you DO NOT have a tripod/stable base
   + Hands free photos (e.g. tripod plus voice command or bluetooth trigger)

Plan C: How To Plan a Time Sequence Shot

If you missed the last total lunar eclipse, don’t worry. You’ll have another chance in October, 2014. For that, I’m grateful since as you can see I had some problems with my apparatus (the CamRanger). The battery failed after the 7th shot of the moon you see below, and then it stopped working again after 3 more shots, and needed to be slayed and restarted just as the moon was transitioning to fully eclipsed.

But this column is not about our troubles, it is about how I planned for the lunar eclipse shot you see below.

Plan C: San Jose City Hall Eclipse Sequence


The planning began with a list of possible foreground subjects. The San Jose City Hall Rotunda was “Plan C” and the least well researched of my plans. What were plan A and B? Those were one of my favorite lighthouses and a favorite landmark in San Francisco, California. For each arrangement I had to:

  1. Calculate where to stand to make sure the moon would be in an interesting phase above the object. The plan required solving these problems
    1. Determine how high in the sky the moon would be (to know what viewing angle was best)
    2. Determine which DIRECTION I needed to face to capture the moon.
    3. Determine how “wide” a lens I needed to get the sequence I wanted.
  2. Monitor the weather at each location.

After planning all that was left was to make a last-minute decision where the most likely target would have favorable conditions and make any final on-site adjustments.  I had a Plan D, too… but it was also in San Jose so it would have only been chosen had I found some serious obstacle at the City Hall rotunda.

San Jose City Hall Panorama

Calculating the Angles

Determining the angles needed is pretty simple. I used The Photographer’s Ephemeris including all the nifty tricks we teach in our Catching the Moon Webinar. Below you can see a screen shot from the Photographer’s Ephemeris which shows the moon altitude and direction at the beginning of the eclipse. I also moved the time ahead to show the same for the middle of the eclipse.  The moon’s altitude angle (32 to 41 degrees) gave me an idea how close to be to the rotunda to get the moon overhead.  Lower angles allow me to get farther away which allows me to photograph the moon larger relative to the foreground object. This eclipse, however, and the one in October will have the moon high overhead.

Coming up with a Foreground

There is no good substitute for knowing what interesting foregrounds are possible. And also knowing which direction(s) you should be facing.  I knew that the San Jose City Hall Rotunda was generally easterly because I had watched a sun rise through it. I also knew that the eclipse would be at maximum when the moon was in the southern sky so I knew that the range was SE to S directionally.  You can see a diagram from The Photographer’s Ephemeris below for more complete planning.

Calculating Where to Stand

I had to know approximately how tall the foreground object is. For the San Jose City Hall I flat-out guessed.  I found the overall height of the building through Google, and I guess the Rotunda was 60 to 80 feet tall.   My original calculations had me much closer to the building… it was only when I got on site that I realized that there were adaptations that needed to be made.

Watching the Weather

Remember that the Rotunda was plan C.  I kept a close eye on the weather for each of the planned sites.  My favorite weather app is provided by – in particular the hourly graphs. We talked about this tool in detail in a prior column.  Why do I like it so much? Because it gives me numbers instead of “partly cloudy”.  It was pretty obvious that the coastal region for Plan A, and the San Francisco Landmark (plan B) were likely to have bad weather – both fog and clouds. Indeed my friends who headed those directions were frustrated by poor visibility.  We had clouds passing through San Jose, but as the weather predictions had read: it got clearest right near totality, and overall was not a hindrance.

Last Minute Adaptation

When I first got to the site, I realized that the Rotunda was taller than I thought. I set up across the street in order to be able to have the moon over the Rotunda… but there were other problems, too. One of the problems is the floodlight on the top of the building. Another was a street light just to the right of where the red marker is in the graph below. These are problems that would only reveal themselves if you visit at night!

And then there are all of those flag posts.  My original guess at the Rotunda Height would have allowed me to stand between the fountain (brown area) and the building… but that clearly didn’t work as the rotunda was too high.  Setting up across the street (and very low) also had its challenges… namely buses and cars that came regularly.  I also realized that I had miscalculated the eclipse time by an hour (forgot it was now daylight savings time).  The miscalculation turned out to be a good thing as it left plenty of time to move around.  It would seem the ideal spot was in the MIDDLE of Santa Clara Street, but that wouldn’t have worked, of course.  Eventually I picked the spot with the red marker as a compromise between altitude of the moon above the structure, removing the glare from the tower lights, the wash-out of the street light, and the many flag poles in the way.

Planning Moonrise

If only my CamRanger had cooperated, I’d have had a continuous sequence of shots of the moon passing over the Rotunda.  There is always October… and maybe Plan A will work for that!

Of course that’s not ALL that was required to get the shot. I also had to composite each of the moon shots into their proper locations. I did that by first taking a panorama of the area, then making sure that when the exposures began I had a piece of the rotunda in each shot so I could properly align the moon over its actual location.  The creation of the image used the Easy HDR method we have previously described.

Review: CamRanger

I am always looking for the best solutions for automating my night photography. In fact, I recently reviewed a litany of products. At the time I didn’t know about the CamRanger product – my friend Rob C. told me about it.

I am now the owner of a CamRanger. Here are my first impressions:


iPhone Application

  1. I ordered from the CamRanger website, selected two day delivery. The box came all the way across the US. From Virginia to California and it arrived in two days. Woohoo! Great store and interaction.  It’s also available through Amazon, but doesn’t qualify for Prime. I figure if I’m going to pay for shipping I’ll order it directly from the company and hope they keep a bit more of the cash.  By the way I paid with PayPal. Sweet. 
  2. The packaging is reminiscent of the iPhone. Everything is nicely tucked into a little box. I was worried briefly because I also ordered two extra batteries. Thankfully they were tucked into the same box.
  3. Included were: Quick start instructions, a charger (wall wart), charger cable, USB to mini USB to connect to the camera, Ethernet cable (for upgrading the firmware), the batteries, a cigarette sized-packet with the CamRanger unit, and a carry pouch with a velcro closure and a carbiner clip.

The CamRanger is an incarnation of the TP-Link portable wireless router. It even says so on the batteries and under the case. Really clever approach! Kudos to them. Of course the firmware has been customized, and they are using the USB connector to drive the camera.  With that arrangement they can do a WHOLE lot more than you can do with a lowly intervalometer.

Essential is the CamRanger application for iPad and iPhone. They are planning to roll out other applications, including one for the PC. Since the device is a portable router, theoretically they could even provide some simple browser driven connectivity.  I loaded the app long before I received the box. You can’t get to square one without the device, however – it won’t show you any of its glorious features until it can talk to a camera. Makes some sense since what you can do depends on the camera it connects to.  I found some blemishes with the application which I’ll enumerate in just a moment.

What Can the CamRanger Do?

Before I criticize, let me first explain what you CAN do with this clever device. And this is just scratching the surface.

  • Focus stacking – let CamRanger control incremental focus for maximum depth of field with your macro (or other) shots.
  • Remotely adjust focus (camera auto-focus must be turned on for this).
  • True HDR using exposure time, ISO or f/stop increments. Up to 7 exposures are allowed.  Intervalometers with this feature can only work in low light since they can only crudely control the camera shutter.
  • Monitor “live view” and captured images. Even delete them when they suck. I am slathering at how this will improve my Astrophotography. Have you ever tried to adjust focus of a telescope pointed nearly straight up – it’s a neck breaker.


    Delete Images from Camera

  • Intervalometer functions: timelapse, and bulb exposures.
  • Complete control of settings (how complete depends on your camera). Nearly all of the settings can be changed remotely including ISO, f/stop, exposure time, metering mode, image size and type… and more.  I even moved the connection from my Canon 5D Mark II to my cohort’s Nikon D800 and had immediate control of his camera and its unique settings.
  • Some features do require manually changing the camera mode knob. For example to get bulb exposures you must be in Manual mode on a Canon 50D or in Bulb Mode on the 5D Mark II.  These peculiarities vary by camera.
  • CamRanger can do everything the EyeFi can do for sending images. EyeFi isn’t supported on CompactFlash media cameras so CamRanger is a great replacement!
  • IMG_0137Focus by touching the iPad screen.
  • Provides a Live View Histogram.
Touch the iPad to select focus point!


Landscape Mode






Portrait Mode


View images from the camera memory card

What Could Use Some Improvement

I’ve ordered my complaints according to how much they affect the way I do most of my work which is night and astrophotography.  Some of these are nitpicking, I know.

  1. There is no sub-second interval for long exposures. I’d love for them to add a “star trail mode” and select the shortest possible interval between shots based on the camera type and behavior. The company says this is a limitation in what they are able to do through the USB connection to the camera.
  2. There appears to be no way to know if a timelapse is running nor can you stop a timelapse in progress.  The CamRanger can continue to run a timelapse sequence without an app driving it.  That’s a plus. But not being able to tell if it is running or to abort a sequence in progress is annoying. CamRanger tells me they are planning to address this in an upcoming release. Yeah!
  3. The pouch for the CamRanger could be improved to:
    • Hold all the items that come in the kit. The pouch can only hold the CamRanger device, USB cable and perhaps an extra battery – not the additional cables or plug-in charger.
    • Add velcro straps so I can wrap them around my tripod leg and secure the pouch to my tripod,
    • Provide a closeable window so I can see at a glance the unit status (i.e.those LEDs which are too bright, see below).
  4. The timelapse settings use spin dials to select the number of exposures and exposure times. The keypad would be more efficient.  It would also be great if the App automatically calculated your elapsed running time based on the number of exposures and a configurable frame rate (like TriggerTrap does). CamRanger is adding the calculation.
  5. The LEDs on the device are pretty doggone bright for night work. Would be great if they were dimmable. Of course that can be achieved by putting the device in the pouch or by putting some semi-opaque tape over the LEDs.
  6. IMG_1564To interact with the CamRanger, you have to switch your iDevice to the WiFi network generated by the CamRanger. Unfortunately that means you can not use your iDevice browser to surf the internet. If there were some fast-switch way to do it, I’d like that. Or better yet, I’d like to integrate the CamRanger into an existing network.
  7. The CamRanger itself comes with a serial number sticker. I’m SURE it will come off or get lost, but you need that serial number to connect to the device. The same serial number can be found on a sticker under the battery cover, though.
  8. The Access Key to join the CamRanger network is all in upper case.  All lower would be easier to type.
  9. My buddy Rob noted that he felt like he was going go have to break the battery cover off. Mine seems to come off quite easily if you hold it correctly.
  10. The CamRanger battery is a custom lithium-ion form factor. You can charge the battery in-device, but there is no additional charger provided.
  11. Sometimes when switching functions, for example when switching to Timer it told me “must turn off live view” which seems a bit strange since it knows how to do it!
  12. I ended up with both my iPad and my iPhone attempting to connect to CamRanger. It caused a problem that was not obviously solvable (Communication Error) until I realized both of my devices were trying to get CamRanger’s attention.

As I noted, some features depend on the way your camera interacts with the USB connection. I didn’t figure out, for example, how to cause my camera to meter the scene for me so that I could manually adjust my exposure – i.e. what I’d normally do with a half-press of my shutter button.

I haven’t tested the range or battery life as yet. Claimed battery life of the CamRanger is 6 hours. There is, however, no on screen indication of the CamRanger’s current battery condition.

Now That I’ve Used it More…

The problems with not being able to see if or stop a timelapse are more than irritating.  The only way to stop a timelapse in progress is to turn off the CamRanger device and turn it back on. It takes about a minute to come back up and meanwhile since the WiFi from CamRanger goes away, my iPad or iPhone will by default switch back to another known network (my home in this case).  That means I have to remember to also switch WiFi networks or I get “unable to communicate”.  I also noticed that for bizarre reasons which are not quite clear I could start a timelapse, but the camera did nothing.  However I *could* use the Capture button.

But that’s not the end of the pain, unfortunately.

  • The Bulb and timelapse settings are not saved. All settings reset to 0 when a timelapse completes.  If you want to re-run the same program – as I do when I take darkframes after my astrophotography sequences – you have to reprogram everything. That’s tedious.
  • Apparently the interface is not smart enough to know how to do HDRs that exceed the camera settings 30″ exposure time.  On my 50D, for example, an HDR sequence that should shoot at 15, 30 and 60 seconds will not be accepted. However that sequence can easily be achieved by using bulb mode for the last shot and that does not require changing the dial on the camera – so the app could figure it out.  I even tried doing this in “Bulb” mode, but it still didn’t seem to work.
  • The biggest pain in the butt is that the “Autofocus” behavior is not preserved.  What this means is I leave the AF button on on the lens, carefully fine tune the focus, turn it to MF (manual focus mode) on CamRanger and take my shots. If, however I am forced to cycle the CamRanger power it reverts to AF mode by default so the first shot will try to autofocus in the dark – which prevents the camera from shooting.  I’d like to set the default behavior to NOT AF even though I have set AF on the lens.
  • It also appears the timelapse is not aware of the drive mode for the camera.  I often set my camera to the 2-second (or 10 second) delay for two reasons: 1. it lights the self timer on the camera so I know when a frame is about to fire, and 2. In delay mode, an Autoexposure bracket (AEB) will automatically complete from a single press of the shutter. The timelapse settings could know that the minimum delay will be the length of the camera self timer delay (plus perhaps a second).  But it doesn’t use that information.

The good news is that the biggest pain points can be fixed in the app. I suspect some of the more advanced things would require the app to know more about the camera – and are thus less likely to be supported.

The other good news is, it really does save me from breaking my neck trying to get my eye down to the view finder or to view the LCD – when objects are high overhead I’ve had to lay down on the ground to see the LCD – blecch. And it’s great fun to watch the images roll in as the timelapse runs – even from indoors while my poor equipment is out shivering in the cold.