Category Archives: Image

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. https://www.facebook.com/brian.drourr

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)

Cross Country – Things Learned Driving East to West (Parts 1 and 2)

Last revised 6/14/2019

San Jose to East Coast by plane and then driving back over 15 days

If you already read this and are looking for the rest of the article (parts 3, 4 and 5)… Look HERE.

Steven’s father passed away last December and the family decided to hold a memorial in Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia on Memorial Day weekend. Seemed entirely appropriate as that is when all of dads cross-country scattered kin could convene… that and dad also served in the Army during the Korean War era. What I hope to illuminate in this article are some of the considerations to consider to take a multi-day or longer car trip. In this case, we flew to Roanoke Virginia via Chicago (the upper line) and then drove my fathers car back from Smith Mountain Lake through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah, Nevada and finally California.

I’ve divided the discussion into the following sections:

  1. Trip Planning Tools (Excel and Google Maps proved to be the most useful)
  2. Supplies and Provisions
  3. Booking Lodging and Excursions
  4. Photography and Night Photography Considerations
  5. Lessons Learned (What went wrong, what went right)

Trip Planning – Google Maps + My Scenic Drives + Excel

The way I started was simple: fire up google maps, enter my beginning city, added known stops (arranged east to west) and see what happened. To travel directly from Moneta, Virginia (Smith Mountain Lake) to San Jose mapped out as 40 hours of driving over 2722 miles. Since our actual mileage was 3982, clearly we did not take the “straight path” which would have been I40 nearly the whole way. One of the limitations with Google Maps is that you can have a maximum of 10 stops – unless you’re willing to do strange unnatural acts (or create your own map). But the key here was to see what the total distance was. Next I looked at breaking the trip up into digestible bits. The goal was to NOT drive more than 8 hours total in a day. And more significantly, to not be “on the road” more than about 10 hours including stops for sightseeing meals and potty breaks. Google maps was a bit unwieldy as I added more destinations and re-routed the segments to include driving to and through places of interest. One of the nice side benefits of using Google Maps, though, is that I could pull up the map on my laptop and send it to my phone directly. The phone then served as our GPS since the 12 year old navigation system in the car was clearly out of date.

One tool that I spent a lot of time on, and certainly helped was “My Scenic Drives“. The interface is a little clunky but My Scenic Drives can automatically divide up your driving based on time, but its method is not ideal. Indeed, the best use of My Scenic Drives was to “Find Nearby Attractions”. That proved to be it’s forte. “Avenue of the Ancients?” Why yes, thank you. “Valley of the Gods?” OF COURSE!, Chaco Culture, Mesa Verde, Bisti Badlands…. nearly all of these were suggested when searching in New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. At one point I had at least 70 items “on the map” as potentials, and I paired it back to a mere 50. Reality eventually set it and I paired it back much further.

My Scenic Drives was quite useful for finding places of interest near or on the route.

I had a core list of must go places which included White Sands, NM; Monument Valley, UT; Lake Powell, AZ/UT; Lower Antelope Slot Canyons, Page, AZ; Toadstool Hoodoos, Kanab, UT; Valley of Fire State Park, NV. To that list there was a long list of LIKE-to-GOs that included Chaco Culture, Avenue of the Ancients, Mesa Verde, and many more. Since my wife traveled with me, it was also important to include stops and destinations that were of interest to her as well.

El Paso, We Have A Problem

Ultimately the reality of the distances, vehicle choice and time constraints dictated what stayed in and what fell out of the plan. And THEN it got even tougher… Scheduling it on some days required to-the-HOUR timing. To be clear, not every day needed to-the-hour scheduling, but 2 of the 14 did… and that’s when I turned to creating an Excel spreadsheet. The spreadsheet helped in a number of ways: accumulating miles (and thus predicting fuel costs and tracking lodging costs), accumulating time, and also keeping a record of addresses, reservation numbers and status… and more. The reality of one of the days made me realize that from Farmington, NM to Monument Valley, AZ, it was just not possible to go through Avenue of the Ancients AND Valley of the Gods as well. The reason: I had booked an overnight photography tour of Monument Valley and HAD to be at the View Hotel in Monument Valley by 2:30 PM or the photo tour was in jeopardy. It worked out just fine, however, as the Mrs. wanted to visit Four Corners, so we timed our Farmington, NM departure to arrive around opening time at Four Corners (a Navajo nation stop) and then budgeted time at the additional stops. Fortunately we ended up about an hour ahead of schedule on that day, and were able to take a brief detour into Valley of the Gods.

To accommodate our desired focus points, we elected to “force march” from Raleigh, NC to Amarillo, TX with no sightseeing except for one lunch stop in Omni Oak Grove in in Asheville.

Oak Grove Inn View, Asheville, NC

That’s nearly 2/3 of the total east-west distance, and we did it in three LONG days (each less than 8.5 hours of driving, however). I micro managed the stops. The locations I picked for lodging initially were Knoxville, TN, Little Rock, AR; and Amarillo, TX. But the Little Rock to Amarillo drive was almost 9 hours, and the Knoxville to Little Rock was similarly long. There was also the matter of potential rush hour traffic, so the plan changed to drive 40 miles farther west on the first day (Harriman, TN), and about 20 miles farther west the next day (Maumelle, AR instead of Little Rock). That evened out the driving a bit more and got us away from major cities during rush hour. Mind you I still had to find cities with decent lodging. While I might be willing to stay alone in a flea bag hotel for a night, that wouldn’t fly with the Mrs. Choosing better lodging made the trip better overall, anyway!

One thing I highly recommend doing is making sure to add in an extra day or two here and there for two reasons: one is to have a cushion in case you run into delays, or find places more interesting than you expected, and the second is perhaps obvious: rest is good! No sense hauling your luggage into and out of the car twice a day every day. We elected to stay two days in Albuquerque, NM; and three days on the Pacific Coast of California – the latter came about because Las Vegas was just TOO hot to stop, and we needed some cooler “wave time”.

What I wish I had done was to pick the same “chain” of hotels as much as possible. But my strategy of not booking everything in advance proved helpful for changing plans as needed. See the Booking Lodging and Excursions (part 3) for the rationale behind each.

Maps Can Lie – BEWARE!

One last comment about using any mapping software (Google Maps, for example), is to inspect the path carefully. I’ve seen mapping software make bone-headed decisions. On the planning for this trip, for example, it routed us over about 50 miles of dirt-road driving until I forced it to pick a different route by adding intermediate destinations. Once in California, the mapping software assumed that the East Pinnacles National Park and West Pinnacles National park were connected by a road – but they AREN’T. The best you could have done is carry your car about 3 miles over a foot path… And of course there are many examples where people have relied on outdated maps of places like Death Valley and ended up in a heap of hurt.

Supplies and Provisions

Because we were flying from the West Coast to the East Coast, we couldn’t possibly take all the provisions we would want on the plane. Some of the things that just were impractical to take included:

  • A cooler for drinks (plus snacks and ice)
  • A tow strap (in case we got stuck in sand or mud somewhere)
  • Bits of carpet for traction
  • Jump Start cables & jump start battery
  • Keurig Cartridges
  • Supplies, blanket / pillow
  • Gallon or more of water
  • Quart of the proper oil
  • Gallon of Bug / Windshield cleaner

And despite my normal camera-bag-full of equpiment (2 cameras, lenses, two tripods, etc), I elected to take ONE camera – the Nikon D600 – and ONE lens (24mm manual focus), and one tripod. I also took my Mavic Drone, but was only able to use it once… most locations prohibited drones, the wind was excessive in other locations, and a complication with the software made it impossible to use in one area that I wanted to use it… more on that in the Photography and Night Photography Considerations chapter.

My father’s car is an older model Lexus and so it wouldn’t be suitable for going down the bumpy off road areas where I might take an AWD high clearance vehicle like my Subaru. I also knew that some of the destinations included driving on unpaved roads. Indeed, some of the destinations that we removed from our itinerary were removed because of the off-road driving required. Since we clearly couldn’t take all needed provisions on the plane with us, and it was not clear that we would be able to acquire all that we desired, I used Amazon to order and have shipped to my father’s house the hard-to-find supplies that I needed. We figured we could pick up a cooler, snacks and drinks, water, oil and windshield cleaner along the way. Indeed, after we noticed that the first two lodgings had in-room Keurig machines, we bought Chai and Pete’s coffee cartridges. I am a Chai drinker, and my wife is a coffee snob. Only about 40% of the places we stayed had such machines, but when they had them, it meant we could enjoy our normal morning and evening beverages.

In Case of Emergency

For our peace of mind, I purchased and activated a plan on a Garmin InReach mini. I had the device shipped to my home before we left so that I could make sure it worked, and the service was active. The Inreach mini is a portable satellite communication device that can be used to track your location –

Emergency Communication and tracking

indeed that device supplied the tracking information for the map presented at the top. One of the plans allows you to track your location every 10 minutes – you can see I turned on tracking somewhere over Nevada on our flight out. The mini can also be used like the SPOT emergency location device to send 3 different canned messages to pre-canned destinations. The mini is about twice the cost, but it’s bi-directional. The messages I chose were: All is well, just checking in when arriving at lodging for the night; Look what I found to mark a particularly interesting place for posterity; and Delayed, or rerouted to indicate we were fine, but not going to arrive as planned. The device also allows an SOS to be sent, and you can then communicate by text with the emergency personnel to indicate what your needs are, and they can text you to indicate their status. Fortunately we had no need of sending an SOS, but there were many areas where we had little and NO cell coverage on either Verizon or ATT (my wife and I have different plans on purpose), so the peace of mind was worth the about $50 of service… and no doubt I’ll use the $300 device in the future.

Enroute Planning

Strorms Ahead. (Actually the blue is from shooting through the screen in the top of the windshield ;-), but it did dump a heap of rain and hail on us just a bit father down the road in Oklahoma.

It wasn’t enough, of course, to merely plot out the path. We also had to be mindful of the weather and road conditions. I’ve written extensively about how I >> plan for weather << so visit that link to learn how I use Weather.gov to be aware of what is going on. On this particular trip, we drove through the middle of the country prior to and during tornado and flooding events. Without the maps, we might have ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time. As it was, a tornado struck 1 mile away from our path two days prior to arriving (El Reno, Oklahoma) and major flooding was experienced in Little Rock and Fort Smith, AK the days of and following our trip segments there. Amarillo, TX and Roswell, NM were also hit with violent thunderstorms, and we used the forecast to refrain from heading up into Santa Fe, NM due to severe storm warnings. One Android tool I picked up and used was the NOAA Radar app. That offered alerts about nearby events – it was worth one month of subscription at $3 just to get those!

One of the other things that I discovered, but wasn’t aware of is that Google Maps in addition to notifications of slowdowns and road construction also has notifications about speed (radar) traps. We weren’t speeding anywhere, but the heads up certainly came in handy in case we decided to “blow the doors off a slowpoke driver” at an inopportune time.

Keeping Cool

Sugar free beverage + excellent “ice bottle”

We did acquire a decent cooler, small enough to fit in the backseat, but with a velcro latch so that it would be easy to open while underway. It had to be spacious enough to hold a half dozen drinks, ice AND chocolate. Since it was quite hot during our trip, even a short stint with the A/C off would result in a choco melt-down. I employed a trick I often use when hiking. After finishing an Ice beverage (sparkling sweetened drink), I rinsed it and refilled it with tap water. In lodgings that had a freezer component of the mini fridge, I put the refilled bottles in the freezer. Those frozen bottles then served as ice, and in a pinch, cold drinking water on some of our hot hikes. Do not try this with your average bottled water, however, they are too thin and flimsy to stand up to freezing.

It is also a good idea to buy a one or two gallon bottle of water that you can use for drinking (when the tap water is sketchy), and as an emergency source of coolant should your car need it.

See The Rest of the Article!

>>> Click here for parts 3, 4, and 5 along with many photos! You’re also welcome to use my excel planning sheet for yourself. The sheet contains links to the maps I used (divided into daily segments), a TODO list, as well as a heap of web references I used to select the events and locations I visited.

Sky Drift

What Makes An Image Memorable?

Perhaps the highest praise Steven gets as a speaker is this:

Wow, his passion is infectious. I’m now eager to try night photography.”

Almost every photographer makes pictures to SHARE with others so praise of passion is high praise, indeed. Not everyone will have similar interests or feel the connection you feel with your work, but there are some questions you can ask yourself to strengthen the broader appeal of your work, that is, make your image more memorable.

My friend and mentor, Kip Evans sold his photography from a gallery in Carmel, California. One of his laments to me was: I don’t really sell what I find beautiful and compelling, I mostly sell what others have a connection to – often touristy things like images of the Golden Gate Bridge. What drew us into Kip’s gallery was an image of a large breaking wave called Winter Swell. We have print of Winter Swell hanging in our bedroom (and so does at least one coastal hotel).

        Kip Evans: Winter Swell

My wife loves waves – and I share her affinity. She will stand in awe and clap as huge surf crashes on to our coast. There is a visceral connection with the spectacle and power of the scene.

If we spend a little time thinking about what causes that kind of connection, we can endeavor to put elements of it in our work.


From my perspective, images need the following:

  • Scale that inspires awe, grandeur
  • Connectedness – intimacy in the viewer caused by an emotive reaction to the image
  • Interest – an alignment with the passions of the viewer – even if only tangential
  • Revelation – an innovative view that illuminates something either unnoticed or unseeable.

Of course these characteristics are inter-related and if only two of the four are strongly present that may be enough to wow the viewer.

Vote!

Before you move on to the explanations, consider the following 4 images. Decide which image is the one that best reveals scale, the one that speaks to you (connects with you), the one that is most in line with your interests, and the one that reveals something you’ve not seen or understood before. The answer to each question may be a different image. Indeed, we would love it if you’d answer the four questions in the polls below… If you want to elaborate or leave a comment listing your choices (e.g. “A,B,B,D”) that’s fine, too. And yes, we realize we have mixed in a photo of a cute dog that has nothing to do with Night Photography.

The images are
A: Sky from Orion to the Pleiades, B: Trona Pinnacles with Orion and Canis Major, C: Mount Whitney in Moonlight; D: Pierre Grazin’ in the Grass.

WHICH IMAGE:


 

Revelation

Fortunately for Night Photography, the last part – Revelation – is the easiest. Few people have seen a truly dark sky with starry heavens. If you can connect the viewer by linking Earth and Heaven you can draw people in.  Even fewer people realize that the Milky Way is awesome, and that stars have discernible colors. It is not hard to enchant viewers with a revelatory image.

Revelation can take many forms, however. For example: showing an unfamiliar but interesting place, illustrating a relationship that was not obvious before, revealing unexpected or unobserved colors or details. The camera is very good at seeing color, even in dim light – so it’s almost easy to be revelatory in a night image. In my opinion the single most significant mistake that people make in night images is in not selecting or not providing sufficient interest in the foreground – either because the foreground is boring, or because it is not well enough illuminated to speak on its own. My personal bias is to tune out a photo of a car under the stars, for example, unless the car is really, really sexy looking. My wife, who is a car fan, feels a little differently. I am also not a fan of junkyard scenes with garish colors, but my judgments (biases) are not about revelation, but about Interest.

Perhaps one of the revelatory aspects of image D is the “on-eye-level-ness” with a furry little creature.

Photon Worshippers **Winner Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2010 - People and Space **

Photon Worshippers **Winner Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2010 – People and Space **

Interest

How many images of sunsets have you seen? Most of them are immediately emotive, colorful, and often compelling… but are they different enough to hold your interest?

People are all over the map in interests: favorite colors, past-times, subjects, hobbies … It is impossible to create an image that will be interesting to everyone. The point here is to think about your audience.  The photo that won Astronomy Photographer of the Year in 2010 (above) garnered interest because it was not a run-of-the-mill, same as everyone else night sky photo indeed it wasn’t a night sky photo at all! The image was something that I calculated would be of interest to judges in the UK. In the UK Stonehenge is an ancient, human-made edifice apparently built to measure seasons. My Photon Worshipper image is of a natural formation that does a similar thing – it only forms a beam of light during the winter solstice.  The image is also unlike the many existing images of the same phenomenon: it is a different view, and includes people to give it human scale.

Scale / Grandeur

Likewise my runner-up image in 2012 (below) was arguably the least well executed of my awarded work: focus is soft, color is off. But the scale and human interest of Lost In Yosemite is hard to miss. The contrast of tiny figures – once you recognize them as people – against towering trees and an immense sky was not lost on the judges.

I love this photo because it illustrates how humbling, even frightening, both the natural world and the cold depths of space can be for us as tiny, fragile human beings. ~ Olivia Johnson

Lost in Yosemite [C_033706] Runner Up - Astronomy Photographer of the Year, 2012

Lost in Yosemite: Two tiny hikers in flashlight against the enormity of the environment.

If you’ve seen it in person the scale of the Grand Canyon is inspiring. If you’ve seen it in photos, the Grand Canyon is LESS impressive. Why? My thought is that most photos lack human-scaled perspective of the kind in Lost in Yosemite above. Image A, above, is an image in which you likely found no sense of scale – unless you’re an astronomer. Image C shows rugged mountains (Mount Whitney, in fact). Hikers and mountaineers will implicitly understand the scale. Image B, however has formations that are of indeterminate size unless you have first-hand experience with them. Image D also gives scale clues… You see the size of the ears in proportion to the dog (named Pierre), and the size of the dog in proportion to the grass and flowers. But it’s not likely that it was the scale or size revelation of the dog that drew you in, is it?  If you found affinity with Pierre, it’s because you have – or had – a pet you are fond of, or wished that you had a pet. But we will address connectedness in a moment.

My suggestion is to be sure that something in your image imparts an easily recognizable scale.  In fact, putting a human in the shot can be powerful – Ben Canales won a National Geographic competition with an image featuring himself and Crater Lake – and a bit of whimsy.

Connectedness

Connectedness, or perhaps better term intimacy is not a single characteristic. By connectedness, I mean that involuntary emotive sense of drawing your attention – either as awwwww or that’s beautiful, or that’s disgusting, or my heart hurts. Sunsets, puppies, and kittens are perhaps the most photographed items of all. Why? Because most of them come laden with affection and fond memories – or sadness, or whimsy.  I immediately feel connectedness with well crafted night skies because I have many fond memories of sitting out in the dark under a horizon-to-horizon Milky Way.

I am reminded that compared to the enormity of the sky I feel small, but somehow embedded in that smallness is always a feeling of importance and one-ness with nature.

I assert that connectedness is usually a product of scale, revelation and interest, but connectedness can also occur spontaneously out of past experience and the human condition. My wife would put it this way:

Life is not measured by the breaths you take, but by the moments that take your breath away.

Technical Competency

I gave thought to avoiding discussion of this important aspect of an image. Some of my most viewed, appreciated and commented images are NOT images that exhibit technical mastery! I purposely chose images B and C because they are older work, and lack technical robustness. Indeed, I have much better images from Trona Pinnacles (Image B), but none have been as popular as image B!

In summary, while technical mastery is a great goal to seek, if you work too hard on making your image sharp, color balanced, and so on, you may neglect choosing environments and images that have more compelling characteristics: Scale, Interest, Connectedness and Revelation.

So What is My Favorite Image – And Why?

If you’ve been paying attention you’ll understand that images, like aromas, colors and words carry different weights due to our personal experiences. I always gravitate to the image below. It’s my wife on our last evening in Santorini, Greece.  We had just finished a fantastic meal, I had given her that ring, and our view was awesome. And, it happens to be a sunset I shot with my cell phone.

Last Evening in Santorini

You probably wanted to know what’s my favorite Night Image, though.  It’s hard to choose, but it’s probably one of these two. I’ve never uploaded the first one, though it’s predecessor was released.

“South Side,” Red Rock Canyon State Park, California

“Like Grains of Sand,” Pfeiffer State Beach, Big Sur, California

If you ask my wife the same question about my images, I am pretty sure she would pick this one:

Famous III [C_035478]

This is all part of a larger talk I am planning for a local Astronomy Club.  I appreciate your votes on the images above so I have a good set of data to go on. Also, please comment on an image that really inspired you – mine or anyone elses!

Not Eclipsed!

Published: February 6, 2018

The total Lunar Eclipse of February, 2018 reminded me of my travails from my first effort to shoot an eclipse in 2010.

My First Eclipse Attempt: 2010

In December 2010, I was crestfallen to see the weather reports. The last total eclipse of the moon visible from North America until 2014… and the weather everywhere within a reasonable 3-4 hour drive was predicted to be 90% clouds and worse. It seemed my eclipse was going to be eclipsed by cloud cover.

At about 9:15 PM, PST on December 20th, however, I looked up and saw… THE MOON!  Sure, it was scintillating in a little sucker hole playing with me. But I decided to play along. I hastily hauled out the Canon 5D Mark II, the 70-200mm f/4 IS L lens, the 1.4x Telextender, and the Gitzo carbon fiber tripod. Why those? Because that’s what I found first.

My equipment was scattered about in my office still recovering from the wet weather from earlier in San Jose. Indeed, I did not find the batteries for my Canon 50D camera.

By the time I got set up, I realized that the moon would very soon be contacting the earth’s umbra (darkest part of the shadow). So I quickly got to shooting what I could. Never mind that it was cold and I was not dressed properly.  Soon enough the clouds would come and I could dart into the house to hurriedly collect what I was missing.  The first shot I got was with the moon in the earth’s penumbra. Not particularly remarkable, unfortunately.

Through various breaks in the clouds I was able to get photos from first umbra contact all the way up to totality. Including a serendipitous shot of an airplane headed, probably, to the San Francisco airport or some other place to the north west.

Airplane Transits the Partially Eclipsed Moon
Airplane Transits the Partially Eclipsed Moon

What settings did I use for these shots? f/7.1, ISO 200, and 1/400 of a second exposures. Why so fast? Because, my friends, the moon is BRIGHT. Even partially eclipsed, even already in earths penumbra it is a big bright object. Shooting the moon is a definitive case where your camera absolutely cannot get the right exposure if left to itself. A good exposure must be manually set. I arrived at my settings by a few quick trials. I started at about 1/200th at f/5.6 and noticed that I was getting some over exposed areas (on my LCD screen the overexposed pixels blink white). I then decreased the aperture and continued to tweak the focus.

I wanted the moon images to be as well exposed as possible – especially knowing that the thin clouds were going to dim the image. My goal was to get detail in the moon, I did not care about the clouds or stars. In fact it is impossible – except at a very slender crescent or during a total eclipse to get detail in the moon AND also show stars in the sky. Why? Because the moon is so, SO bright.

I definitely made a slew of mistakes. The most significant one is that I should have put the telephoto lens on my 50D body which is a 1.6 crop camera. Had I done that all my moon images would have been about twice the size of what I actually got. Not having my camera all packed away in my bag meant some lost opportunities here.

I also thought  that perhaps the 5D would have been a good choice to get a sequence of shots showing the progression of the eclipse. The idea was to get the moon in the bottom corner of the frame and take a series of shots as it moved to the upper left of the frame. This also did not work for several reasons. The first problem was that the cloud “holes” came at irregular intervals – so spreading them across the frame evenly was not going to happen. The second problem was purely my failure to correctly guess the path the moon would follow in the sky.  Had I been a little smarter I’d have switched lenses when I realized the timelapse path was not going to work. But instead I tried again a few times.

I also realized that when the eclipse was total, the moon was going to be quite dim and the superior high ISO performance of the 5D II was needed. For the totally eclipsed shot, the ISO was ramped all the way up to 1600 and the exposure dropped from 1/400 to 1/6 of a second. That is a HUGE difference. The slower exposure meant that details in the moon would be blurred and the stars at this telephoto range would become dashes rather than dots.

Jewel [C_029690]
Nearly Total – With enough bright area left to form a halo in the clouds

Epilogue:  February, 2018

Sadly I was NOT much better prepared. After studying the weather forecasts, I headed to the coast where it is often really yucky with fog, low clouds, and on-shore winds that bring dampness and salt spray. It was surprisingly clear. My goal was to take a series of shots showing the progression of the eclipse ending at sunrise with the moon hovering over the Pigeon Point Lighthouse. I had done all the calculations as we cover in our Catching the Moon Webinar. (And also somewhat described here)

I imagined something like this effort, but better done.
Plan C: San Jose City Hall Eclipse Sequence

As it came about in 2014, we had to go with plan C due to weather. So I was excited that the weather forecast for the coast was much better in February, 2018. Some oversights on preparation conspired against me. I had not jotted down the proper GPS location and on site I had no cell signal, so couldn’t (re)calculate the spot. That left me wandering about trying to find the little tree and path that was featured on the satellite view… and NOT finding it.

Instead I ended up wandering into a thicket of brush that had an abrupt downward slope. That was fall number 1. Several efforts (and falls) later I tried setting my tripod down THROUGH the gorse all around… only to snap the leg off of my tripod. Now I needed to take  trek back to the car for my backup tripod. (Fortunately I had one!).

Since I got a late start, I scrambled to try to get a couple of series of panoramas on which to overlay the moon trajectory. However the moon was already in complete eclipse by the time I had everything set up. It was only then that I realized I was not getting the details I wanted out of the moon. I was using a 70mm f/4 lens, and the long exposures were streaking the stars and blurring the moon. So while I did get a FEW shots, they weren’t the ones I had imagined. My problem, in a nutshell, was that I was trying to get the moon AND the stars … which I did, but at the cost of streaking and blurring.

Orb to Rule the Night

By the time twilight started to appear, it was obvious that my location was about 1/4 mile distant from where I wanted to be… the little tree that I thought might form the right edge of my panorama was far off. The moon was NOT going to land anywhere near the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, so I packed up and ran up Highway 1 closer to the calculated location. I had to abandon the sequence plans, throw on the big tele-extender and HOPE the moon would survive visibility through the now obvious off-shore fog bank. Of course it didn’t. It fizzled as it got near the target.  I did get a consolation prize of sorts, though. This image hit 80 THOUSAND views in a few days – becoming my most popular photo on Flickr EVER. Sadly it’s not the image I imagined.

It's A Little Bit Broken
Photo from the end of the total eclipse of February, 2018

What Did I Learn?

To get a decent eclipsed moon shot with details, either you need a very fast telephoto lens, or to use a mount to track the moon. I also need to be willing to lose more sleep. I woke up at 3:00 AM, but the 90 minute drive meant that the umbral (dark part) of the eclipse would be starting as I arrived.

I also realized that if I’m going to spend the better part of a day mapping out the moon trajectory toward a landmark like the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, I’d do well to record some GPS locations (where to park, where to stand), and even get a Google map pre-downloaded.

Hopefully you, dear reader, will learn from my mistakes because you won’t have enough time to make them all yourself!