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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.

Down with Duplication – And How I Backup My Images

So, you’ve probably heard this before, but your duplicates are showing… Well, mine are at least. Which reminds me of one of the signs I spotted on our Cross Country Travels.

Spotted in a shop in Cambria, California

Managing and backing up large photo files is not particularly easy. But I recently whacked my head on a problem that perplexed me.

To set some background, it may help to know that I use DropBox to BACKUP, SHARE, and DISTRIBUTE my image files both to clients AND among my various computers. I have the 2 Terrabyte Plan at $99 a year.

Let me briefly explain how and why I do it, so what I communicate next won’t look like my crazy is showing.

Image Organization

The Watchful Warrior and the Eagle

My file organizational structure looks something like this on all my machines. Most of my work is in Windows, by the way, but I do use a Mac sometimes. I keep the same structure across multiple machines for several reasons including consistency and the ability to work the same on each machine. My folder/file structure looks like this:

  • Images
    • 2011
    • 2012 …
    • 2019
      • 2019-05
        • 2019-05-29
          • RAW
          • JPEG
          • Export
          • Processed
          • Video
      • 2019-06
        • 2019-06-03
          • (same as 2019-05-29)
      • Android
        • Phone
        • Card
      • IPhone
    • Work In Progress
  • Audio (e.g. Itunes and purchased music)
  • Business Records
  • Business Public
  • LightRoom Catalog(s) (Good luck, Lightroom doesn’t much like shared drives or volumes, so I’ve had to trick Lightroom into thinking it’s writing to a regular volume)

That’s important because you’ll notice that I do not really have a good organization system for Android and Iphone photos and videos … just a year by year copy. I also break down my images by year, month, and year-month-day. Again, not ideal, but that’s the pattern Lightroom follows and it mostly works for me.

Lightroom does not know how to separate JPEG and RAW images into separate folders. I usually shoot BOTH image types. The fast load time of the JPEGs allows me to breeze through them first, and I sometimes use the small JPEGS (which are still plenty big) for web purposes. Usually once I’m done with my photo processing sessions of the RAW images, I no longer have a need for the JPEGs – or even the RAWs. But of course I do back them up. All of them in fact except the absolute stinkers.

My Exported images are Processed images that have been downsized and watermarked ready for publication on e.g. Flickr or Facebook, etc. Processed images are those where I’ve done more than just Camera Raw adjustments or Lightroom adjustments. That is, composites or extensive masking and adjusting that I have done in Photoshop. By the way, I always create side-car files (the .xmp files) that keep track of the changes you make with Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw. I keep the Export(ed) and Processed images locally until I need space at which point I remove them from my LOCAL computer and just leave them in DropBox should I need them again.

Since Lightroom does not import things the way I want, you might be interested to know that I do the importing with a primitive Windows Batch file. I copy all the content into a pre-created directory and then run this in that directory to move the files to the respective sub-folders.

 REM Can optionally specify the source folder name e.g. .\OtherDirectory
 REM cd %USERPROFILE%\Pictures\ImportFolder
 REM COPY all files from the card to this folder

 mkdir RAW
 mkdir Processed
 mkdir JPEG
 mkdir Video
 mkdir Export
 @echo ON

 move %1.J* JPEG
 move %1.NEF RAW 
 move %1.CR2 RAW
 @REM This should copy MOV and MP4 ... but might copy something you don't expect
 move %1.M* VIDEO
 move %1.

DropBox “Smart Sync” is nifty: and so is “Selective Sync”

One relatively new feature of DropBox is the SmartSync option which behaves a bit like Lightroom – you can have a file that is indexed, but not local. There are three ways to use Dropbox for managing backups:

A. Use selective sync to synchronize specific directories (e.g. 2019-05-29) on a computer by computer basis. Be careful, if you do it wrong, you can wipe out a whole directory at once including your backup! That is, do NOT delete a local copy of a DropBox folder until after you turn OFF selective sync. Indeed, until Smart Sync, if you turned off selective sync, DropBox will delete the whole folder LOCALLY.

B. Use the new Smart Sync feature to distinguish Local and Online copies. Local copies the same as the synced version that is in DropBox. While “Online” means DropBox preserves the file structure and names on your local computer, but doesn’t download the content unless you try to open the file. This behavior doesn’t play with with all programs, mind you.

C. Use both – that is what I do. On my under-sized laptop drive, I selectively synchronize a small handful of things (Business Records, Work In Progress and perhaps a few days worth of photos). While on my workhorse desktop machine, I keep many more photos local on a huge hard drive.

If you’re wondering why I don’t just pay Adobe for cloud storage… never mind, you’ve probably already figured out why I don’t want to pay twice, and MORE for what I already am using.

Stormy Weather predicted in Photo Organization Efforts

iPhone and Android folder structures are not consistent – Why?

The organizational structure on both the iPhone and Android are a bit messy, mysterious, and … change over time, so I have not had much success trying to duplicate the structure I use for my DSLR real photography in the cell phone space. And yet, like many of you, my cell phones are doing more and more of the lifting for illustrative things. One way my Android gets twisted up is that it has both phone memory and card memory. The problem is that there are lots of places where pictures occur, on say the Android. For example:

Galaxy S9+\Phone\DCIM\Camera
Galaxy S9+\Phone\Pictures (which has many subfolders)
Galaxy S9+\Card\DCIM\Camera
Galaxy S9+\Phone\WDisk\Photos
and more!

Trying to extricate files from those many locations sometimes means I goof and recreate the same structure multiple times. To make matters more complicated, I also record images and videos with a Mavic drone.

Another Organizational Failure

I may copy May 29 files into May 28th for my big camera images. But I never intentionally duplicate images even if it sometimes happens by accident.

Sometimes I get ahead of myself. I simultaneously copy e.g. Android stuff on one machine while copying iPhone stuff on another. When I do that, Dropbox can get confused. And that’s on top of the pain that Lightroom imparts… so I find myself using less and less of Lightroom for importing photos (too slow and cumbersome), and instead I get the structure in place and then tell Lightroom where to look. Indeed, I admit I now prefer to use Adobe Bridge, or some much simpler programs like Image Glass for quickly viewing photos. Image Glass is very quick to load and use, something like Windows Photos, and Image Photo Viewer, but more nimble (and less powerful).

After the cross country trip, I found myself with apparently MANY copies of the same cellphone and camera images… but with thousands of images it is not easy to identify which are really duplicates. Some duplicates are the result of doing in-phone photo editing. Obviously those I want to keep. However the accidental duplicate copies I do NOT want to keep.

And the duplicate situation differs by cell phone, too. Android often tags -001 to files you edit on phone, while iOS creates an .aae file.

Deduplication To the Rescue

Is there software that will do a good job cleaning up duplicates on a Windows machine? Yes and No. Yes there is, but WHAT IS A DUPLICATE? I mean I know when what I look at is a duplicate, but that doesn’t mean software is particularly good at it. I was grievously frustrated when trying to trial some of the photo/file de-duplication tools that exist. I thought, CCleaner did a pretty good job, until I realized IT DOESN’T understand images very well.

I then went on to try Easy Duplicate Finder, Duplicate Photo Cleaner, and a few others. Unfortunately my tests were against a real directory with thousands of files and these “tools” would only let you do 10 removals unless you paid the $30, $40 or $50 to activate them. Well that’s NO TEST! And more, none of them bother to tell you up front that the many minutes you spend reviewing its scan is a waste of your time – or what the charge will be to license the software. One of the tools begged to not be uninstalled and offered a significant pricing break, which brings me to a tip:

When trialing software, it’s always a good idea to try to uninstall it before you even think about purchasing it. Crafty programs (and marketers) realize that offering a discount is their only defense against losing a sale to you. The discount may be substantial!

Duplicate Photo Cleaner Irked Me

Evil minds created this!

Not only did DPC NOT tell you what the charge was, it asked you to register (you give it your email address) before it ever mentions the price ($39.90). It does seem to have some smarts to pick photos by appearance but it lumped together three different screenshots from the phone as duplicates that were NOTHING alike. Suspiciously, Duplicate Photo Cleaner and Easy Duplicate Finder are both Webmind products and use the same shameful sales tactics.

I suppose there may be instances where you want it to figure out if one image is merely a smaller version (or only “slightly different” from another), but the inspection, took a long time and decided that not only were the screenshots identical, but two quite different sunset shots were marked as duplicates. If your goal is to toss out all but the first image of your daughter, the default behavior of this tool might be what you want. You *can* adjust the settings, but the slimy marketing and the out of the box behavior had me saying No Thanks in a jiffy.

Duplicates Cleaner by kaeros < Works!

The $6 solution does the trick. Even the $0 solution works just fine.

The good news is that those badly behaved trials made me try Duplicates Cleaner from the Windows Store. I normally avoid the Windows Store because it has a lot of rubbish, and it’s Microsoft. Duplicates Cleaner is FREE. And guess what, it worked very well – got rid of 4.5 Gb of redundancy in my Android directory alone. Duplicates Cleaner has a $6 Pro version which I may well upgrade to. But the free version does the trick and includes a small ad for one of the developers products. Duplicates Cleaner doesn’t try to inspect your image to see if they are visually similar – it looks at the content (or name) to make its decision. Content is a good way to go, two files with different names and identical content ARE duplicates. You can see it also found redundancies in the organization of my “big camera” directories. (Usually because I’m not always careful about where I tell Photoshop to stick things).

With the setting “Scan Type Preference: Same Content” it’s really speedy. Once it finds the duplicates you have the choice of deleting them or backing them up. Normally it deletes the second item, but I’ve switched those because the first items were placed in the wrong folders. (Also notice how the last item is incorrectly named!)

Cross Country – Parts 3, 4 and 5

In the previous article (parts 1 and 2), we discussed how we planned the driving portion of our cross country road trip, including tools for mapping, weather, and destination selection. In this chapter, we address how we selected and booked lodging and excursions – including how we might have wanted to do things differently, as well as additional tips and tricks we learned.

We also sprinkle in a healthy dose of representative photos, and some tips we used to break up the monotony of nearly 4000 miles of driving.

I will also give you a brief idea how we enjoyed the lodging and events in case you want to follow in our footsteps.

One thing I refrained from doing while gone is posting any updates about WHERE we were to any social media platform. No point letting the bad guys know you are out of town for an extended period of time. Our family did have access to a map of our progress, as well as daily updates about our safety (see part 1 for more)

Quick Reference… There is a Lot Here

The License Plate Game – And the Marriage Refresher

One of the things we did was the “license plate game”. Surprisingly we spotted 46 of the 51 possible US license plates. The plates we did not spot were Hawaii (no surprise there), Washington DC, South Dakota, Vermont, Connecticut, West Virginia, Kentucky and Rhode Island. We might have actually seen some of those, but many folks had license plate frames that covered up key things like state names. We were really surprised to not see Kentucky since we drove quite near the border. We did spot a smattering of car carriers, two of which were heavily laden with tags from a variety of states… but none proved to be new ūüôĀ

There is a real tangible benefit to spending many hours with your spouse, too. While a fair amount of the time was spent listening to music and programs in the car, we got a good chance to talk and spend quantity and quality time together.

One of the other things we did was to keep a look out for “Welcome Signs” and stopped to photograph them (where it was safe to do so). In retrospect, I wish we had stopped to photograph more signs and oddities that we encountered. For example in Virginia we crossed “Stinking River“, “Pole Cat Creek”, “Consternation Creek” and many other oddly named places and signs. For example, we were less than two miles away from Toad Suck, Arkansas while traveling down I40. Cookietown, OK was pretty far off the road, so although I am a recovering cookie monster I did not stop there.

Lodging and Excursions – Booking Tips

As I noted in the previous article, I wish I had done at the beginning what I did later in the booking process… that is to sign up for one or two hotel chain perks and stick to those hotels where possible. There are a number of reasons why, savings is just one of them. We stayed at several different chains and independent hotels, including Hilton Brands: Hampton Inn, Home2 Suites, Tru; IHG: Holiday Inn Express and Suites; Aramark: Lake Powell Resort (two nights); Mauger Estates Bed and Breakfast (Albuquerque – two nights); Pelican Inn (Cambria – two nights). One side benefit of avoiding staying in big cities is that the rates at most of the Hilton properties, for example, were less than $120 per night – tax included. Hands down the best places we stayed were at the Home2 Suites in Farmington, New Mexico. Good property, service, location and ambiance. Having an available ice machine, mini fridge (with freezer) and in-room Keurig was a plus. Two criteria I used to book rooms included: free breakfast (one less thing to worry about), and free in-room wifi.

Book Through the Property Unless You Get a Stellar Discount

Something else I learned from my trip: if you book directly you are more likely to get concessions and discounts (and fare changes). When you book through a third party like Travelocity or, the front desk has less power – and less incentive – to make any changes in your booking. It is also true that third party bookings sometimes offer only the less desirable rooms: why face the road in Lake Powell Resorts when the lake is a much nicer view! Indeed, you would probably prefer buildings 4, or 5 as they have the better views. 1, 2 and 3 all overlook a huge boat ramp. Not a bad view, just not ideal.

Expect Some Disappointments

There were some disappointments, of course. Tru – a new Hilton property in Amarillo, TX tries to behave like a Eurostyle hotel – with small rooms, and few in-room conveniences. And check-in took forever there. There was a Hilton Home 2 suites less than 1/2 a mile away… and I am sure it would have been a more pleasant stay. We did enjoy the trivia board in the Tru. Did you know Amarillo, Texas is the windiest city in the Continental United States (sorry, Chicago). Of course it depends how you measure, but indeed, some articles support the conclusion.

Lake Powell Resort and Marina, Page, Arizona (great view from the Driftwood Lounge)

Aramark, is the concessionaire for Yosemite National Park, and Lake Powell Resort. Unfortunately they do a poor job managing a very nice property at Lake Powell Resorts. Problems included no working wifi in our building (and it apparently had been non-working for months)… in lobby was little better. While we had no trouble checking in a little early in every other place, Lake Powell Resorts proved to be the exception. Not only was the food service painfully slow (as we passed time waiting to get a room), but during their peak check-in time they had one front desk operator for the busy period. Mind you Lake Powell has about 800 rooms. The room was clean and in good order, and well located… but the problems made it feel less like a resort and more like a chore to stay there.

By the way, Aramark has several claims to fame, servicing vending machines and uniforms are two of them as well as serving food in correctional facilities… but, I digress.

Photography and Night Photography Considerations

The photography portion of the trip. Click Here for a larger view.

Enroute to White Sands (map item 11) through Texas, and Amarillo, Texas. In particular we passed through Roswell, New Mexico (8). You get a fun vibe in Roswell, and there are even some interesting museums – but we only stopped for a snack and a few photos of the quirky signs.

White Sands National Monument

The first photography stop was not until Alamogordo, New Mexico (map item 12) with the nearby White Sands National Monument (11).

And it was only one night. A lucky night as it would happen. By way of reminder, I do use to check the weather forecast before photographing at night. But White Sands proved a bit more complicated. White Sands is in/part of and next to the Holloman Air Force Base as well as the White Sands Missile Test range. White Sands is NOT a National Park. In essence that means it has “operating hours” and is not open at night.

To get in to White Sands NM for night photography you have five choices:

  1. Get a back country permit, and camp at least 1 mile away from the road. If you do that you are locked in for the night, and MAY have restrictions on where you can go.
  2. Call in advance and arrange – for a fee – for a ranger to allow you to come early or stay late. The details required to do this are not clear, but it will not be effective if you want to shoot the rising Milky Way at say 2:00 AM. Shoulder times to normal opening and closing are doable, but must be done weeks in advance – not at the moment you walk in the Visitor Center. I learned about this option through a friend the day before I got to White Sands, so it was not an option for me.
  3. Try sneaking in. HIGHLY, HIGHLY, HIGHLY suggest you DO NOT do that! First there are two sets of locked gates. Second, because of where the National Monument is, you can bet that there are remote monitoring devices, and trespassing is likely to get you in a HEAP of trouble. I never would consider this, but I know some people think “it is cool as long as you do not get caught”.
  4. Join one of the evening programs. They do not run very late or very often, however, so you may not find it suitable for the same reason as option 2.
  5. Leave your camera out at night all by its lonesome and come back and pick it up first thing in the morning. THIS ONE! Note however, that the ranger informed me that anything suspicious that is discovered during the night is likely to be confiscated and removed. Therefore do not set up next to a road or within easy sight of a road or major path. Also, tape over anything that may flash or glow. You do not want to attract attention.
El Paso, We Have A Problem

Obviously I chose option 5. However I got to my location rather late in the day, so did not have a lot of time to scout an ideal location. Originally I planned two days here so that I could scout the first day, as well as have a second chance at night photography if the weather was a problem. It also meant on the first evening I could have determined how bad the light pollution is and made a wiser foreground choice for the second night. But this is also where talking to the rangers comes in handy, especially if you find one who likes night photography. Ranger Jason gave me advice to shoot low, behind a dune in order to block out the light pollution from El Paso. He also suggested where I might go – a place that is not off limits, but the parking lot was roped off so people assume it was off limits. Obviously I was not low enough!

Do understand that you will have to deal with the fear that your equipment may be confiscated, stolen, or buried in a sandstorm (or that you will forget where you put it!). I highly recommend using a trail app, GPS or dropping a pin on your phone where you put your camera. In fact, I kill two birds by also using the camera on my cell phone with the location information left intact.

Tip: In the desert, clouds often dissipate at or after sunset. The forecast for my night of shooting indicated 50% cloud cover until about midnight, but I set the timer to start at about 11:00 PM and discovered it was completely clear (less the El Paso haze, that is).

Not All is Photography … Albuquerque has Plenty To Do

I traveled with my wife, so relentless photography just was not in the cards – nor did I want it to be. We spent two nights in Albuquerque (16, often called ABQ or Burque by the locals) at the Mauger Estates Bed and Breakfast. We also took the Sandia Tramway (18) to the top of Sandia Mountain. Sandia is Spanish for Watermelon, something the mountain tends to look like in the colors of sunset. The entirety of ABQ, by the way is more than a mile elevation above sea level. Take that Denver!

Almost all year round you can book sunrise balloon flights. So that is what we did. Rainbow Ryders did a fantastic job with the balloon flight, well organized and skilled pilot. It was a bucket list (ok, BASKET list) item that I am grateful to have engaged in. We were told landing can be jarring, but ours was as gentle as stepping off a curb. And we landed in a median of a quiet residential neighborhood in the vicinity of where the pilot lives.

And there is much to see elsewhere in ABQ – including Old Town. There is also a Rail Runner train that will take you to Santa Fe for cheap. Unfortunately it runs on a very limited schedule on the weekend – which, of course is when we were in ABQ. That, and the day we planned to go to Santa Fe there was a severe thunderstorm warning in effect. The train station in ABQ is next to the Galleria downtown which appears to be a large failed shopping mall – mentioning that in case you are thinking of going shopping there (which was our plan B when realized the train was not running).

Bisti Badlands – De Na Zin Wilderness

I wish I had a good story about Bisti Badlands (map item 20) in De-Na-Zin Wilderness (Bureau of Land Management). Chaco Culture Center and other interesting locations are nearby. Bisti from the Navajo word Bistah√≠ means “among the adobe formations. Bisti Badlands is about 40 miles south of Farmington, New Mexico. I had high hopes for this location based on many photos and the Wiki write up, but … well it did not work out as I hoped. In the same area, apparently is Ah-Shi-Sle-Pah Wilderness – but is more remote and a Lexus sedan is not the best thing to take on such backroads. There are many trail recordings with photos of Bisti in AllTrails. Unfortunately its not easy to use AllTrails to hike to a SPECIFIC location.

Here are some of my experiences and advice:

  1. It is at least a mile and a half hike in to see anything interesting.
  2. Go early,or in a cool season and take plenty of water. I thought my wife might face heat stroke because the 94F temperature and lack of any shade was overwhelming her. She nicknamed the location: Beastly Badlands.
  3. 7290 is a gravel road. It was in good shape, but you probably want to approach from the west via 371 and 7297. 7290 was closed heading north just past the Bisti Badlands parking area – so despite it appearing to connect you cannot come in from the north or continue through heading north. That may be a temporary condition.
  4. There is a Bisti Wings formation that I really wanted to see and set up for night photography, but it is on the northern end of 7290 – perhaps 7293 from 371 (marked by Bistahi First United Methodist Church sign) is the way to go.
  5. Use a tool like AllTrails (e.g. a GPS on your phone with a pre-downloaded map) to plan where you want to visit. You can wander around for hours and find very little of interest.

Fortunately after we left Lake Powell (described soon), we did some hiking at the Toadstool Hoodoos – it is a shorter and more rewarding trail. After spending the night in Farmington, NM, we had a tight schedule to get to Monument Valley in time, but there was enough time to stop in Four Corners (23) where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado all meet. Interestingly each of the different kiosks surrounding the landmark charge different state tax depending on the state they are in. In Bluff, there was also the interesting stop, restaurant and vista of the Twin Rocks.

Monument Valley

There is a lot more in the area than Monument Valley. On the way there we passed through Valley of the Gods (26) and stopped at Goosenecks State Park (28). There is a great confluence of interesting geography. And there is still more in the area, including the singular Mexican Hat formation for which the town of Mexican Hat (28) is named. Valley of the Gods, Utah is similar to Monument Valley (30) in its expansiveness, but I do not recommend it for a touring sedan. A high clearance vehicle is a better fit for the environment both in Valley of the Gods, and in Monument Valley.

Hands down the best thing I did in Monument Valley – perhaps the whole trip – was to connect with Phillips Photography Tours for an overnight trip to Hunts Mesa. Phillips supplied the tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, vehicle, driving, dinner, breakfast, and guide. If you told me that I was going to be driven for about 5 and a half hours over rugged terrain, I would have guessed the price would be high. Throw in a dinner, a breakfast, camping equipment, and a very great guide named Tully to be the leader, driver and chef and I would not have believed they charge as little for the tour as they did. Indeed, I feel like a 40% tip would not have been too much. In my particular case it was just Tully and me though you may have as many as 3 other photographers with you. Want a clue what the driving was like…

Descending Hunts Mesa

Not only did I get to go to breathtakingly beautiful places, but I learned a lot from Tully, including quite a bit about the Navajo way of life, and even a bit of Navajo language.

If you know my wife, you probably guessed that camping out was not high on her do it list. So for her, a night in Gouldings Lodge (29) was arranged. The onsite restaurant at Gouldings was quite good. I had the Mini Navajo Taco for my pre-trip meal. It was delicious and far, far from mini. Because I had also arranged a tour for the morning following our all-nighter, Tully dropped me off at Gouldings giving me a chance to shower before my wife and I arrived at the View for a 1.5 hour Fords Point Tour. I would go back in a heartbeat. Not only was the experience fantastic, but there is so much photography and night photography potential here that remains undone.

Page Arizona, Lake Powell and Vicinity + Rainbow Bridge

If you have not visited Page, Arizona (36), you have not really lived. Truly. There is so much that is visually compelling in the area, that it is hard to even start. I have already stated my misgivings about Lake Powell Resort (37), but I would STILL go back. And I highly recommend a boat tour to Rainbow Bridge – an immense natural bridge that spans a wash in Lake Powell. Not far from Page are many other impressive sites.

(Upper and) Lower Antelope Slot Canyon

Rocky Mountain Sunrise

If you have not heard of Antelope Slot canyon on Navajo Tribal lands, where have you been? There are many slot canyons in the area. They are formed when monsoonal rain carves a deep gash in the earth as it makes its way downhill. Lake Powell itself can be described as one HUGE slot canyon. To my eye, Lake Powell and the surrounding canyons – like Horseshoe Bend (36) – are more appealing and interesting than the Grand Canyon. Now that I have been to both the Upper (upstream) and Lower Antelope slot canyons (34), I can say conclusively that the lower canyon which requires stairs, ladders and some maneuvering to keep from whacking your head and limbs, is overall more interesting photographically. Lower Antelope ranges in depth from inches (where you emerge) to up to 70 feet down. The range in depth is what adds to the rich tonality of color you can achieve. Plus the Lower Antelope has some striking features including an overhang (see photo above), and even some arches/windows.

We used Dixie Ellis tours (34) for our excursion. Ala was our guide and while she had not been at it even a year, she was very informative and really knew where some of the most compelling photographs can be found. Her demonstration of how slot canyons form using sand and a bottle of water was interesting and illuminating.

If you wondering can you photograph the canyons at night… the answer is yes, there are a few tours. I was originally salivating over the idea but then realized that there are lots of constraints that may make the effort not worth the trouble or expense. One of the limitations is that you would have to work well with others to get the canyon lit for the foreground. Experience teaching Night Photography workshops has taught me that it is usually best if the instructors light the scene unless there are many different directions and things to shoot – otherwise people get testy about shots being ruined by stray light. The next constraint is the length of the tour… want to line the Milky Way up overhead? It is not very likely that will work for a tour that is not all night (and may not be possible at all). Indeed, the one night tour I nearly booked (link above) started 2 hours after sunset and lasted for 2 hours. You would have to know that will work for what you want. At least you can use Google maps satellite view to realize that the canyon(s) run almost due North-South.

Toadstool Hoodoos (East of Kanab, UT)

As I mentioned, Bisti Badlands was a bit of a disappointment, no doubt in part due to lack of effort on our part, but also because there was not any quick payoff. The Toadstool Hoodoos (41) was a much more approachable hike than and the sixteen mile hike to the Wahweep Hoodoos – something also on my list of places to go. However unlike Bisti, the less than a mile hike to the Toadstool Hoodoos is immediately more striking. Do not neglect hanging a left at the back and seeing the striking white gypsum hoodoos.

After the Toadstool Hoodoos, we ran into heavy road construction so we dropped Coral Pink Sand Dunes from our route in the hope of getting into Valley of Fire State Park before it closed. But, we had less than an hour before Valley of Fire closed, so we called it an early evening at the North Shore Inn, in Overton.

Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada

One of the last places I had set aside to visit was the Valley of Fire State Park, in Nevada. It is 14 minutes from the town of Overton which has about exactly one place to stay, but Valley of Fire is also about an hour drive from Las Vegas. As you might guess, it was also hot in the Valley of Fire. By the time we arrived a little after 9:30 AM on June 6, it was already 89 degrees. I had done my homework, of course, and though I wanted to see it all the reality is that the heat of the day was going to interfere and we were not going to stay overnight. You can stay overnight – with a camping permit. However night photography requires not just a camping permit, but also a separate photography permit, and insurance. I have no idea if – or how – campers can brave the 100F heat that is common in the late spring to early fall, but I knew from Bisti and Toadstool Hoodoos, that an extended hike was not in the cards. The compromise was to drive to all of the vistas I had pre-checked out from sources such as AllTrails, Atlas Obscura

I did elect to hike to the Fire Wave said to be the more accessible version of the famous The Wave in Paria Canyon, Vermillion Cliffs, Arizona. I have tried 4 times to get a spot in The Wave lottery, all failures. No lottery is required to reach Fire Wave, just the State Park entry fee. Apparently White Pocket in Vermillion Cliffs, has a similarly attractive swirling sandwich effect, but it requires some off road driving.

Those familiar with my favorite place: Alabama Hills, will find Valley of Fire nearly as interesting. Valley of Fire, has many more windows and arches. Valley of Fire also feels more vertical. And while overall, Valley of Fire is very red (and thus its name), there are areas with lots of interesting color variations.

I made an unfortunate decision during my hike that resulted in nearly getting heat exhaustion. My wife was parked in the car, shaded as much as possible at the trail head. I noticed, however that the 0.7 mile well marked Fire Wave Trail, connects to not well marked Seven Wonders trail, and the latter trail intersects the road about 0.7 miles farther. As I set out thinking about taking the short cut to the road rather than hiking back uphill, I had a good cell signal. Unfortunately, once I got near the end of the Seven Wonders trail, I discovered I had no signal, and had to hike back up the road to get to the Fire Wave trail head parking place. About halfway back I had enough signal to ask to be picked up. I did not save myself any exertion in the heat! However I would recommend that plan if you can be shuttled to the start location and picked up at the bottom. I recommend it for TWO reasons, one is obvious: you see more. And more to the point, part of the Seven Wonders trail is – as you see in the photo – a shallow, multicolored slot canyon.

One other mistake I made was not getting gas in Overton before heading to Valley of Fire. As we were leaving Valley of Fire, the projected distance remaining was 24 miles. Luckily, the first gas station was two miles short of that distance!

Lessons Learned

This article has grown longer than I wanted it to be, but splitting it into more parts was not appealing. One of the things I am glad we did not do is book nights in Las Vegas. There are certainly attractions and places to visit, but by the time we had reached Overton, we decided to bolt to the coast to escape the daily 100F heat and get some wave therapy – as my wife calls it.

Sometimes you just need a cool sea breeze and the sound of the waves to rejuvenate you after a lot of driving and heat. We stopped at the Pelican Inn, Moonstone Beach, Cambria, California for a few nights of bliss.

Fortunately most of the other prominent issues I faced I have already covered… except one that really fried my turkey: Drone woes.

Drone Haters – Everywhere

Everyone, everywhere, seems to hate drones. Almost everywhere I brought my drone, there was a prominent sign forbidding it. All National Parks and Monuments, for example forbid flying a drone without a special permit – ditto for the Nevada and Utah state parks that I visited. Mind you before I left, I had big plans to survey some of these locations by air rather than solely on foot. I probably would have found better vistas in Bisti had I flown, but the day I brought the drone to Bisti it was gusty. Later I took the drone out at Toadstool Hoodoos, and was really unhappy to have it tell me mandatory controller update required and refused to fly without the update. There was barely enough signal for it to determine an update was needed and nowhere near enough signal to download an update out in the hot open sun. The warning was despite having very carefully checked to make sure everything was in flying order before leaving on my trip. I can not imagine what was so important that it would not let me fly. But DJI (makers of the Mavic Air), you made me unhappy! I had hoped to capture videos like one in Trona, or one in Red Rock Canyon State Park.


First, any and all of the places I wrote about in this two part article present risks of various kinds. Conditions change, and poor preparation on your part could result in loss of property, injury or even death. This is an anti disclaimer as well. No one has asked me to write about any of the tours, companies, lodging or locations, nor have I been paid in any direct or indirect way. If I have praised (or berated) a place, people or company, it is genuine and based on my personal experiences. We always do things that way here at Star Circle Academy, but we thought you might want a reminder.

Happy Trails to You, and please feel free to comment about what we missed, or if you would like clarification.

Sneaky Night (and Daylight) Photo Processing Tips


Did you attend the Sneaky Night (and Daylight) Photography Processing Tips event held at Adobe in San Jose, California on July 23, 2018? Welcome!

The topics covered include these:

Let’s Start With a Pop Quiz

The Equation…

Or asked another way. Do these look like they might be the makings of an interesting shot?

Three Nuns Thumbnails

The Answer To the Pop Quiz

Combining the images shown in the thumbnails, nets this Interesting star trail.


“Long Streaks” Star Trail from 112 separate photos

Creating the Star Trail component above is discussed in detail in our¬†NP105: Creating Star Trails & Timestacks Webinar¬†– it’s an interactive 2 hour course with notes, a recording, and practice files. We run that webinar approximately quarterly next event is July 25th.¬†Details¬† covered include how to set up the shots, configure the camera settings, and combine the images using various tools.

Adding that bright frame with a bit of selection and masking to the star trail image nets this:Reaching for the Sky

And that MUST be interesting because it garnered 80,000 views in just a few days. How do you do this bit of Photoshop Magic? Over the years, we’ve shown quite a few methods for accomplishing this. For example in¬†Foreground – o – Matic we illustrated how to use the quick selection tool. That may work well here because the rock has a nice crisp boundary. Other methods that may work include “thresholding” and Color Range selection.

Thresholding to create a mask:¬† We’ve described this before. Briefly this is how it works. Select one of the images – one with contrast between the sky and foreground.¬† Duplicate that image (Ctl/Cmd -> J). Then use Image -> Adjustments -> Thresholds and slide the carat left or right until it has selected what you want (mostly black or white). Paint out the stray areas with either a 100% black or white brush as appropriate.¬† When done, you have an image you can use as a layer mask. The trick to doing this is to select the black and white image, EDIT an existing layer mask, and paste the black and white image as the layer mask.


Photoshop Processing Tips

  • Do work on a calibrated free-standing display in a dim, consistently lit room.
  • Do NOT attempt to process important images on a laptop monitor. You will frustrate the dickens out of yourself trying to get consistent color, brightness, and so forth on a laptop monitor or in an uncontrolled lighting environment. The monitor display angle can cause subtle to dramatic differences in color, saturation, brightness.
  • Do make an action and assign it to a hot-key if you find yourself repeating that operation frequently… E.g. I have an F9 key to apply a contrast enhancement adjustment curve
  • Do name your layers sensibly. You may save yourself a world of hurt.
  • Do NOT crop too early – save this step for last.
  • When combining dark and light subjects (e.g. daylight-like and night) it’s usually best to have very crisp selections – not feathered selections.

Gallery of Photoshop Hot Keys

These hot-keys are described for Windows users. I use these ALL the time. Some have no menu equivalent. You can translate from Windows to Mac as follows:

Ctl -> Command
Alt -> Option
Shift -> Shift

Layer / Layer Mask shortcuts:

  • Duplicate layer dialog allows you to duplicate into another/new document!
  • Ctl-J: Duplicate the current layer
  • CtlAltShift-E¬† ¬†Merge visible layers to a new layer as a COPY.
  • Shiftclick on layer mask to turn it off or on.
  • Ctldrag layer mask to move it to another layer.
  • Shiftdrag a layer mask to Invert it and move it to another layer
  • Altclick a layer mask to EDIT it.
  • Altdrag a layer mask to copy it. Toss in Shift to invert the mask.
  • Shiftclick a layer mask to turn it on/off
  • Altclick quick mask icon to create an inverse layer mask from a selection
  • Do not be afraid to duplicate and adjust a layer for the sole purpose of creating a mask!

Selection shortcuts:

  • Ctlclick on layer mask to create a selection from that layer mask.
  • Ctlclick on a channel e.g. RGB, R, G, or B to make a selection based on brightness.
  • Sometimes Select -> Modify -> Expand or Contract (by 1 pixel) helps to fine-tune a selection. Feathering seldom works well for compositing light and dark images.

Sneaky Tips
Sneaky Tips
Notes from "Sneaky Tips for Processing Day and Night Photography"