Alberta Aurora Photography
By Zoltan Kenwell
May 23, 2012
Watch latest time lapse movie by Zoltan January 2, 2013
Timelapse movie of the Aurora
I have been taking pictures of the night sky for some time now. The available time I have for this revolves around the same day to day commitments, that many of us have, and my family. To be honest I really have to acknowledge my family, as the main reason I began doing nightscape photography. I have two young boys that go to sleep around 8:00pm and a very understanding wife who is a teacher. They all need sleep! Me on the other hand, I think I have just kept the sleep deprivation thing that comes along with being a new parent, part of my “normal” routine.
Venturing off into the darkness is a very familiar and exciting event for me. The process usually starts a few days before by analyzing the data from various websites that monitor the sun. There are a number of websites that display real-time data and imagery of what the big orange ball in the sky is doing. SpaceWeather, AuroraWatch, SolarHam, Canadian Space Science Data Portal and Space Weather Prediction Center are just a few. The resources are always changing and I am always finding new ones as well. Along with the solar data, local weather conditions also play a crucial role in safely and effectively taking pictures at night. The Weather Network, Clear Dark Sky and the Aviation Weather Web Site are a few sites that let me know which way I will be heading and what kind of outdoor gear I need bring with me; things like a goose down jacket and hand warmers or bug spray.
Technology plays a very important role in the success of my photography. Some of the extra tools I use include a capable 4x4 vehicle which has a lot of upgraded lighting. I think I am pushing over 20,000 lumens when I have all the lights set on max. It’s really bright! Road signs make me squint when I drive by them! I can’t stress how much this extra light helps in preventing eye fatigue while driving in the dark for extended periods.
I also have a dash mounted IPad that provides navigation support while driving, and real time aurora/weather updates while being safely stopped. I also use a dash mounted NUVI GPS to store routes and photo locations. It also acts as a backup to my IPad navigation system. I tether the IPad to my IPhone which gives me great mobile internet as long as I am within cell range on my outings. It also provides me with a great source of loud music while driving and offers a reliable communication system.
I monitor a number of websites daily. There is approximately a two day delay for solar activity on the sun to reach us. This is a rough approximation of course. It really depends on what type of activity has taken place, how fast the energy has left the sun, and what direction it is going. Speeds can range from 300km/sec to 2000km/sec. After I’ve approximated the impact time of solar activity, I look into the active cloud cover over the province of Alberta. Satellite imagery, both visible and infrared, gives me a good indication of where I will have to go to find clear skies. I will then try to find some unique location such as a lake or park in the area that I have targeted. Google Earth is a fantastic tool for this. I always try to stay at least 50km away from any major metropolis. I am not a big fan of light pollution in my photographs. This process really defines a general direction more than a specific destination though. Most of this usually goes out the window when I get onto the back roads in the dark and the aurora takes off! When that happens it means stop, scramble, setup and shoot! As you never know how long a particular show will last. Sometimes a show will last for only five minutes or on rare occasions it will last all night!
Most nights I shoot with two 5D Mark II’s. I have shot with four cameras simultaneously, but that really got out of control in a hurry. I usually have the Canon EF15mm f2.8 fisheye on one 5D2 and the EF16-35mm f2.8 or the EF24mm f1.4 Ver2 on the other. The Sigma 12-24mm and the 14mm f2.8 are also staple lenses. Shooting wide is a priority when the sky is green from Western to Eastern horizons.
The fisheye is an interesting lens that I wanted to touch on here. As you probably know a fisheye lens can heavily distort an image. Sometimes this works when imaging the sky.
I also employ this fisheye as a regular wide angle lens as well. Here’s the trick. If you are willing to throw away some of the image, through cropping, you produce some extremely wide images (170+ deg field of view) that don’t appear like they have been shot with a fisheye lens. The key to doing this is to make the horizontal center line of the composition match the horizon. Then in post, crop the bottom third of the image away and you are left with nicely composed landscape shot that is as wide and straight as you can get.
I have used this technique a lot when making my HD videos. The sensor in the 5DII is 5616x3744 pixels, once I crop off the bottom 1/3 (Rule of Thirds). Then, I am still left with a lot of resolution, especially if I am producing 1920x1080 pixel images for HD video.
There is a similar distortion problem with the EF24mm f1.4 when shot wide open. This lens tends to flair the stars on the edges. I use the same technique as with the fisheye, I try to compose knowing that I will crop this issue out of the final image in post.
Camera settings for me don’t change that much. Here is my typical setup:
Full RAW - offers the most amount of latitude for post-production and the highest resolution available on the camera as well as the best noise control during post production.
Manual Mode - I disable everything auto, as cameras get confused in the dark. But then again, who doesn’t?
Custom White Balance - 4500 to 5000 kelvin. Change it to anything but auto! This help with the consistence of the final white balance across all of your images. Auto white balance was never designed to work in the dark.
In Camera Noise Reduction - lighting optimizer, anything that will mess with the final raw image turned OFF!
Rear LCD Display Intensity - I have found that a setting of 40% is effective in properly displaying what you will see on your computer screen when you get home, and not totally blowing out your night vision.
Aperture – Keep wide open on every lens except maybe the EF24mm f1.4. I will stop it down to 1.8 or 2.0 to help with the flaring issue.
ISO - I like to keep ISO levels between 800 and 1600, with 3200 being the max. That’s just me though. I know how much I am willing to deal with noise in post-production.
Exposure Times - As short as possible! To capture detail in the aurora, I try to adjust my settings to allow 6-10 second exposure times. It’s not always possible though, sometimes it’s just not bright enough. Anything over 30 seconds leads to noticeable star trailing, no matter how wide you are shooting.
Focusing - Do yourself a favor, figure out where the sweet spot of your lens is for infinity in the light, and then memorize it or write it down. I think only two out the five or six lenses I use are actually in perfect focus when aligning with the infinity mark. Confirm focus with maximum magnification on you cameras LCD as well. There is nothing more frustrating than reviewing 500 out of focus images of a fantastic Aurora display.
Shutter Actuation - I don’t use timer remotes for my time-lapse imagery. I use simple and cheaply wired remotes that have a shutter lock. Once I had confirmed my focus, exposure and composition I lock the shutter button in the on position. As long as the camera is in Manual mode, and mirror lockup is OFF, the camera will continue taking pictures until the memory card is full. Just remember to keep your camera buffer in mind. If the frame rates are too high you will get erratic time intervals between shots that will prevent any normal time lapse assembly.
The Results - OK, so this all sounds fine and dandy right? Well, it can be a real challenge when you are a little strung out from driving around in the middle of nowhere, it’s 3:30am, the sky has just lit up like Canada Day fireworks. You try to find a safe, dark spot to stop and setup. Then you jump out and run around like a chicken with your head cutoff, setting up your gear, tripping and bumping into stuff. It can be exhilarating and I am sure it would be very hilarious to watch!
I have been doing this type of photography for many years now, and I can honestly say I have never seen the same thing twice! Every outing is special and unique. If you attempt this type of photography, please be safe. Driving and photographing at night has inherent challenges and risks. Consider a few of the following things if you head out in the dark.
Drive Safely - Knowing your vehicle limits and your personal limit of sleep deprivation is important. If you get too tired to drive, pull over and sleep for 15 minutes. It amazing how much this can help. Coffee and energy drinks only work for a while.
Be Prepared - If you get stuck or have a breakdown in the middle of nowhere you may need to spend the night in your vehicle. Make sure you have appropriate gear/food/water to accomplish this. One can get into a dangerous situation very quickly on the cold Alberta prairie. Sleeping bag, shovel, granola bars and candles can make the difference between life and death.
Fuel - Know the driving range of your vehicle. Finding open gas stations in the middle of the night can be a challenge too. A good GPS will list them for you but it won’t tell you which ones are open at 4:00am.
Make a Plan - Tell somebody where you are going and when you will be back.
HAVE FUN - Photographing in the darkness of the night can be an exhilarating, self-reflective and amazing experience. The night offers so much for our senses if you are open to it. The inherent limitations of your night vision leads to an increase in all your other senses.
When everything comes together and it all works out…the noise of the drive settles and the sounds of nature take over. Your eyes begin to adjust to the darkness. Standing in the still of the night, in the middle of nowhere, you get to experience nature’s music. The blowing wind though the grass or a couple of coyotes calling to each other in the distance can be an eerie yet peaceful experience. If you are lucky, the insatiable darkness that surrounds you will provide the perfect backdrop for the Aurora Borealis to begin dancing amongst a star filled sky!
Bio – Zoltan Kenwell is a professional photographer that specializes in nightscape imaging, the Aurora Borealis being his favorite subject. He has recently begun producing time lapse HD videos of the northern lights as well. The owner/operator of InFocus Imagery Inc., he has shown the world what the Aurora Borealis looks like in Alberta, Canada.
Web site: www.InFocusImagery.com
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