A Night In the Aurora Photography Sandbox

Return of the Aurora

It has been a looonnnng time since the aurora forecast  has lined up with clear skies here in Hoonah, so when they finally did this weekend I wanted to make the most of it! Although I do not often focus on writing about photographic techniques on this blog, I thought I would focus on some creative photography techniques I employed and how they can expand your shooting opportunity. Read along to learn about some skills to expand your nighttime shooting (foreground composition, focus stacking, panoramas, light painting) or scroll along to check out some of the images from the night.

Aurora, Hoonah, Creative Photography, Alaska, Green, Ocean, Icy Strait, Mountains
The aurora shines bright over Icy Strait. This is a very “typical” aurora shot and I’ll focus how creative photography can get you out of this envelope.

Foreground Composition & Light Painting

Aurora, Hoonah, Creative Photography, Alaska, Green, Ocean, Icy Strait, Mountains, Icicles
These icicles amplified the aurora and provided an excellent foreground for a unique image of the Northern Lights.

When I am out photographing a scene I am forever on the hunt for interesting foreground elements. Of course the definition of word “interesting” is determined by the photographer, but I search for elements that capture the essence of the scene, amplify the impact of a phenomenon, or create a pleasing set of lines that lead the eye.  On this particular night I was drawn to a rock face that was draped in large icicles. They were translucent and I knew that I could shoot the aurora through them – they were also perfect as a piece of the scene because they provided texture to the aurora’s light and were a part of the essence and juxtaposition where the ocean meets the shore.  I call the resulting shot “Aurora Light Sabers” and am thrilled with the unique perspective it provided to the landscape and aurora.  Not all foreground elements are so well lit, so you may consider bringing a flashlight along to help paint the scene.

Modern cameras are incredibly adept at picking up light, however, moonless nights in regions with truly dark skies will still leave foreground elements black unless you use a bit of focused lighting and enhancement. Thus, the creative photography technique “Light Painting” can help you emphasize and highlight your foreground elements.

Aurora, Hoonah, Creative Photography, Alaska, Green, Ocean, Icy Strait, Mountains, Totem, Tlingit, Focus Stack, Goonz
This maquette of the Goonz pole (Hoonah, Alaska) is lit using light painting. The bright light in the background is a crabbing boat that shined its light at me as I took the image.

On this night I brought a very unique foreground element with me. This model (maquette) of the Goonz Totem Pole in Hoonah, Alaska is an exact, 18″ replica of the life-sized pole. It was used to guide the carvers as they brought the full sized pole to life and it was truly a privilege to have the maquette with me. I set the maquette up close to my camera and began to shoot, creating the illusion that a full-sized totem was in front of my camera. I used a light panel and bounced the light off the surrounding snow to softly light the totem. Without light painting, the totem would have been completely dark and blank – simply a silhouette against the sky.

Focus Stacking

You can expand your depth of field and create sharp images using a technique called focus stacking.  I am a novice at the technique and referenced this article.

One of the disadvantages of using such a small maquette is that I had to be very close to it to take the shot and make it a significant foreground element. The close object brought the stars far out of focus (as seen in the maquette image above).  To get over this hurdle, I shot multiple images of the totem at different focuses in rapid succession and then combined them in Photoshop. Through focus stacking I was able to have my cake and eat it too – I created an image with a dominant maquette in the foreground and sharp stars in the background.

Aurora, Hoonah, Creative Photography, Alaska, Green, Ocean, Icy Strait, Mountains, Totem, Tlingit, Focus Stack
This image was created with the maquette and a technique called focus stacking. Used multiple images taken in succession and and different focuses to create the final image with a sharp foreground a sharp background.
Aurora, Hoonah, Creative Photography, Alaska, Green, Ocean, Icy Strait, Mountains, Totem, Tlingit, Focus Stack
This image was created with the maquette and a technique called focus stacking. Used multiple images taken in succession and and different focuses to create the final image with a sharp foreground a sharp background.

Panorama

Aurora, Hoonah, Creative Photography, Alaska, Green, Ocean, Icy Strait, Mountains, Panorama
This panorama capture the Milky Way and the Northern Lights. It was created by stitching 6 images in Photoshop.

Often scenes are so expansive that they cannot be captured in a single image, and that is where a panorama can be very helpful.  As I stood on the beach and photographed I knew that I wanted to capture the Milky Way and the Northern Lights together (about 160 degrees field of view). I created the panorama below using 6 images and a 24mm, Sigma f/1.4. Each image is separated by 20 degrees using a rotating ballhead. I used 20 degrees because I know it provides ample overlap in the image for Photoshop to align and stitch with. You will need to change the amount of rotation depending on the length of the lens that you use. Using the panoramic technique expanded my field of view and helped me capture all of the celestial elements that I had in mind as well as the mountains of Homeshore and the mainland.

The Take Away

I am always learning new techniques and refining ones that I already know. Thinking outside of the box and on your feet during a photography session can expand your shooting opportunities during a single night. As I like to say “pixels are cheap”, so be sure to make lots of pixels as you shoot more creative photography.