Aurora photo tour 2018 report

Yet another great aurora photo tour under the belt. This year we actually saw auroras on all but one night of our stay in Yellowknife, and that night was completely overcast.

The first night of shooting featured an aurora storm overhead. It either lasted about 15 minutes or forever. Not sure which. It was amazing and mesmerizing. It always is.

Autumn color along the Ingraham Trail, Yellowknife.

The fall color this year was also great. Maybe the best in the four years I've been going to Yellowknife. I really appreciate it when the dark-of-the-moon phase aligns with the best fall color! Last year we visited earlier in September and while the color was pretty good, it was even better this year. But let's get real. The reason we're here is for the auroras.

This year I finally set up my camera to create a time-lapse movie of the auroras. As this was my first try, I only created a short one. This video was made from 16 second exposures made every 17 seconds for 15 minutes. My camera automatically converted the images into a time-lapse movie of about one and a half seconds. I no nothing about video editing so the exposure is what it is. And I don't know much about YouTube either. I uploaded the full resolution video but YouTube seems to set its own resolution. It is what it is.

Photographing auroras is a challenge. For one, it’s hard to see through the viewfinder to compose. It’s even harder to get straight horizons. I’ve got tips for both of those below.

Achieving a straight horizon when you can't actually see the horizon is easy if your camera has level indicators.

Another challenge is exposure. The key is to not blow out the aurora. To that end we try to expose so that the camera’s histogram is more to the right without clipping, or overexposing, the highlights. This keeps the aurora in check while minimizing noise as much as possible. Easier said than done when auroras are changing by the minute.
Thankfully we all have histograms and highlight warnings on our cameras that we can refer to. On my D810 I can cycle through the display on the back of the camera until the highlight warnings appear. And to make this easier, I can disable other displays, like the ones that show all the exposure and camera information. Who really cares about that stuff in the middle of the night when auroras are spinning all around you anyway?
I can also set my camera so that a simple push of a button overlays a histogram over the picture on the camera’s LCD. This lets me know right away if I’m blowing highlights or if I should add some light to the exposure.
But it’s really easy to get fooled by your exposure if you don’t check the histogram. This is because it’s so dark outside and the camera’s LCD display may look fantastic. But the image may be underexposed when you start working on it in the computer. To help with this I turn down the brightness of the LCD display.

And to help set my composition I do a couple of things. First thing I’ll do when composing is to turn the camera off.

Inukshuk rock figure and aurora. Click to embiggen!

This is because any display in the viewfinder will blind you to what’s actually in the viewfinder. All you need to do is touch the shutter release and the display lights up and you won’t be able to see anything else. And since it’s practically second nature to partially depress the shutter button, this will happen all the time. So I turn off the camera to set the composition. Then I turn the camera back on and use the in-viewfinder leveling indicators to level the horizon. At this point, I don’t need to see the composition, I’m just going to make a small leveling change. If your camera has leveling indicators inside the viewfinder, be sure to find out how to turn that feature on. I swear, since I got my D810, that’s one of the most used features on my camera.

An interesting aspect of photographing auroras is that you’ll get the most colorful pictures from the dullest looking auroras. At least they’re a bit dull looking to the naked eye.

The camera will pick up colors that our poor night vision cannot. When photographing a slow moving aurora, you’ll take a look at the LCD and you’ll see way more color than you can with your eye.
The irony is that when you actually see aurora color with your naked eye, the camera has a hard time recording it. This is because you usually only see colors when a storm is happening and the aurora is moving fast. You’ll see colors in the moving ribbons and the “explosions” overhead. But these things are moving fast and your shutter speed will be relatively slow so that what the camera records is mostly a green blur. Occasionally you’ll catch some color too, but not like what you’re able to see with your eye. Frankly, I don’t worry about this because I’m usually too busy (or too dumbfounded) staring up at the amazing beauty overhead.

Sometimes you can catch the lights between states, somewhere between slowly moving and melting your eyes. Then you can record some of the shapes and colors a storm creates.

After seeing storms a few times now, I’m starting to try to record them with the camera. The best I’ve done so far has been by just point the camera up toward the aurora and keep pushing the button, hoping for a few nice shots, or maybe even a sequence of shots that will work well in a slideshow.

I feel like I’m making all this sound nearly impossible to do. It’s not. With today’s cameras you can see your results right away and adjust. After a couple of hours on the first night of shooting, most people on my tours are getting it and beginning to be able to judge what shutter speeds and ISO are needed based on the intensity of the aurora. I can’t imagine what this would have been like if we were still using film. I don’t think I’ve ever not missed film more.

Really, after you're at this for a few nights, the toughest part is just all the sleep you'll lose from staying up so late!

And if you want to learn more about shooting and processing for night photography (including auroras!) be sure to check out Grant Collier's excellent e-book: Grant Collier's Guide to Night Photography (affiliate link). You can read my review of the book here.

Next year's aurora trip to Yellowknife is already set. If auroras are on your bucket list, consider joining John Barclay and me for this adventure. Registration will be opening soon, but feel free to email me to pre-register.

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