Northern Lights video

I made a short “video” from a series of images made of the northern lights.  Can’t post a video here but you can see it on my website:

http://www.melmannphoto.com/northernlights/h2e6d2fa8#h2e6d2fa8

While doing this our eyes were fully acclimatized to the dark and we could see some of the brighter parts of the display, but it was only after piecing together these long exposure images we were able to fully appreciate the rippling and movement in the atmospheric display.

Now I want to travel much farther north and see this up close and overhead!

Sky on fire

The northern lights are shifted very south right now due to a large solar storm that is impinging on our upper atmosphere.  Nothing like the view from Alaska or north Canada, but still a great occasion to see a rare event.  Here’s the best single image I got.

That’s not too bad for being thousands of miles from the North Pole.

Did you see the lights?

Merry old England

Winter can get odd here on the Plains.  Right now we have no snow, temperatures in the 40’s (it is still January!) and tonight, fog that would make London envious.  I’m sure there’s a perfectly plausible meteorological reason for it but that doesn’t matter to me.  For a photographer fog is a great light modifier that gives lots of opportunities for cool effects.  It also attenuates the lights on the ground that make clouds light up, so a foggy night gets really dark!  And with long exposures you really don’t know what the final image will be until you finish it.

ISO 100, 27mm, 15 sec., f/5

ISO 100, 27mm, 15 sec., f/5

Here’s a pavilion in a local park with the lights on inside.  I like how the long exposure brought out the blue in the sky and how the fog scattered the light around the building.  The foreground is being lit by a streetlight that was behind me.

ISO 100, 14mm, 8 sec., f/8

ISO 100, 14mm, 8 sec., f/8

Here I wanted the wet road to reflect and create a leading line to the foggy lights.  I increased the structure of the road and decreased the contrast around the lights in order to enhance the sense of walking into the fog and losing details of your surroundings.  The sodium vapor lamps in the street lights made everything in the image a reddish-orange color so I converted it to B&W to avoid that distraction.

ISO 100, 33mm, 8 sec., f/8

ISO 100, 33mm, 8 sec., f/8

This is my favorite.  Driving through the intersection I noticed the stop lights were beaming out into the fog like spotlights.  We don’t notice the fresnel lenses in stoplights but they are there in order to let the light project in a narrower beam; the lens shows up as concentric circles in the stoplight glass.  In the fog this spotlight beam effect is visible.  During one long exposure I was able to capture the light cycling through all three colors as well as a passing car behind.

All lighting presents an opportunity to learn how your camera ‘sees’ so don’t pass up any interesting versions that come your way.

 

Snow, fog, streetlights – see the night anew

More opportunities to let the camera show me a new perspective on the world, simply by giving it time to collect enough light that I will never see with my eyes.

ISO 100, 17mm, 8 sec., f/6.3

ISO 100, 17mm, 8 sec., f/6.3

ISO 100, 17mm, 4 sec., f/6.3

ISO 100, 17mm, 4 sec., f/6.3

ISO 100, 23mm, 25 sec., f/6.3

ISO 100, 23mm, 25 sec., f/6.3

Stumbling around in the dark

Had a teacher in photo school make the comment that if you put a camera in a dark room, release the shutter and then come back in a little bit there will be no picture. that it requires light to make a photograph.  The comment was preface to an exposure discussion but on the face of it tends to make sense.  Photography is all about light, right?

Except with sensitive media like fast film or today’s digital sensors.  The camera can see light that we miss.  Light is all around us, in general, especially in suburbia where there is generally too much light.  Anyway, cameras can seem to do magic by revealing a world in the dark that we just don’t see.  Don’t believe me?  Set your camera on a tripod on a dark night, point it at the horizon and leave the shutter open for a minute at about f/8.  You’ll be surprised at what you get.

It’s not really magic, though.  Whereas our eyes collect light continuously they also “refresh” continuously.  After sending the information in a scene to the brain those little rods and cones in our retina (some of that high school biology coming back?) literally bleach out that scene and start collecting light for the next scene.  Because the process is always going on our eyes never really collect enough information to make a nighttime scene very bright.

Compare that to a digital sensor (or high ISO film).  As long as light is hitting it, even just a few photons at a time, it continues to build up image information as long as the shutter is open.  Only when the shutter closes is that information passed to the chip in the camera for processing into an image.  So, leave the shutter open long enough and those pixels will gather enough light to form an image.  Even on a pretty dark night.

Naturally an image of a dark sky and dark ground probably won’t be very interesting (unless you’re fond of star trails or streaking car lights) so when photographing at night it’s better to find something interesting.  Here’s where the light pollution comes in handy, as well as a few clouds in the sky.

ISO 100, 28mm, 15 sec., f/2.8

The clouds are reflecting the myriad of streetlights around the neighborhood and silhouetting the grove of trees nicely.  The broken up nature of the clouds also makes the sky more interesting than solid white or black.  Drive around long enough and you’ll find something on the horizon that looks more interesting at night than in the daytime.

Since HDR is all about extracting more information from the image, I tried the single-image-HDR process using the new NIK HDR Efex Pro plug-in for Photoshop.  I wasn’t really trying to get a “natural” look in the image – just wanted to see what moving some sliders around would give me.

Same image as above, processed through HDR 32-bit

I was able to pull more detail out of the foreground shadow, at least so you can see there aren’t any buildings hiding there.  One problem with shadows in long exposure images is the low signal-to-noise ratio – you end up with lots of noise with little signal.  No amount of de-noising or sharpening will bring more detail out.  You have to expose longer so the sensor will build up more of the image.  Of course that would blow out the exposure on the clouds so now you’re back to more traditional multi-image HDR.  I’ll try that in the future to see what I can get.