Creative vacatons

Creative vacatons

Sunday, March 8, 2015

One Night, Four Photographs, Four Settings: White Balance and Aurora Borealis Photography

What is the correct white balance for Aurora photography?

Like almost all answers to questions about photography it starts with "It depends."
First of all there is hardly any such thing as "correct white balance" in any photograph. It is an esthetic choice. What do you want to communicate? What kind of mood do you want? and, what feels right to you? Two photographers may very well interpret the same situation and scene differently. To learn more about white balance visit this article on how to get it right.

2 things I go for 

1 - I want the photograph to look close to what I saw in the nature.
2 - I want the photograph to feel as how I felt it. In the winter that mostly means "cold."

The night it got complicated

Saturday March 7, things got more complicated than usual. 
My normal standards are  4000 Kelvin in moonlight, and 3200 Kelvin on nights without moonlight. Or tungsten/incandescent setting for no moon, and fluorescent setting for moonlight.  

Now that we have reached March the days are much longer than January and February. That means that in the beginning of the night there is still a lot of daylight. The sun sat at 17:08 that night. But, here in the north the sun sets at such an angle that it takes a long time from it sets until it gets really dark. Astro twilight lasted until 20:37 that night. So when we got out of the studio at 19:00 it was still twilight. There was also another type of light: Northern Light. The photo below is shot from the field across the road from the studio on Håkøya.
Aurora showing up early at night, late in the season. Photo taken at 19:05.
The white balance settings are very different from twilight to night. The twilight is also called "The blue hour." The time right after sunset can be seen as if we are entering the shadow side of the earth. The sun is still lighting up the sky making it very strong in the color blue. Because I shoot in RAW, I can always change the white balance in the computer afterwards. For the above image I set it to 7417 Kelvin, which is close to the shadow setting in the camera. Notice how the sky looks natural but, the street light lit clouds look very orange. (other settings: Tint: -44, Saturation: -6)

We moved down to the beach to get some better shots.
A little later at night: 19:32
A half an hour later the sun had set a little more. It was still twilight yet, darker and, I changed the WB setting. Notice how the clouds are slightly less orange on the photograph above. Yet the sky is almost the same as the previous photo. The setting here were 4288 Kelvin, Tint: -25, Saturation -6. Thus the white balance on this photo is set close to fluorescent setting in the camera. 

The clouds moved in and we started driving, after an hour we saw this:

Later yet, but before the moon was really up: 20:50.
The moon came above the horizon at 19:56 according to That does not mean it's above the high mountains around Tromsø. On the above photo I'm almost back to my old standard for Aurora photos without moonshine: 3400 Kelvin, Tint: +7, Saturation -6. Notice that the clouds only have a slight tint of orange. That is caused both by the white balance setting and that the street lights are further away.

We kept on driving in search of a cloud free sky and ended up in Finland. At the time the photo below was shot the moon was shining bright and I hid it behind the trunk of a tree to avoid lens flare.

Late at night, or shall we say early morning: 00:33.

Here the almost full moon (98,7%). was shining bright. The settings had to be changed again: 4551 Kelvin, Tint: +10, Saturation: -6. That means that I'm almost back to the standard for moon lit nights. Notice that the clouds are just white, no orange tint. That is because there are no street lights that can compete in brightness with the moon. 

One night, four photographs, four different WB setting. 

This shows how there is no one right setting for Aurora photography. The changing light can sneak up on you. the human eye adjusts without you noticing it. It also shows the importance of shooting in RAW so that it is possible to change the settings in Lightroom, Photoshop or any other application afterwards. Even if you do tests and think it looks good on the screen on the camera, the safest thing is always to shoot RAW. 

The two first photos could have been worked more in Lightroom. I could have brushed the clouds and the mountains less orange/more blue. That would have looked better and more natural. I could also have taken out some saturation in the orange parts. I think that I wouldn't have taken out all the orange tint, but some, just to make it less distracting. Other photographers and viewers of the photographs that I've put here would maybe disagree with the setting I've chosen. That's OK. There is no absolute when it comes to white balance.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Full moon or no moon. What is best?

One of the most common questions that I get is about the moon.

Normally it goes like this:

"It's best to avoid the moon to se the Aurora. Right?"
"I read on the Internet that it's best to avoid the full moon."
"We booked our plane tickets so that we avoided the moon. At least we got that right. Right?"

Not right! To ask what is best, no moon or full moon is like asking what is best, coffee or tea. 

Full moon and Aurora.

The moon makes everything brighter, thus changes the exposure. The exposure10 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 800. If you are shooting with a crop camera or a lens that has a maximum aperture of less than 2.8. That means a higher number than 2.8, for example 3.5 or 4. If you have a bridge camera, or a compact camera, or and old camera that you know has a lot of noise in the high ISO numbers. Then a night with full moon may be the best thing for you.  

If you want to try to make a timelapse or a video of the Northern lights you will want as much light as possible. The timelapse under is made on November 11, five nights after full moon. It would not have been possible for me and my 5D mkII to make it without the moonlight.

These two photos are taken on November 22nd and 23rd. The moon was at its darkest on the night of the 22nd.  Note how well the stars are visible on the top photo. This is something that would not be possible on a full moon night. 

The exposure on these two photos were 10 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 2500 and 6 seconds, f/2.8, ISO 3200. That is much higher ISO than the full moon pictures. There is 4 times more light when there is full moon. 

The biggest difference is how well you can see the landscape in the photos and how well you see the stars. The Moon hides the stars and shows the landscape. 

Lots of stars, no moon.

Fewer stars, lots of landscape, almost full moon. 

Clouds are troublemakers

The times when the moonlight causes problems is when it's cloudy. It can sometimes be impossible to see with human eyes what the lightly bright thing on the sky is. Then we have to take a photo of it. If it's white, it's a moonlit cloud, if it's yellow, it's a street light lit cloud, if it's green it's the Aurora. That does not make it impossible to see or take photos of the Aurora in these conditions. Just different.

I find that this full moon cloudy image has a dynamic that few of my other photos has.
The picture above was shot on November 9, at 12:30 am. Full moon was on November 6.

Cloudy, no moon pictures work well too.
It all comes down to a question of taste. What do you prefer, stars or landscape? Then it's a little bit about your equipment. How well does your camera support darkness. 

What is best? Coffee or tea?

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The Lighthouse

There is a lighthouse just south of the island of Tromsø.
I've been thinking of it and wanting to take a picture of it for a long time. I've driven by it, seen it, imagined it , for a year. The problem is that most of the time when I go out to take Aurora photos, I'm not alone, I'm with a group of people. The places I choose are chosen because there can be a bunch of us together and we can take photos without us actually being in each other's photos.

So last Friday I had the chance. The weather in Tromsø was good and we had some cancelations. I only had one client. Creative Vacations's rules says that there is a minimum of two participants to do the tour. In 99% of the cases we still run the tour with one client. What can I say? I like to be outside. I love my job. I love to take photos. Now I had the possibility to visit my lighthouse. 

In my head when I imagined the photo, the northern lights was more to the north. The Tromsø bridge and the Arctic Cathedral would be visible. As it turned out there was high solar activity with a lot of Aurora Borealis right over our heads, and not over the city as I had imagined. 

I ended up using the 14mm for most of my shots, and a few with the 28mm. To make the cathedral and bridge come out I would have needed at least 50mm or better a 85mm. The longer the lens, the more the background is compressed or closer. A wide angle makes the background appear further away. It turned out that I hadn't really thought about that when I headed out. I just brought my standard kit: 14mm and 28mm with a full frame camera. 

I'm really happy with the photos. Maybe I'll be back to do it again but,  I probably won't be back very often though. It's a place that does not give many types of different shots. There are not many mountains or other interesting stuff around, so photos get somewhat repetitive after a while. There are street lights in all directions so they will most likely get into the photo.  If you are in Tromsø for a few days taking Aurora photos you most likely want to take a type of "pure" nature photos, where you see untouched nature. Don't worry; those type of is still my primary goal. We will go back to This place.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Update! two new versions. New Music! Epic night and timelapse video

Sometimes it is nice to be flexible. Actually most of the time it's nice to be flexible. The weather turned out pretty bad on Monday and on top of that the newspaper called me to shoot video of the prime minister of Norway who was meeting local heroes from World War 2. After e-mailing the clients we decided to go on Tuesday instead. I got my time with the prime minister.

Tuesday night turned out to be the best night so far this season, one of the best shows that I've ever seen.

I'm first and foremost a photographer. I'm definitely not a musician. After having the video out there for a few days I've gotten some feedback about the music. Some like it others don't, and I've had some suggestions about what to put instead. Please tell me what you think.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The season has started!!!!!!

Finally the Aurora season is here! I'm stoked! 
Just outside our door, in our garden we witnessed the first Aurora show this season. I believe this season is going to be a great one. 
All the photos were taken between 22:45 and 23:00 the night of August 28, 2014. The nights are not completely dark yet, but dark enough to see the Aurora for a few hours.
  I was wearing T-shirt when I shot these photos. A bit strange, and a lot of fun.

Please share the good news!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Searching Mr Kreutz – The end of the season

The season is over. The last tour on the night  of the year turned into an epic adventure that made me feel like I was in some Joseph Conrad novel searching Mr Kreutz. If you haven't read "Heart of Darkness" yet, I suggest you use the time before the next Aurora season to do so. For me it's there on the list of "must read." Together with "Catcher in the Rye" and "Crime and Punishment."

March 24 the weather was horrible in Tromso so we drove inland. It was horrible in Skibotn and the Skibotn valley too. At the border to Finland it was so much wind and snow that I could only see two meters in front of the car. Things were looking bad and I think that everyone in the car was expecting to see nothing but snow and clouds. I was worrying that the road may close. So that we would be stuck in No Man's Land (aka Finland). A few kilometers passed Kilpisjärvi I stopped the car to have a look outside. To my surprise I saw a completely clear sky. Lots of stars, and some clouds by the horizon to the west, were we came from.

We found a quiet place with good photo possibilities, and waited... and waited. Then as if it came out of nothing it was snowing. Snowing!! We had to go further in. We repeated this several times. We drove east, the snow caught up with us. We went further... Maybe Mr Kreutz and Mdm Aurora was waiting around the corner? Waiting to tell us that IF is the middle word of LIFE.

Aurora came and told us we were worthy of her presence.

A few nights later, March 27, we were celebrating the end of the season with another guide. Looking out the window we saw someone waiving us good bye. 

Good bye! see you soon!

After being used to go to bed at 6 am and waking up at 2 pm for the whole Aurora season, it was quite a shock for me when Silvia woke me up at 10 am the next morning. "you have to get used to it" she said. I did. And I had to start post production on her photos that she was going to exhibit. Ain't no rest for the wicked!

Could this be Mr Kreutz' daughter?

The photos took me back to the summer and the work Silvia had done with a very talented and expressive young dancer in Ersfjordbotn. Ersfjordbotn is one of my favorite places for Aurora pictures, but it turns out that it's also a very good location for dance pictures. 
Silvia had an exhibition in a gallery called Small Projects. She did it together with another cosmopolitan South American artist: Maria Eugenia Poblete Beas.
The exhibition was a success! There were lots of people on the vernissage. 

Friday, February 28, 2014

Driving to Finland and back, only to find Aurora in our back yard.

Yesterday was one of those challenging nights. Clouds and more clouds, and some snow and rain.
I talked to the local weather guy and he said my best chance was Skibotn or Kilpisjärvi. So we drove to Skibotn to find rain, then to Kilpisjärvi to find clouds. Finally we gave up and headed home.

Just when we made the last turn, where we could see our beloved Tromsø, we saw a light on the sky. And no it wasn't a cloud lit by the city lights. It was HER! Lady Aurora! We stopped at Berg just outside town. We had a show that lasted 45 minutes.

Troll marshmallows makes an excellent foreground. 

And so does trees.