Being someone with a camera who has had some success in capturing some of the natural wonders of our area, I often get asked questions like:
What settings do I use?
What time was this taken?
Where was this taken?
Sometimes the information is included in the write-up about the image, but I’ve come to the conclusion people are just there for the pictures and don’t read the details. Unfortunately, those people probably aren’t reading this either, so I’m not sure I’ll be any further ahead in the long run.
The problem with questions like the ones listed above, is they only apply to the conditions at the time the photo was taken. Similar shots in the future may use the same settings, but more likely, they will need some tweaking to get the desired image.
Rather than spoon-feed actual settings, I would rather have people understand how to get there with the myriad of resources we have at our fingertips. While I have a good enough understanding of the concepts to adjust settings for my needs, I still like to do a bit of homework to determine a starting point to save me some time and effort.
For this, Google is a wondrous thing. I usually know the subject(s) I’m targeting on a given outing, so if it’s something I haven’t shot before, I’ll start with a quick search like:
How do I photograph _____________? Fill in the blank with whatever you’re planning to shoot.
You’d be surprised by the amount of information out there and the best part is you’ll find many different approaches instead of a single, biased opinion. One example that comes to mind is photographing the aurora borealis. There are technical questions that can be answered regarding the process of actually taking the photograph, but there’s additional information that should also be considered.
To start, you have to determine if there is an aurora to be seen. I googled “Aurora Forecast” to find some helpful sites that try to predict aurora activity. The problem with that is although I monitor 4 or 5 different sites, they’re for Alaska, Yukon, Northwest Territories, or Edmonton. It’s a bit of a stretch to make those predictions mean something for us here on the island, but they’re better than nothing.
Another thing to think about is “What does the Aurora Borealis look like?” I’ve been out a few times this year and come away with some nice, colourful photos. I’ve also shown the differences between what I see and what the camera captures. I won’t go into details here, but there are many resources out there that explain it very well. It all comes down to rods and cones and light intensity and all that good stuff. The good news is that many of the explanations you’ll find will be in easy to understand language. They make science easy.
Another major concern is “What’s the weather going to be like?” There’s not much point in planning an aurora shoot if there are clouds in the way…kind of like photographing a full moon. To be more specific, given the aurora, if active, will appear to the north or northeast of us on Vancouver Island, clear skies above or in any other direction won’t be a big help. The best tool for answering that question is a map and a compass (or iPhone app if you’re so inclined).
Finally, the aurora borealis is very unpredictable. It can appear suddenly and disappear just as fast. Like anything else, it’s a matter of monitoring conditions, and being in the right place at the right time…oh, and a good bit of luck.
One last bit of advice, understand the basics of proper exposure. You may need to make adjustments between shots, and you can brighten or darken images using various combinations of aperture, shutter speed and ISO. There’s no right or wrong answer, but knowing the desired effects regarding depth of field, motion and image quality will dictate which approach to take.
This is just one subject, but the processes are the same for all. Get to know your subject before you try to capture it, and you’ll have better success.