How Do I ....?

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How Do I ....?

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 Iíve come to the conclusion people are just there for the pictures and donít read the details. Unfortunately, those people probably arenít reading this either, so Iím not sure Iíll 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) Iím targeting on a given outing, so if itís something I havenít shot before, Iíll start with a quick search like:

How do I photograph _____________? Fill in the blank with whatever youíre planning to shoot.

Youíd be surprised by the amount of information out there and the best part is youíll 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 thereís additional information that should also be considered.

To start, you have to determine if there is an aurora to be seen. I googled ďAurora ForecastĒ to find some helpful sites that try to predict aurora activity. The problem with that is although I monitor 4 or 5 different sites, theyíre for Alaska, Yukon, Northwest Territories, or Edmonton. Itís a bit of a stretch to make those predictions mean something for us here on the island, but theyíre better than nothing.

Another thing to think about is ďWhat does the Aurora Borealis look like?Ē Iíve been out a few times this year and come away with some nice, colourful photos. Iíve also shown the differences between what I see and what the camera captures. I wonít 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 youíll find will be in easy to understand language. They make science easy.
Another major concern is ďWhatís the weather going to be like?Ē Thereís not much point in planning an aurora shoot if there are clouds in the wayÖkind 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 wonít be a big help. The best tool for answering that question is a map and a compass (or iPhone app if youíre so inclined).

Finally, the aurora borealis is very unpredictable. It can appear suddenly and disappear just as fast. Like anything else, itís a matter of monitoring conditions, and being in the right place at the right timeÖoh, 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. Thereís 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 youíll have better success.