How I Shot It – Northern Lights and the Moulton Barn

July 24, 2012
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The northern lights shine behind and above the Moulton Barn on Mormon Row in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. (Mike Cavaroc)
The northern lights shine behind and above the Moulton Barn on Mormon Row in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

I was recently asked on my Facebook photography page to do a blog post on how I shot this photo. It seemed like a good idea to me, so here’s the first installment of a series of posts that probably won’t have any kind of regularity, but I hope some people will find useful.

This photo had very little post-processing work done to it; just the usual contrast, exposure, and color settings. One thing I believe heavily in is in getting the shot right from the start in the camera. This includes everything from effects, when possible, to even the cropping. As a result, this is the full crop of this image and the light-painting on the barn was just about the exact exposure I wanted. It only required a slight amount of tweaking that I couldn’t get from reviewing it on camera.

The photo itself came from a desire to have more foreground interaction in my northern lights shots. I have been getting a good amount of northern lights for Jackson Hole, Wyoming in the last year or so, but very few of them have much in the foreground, if anything. I decided that the Moulton Barn on Mormon Row would make an interesting test subject to see how experimenting there would go. It took a great deal of experimenting and getting the shots down to what I wanted, but in the end, it’s always worth the effort. I also found it a lot of fun, so if you’re not having fun with it, there might be better ways to be spending your free time, or in this case, nights.

While most shots of the Moulton Barn are of the east side with the Teton Mountains in the background, I chose to shoot the west side so that the northern lights would show up a little better due to the angle as well as minimal highway distractions in the distance. I positioned my camera (on a tripod of course) in a number of different spots, until I found a composition that created a dramatic presence from the barn, as well as leaving a nice balance of auroras in the shot. I then put the camera on the built-in 10-second timer and when I pushed the shutter button, ran over to the other side of the barn and lit the barn briefly with my headlamp. Since a headlamp tries to light everything in the vicinity, I had to put my hand at the base to prevent too much light spilling onto the ground which would create a distracting element. This particular exposure was eight seconds which preserved a few of the finer details of the auroras, so I also lit the barn for roughly half the exposure. The amount of time to light something will depend on a variety of factors: ISO, shutter speed, intensity of the light itself, etc. The beauty of digital is that you can experiment with a few shots before ultimately finding the perfect balance of it all.

Any questions? Please feel free to leave them in the comments!

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