Night Photography Basics Part 2 – Full Moon, Star Trails, and Auroras

Moonlight illuminates Glen Canyon and the Colorado River near Page, Arizona. (Mike Cavaroc, 2008)
Moonlight illuminates Glen Canyon and the Colorado River near Page, Arizona.

In Part 1, I discussed the ideal settings for shooting a dark night sky under a new moon, as well as what all those settings mean. If you’re not comfortable working in Manual Mode (M) on your camera, you should go back and read it to make sure you’re up to speed. This section will assume that you’ve got the basic understanding of M Mode and how it works.

This time around, I’ll be discussing how to alter those settings to account for a full moon, how to capture star trails, and also how to photograph the northern or southern lights, aka the Aurora Borealis or Australis, respectively.

Understanding The Histogram

Before moving further, it’s important to understand the histogram as displayed within the camera. Put simply, the histogram shows you the light that was captured in a given scene.
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Cathedral Rock in Sedona, Arizona

Cathedral Rock dominates the landscape of southern Sedona, Arizona. (Mike Cavaroc)
Cathedral Rock dominates the landscape of southern Sedona, Arizona.

Note: This is a minimally processed photo. I’m on my laptop so the final version may or may not change in terms of processing once I’m back home.

I’m currently in Phoenix, Arizona and I’ve discovered that it’s nearly impossible for me to take photos while in the Phoenix area. I had plenty of places I wanted to explore and go to while here, yet I find catching up with friends and going back to the way of life I had while I was here so much more appealing.

Suspecting this, I made a point to stop in Sedona, Arizona, just an hour or two north, so that I would make sure to enjoy my time there. For sunset, I wanted a great shot of Cathedral Rock, one of the area’s primary features.
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I Love Mountains

First of all, thank you to Greg Russell of Alpenglow Images for pointing me toward the cause I’ve been waiting for (among others)!

Shortly after moving out to Phoenix, Arizona in 2004, I got sight of my first strip mine. Even back then, before I was really into photography and before the thought of conserving nature had ever even entered my head, I found it to be a horrendous sight. Entire mountains being completely devoured, forever changing what was once a beautiful desert landscape. Social media was only in its infancy, and as a result, I felt powerless about voicing my opinion on something so incredibly disgusting looking. The friends I voiced my opinions to agreed, but it didn’t help us to feel like we had any more power than the mines did.

Fast forward to 2011, where social media has not a become a way of life, but was a crucial aid in helping an entire population of Egypt take their country back!
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Sunrise from Yavapai Point at the Grand Canyon South Rim

Sunrise lights up the canyon walls of the Grand Canyon as seen from Yavapai Point on the South Rim at Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. (Mike Cavaroc)
Sunrise begins hitting the eroded ridges of the Grand Canyon, Arizona

One thing to remember when shooting a dramatic sunrise or sunset is to look all around you, including the exact opposite direction. Most people are so fascinated by the sun rising or setting over the horizon that they could be missing the best part of the show taking place right behind them. Such was the case while I was watching sunrise at Yavapai Point at Grand Canyon National Park’s South Rim in northern Arizona. I captured a couple of quick shots of the sun itself once the it was immediately above the horizon and then went against the masses to an overlook roughly 30 yards or so west and was all alone in catching this dramatic scene, leaving behind dozens of people staring into the sun that had already come up.
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Sunrise at the Grand Canyon South Rim

Sunrise lights up the canyon walls of the Grand Canyon's South Rim in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona. (Mike Cavaroc)
Sunrise Hits the South Rim Walls of Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

After getting a bit of a late start from Phoenix, I realized that despite visiting the Grand Canyon over a dozen times, I somehow don’t have many good shots from there. Since it’s only a four hour drive from there, I decided to make that my first destination on my way back to Jackson Hole with the specific intent to get some sunset, sunrise and even a few night shots. Sunset left a little to be desired and I’m still debating the moonlit shots, however sunrise definitely didn’t disappoint and was a great show! The canyon walls lit up nicely shortly after the sun came up and watching them glow in the sunlight was especially nice to see.
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Barrel Cactus on Camelback Mountain

A barrel cactus grows along the Echo Canyon Trail of Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, Arizona (Mike Cavaroc)
A barrel cactus along the Echo Canyon Trail of Camelback Mountain in Phoenix, Arizona.

I’ve been preoccupied with a number of things lately so I have to go into the archives again. This shot is from one of my favorite, if not the, favorite hikes of mine in the Phoenix, Arizona area: The Echo Canyon Trail of Camelback Mountain. I hiked this as much as I could while living down there for a few reasons: 1) it’s a great workout; 2) it’s an incredibly beautiful hike for being in the middle of Phoenix; and 3) there was always plenty of options for great photography. I almost always had my camera with me on that hike and whether it was a dramatic sunset or a barrel cactus along the trail, such as this one, I always loved (and still do love) going back to Camelback Mountain.
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