Night Photography Explored – Part 4: Northern Lights

Multiple meteors falls toward the northern horizon of Jackson Hole, Wyoming as northern lights illuminate the night sky above. (Mike Cavaroc)
Multiple meteors falls toward the northern horizon of Jackson Hole, Wyoming as northern lights illuminate the night sky above.
Northern lights above Teton Mountains
Camera: Canon 7D, Lens: Sigma 20mm f/1.8 Aperture: f/2.8, ISO: 3,200, Shutter Speed: 20sec. Focal Length: 20mm

The northern lights (aurora borealis; also southern lights for the southern hemisphere, aka, the aurora australis) are one of the most sought-after phenomena in the night sky. Casting bright, colorful lights from above, they have entranced civilizations for countless years. Thanks to digital photography, photographing them has recently become one of the most exciting objects to capture. Unfortunately, few people really know how to take advantage of the opportunity, so hopefully this will help you capture them next time you’re out. The term ‘northern lights’ can be replaced at any point with ‘southern lights’. I’ll use the terms interchangeably.
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Night Photography Explored – Part 3: Moonlight

The Gros Ventre River, frozen from freezing temperatures, flows through Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. (Mike Cavaroc)
The Gros Ventre River, frozen from freezing temperatures, flows through Grand Teton National Park.
Camera: Canon 5D Mark III, Lens: Canon 17-40mm f/4, Aperture: f/11, ISO: 3,200, Shutter Speed: 10sec., Focal Length: 17mm

For many night photographers, the moon can be more of a deterrent from proceeding with night shots. Moonlight drowns out many faint stars, as well as the Milky Way. That means that you won’t be capturing bright Milky Way shots filled with an unfathomable amount of stars flooding a night sky. Where it hampers dark sky photography, however, it opens up new landscape possibilities, bringing new life to familiar scenes.

With moonlight, the focus isn’t just on the stars as it was with new moon photography. Instead, you now have the option to compose full landscapes and any sky that’s included will likewise include the brightest stars from the night sky, making it much easier to isolate many constellations.
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Night Photography Explored – Part 2: The Milky Way Galaxy

The Milky Way Galaxy reaches down into the light pollution produced from Jackson, Wyoming as airglow fills the remaining night sky. (Mike Cavaroc)
The Milky Way Galaxy reaches down into the light pollution produced from Jackson, Wyoming as airglow fills the remaining night sky.
Camera: Canon 7D, Lens: Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8, Aperture: f/2.8, ISO: 6,400, Shutter Speed: 30sec., Focal Length: 11mm

For millenia, people have gazed upon the Milky Way Galaxy in awe of its consistent streak through the night sky. It remains the symbol of enigmatic wonderment for both experienced and casual night sky observers. Thus, it is also one of the first night sky objects that people want to photograph, especially if they’ve taken the time to drive out to the middle of nowhere to see it, which leads to the first requirement.

Find a Dark Sky

In order to properly photograph the Milky Way, the first and most important step is to find a dark sky. If you live in a large city, you have some driving to do.
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Night Photography Explored – Part 1: Introduction

The Milky Way Galaxy arches over the runoff from Kelly Warm Spring as northern lights glow on the northern horizon in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. (Mike Cavaroc)
The Milky Way Galaxy arches over Jackson Hole, Wyoming as northern lights glow on the northern horizon.
Camera: Canon 7D, Lens: Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8, Aperture: f/2.8, ISO: 5,000, Shutter Speed: 30sec., Focal Length: 11mm

There’s an expression in photography that says, "Don’t pack till it’s black," implying that as long as there’s light in the day, there’s still something to shoot. While it’s certainly true, one of the most exciting times for photography is when it has actually gone black, or rather, during night time hours. Whether there’s a new moon, full moon, or something spectacular in the sky, there’s still plenty of light to work with to create something interesting. This is the first of several posts that will focus on how to capture and maximize your time out under a starry night sky. Everything will be discussed, from gear, to setting up the shot, to post-processing techniques.
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12 Favorite Photos from 2013

January Mountain lion kittens sit cautiously behind their mother in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming. (Mike Cavaroc)
Mountain lion kittens sit cautiously behind their mother in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.

Certainly one of the most exciting moments of the year was when I found myself sharing a trail with cougars. This was not just the first time I had ever seen wild cougars, it was the first time I had ever seen wild cats at all. The excitement I felt in the moment was overwhelming, and equally was the disappointment when they began to run away. Taking ample time to fully immerse myself in the scene, and not just grab a few shots, it became a defining moment that I will not soon forget.

February A coyote quietly sneaks through snow and sagebrush in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. (Mike Cavaroc)
A coyote quietly sneaks through snow and sagebrush in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.

Yellowstone always provides a great getaway during the winter. Plenty of wildlife scours the blanket of snow for traces of food during the harsh winters, much of it unconcerned if a road crosses its path.
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Fighting Light Pollution in Jackson Hole, Wyoming

The Milky Way Galaxy arches above Jackson Hole, Wyoming and Grand Teton National Park. (Mike Cavaroc)
Light pollution spills into the night sky from various area of Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

For millenia now, humans have gazed up at the night sky in search of answers, clarity, and self-awareness. The night sky has always been a treasure chest of wonderment and puzzles, revealing clues not just about our past as a race, but about ourselves as well. Today, the fascination that a dark sky provides has given way to urban sprawl and modern conveniences, consistently keeping us disconnected from finding real meaning in our lives. Our historical amazement at a dark, night sky has now become nothing more than a faded photograph in our increasingly distant past. Dark skies have become a rarity not just in America, but in every developed nation, and are continuing to fade into the abyss of quite often, unnecessary illumination.

Fortunately, there are those who are willing to put everything they have into preserving the few dark skies we have left.
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