tutorial

14 March 2017

How to Photograph Northern Lights

Posted in: tutorial|

What are Northern Lights?

Auroras, known as Northern Lights in the northern hemisphere and as Southern Lights in southern hemisphere, are one of the most impressive and beautiful natural phenomena on Earth.  It’s a stunning colorful light display in the sky caused by particles released from the Sun colliding with gases in Earth atmosphere. Typically they are green, sometimes they are yellow or purple. But there are also very rare auroras that are completely red, blue and even black. Color of the aurora depends on the gas particles it collides with. Aurora isn’t static – it dances in the sky, sometimes moving slowly and gently and sometimes moving very quickly. Aurora can last just a few minutes or the spectacle might go on and on for a few hours.

Due to their nature (unpredictability, the fact they appear only in the dark, fast movement) Northern Lights can be a bit tricky to photograph. So in this tutorial I will give you some tips on capturing stunning photos of aurora. I hope you will also enjoy sample images showing this beautiful light show.

Interesting fact: even though most of us assume that Northern and Southern Lights are basically the same, newest research shows that in fact there are some subtle but noticeable (at least from physics point of view) differences.

Northern Lights display in Finland

Where to go and how to prepare to photograph Northern Lights?

Unfortunately auroras aren’t visible everywhere on Earth what makes them even more fascinating. The closer you’re to the north or south, the bigger the chances you’ll see aurora. In this section you’ll find some tips on where to go and how to increase your chances of experiencing it once you’re on location.

To have any chance to see aurora you basically need to go far to the north or to the south:

  • Best places to see Northern Lights are: Northern Europe (Iceland, northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia) or northern Canada. But sometimes Auroras can be also seen e.g. from Scotland or even north of the Baltic states.
  • Best places to see Southern Lights are: Antarctica, Ushuaia town in Argentina, southern tip of New Zealand.

From the above you should realize one thing: it’s a LOT easier to see Northern Lights than Southern Lights as much more land is in the arctic circle in the north than there is in the south. That’s why Northern Lights are so popular and that’s why I’m focusing on them in this tutorial.

Northern Lights require dark skies. It means that you have to travel to the chosen location in winter (or late autumn) as otherwise day will be too long. Also make sure to travel to a remote location outside of any city or bright lights.

In most locations Northern Lights are visible from late August (or mid-September) to March/April. Outside of this time window the day is too long.

But even that might not be enough. You can be in the wild, see perfectly clear skies and still not see any aurora. That’s why you also need to pay attention to aurora forecasts.

Aurora forecasts and what is Kp number (and why it’s so important)?

Just like there are weather forecasts, there are also aurora forecasts. Most of them is based on data collected by NASA or NOAA and examples include Aurora Service or Space Weather Aurora Forecast. It’s good to check various forecasts as they sometimes differ a little bit. Also bear in mind that aurora forecasts are in their infancy and we often can’t accurately predict northern lights. It means that the fact that aurora forecast is bad, doesn’t mean you won’t see it. Being alert and awake whole night might sometimes really reward you with some stunning northern lights displays. Photographing aurora is a lot about luck and patience!

But how to read the forecasts? The key to understand them is Kp-index. This number ranging 0 to 9 tells how visible the aurora will be and the higher it is, the better. With Kp anything less than 2 it will be very difficult to see any lights in the sky – they will be too faint. Here are meanings of various Kp-numbers.

kp-number Meaning
0 No Activity
1 Very low activity
2 Low activity
3 Low to moderate activity
4 Moderate activity
5 Minor storm
6 Moderate storm
7 Strong storm
8 Severe storm
9 Extreme storm (such storm caused power outage in Quebec in 1989)

You can check current predicted Kp-index in several websites and apps (e.g. Aurora Service). Bear in mind, however, that they might not reflect real values. Sometimes predicted Kp-index is very high and you might discover there is no northern lights activity at all. On other times, Kp-index might be predicted to be very low but aurora is clearly visible and is stunning.

Equipment needed

Similarly to shooting night photos there are a few equipment requirements that you need to meet in order to be able to capture aurora:

  • Sturdy tripod – as you will be shooting with long exposures you can’t take your photos hand holding your camera. You need to put it on a tripod.

  • Fast lens – ideally you should have lens with f/2.8 aperture (or even faster – I often shoot at night with Canon 24 mm f/1.4 lens) but aperture of f/4 still would do fine. Note, however, that in case of f/4 you will need to use exposures two times longer than if you would use f/2.8 lens.

  • Remote shutter release – although this item isn’t required it greatly increases your chances of capturing sharp photos as you won’t touch your camera and so won’t introduce any shakes or vibrations.

  • Spare batteries – as auroras are captured in the middle of winter usually, it’s very cold and so batteries drain much faster than in warmer conditions. Make sure to have a few spare with you.

  • Hand warmers – hand heaters/warmers will be useful not only to keep you warm during whole photo shoot but will also let you warm the batteries a little bit so they stay alive for a longer period of time.

  • Head lamp – although this is more optional accessory I cannot imagine shooting in the wild without it. Not only makes it easier to navigate in the area but will also help you in manual focusing (more on that later in the tutorial). Just make sure to get head lamp with red light mode. Using strong white light will result in your eyes adapting to it. The problem is that our eyes adapt to darkness much slower than to brightness so you will need a couple of minutes (up to 30) to adapt your eyes to darkness after switching them off. Red light in turn is quite dark and shouldn’t ruin your darkness adaptation yet it should help you in things like setting up your equipment, reading map, charts and so on.

Taking the photos

Actual taking of the photos doesn’t differ that much from taking regular night photos.

  1. Make sure to switch your lens to manual focus and disable image stabilization as it doesn’t work well on tripod (and might in fact introduce some camera vibrations).
  2. Switch to fully manual mode on your camera (most often denoted as M).
  3. Switch to Live View mode to set correct focus. If you see anything in the distance, try to focus on that (sometimes stars or some distant lights are visible in the Live View preview). If all you see is blackness, turn on your head lamp and try to lit some object in the distance (tree, rock). Focus on that with your lamp on.
  4. After setting the focus, take test shot (with very high ISO so exposure will be much shorter) and assess the focus. If the image doesn’t look sharp enough, adjust your focus, take test shot again and so on until you get sharp photo.
  5. Set your aperture to fastest value available on your lens (e.g. f/2.8 or f/4).
  6. Set your shutter speed according to northern lights movement speed. If they are moving very fast on the sky, you will need to use shorter shutter speed (in range 2 – 5 seconds) to avoid aurora looking as a colorful blob. If they are moving slowly, you can try using values in range 5 to 10 seconds (or maybe even a bit more).
  7. Set your ISO speed so the image on your screen has correct brightness. You don’t need to make it as bright as it was shot during the day (as you’re shooting in the middle of the night). Just make sure enough details are visible.

Post-processing the photos

Post-processing northern lights photos isn’t very difficult. There are basically a few things to do:

  • Color correction,
  • Enhancing contrast and
  • Reducing noise.

I start with white balance correction. And in case of northern light photos how you set it depends on the effect you want to achieve. Do you want whole scene to be bluish so it looks like a night photo? Or maybe you prefer to give everything greenish hue to make aurora even stronger? No approach is wrong. Take a look at below photos.

First image has following White Balance: Temperature – 3700 ; Tint – 0

Second image has following White Balance: Temperature – 3100; Tint – +15 (toward magenta)

Both images have completely different look yet each of them is ok and interesting in its own way.

Next thing is color saturation. I basically increase Vibrance (the way it works makes it perfect to adjust saturation of blues of the sky and greens of the aurora). If that’s not enough I usually move to individual color sliders and move saturation of greens, yellows a bit to the right to make them more saturated.

I also play with contrast. If you’re using Lightroom the easiest thing to make aurora pop, is to increase Whites a bit (but without clipping any highlights) and darkening blacks a little bit. In the image on the right you can see what settings I used for an example image above.

Also you will usually need to reduce noise as you will be using high ISO. What you should bear in mind is to avoid going too far with noise reduction as otherwise stars will start to disappear (as most noise reduction algorithms will treat them as noise).

I hope this tutorial will help you in capturing stunning aurora photos and processing them. If you have any questions, do not hesitate to ask!

16 December 2016

How to get old New Document window in Photoshop CC 2017?

Posted in: photoshop, tips|

How to get old New Document window in Photoshop CC 2017?

If you have recently installed Photoshop CC 2017, you have probably noticed completely new & shiny New Document window. You can see it in the screenshot below. Isn’t it beautiful?

New Document window in Photoshop CC 2017The problem for me is that this window is too fancy and it takes much more time to show than the legacy one. So I decided to turn it off and go back to the old one. So here’s a short tip on how to get it back in case you would also like to restore it:

  1. Go to Edit -> Preferences -> General… on Windows or Photoshop CC -> Preferences -> General… on Mac.
  2. Make sure “Use Legacy “New Document” Interface” checkbox is checked (marked in red in the screenshot below)
  3. Click on the OK button to confirm your changes.

Enabling old New Document window in Photoshop

1 July 2016

Landscape Photography Tips

Posted in: landscape, tutorial|

I tried a lot of genres, but it is landscape photography that really fascinates me. I think there is something special, challenging and very rewarding about it. You can’t control many elements of it, nature is often unpredictable but with enough patience, a lot of careful planning, using proper gear and a bit of luck you might be able to capture really spectacular images. It will be a gift from nature given to you.

Today I would like to share with you some tips in hope they will further increase your chances of capturing great landscape photos. I’m using them in my photography and learnt them through the years of my own experience. I grouped them into a few categories to make them easier to read.

Also feel free to click on the images in this tutorial to read more about the photos including story behind them and camera & exposure info.

Colours of autumn (more…)

6 May 2016

L-Bracket: what is it and benefits of using it

Posted in: Gear, tutorial|

L-Bracket: what is it and benefits of using it

In today post I’d like to discuss very small and very useful photography accessory known as L-Bracket, sometimes also referred to as L-Plate.

If you, like me, take photos both in landscape and portrait orientation then you probably know that switching orientation of the camera when using it on a tripod is cumbersome and takes time because:

  1. Each time you want to change orientation of your camera, you need to make adjustments to tripod head. This can take a lot of time what is a great waste when conditions are changing quickly (eg. during sunset).
  2. After changing orientation to portrait, the weight of the camera is no longer directly over the center of a tripod what makes whole setup potentially unstable, especially when using heavy camera and lens combination. In some extreme cases this might result in tripod tripping over.
  3. After you change the orientation of the camera, composition is heavily altered because position of the camera changed.

Solution to all 3 problems mentioned above is to use L-Bracket. Basically it’s a more advanced tripod plate that looks like the one below. It has two quick-release tripod plates located at the bottom and on the side. This allows quick and secure switch from landscape to portrait orientation.

L-Bracket (more…)

27 April 2016

Post-processing step by step: Bamboo Forest

Posted in: before/after, Japan, tutorial, video|

Bamboo Forest in Kyoto

Today I have a new video tutorial for you (scroll down to watch it).

It will show you how I edited one of my recent photos taken in the bamboo forest in Kyoto, Japan – one of those places I wanted to photograph for years, ever since I first saw it in the photo by Trey Ratcliff (and later in another image by Jimmy McIntyre). This place seemed to be really magical. And indeed it is!

However, taking the image wasn’t as easy as you can think as nowadays it’s a very popular tourist spot and also a place popular for wedding photoshoots. So I had to make several attempts to get the image I wanted. On the first attempt, even though it was still early in the morning, the place was already full of tourists and 4 – 5 photoshoots. Now, this might not sound very bad until you realize the forest path is just a few hundreds meters long…

So I made another attempt and was at the location even earlier (much before 7 AM). This time there were just a few people around but there was another problem – it was very dark in the forest and the light patches that appeared here and there resulted in huge contrast. So I had to use HDR to balance the exposure and avoid clipping highlights or shadows.

If you would like to follow the tutorial, here are the files I used for it:

And without further ado here’s the video:

(more…)

22 December 2015

New HDR tutorial: Learn how to create realistic HDR photos

Posted in: hdr, photomatix, tutorial|

New HDR tutorial

Here’s a little Christmas gift for all my readers 😉

It’s been several years since I published first version of my HDR tutorial. During that time thousands of photographers have read it (tutorial has around 100.000 views, excluding PDF versions) and learnt my approach to HDR photography. But recently I haven’t done any serious changes to it, just cosmetic corrections.

So for last few months I was working busily on a complete overhaul of it – with new techniques, tips and a lot of new sample photos. I also wanted to update tutorial for new version of Photomatix Pro (5.1), which was released earlier this year.

And I’m happy to announce that this new version is now ready for you to read, below:

http://hdr-photographer.com/hdr-tutorial/

Here’s short summary of changes:

  • Completely new section about advanced HDR techniques in which I write a few words for instance about HDR panoramas or long exposure HDR photography,
  • Addition of Sample HDR photos section – if you don’t have bracketed photos yet, you can play with some images taken by me – the list of the available images grows slowly and I hope everyone will find something for himself – check the list from time to time to find new images,
  • Tutorial is now updated for Photomatix Pro 5.1, which is the most recent version,
  • Updated structure of the tutorial, move some sub-sections and paragraphs around,
  • Added tonnes of new tips, definitions and explanations to make HDR tutorial even easier to understand,
  • Minor corrections and updates.

Please also note that it isn’t the end of changes – I intend to add several new things to the tutorial in the few next weeks. Also if there is something you would like to see added, let me know.

I hope you will enjoy this updated version 🙂

Sunset in Warsaw

4 December 2015

Capture One & Photomatix Pro HDR workflow

Posted in: capture one, forest, hdr, landscape, long-exposure, mexico, Photomatix Pro, tutorial|

Capture One & Photomatix Pro HDR workflow

As you probably know I love Photomatix Pro and recently I also felt in love with Phase One Capture One. Before moving to Capture One I used Lightroom and my HDR workflow was simple: select the bracketed images in Lightroom, export them to Photomatix using a plugin, make adjustments in Photomatix, save the image and it would automatically show in Lightroom allowing me to make final adjustments there or send the image to Photoshop for instance.

As much as I like Capture One, it made my HDR workflow a bit more complicated because it doesn’t support plugins (unfortunately just released version 9, hasn’t changed anything in this regard) so it’s not possible to open bracketed images directly in Photomatix from Capture One level. It means different approach is needed and I would like to share my current HDR workflow with you.

Here are main steps:

  1. First I do basic adjustments like lens correction, removing chromatic aberration, white balance or noise reduction in Capture One
  2. I export the images as 16-bit TIFF files to a folder where my source images are stored (of course recipe is needed for that).
  3. I load exported TIFF images to Photomatix and merge them to HDR where I post-process them as I would normally do.
  4. After doing the adjustments in Photomatix I save the image as 16-bit TIFF in the directory where source images are located
  5. I switch back to Capture One. As I saved HDR image in the same directory as source images, it appears there automatically.
    Note: make sure to disable following option in Capture One: main menu View -> Global Filters -> Always Hide Processed TIFF . In my case it was checked by default and I spent a lot of time trying to figure out why my tone-mapped images didn’t show in Capture One.
  6. I do fine tuning in Capture One. This includes working on colors and contrast, removing dust spots, local adjustments etc.
  7. If I need more control I export the image from Capture One to Photoshop.

It seems to be quite complicated but apart from steps 2 and 3 it doesn’t differ much from my previous Lightroom workflow. In case of Lightroom these 2 steps were one – export the images from Lightroom to Photomatix and it happened almost automatically, a bit more work is needed here.

Sunset in Mexico

Today I’d like to share long-exposure HDR taken in Mexico in 2014, post-processed in Capture One and Photomatix (yes, above workflow applies here). I really like this silky smooth water. It looks sort of dreamy or painterly.

Sunset in Mexico (more…)

23 September 2015

HDR Photography Tip: Check for halos by zooming out your image

Posted in: architecture, hdr, landscape, reflection, tutorial, warsaw|

HDR Photography Tip: Check for halos by zooming out your image

baseOne of the reasons why some photographers consider HDR photography evil are halo artifacts – phenomenon that appears between regions of very different luminosity like bright sky and dark mountain. You can see example of halo artifact in the image on the right. This is the lighter area around the trees and building.

Most of the time they are clearly visible but there are cases when there are so subtle than you can actually miss them (but sooner or later someone will find out). If you opened the image on the right in larger size, halo artifacts wouldn’t seem so bad.

There is very easy trick to make sure your photo is halo-free – just make your photo very small (either by zooming out in your HDR program or when previewing finished image) as halos tend to become more visible as you make the image smaller or look at it at the distance (so walking a few feet away of your computer will work equally as good).

If there are halo artifacts in your photos you might be interested in learning how to get rid of them. In the past I wrote several pieces of information on that subject:

Featured photo – Reflection of Royal Palace

For today I decided to share yet another sunset image from Warsaw… yes, another from my workshops 🙂 5 exposures at 1 stop spacing were required to capture whole dynamic range of this scene. At first it might seem its dynamic range isn’t very high as there is no longer sun in the frame but there was still a little glow in the sky that was very bright and using fewer exposures resulted in blown-out highlights.

What you might notice in this image is that there is plenty of dirt in the reflection. Unfortunately it is how it looks at the moment. Vistula river level is very low right now (after very dry winter, spring and summer) and there is also a lot of debris in it right now.

If you would like to create such photos yourself, make sure to read my HDR tutorial.

Old Town in Warsaw (more…)