Behind the Shutter – Aurora Ribbon


I decided that in order for this blog to actually be useful to people (i.e. get read) I am going to make daily posts breaking down images that I have taken and like.  The info covered is very experimental so feel free to leave comments about improvements.

The Photo: Aurora Ribbon Overhead

Aurora Ribbon Overhead

Why I Like it

First off, the Aurora Borealis (or Northern Lights for us simpler folks) is beautiful.  I have lived in Alaska my entire life and every time I see it, I stop what I am doing and watch for at least a few minutes.  There is just something so primal and unnatural about it at the same time.

This shot is one of my favorites because it because of the way it curves through the frame and the sharp contrast against the starry background.  The green to purple transitions of the aurora itself just make the shot.

Technical Junk – How to get a shot like this

You can’t, ha.

Just kidding but only a little.  Aurora changes so fast that I have been standing next to other photographers while it is going and we compare shots afterwards and sometimes it is hard to even tell we were there on the same night.

Equipment used

Canon 7D

Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8

Canon Remote Shutter

Manfrotto 322RC2 Ball Head

Slik Pro 700DX Tripod

Lexar 16GB Card

Note – if you buy any of this stuff from Amazon I do get some money.  But I promise I will never recommend anything that I would not personally use, in fact this is the stuff I use.  I buy all my stuff through either Amazon or B&H Photo, but not an affiliate member for them yet.  Enough business jibber jabber, back to the photo!

Camera Settings

ISO: 1600

F-Stop: 2.8

Exposure: 8 seconds

Camera angle: pointed nearly straight up

Time:  11:22 PM AKST 2011-03-01

Actually Helpful Tips

So you dream of making a shot like this?  Probably not but a lot of photographers would love to get some decent aurora in their portfolio so here is some stuff that will help.

First, Patrick Endres has a great article about how to shoot aurora that is way more detailed than what I am going to go into here, but seriously read his blog it is amazing.


You have to get away from city lights, period.  Also being really far North helps too.  Living in Fairbanks has that covered, all I have to do is drive away from town for less than an hour to capture these.  This particular shot was taken at Cleary Summit, or at least in the general vicinity of it anyways.


The best months for aurora are March and October.  The sun has cycles and we are currently in a low phase for a bit longer but solar flares will still put on a good show.  Any time after nautical twilight is your best bet as aurora is really really faint and will get blocked by any other light.  I usually have good luck anywhere from 10 pm to 2 am.  This means you should be there earlier than that, ideally set up during daylight so you can get foreground just right.

Check the Weather

You need to check the weather, and not just clouds but the aurora forecast.  Luckily Fairbanks is one of the worlds leading locations for aurora study.  Here are the three links that I use to figure out if it is worth it to go out.

GI Aurora Forecast – This is the several day out forecast for how good the aurora might be.  As accurate as normal weather forecasts in Alaska (not that great) but way better than nothing.  A link on the right side is the hour to hour update and that is much better.  I have it bookmarked on my smart phone so I can check it in the field.  Any number over 3 means visible to the naked eye and 4+ is when I grab my gear and head out.  For reference the scale is 0-9 where 0 is only visible in Barrow and 9 is visible in Texas.

Aurora Webcam – My secret weapon that apparently few people know about.  Oh well not secret now.  They have a North facing camera set up at the Poker Flats launch site that takes photos every five minutes.  Awesome for seeing if the aurora is visible at all.  Note: if you can’t see anything but stars and the snow is glowing bright green the aurora is overhead.

Fairbanks Clear Sky Chart – Props to Attilla Danko for making this site that pulls star gazing weather data and puts it into a nice picture so at a glance you can see the sky visibility for the next three days.  Cloud cover radar is often not available on the main weather sites so I use this instead.  It is more accurate than I would have guessed.  But it is for the Fairbanks area so the further you get from town the less accurate it gets.

The Shot

I arrived late, swearing much of the trip there as the aurora was ripping overhead while I was driving.  The night before the public pull offs had seven tour buses and about a half dozen private cars.  Since the aurora was supposed to be better this night I expected a zoo but there was no one their comparatively.  Which was fine by me.  Beautiful golden ribbons carved across the sky to the North and I have several decent photos of that too, saved for another post.  After ten minutes or so the gold faded and the green and purple started moving overhead.  Much of the sky from slightly South to North was covered with moderately bright glow.  Note, long exposures pick up light way better than your eyes so often the photos look better than being there in person.

I took a few shots straight up.  They were nicely framed with the aurora and various bright constellations as the moon was nearly invisible.  Then I cursed some more as I realized that I was standing directly underneath power lines.  After relocating about fifty feet I captured several shots but this is my favorite of this angle, mostly because of the amazing curvature that captures my eye.

After much less than thirty minutes it faded to nearly nothing and I drove on to one of my backup spots further along the Steese Highway to scout for future shoots and caught another flurry of activity an hour later on the way home.  That one only lasted about fifteen minutes then that was it for the night.  Aurora is as fleeting as it is amazing.

That’s it

You want to read more?  Jeez like this post wasn’t already four times longer than what I planned it to be.

If you have any questions put them in the comments or send me an email at: brian at this

Shameless Plug

I am trying to make photography my full time job and as such would really appreciate it if you like my work and helped spread the word.  Or better yet just buy some of my stuff at

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Photo Portfolio now online

I decided to go with SmugMug as my photo host due to all the cool stuff they do.  The integrated printing options are fantastic and the sites are very pretty and usable, even from the get-go.

My site is at  Quite a long url, but that’s what I get for not being able to come up with a better business name.

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Aurora Photographs 2011-02-15

Here are some of my most recent Aurora Borealis photographs.  Hope you enjoy looking at them as much as I enjoyed taking them.  Which might not be that hard as it was -45F at the time.

Posted in Alaska, Photography | Leave a comment

Beginning Photography: One Mans Journey into Madness

A Useful First Post, or How I Learned to Love the Internet

I decided my first post will be sort of useful.  I know, all my friends and family are shocked.  Anyways recently I was bitten by the photography bug.  And bitten hard.  It may be infected but will probably just wait and see if the swelling goes down.

(New reader warning: if my off the wall “humor” bugs you now, give up on this site entirely because it only goes downhill to pun-land from here)

Like most hobbies photography will take all the money you can throw at it, plus blood for good measure.  If you are reading further I am going to assume you want to get started in photography or at least see what it might take to do so.

What Kind of Photos Do You Want To Take?

Oh because the gear you need isn’t daunting or pricey enough, you have to bring different equipment to photograph different things.  Shocking I know.  Since I am new to this field much of this may or may not be paraphrasing Scott Kelby’s excellent book, Digital Photography.


Chena River in Fairbanks, Alaska Summer 2007

Chena River in Fairbanks, Alaska Summer 2007

Landscapes are fun, they are probably my favorite type of picture to take.  Something about a beautiful scenery evokes deep emotion in people.

Mandatory gear:

  • Camera body (if you are using a DSLR, if not your lens is built in)
  • Wide Angle Lens, 10-20mm is a pretty popular zoom lens for most people
  • Tripod – Don’t even think of shooting without one.

Helpful Gear:

  • Remote Camera Trigger – device that lets you take a photo without touching the camera and making it move (even super tiny vibrations add up)
  • Really nice tripod head – ball heads are very pricey and very good at holding your camera where you want it.
  • Knowledge of how to enable mirror lock – camera specific setting that most modern DSLR’s have.  Makes it so the little mirror inside stays in position instead of flipping up and down, again reduces vibration in your photos to make them tack sharp.
  • Telephoto lens – sometimes you can get cool landscape shots by cropping in really close and it is hard to do that without a telephoto (note: super close ups aka macro are their own section)



My Family posing after a long day of riding snowmachines, Spring Break 2009

Portrait shots are those of people, usually at a range slightly further than you would stand when talking.  99% of Facebook photos are these in one way or another.  Weddings are the other big source of these I would put those out of newbie range so if you want to start there find a good book and someone to train under.

Mandatory Gear:

  • Camera – duh.
  • Tripod – seriously, get used to carrying one around.  Pro’s shoot with them all the time and it is one of the reasons their shots look way different than most photos.
  • 100mm Prime Lens – this is a very common lens for portraits for a reason, it makes very good looking photos of people with minimal effort.  Plus you aren’t lens to nose with them when taking the shot.

Helpful Gear:

  • Fast Lens – The “speed” of a lens refers to how large the aperture is, or in less technical speak how big is the hole that light goes through.  A fast lens has a larger hole to let more light through in the same amount of time compared to a “slower” lens.  f/1.4 is a typical fast lens in the 50-100mm range.
  • Flash – not the one built into your camera, all those do is add redeye to people.  If you want good looking photos you need a better flash and to not point it straight at people.  Look for flash tips in a later post, probably some time after mine arrives in the mail.
  • Reflectors – these are shiny (yay) flat objects that you arrange to make the light go where you want.   They come in white (reflects the light), gold (makes it look like sunlight, helpful for outdoors shots), silver (cooler than gold) and others I am probably not aware of.
  • Strobes – also known as big ass external flashes that can be arranged where ever you want more light to come from.  Again, tons of variations here and check my helpful links page for some sites that can tell you way more than I can about them.
  • Backdrop – the cheesy sunset they made you sit in front of for your school photos.  I prefer a nice white one but that may be because mine is a white queen sized sheet that was bought on sale that gets taped to the wall.  If it isn’t in focus you can’t tell what it cost.

Macro (really close up)

Close up of potted plan

Close zoom of potted plant in my room

Macro are those really cool looking super close up photos of things that are normally small and unnoticed.  Since I don’t yet own a macro lens the best I could do was zoom in with my telephoto as close as it could and move the tripod forward until it couldn’t focus any closer.  For scale the trunk in the above picture is about a half inch in diameter.

Mandatory Gear:

  • Camera, Tripod, Remote Trigger – you can’t take decent macro shots with your camera wavering all over the place so don’t try unless you have the hand stability of a T-1000 robot.
  • Macro Lens – this is a special lens that will get you a 1:1 ratio of the object to you camera’s sensor (the camera’s retina).  Since your sensor is around 30mm to a side but your photo may be over a foot wide depending on the megapixels this gives you an enormous increase in size.  A fully framed house fly on an 18 MP camera would be something like 10 inches wide depending on printer settings.  These usually come in 100-180mm sizes.

Optional Gear:

  • Circular Flash – these are those flash rings that you see around the lens on certain (macro photographer’s to be specific) cameras.  It is so they can get even lighting on really close objects, where a normal higher mounted flash would miss part of the object because the lens itself would block the light.
  • The ability to not frighten small insects and animals – if you can talk to nature you might become one of the worlds greatest macro photographers.  Ant #347, what are you doing?!  Drag that leaf more to the left.  Perfect, hold that pebble!



View from our hotel in Cabo, Mexico December 2010

The only reason I included this in a separate section is because usually you want to travel somewhat lighter.  At least if you aren’t a pro on a photo shoot.  The one piece of equipment that will save you here is a nice zoom lens.  They are often in the 15-100mm range, which is what you use almost all the time.  For reference what your eye sees is very close to 50mm.  Buy a really nice lens that covers wide angle to telephoto and then you can save yourself the trouble of changing lenses when you are trying to have fun on vacation.

Selecting a System

This is what most people would call choosing your favorite brand, or vendor lock in depending on how pessimistic they are.  In the digital camera world right now the two biggest by far are Canon and Nikon.  Sony, Pentax and others still exist but not to the same degree.  If you are just starting out I would strongly urge you to go with either of the two largest for several reasons.

First reason is they are very well known and well supported.  The internet as well as your local stores will have all the main parts and obscure accessories you might need.  Plus the technical skills to deal with things that go wrong.  Additionally there are tons and tons of product reviews as well as third party lenses and other things.  The smaller the camera manufacturer the less likely the rest of the world makes stuff that will work for you.  That said you could possibly (key word is possibly) get good deals because you are not one of the herd.  But your pick on eBay won’t be nearly as plentiful.

I personally use Canon.  Not to say there is anything wrong with Nikon or any of the other brands (besides the fact that I loath them).  I started with a Canon Powershot point and click, then a SX20IS and now a Rebel T2i.  I chose this camera body for several reasons, the foremost being I have friends and family with Canon and being able to share gear to at least try them out is nice.  Since I am only familiar with Canon and Canon compatible products they are what will be covered from here on out.

My Current Gear

Camera Gear

My current camera gear, more on the way

  1. Canon 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS Kit Lens – came with the camera.  Not a bad lens but definitely the cheapest in my bunch.  It has image stabilization (reduces shake caused by you not using a tripod) which helps but the focal range is fairly small to be a one size fits all lens.
  2. Canon 50mm f/1.4 - Super fast lens, if you need to do low light photography this is a great lens.  Retails for around $400.  I love this lens, it is super light but not cheap feeling in the least.  Only flaw might be no image stabilization.  But it will still capture photos while you are walking into walls because it is so dark.
  3. Tokina 11-16 f/2.8 - My super wide angle lens for landscapes.  Takes in a massive field of view for getting anything and everything in the shot.  Fast lens works great in low light.  They are kind of hard to find due to manufacturing shortage right now.  I literally bought my local stores floor model because it was the last one anywhere in town.
  4. Lowepro Fastpack 350 - The bag I use when I have to carry all my gear at once.  Lowepro calls themselves the trusted original when it comes to camera bags I have never had a problem with any of theirs.  Comfortable enough to hike with but nestles all my gear oh so snuggly.
  5. Lowepro Rezo 170 - Smaller bag that holds my camera, two lenses and extra gear.  Looks small in this photo but it really isn’t.  Barely holds camera with telephoto equipped.  Has a weather shield and tons of pockets.
  6. Slik PRO700DX Tripod - aluminum beast, amazingly stable but for how much it weighs it damn well better be.  It is sturdy, easy to use and tall which is nice because hunching over a camera sucks.  An upgrade to carbon fiber is wanted but need to start selling photos first.  You might be able to see the reflective tape I put on the feet to make avoiding it in the dark a little easier.
  7. Manfrotto 322RC2 Head - that’s right, the head doesn’t come with the tripod in most cases.  This one is operated by squeezing the handle to move the camera.  The built in bubble level is nice and it works well, even with large glass (photographer word for lens).  Bonus, whatever liquid they use isn’t water because it didn’t freeze even at -45F.
  8. Canon Battery Charger – the one that came with my camera, works fine.  Haven’t needed to buy another due to my copious number of backup batteries.
  9. Blower – used to blow dust off your glass without getting spit on them.
  10. LensPen - has soft bristles and a scrubbing pad for getting those more stubborn spots off.  Indispensable in the field.  I would recommend having one in each bag as they are cheap and light.
  11. Extra len/body caps – If you have a lens mounted there will be spare caps.  I keep them in my bigger bag just in case but if I had to lighten up they would stay at home.
  12. Extra memory cards – I like Sandisk because they are cheap and they work.  Get at least class 6 if you take many shots in one burst, class 10 if you can afford them or you plan on shooting video.  These are my small backups but better than not having any extras.  Recommend 16GB or larger for a high megapixel camera.
  13. Flashlight- or a headlamp.  Headlamp might be better but I have one in my car so it isn’t pictured here.  You would be surprised how often you are setting up or taking down in the dark and extra light rarely hurts, unless you are undead.
  14. Snacks – I like Clif Bars (Blueberry Crisp and Peanut Butter are the best) because they taste good and store well.  Power bars have a good calorie to weight ratio so just keep one or two in your bag for when you get lost in the woods trying to find the perfect spot for that deep forest tree shot that puts Ansel Adam’s to shame.
  15. Canon’s Remote Trigger - overpriced but not really because you need this to take tack sharp photos.  Or just use the delayed photo option in your camera.  One nice thing is the button locks down so you can take long exposure shots (over 30 seconds) without having to actually hold the button down yourself.  I prefer the wired one to the wireless one because the wireless is IR and only works if you are in front of the camera, making it all but useless for landscape shots.
  16. Filters – First off let me say these will destroy your wallet if you let them.  Second for every lens you have buy a UV filter, put it on and keep in on forever.  They don’t do anything optically but they protect the front of your glass from stupid things like walking into trees and rocks being blown around in the wind.  Always cheaper to replace a filter then have the lens repaired.  This is the Hoya 58mm Intro Kit, it isn’t a bad middle of the road quality wise place to start.
  17. Batteries – you’ll notice my stack.  I have all different brands because the Canon ones are $40 a pop and the knock-offs are $13.  In my experience they work as well but we will see if they last as long.  But at one third the price they honestly don’t have to work all that well to pay for themselves.  Canon LP-E8, Cheaper but still totally functional LP-E8.
  18. Lens cleaner – no idea where this one came from, but get one and keep it clean and in your bag.
  19. Tamron AF 70-300mm f/4.0-5.6 SP Di VC USD - My telephoto lens and my current favorite.  It takes amazingly clear photos.  It has image stabilization so you can actually get clear shots at full zoom even hand holding it.  My only beef is on a T2i it doesn’t autofocus super quick but I’ve heard that on “real” camera bodies this isn’t an issue.  It also uses 62mm filters which means they don’t overlap with the much more common 58 or 77 ones.  I have negative things to say about this lens because I use it so much so don’t let that deter you.  It really does shoot as well as glass that costs over twice as much.
  20. Canon T2i Body – My baby and first true DSLR.  18 megapixels and a slew of functions that would make your eyes glaze over.  Seriously nice starter camera.
  21. Aftermarket Camera Strap – First this one doesn’t have Canon branded all over it.  Second it is neopreme which is both more comfortable and makes for a nice neck warmer in cold weather.  May need something different for the summer but really nice now.  Plus it has clips so it can be quickly removed, preventing it from becoming a wind sail when you are using a tripod.

So that is just the stuff that I currently have lying around but my wish list contains many items that you might find interesting depending on what you plan on doing.  Below is gear I have thoroughly researched and am probably drooling over and/or already order and is in the mail.  Not like “the check’s in the mail” mail, but like I have a tracking number and everything.

Recommended Gear – My Personal Picks

All Around Lenses

Canon 15-85mm f/3.5-5.6 IS USM - This is a very sharp lens with a nice focal range, going from super wide angle to telephoto.  It has image stabilization and USM, which is fancy Canon talk for really quiet and fast autofocus.  If you can’t afford the over one thousand dollar glass and want a single one to mount on your camera for an entire trip, this would be a good pick. *Update* I recently purchased this glass and have only taken it off when I am doing very specific other things.  It is as good as I had hoped and has an amazing ability to allow me to not change lenses all the freaking time.

Tamron AF 18-270mm f/3.5-6.3 Di II VC LD - This is a new lens but the reviews are looking very promising.  First of all the range is beyond enormous.  Second it is comically small and light for something that gives you an extreme telephoto reach.  Seriously, check out this review for some amazing pictures of what it can do.  If I didn’t have a telephoto lens I loved I would probably pick up this as my every day lens.

Canon 24-105mm f/4.0 IS USM - This is a Canon “L” (literally stands for Luxury) series lens.  You can tell by the red ring around the front.  That means you get the best they can make.  The red ring might also symbolize how empty your bank account is now.  I really really want this lens but that won’t be happening any time soon.  The photo quality is absolutely gorgeous.  Did I mention I want one?

Macro Lens

Canon 100mm Macro f/2.8 USM - There are two versions of this lens, this one which is a few years older and a newer one with image stabilization.  The new one is nearly double the price and reviews haven’t been kind to that difference.  The other one is also L glass but this one takes great photos despite lacking the mighty red ring of power.  When not in macro mode it can double duty as a good portrait lens, being a good focal distance for that.  This is the very next lens in my queue to buy.

Filters are a fairly large subject that I was going to add to this post, but it is already pretty massive so that will be for next time.  Until next time, go out and get some shutter time!

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