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The Aurora

I've been wondering for a while whether to start keeping a bit of a blog here. Updating the site with new photos is great, but part of what makes photography so fun for me is the stories that go with the images. My thinking here is that every now and then I'll write up the story about a new image, or if it's been a while one of my older ones. A bit on what I like about the shot, how it came about, and maybe a little on the technical considerations that go on behind the scenes.

Last night serves as a great example of what I have in mind. I was at the pub with a dear friend, Alden, and we were enjoying catching up on life and PhD research. Recently I've been trying to get more photos of everyday activities. Conversations at the office, time with friends over dinner, hanging out at the pub, the day to day activates that make life what it is. I've also been making an effort to get some nice shots of friends. Working on a PhD is a great challenge and a real privilege, but what makes it bearable is the people you go through it with. With that in mind I snapped a couple quick shots of Alden as we turned our attention to the mocha porter's at hand.

From a technical point of view this wasn't a massively challenging shot. I wanted a fast enough shutter speed to keep Alden from blurring (1/60th of a second), and a shallow enough depth of field to leave no doubt that he is the focus of the shot (f2.8). Keeping ISO low is always a priority, but recently I've been happy to let that slide in order to capture the sense of a moment. With that in mind my ISO was fairly high here (1600). I've found that this isn't a massive problem so long as I don’t bump the exposure or shadows up when post processing. I'll write a post at some point soon on the camera and gear I'm using and a bit on the journey I've been on from a gear point of view, but for those interested right now, I'm shooting with a Leica M-P (type 240) and a 35mm Summicron ASPH f2 lens.

So back to yesterday evening. While Alden popped off to the bathroom, I pulled out my phone and took a quick peek at Facebook. My news feed was abuzz with reports that the Aurora Borealis was visible from town. Now I've been in St Andrews on and off for nearly a decade now and have never seen the Northern lights from here. In honesty, I've never really seen the Northern Lights at all. So we were not going to miss this opportunity. We downed the last of our drinks and headed north down towards the West Sands so we could get away from the lights of town. The sky was amazing! Greens, Magentas, even hints of Red. There was a sort of carnival atmosphere as people streamed out of houses and apartments and made their way down to the waters edge to catch a glimpse of the light show. Clearly we were not the only ones who had checked facebook. Frustratingly I was without my tripod so had to make do with natural alternatives. Shooting at night is always a challenge. Slow shutter speeds, high ISO, the rotation of the earth, moving subjects, there are so many factors that go into getting a clean exposure once the sun's gone down. I realized the best bet I'd have to keep the camera steady was to plop it in the sand... Not an ideal scenario for a Leica, but the photo has to come first.

After a few false starts I sorted out my settings and started firing away. 8 Second exposures gave me enough light. f4 gave me some more flexibility while retaining some sharpness, and ISO 1000 (for the most part, though for a few I did come down to ISO500 while opening up to f2). The results astounded me.

The wet sand provided a stunning reflective film for the sky and with the camera right at ground level the images really were making themselves. I really just stood there, clicked the shutter occasionally, and kept a wary eye out for rouge waves washing up the beach.

I threw Alden in front of the camera and asked him to hold still. Again, it took a couple tries but we got it in the end.

As we watched the sky dance and swirl overhead hints and streaks of red and magenta started to sneak out in the northeast. I realigned the camera in the sand and kept shooting.

After a good half hour on the beach, with fingers freezing and concern for my camera mounting we decided to call it a night and head in. Of course I couldn't help myself from snapping a couple more exposures on the way home.

Alden suggested I try a few at the Swilcan Bridge on the 18th of the Old Course. It would have been really helpful to have had a tripod here as the perspective from the ground was less than ideal.

And one final shot looking back on the Swilcan and the Links club house.

By this point the Aurora was staring to wane so I shoved my hands deep into my jacket pockets to warm up and headed home looking forward to seeing what I'd captured.

With the RAW files loaded into lightroom I excitedly applied a few presets and exported a few images to facebook before turning in for the night. Post-processing is a fascinating topic (I think), and I always enjoy engaging in discussions on the ethics of image manipulation. I'm certainly not opposed to photoshop or lightroom edits, and have never considered an image finished until I've worked on it a bit, but I'll save that subject for a later post.

For now I'll share a before and after of one of my favourites from the evening. First we have the image as a RAW file straight out of the camera, below we have the processed image after some work in Lightroom. I'll leave them here without comment for the time being and let you decide for yourself what you feel and think about it all.

An interesting side note here is the conflicted response some people have to photos of the Northern Lights. While they do seem to be generally enjoyed, there is a curious side effect the images have on some viewers. Some people seem to feel a real sense of disappointment that they didn't see the lights, or at least didn't see them as they are portrayed in photos.

I read a great article on just this issue a few months ago:

Essentially, the writer/photographer, Gareth McCormack, concludes that our eyes just cannot see the Aurora as well as a camera can. So even looking at my RAW file as shown above doesn't show you what it actually looked like last night. Certainly it's a lot closer to the reality of the moment, but even it is an enhancement over what my eye saw as I looked North last night. Again, I'll leave the reflection on the ethics of altering such an image up to you. Maybe I should have left the RAW file as is, or potentially edited it to look even less vibrant or striking. But, for the time being I'm happy with the final result. Feel free to let me know what you think about this in the comments though.

I know it's a somewhat anti-climactic place to finish the post, but in some respects there is a real sense of anti-climax once you've finished with a photo. It's behind you and in a way doesn't matter any more. I really don't think there's any resting on your laurels with photography. What matters is the next photo, and you haven't taken that yet. So you pick up your camera, get out there, and keep shooting.

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