Tales from the Northwest Territories – Bucket List – The Northern Lights

Aurora dances over Prosperous Lake
Aurora dances over Prosperous Lake

Nothing short of a divine experience, the lights play across the sky, dancing and writhing, expanding and contracting, undulating color changes. The stars shine so brightly, the Big Dipper pops from the sky, the Pleiades twinkle like I’ve never seen and the Milky Way flows a river of stars across the sky.

We had 4 wonderfully clear nights to experience the Aurora in Yellowknife, NWT. I look forward to more Aurora experiences next year. My friend Rod Barbee and I plan to run another workshop up there in September 2015. Let me know if you’re interested. You won’t regret it!!!

Not to mention there’s great fall color in the boreal forest, a couple of lovely waterfalls and even some wildlife sightings; we saw wolves, otters, beaver, eagles and fox.

Shooting the aurora is relatively easy, but does require a thorough set up. I highly recommend How to Photograph the Northern Lights . This book explains shooting this phenomenon in plain terms for all levels of the DSLR user.

Aurora swirls above
Aurora swirls above
Milky Way with aurora
Milky Way with aurora
Dancing lights
Dancing lights



Tales from the Northwest Territories – The Man Who Cried Bear

Bear Silhouette

Danny cried bear and our fearless leaders bounded off the road in our all-terrain minivans. Everyone quickly focused on the beast standing across a pond. It patiently waited there unmoving, with it’s mouth slightly open, gazing. Frame after frame was eagerly shot as everyone vied for position and tried to keep quiet. A few minutes into the shoot, we began to wonder why it had not moved a hair. Shooting stopped and images were reviewed close-up. I guess the fact it was a target of wood answered that question. Exclamations of amusement broke from the group as we noticed our folly. A grand joke upon us and much ribbing for the son of Badger – but he took it in stride. It was a good spot. At least my Bison silhouette was real, if no less elusive.

12 tips for Practicing Your Bird Flight Photography


Bird portraits are rewarding to photograph, but once you have good portraits it’s time to move onto action. Flight photography is dynamic and exciting, but technically a bit more of challenge. So where do you start?

  1. PRACTICE – In order to get good at anything you need to practice, practice, practice. In order to practice flight photography you need a pool of several birds that will fly. Song birds are not a great choice, they are small and really fast. I highly recommend a trip to the beach to practice on seagulls. There are a lot of them usually, they fly often, are a good size and don’t move terribly fast.
  2. EQUIPMENT –  I assume you have a SLR camera with a long lens, something in the order of 400mm or longer. Fixed lenses with 1.4x or 2x extender can get you a good start. A sturdy tripod with fully maneuverable head that is taller than you supports the weight of the lens and allows free movement to pan with a flying bird.
  3. CONDITIONS – You want to shoot for a blue sky day with lots of light. Morning and evening light are prettier but you need a good amount of light to get fast shutter speeds. I also don’t want to shoot against a bland white sky. Avoid windy days as the vibration in the lens and tripod can lead to lack of sharpness.
  4. SHUTTER SPEED – I prefer a shutter speed of at least 1/1000th of a second. You can never have too fast of a shutter speed to stop action.
  5. ISO – adjust as needed to get faster shutter speeds, but try to keep as low as possible for quality.
  6. APERTURE –  You do not need a high aperture for flying birds, I usually shoot around F4 – F5.6. If you have multiple birds and a lot of light up to F8 sometimes.
  7. EXPOSURE – What to do about exposure? Go to manual, set the exposure for the sky and you should be good to go. Typically plus 1 should do it. Make sure you don’t blow out the highlights on a white bird. Try to shoot the bird in even light or slight side light, avoid shooting into the sun for now. As long as the lighting conditions don’t change, clouds moving across the sun for example, the exposure shouldn’t change regardless if you have a dark bird in a blue sky or a white bird in a blue sky.
  8. FOCUSING – I tend to center focus my flying birds, as I find the center focus point to be faster and more accurate than the side points. Several cameras allow you to cluster a set of focus points, this allows for more accuracy over a wider area.
  9. AUTO FOCUS MODE – Continuous shooting combined with AI Servo or AF-C enable the camera to track a moving subject better.
  10. IS/VR – many long lenses have 2 or more IS or VR modes. Read the instructions that came with your lens to see which mode fits your shooting situation.
  11. WHITE BALANCE – set for existing lighting conditions.
  12. REVIEW – review images as you shoot and make any adjustments to settings.

So head to the beach and enjoy shooting those gulls, they can still make for some great shots!


Tips for shooting in Cold weather

Snow laden trees - Yellowstone
Snow laden trees – Yellowstone

Well it’s a frosty one out today! I enjoy shooting all times of year and I need to make sure I’m prepared. So here are a few tips for shooting in cold weather.

Cold weather for me is below freezing. Most cameras will work fine in this weather but the colder it gets the harder it is on the gear.

  1. Keep your batteries warm. The colder it is the faster the batteries lose power. I usually use a hand or foot warmer and rubber band or tape it over the battery compartment. The spare battery I keep under my coat close to my body.
  2. Check to see if your equipment has weather sealing. Many cameras & lenses today are weather sealed, but many are not. Weather sealing prevents moisture from getting inside the working area of a camera or lens. Moisture can ruin the electronics or cause residue that compromises image quality.
    • If you do not have weather sealing on your gear, put it in a sealed plastic bag, remove as much air as possible and place desiccant or rice in the bag to absorb moisture as you move it between climates. Letting it warm up or cool down slowly, over 30 minutes, is the best bet.
  3. When moving the camera from warm to cold or cold to warm, leave it in your camera bag and let it cool off or warm up slowly, usually around 30 minutes. Frankly I just leave everything in the backpack and remove the batteries and media cards prior to moving between environments.
  4. Make sure you are comfortable. Frozen hands and toes will impair your creative abilities and enjoyment of shooting in cold weather. Here’s a list of my cold weather gear:
    • hand and foot warmers
    • multiple wicking layers of clothing
    • ski pants for wallowing around in the snow
    • boots rated for cold weather
    • a wool hat
    • mittens or fingerless gloves over a thin layered glove that covers my fingers
    • lots of kleenex or handkerchief, frozen nose discharge is gross gentlemen
    • gators – keeps deep snow out of your boots
    • extra pair of socks in case they get wet
    • yaktrax for gripping on icy/snowy ground
    • insulated thermos for the hot beverage of your choice
    • a towel to wipe moisture off gear
    • plastic baggies to protect gear if it gets really wet out


Happy New Year and Happy shooting!

Directional Light for portraits

Light is paramount to your images. Understanding light will improve your craft. Today we’ll talk a little about the direction of the light. Straight on frontal light often results in an evenly lit boring subject. You are taking a 3 dimensional subject and rendering it 2 dimensional in a picture. The last thing you want to do is make the subject more 2 dimensional by erasing any shadows that give depth and modeling to the subject.

On camera flash is one source of frontal light. This straight on light washes the subject out and erases any depth or dimension to the subject. Also using the old technique of placing the sun behind you and having your subjects stare into the sun. Not only is there no depth to the subject, but they are cranky and squinting.

Frontal flash
Frontal flash

So work on finding ways to change the direction of the light. When outdoors find an overhang and face the subject so the light comes in at an angle, usually around 30-60 degrees to give depth to the face.

Under bridge to create side light
Under bridge to create side light

Get a flash for your camera with a rotating head. This way you can bounce the light off of a wall or ceiling. Use window light and adjust the subject so it is lighting the side of their face.

Side window light
Side window light
Side window light only
Side window light only

Observe how the light strikes your subject. Look at portraits made by professionals and see how the light is striking the subject. All of this will teach you to see better and subsequently make better images.

Tips for Shooting Panoramas


Creating panoramas is fun and easy with digital technology, but you do need to follow a few simple rules to get the best results. Some digital point and shoot cameras have a panorama shooting mode. This is great as it shows you how the images overlap. However SLR camera users have to ‘eyeball’ the overlap.

  1. To start use a tripod. This keeps the camera steady, level, improves technique and will give you better quality.
  2. Use a fixed focal length the entire time. Don’t zoom in and out, keep it fixed. A fixed lens is best but not everyone has one, so be careful with zoom and keep it fixed.
  3. Overlap your images about 50%.
  4. Shoot vertically, not horizontally. I know this sounds odd, but you need to give yourself a lot of space around the top and bottom of the main subject. When you merge the images into a panorama using software such as Photoshop, the merged image will curve some. So you need to give plenty of space on the top and bottom so the final image will include the entire subject.

    panorama raw
    Merged image before cropping
  5. Camera settings need to be consistent between shots.
  • So set a white balance, don’t use auto white balance as it might change between images.
  • Shoot in manual mode to prevent the exposure settings from changing. Even if you shoot in aperture priority the exposure might change as you move across your scene.
  • You can make white balance and exposure adjustments in the computer after the fact, but it’s much easier and saves you time to get it right in the camera.

Next time I’ll show how to composite the panorama in Photoshop CS 6 and PSE 12.

Happy Thanksgiving!



Nature Photography Workshop this weekend

Lewis Ginter Botanical Gardens is hosting a one day workshop filled with nature photography seminars this Saturday.

For more information visit: http://www.lewisginter.org/events/event_detail.php?event_id=1210

The lineup includes a number of local photographers including Ben Greenberg, Lynda Richardson, Bill & Linda Lane and more.

So check it out if you have an interest in nature photography.

I’ll be joining the group next year, so save the date September 27th, 2014.

Catching Up


sunset Albemarle
Sunset Albemarle – December 2007

I continuously preach to my students to keep up with their catalogs. Do a shoot, download, backup, organize, keyword and edit the good ones. Get it done! Keep up or you’ll end up with thousands of images sitting listlessly on your computer with no way to find them. Well we’re all lazy to some degree! I’m no exception, I have images going back years that I haven’t cataloged yet. Usually shoots that were not very exciting or the shoot was so big – 1000’s of images that I identified some of the good ones but haven’t had the fortitude to go through them all. So they sit.

So how do you keep up with your images? HAVE A GOAL

  1. Social Media – I do much better if I have a goal for the images in mind. Sharing on Social media is a great goal. It’s fun to share your images and you feel good from all of the responses and ‘Likes’ you get! You might even have someone ask to buy a print.
  2. Make a Gift – If that doesn’t stimulate you then how about a gift for someone? Christmas is coming. Make a photo book for someone or cards or a calendar of your favorites. Images are a personal gift and can brighten someones day.
  3. Join a Group – Having images for critique is very stimulating. Joining a local camera club such as Charlottesville Camera Club or the Charlottesville Photography Intiative. Sharing images with others and talking about it in person is a great way to improve your photography and get them organized!
  4. Contests – There are a lot of local contests, both in the camera clubs mentioned above, through PEC – Piedmont Environmental Council and Virginia Wildlife. Local groups often sponsor contests with prizes and in return they might use your image and you get to see it printed or up in ‘lights’.
  5. Donations – Many nonprofits are looking for donations to raise money or decorate their spaces. Another feel good and tax deductible goal for your images.

Don’t get overwhelmed by the backlog! Today I found a small folder of images from a sunset back before Christmas in 2007. Yes I did say some were pretty old! Here are a few of them, not bad for 6 years ago!

Slowly start chipping away at the backlog, but foremost don’t let the new shoots languish. Try to catalog them as soon as possible and share, share, share! It’ll brighten your day as well as someone else.

PS – If you don’t have a cataloging program I highly recommend Lightroom, inexpensive and relatively easy to use. I have a class starting on October 15th at PVCC that covers it from the beginning.


Zoom Blur

Zoom blur is a funky technique where you zoom the lens while the shutter is open. This gives a funneling effect. You should choose a subject that is symmetrical or has a strong point that you want to zoom into. This will be the only clear part of the image. The surrounding area will blur down to the point.

Make sure you have a relatively uniform background with texture. You need to have something that will give the streak effect when you zoom.

I typically use a shutter speed around 1/15th of a second or slightly slower in shutter priority. Aperture doesn’t matter so much except to get a good exposure.

Courtesy Carmen Lynch

A tripod is very helpful as it allows you to keep a steady focus on the subject while you quickly zoom the lens, usually wide to telephoto.

Some of my students have come up with pretty cool effects!

Courtesy Phuong Opper

Lightroom 5 Beta

Lightroom 5 beta has made it’s debut last month. This newest version has several interesting upgrades to the develop module. First is the ability to work on images while they are offline. In the past if you disconnected a hard drive the images would come up in the catalog with ? Marks indicating they were offline. Now you can generate a lower resolution DNG file either during download or after the images are imported. Then while you are traveling you can continue editing them. Once you reconnect to the originals everything sync’s up.

Another improvement is to the clone/healing brush. Now instead of just discrete circular corrections you can drag across the defect like you can in Photoshop. It still doesn’t offer the precision of Photoshop but it’s a big improvement over the LR4’s tool.

Lightroom 5 introduces the Radial Tool. This offers the same slider corrections available under the brush tool but offers a more global way to make selections and you have the option to invert the selection.

Finally, there is a new perspective correction tool. Under the lens correction tab is the Upright tool. It will automatically correct an image for vertical and horizontal distortion often found in architectural photos. You can get these results by tinkering with the manual controls but this is pretty quick and impressive for a smart filter.

There are a number of other smaller upgrades, but none are set in stone yet. DPReview gives a good overview of the new upgrades at:


I look forward to the new upgrade and plan to get it once it’s out. These new options are certainly an improvement.