The good life

What draws me out into nature is that once you are out there, nothing else matters. It is just you and the surroundings. After coming back from my trip to Lapland I went through my photos and this one tells exactly this story. It shows a little pond which is surrounded by summer green. Simplicity – the good life. At least for me 🙂

More to come from Lapland but as all good things, they take time. Especially being a stay-at-home dad 🙂

Copyright: Thomas Kast

Surrounded by summer green

Fox ­fires – an Aurora Borealis guide IV: Photographing auroras

Part I: Introduction and terms
Part II: Expectations
Part III: Preparation is everything
Part V: Links

If you see the aurora borealis for the first time, there is a good chance you will be so amazed and thrilled that your photos won’t be what you hoped for. With any bad luck you’ll have the settings figured out just when best part of the show is over. Reading through this section should help you to be ready for aurora photos.

Photo equipment
– Tripod: To photograph at night you will need a tripod to minimize camera shaking. Handheld aurora photos will not be what you want.
– camera: your camera should have the option of manual focus (see next paragraph why) and have a manual mode where you can adjust aperture, exposure time and ISO separately.
– lens: you need a fast lens (wide aperture, small f-number like f/2.8 or faster. F/4 is still ok) to make the most of the little light available. Also, auroras often stretch all over the horizon. To capture a big part of it, you want to have a wide-angle lens (24mm or wider. In some rare cases 50mm is ok)
– remote control: to further minimize camera shaking, take a remote control with you for taking pictures without touching the camera. Many cameras have a delayed shutter mode (1sec..20sec) which also helps to reduce shaking.
– spare batteries: in cold weather your batteries will discharge quite fast, so it is good to have at least one extra with you. Using hand warmers you can revive the batteries to get the last bit of energy out of them (tip from Jake D., thanks buddy).
– sun hood: at times you will be in damp weather or it will be windy. Moisture can be a problem then for your lens. One way to solve this is putting the sun hood onto the lens.

Manual focus
If you are in a dark place to watch auroras your camera‘s auto focus will not work because there isn’t enough light. So you need to turn off auto focus and focus manually using the manual focus ring! To get e.g. trees or mountains on the horizon sharp, you need to focus on infinity.

Copyright: Thomas Kast

Focus ring on the lens

To achieve this manually there are a few options:
– some focus rings have a hard stop at infinity. Usually you will find the sharpest image by turning the manual focus ring all the way until it stops and then turn it just a tiny bit back. To be sure, do that in day light and make some test shots. Then remember the right position or mark it.
– other focus rings do not have a hard stop, so what you can do is to focus on a bright star using live view. Live view means seeing the scene you try to capture through your cameras display. Many cameras have that option and you can zoom into that picture. Try to find a bright star and point your camera towards it. Via live view, zoom into the display to see that star as big as possible. Once there, turn the manual focus ring until you find that star to be at its sharpest.
– say you can’t find a star. Point your camera towards a rock, tree or anything which is about 6-8 meters away. Then switch on your flashlight and point it at the same object. With a strong flashlight you may be able to use your cameras auto-focus. Once the image is sharp, turn off auto-focus and don’t touch the focus ring. If the light is not strong enough, follow the above steps via live view.
– if you don’t have live view your only choice is to do some trial shots and zoom into your shot and see if the photo is sharp as you wish. If not, adjust and start over until you find the best result. What you also can do is use the auto-focus during daytime, then switch of your camera and place it carefully in the camera bag. This works sometimes but is certainly not the best way.
It’s difficult for me to tell you which method is the best for you without having your camera in my hands. So get familiar with your camera settings and be ready to try out some of these. To do that you – of course – don’t need auroras, so you can do it at home beforehand.
One more thing, if you have a zoom lense and you do zoom, you may need to re-adjust your focus. Always check your images via the display if they are sharp.

Camera settings
Photographing auroras is all about finding the best combination of aperture, ISO and exposure time. All three are dependable on each other. In the end it’s up to you to experiment and come up with the best result.

Copyright: Thomas Kast

Camera display with 10 sec exposure, apterture f/4.0 and ISO 1600

With short exposure times you can ‘freeze’ more details of the aurora. The faster your lense is (wider open, small f-number) the more light gets into the camera. This will allow for shorter exposure times to capture more aurora details.
High ISO settings also allows for shorter exposure times and/or wider aperture (smaller f-number). But for many cameras high ISO results in a lot of noise.
Let’s say the following settings result in a good image:
Aperture 4.0 | ISO 800 | Exposure time 10sec
If you want to shorten your exposure time to freeze some aurora action, there are two things to do: Aperture to 2.8 or ISO to 1600. Both will cut the exposure time in half to 5sec.
If you want less noise you can do one of these: Aperture to 2.8 or exposure time to 20s. Again, both allow you to set your ISO to 800.

Moon phases
The moon light will change the nature of your capture photo. To get the best mix of landscape and auroras a quarter to half of the moon should be visible. This will give enough light to capture the landscape and still be dark enough to preserve a lot of details and colors of auroras.
At Full Moon the landscape will be very bright and photos will look like daylight photos, which can be very cool. Auroras however will suffer as many details will be overpowered by the moon light.
At New Moon your camera will see all the details of the auroras, you’ll love the photos. Capturing the landscape nicely is a struggle. It’s so dark you will have to push the ISO up and be ready for noise in the photo.

Copyright: Thomas Kast

No moonlight in total darkness.

When photographing in a group
Having led quite a few groups to shoot aurora photos, I’ve seen some ‘actions’ which wasn’t liked by others. Many are so excited to take aurora photos, they don’t think about anyone around them. For example:
– to see the camera dial, some use a flashlight and point to the camera. That often means it’s also pointed into the scene and so destroys someone else’s photos. Pointing the flashlight backwards near the camera will provide enough light. Also it is polite to ask other if it’s ok to switch on the flashlight.
– when changing the place of the camera, some just walk in front of other cameras or even place their camera right in front of someone else. Walking behind other cameras does the trick. If there is not much space, speak up and tell the others what you do. In that way they’ll be ready.

Copyright: Thomas Kast

Don’t point your flashlight like this

Copyright: Thomas Kast

Group of photographers next to each other

Some more things
– unless you shoot in RAW and post-process on your desktop or laptop, you want to get the right white balance at night. If you have only presets (sun, shadow, etc) try them out and see which works best. If your camera can adjust Kelvins, go somewhere cool, below 5k.
– when you check your image at the cameras display in the dark, photos will appear brighter compared to watching them on your screen in daylight. Use the histogram and make sure the right end is at least somewhere near the middle. If all light is on the very left your photo is most likely too dark.
– at times you can see star trails in photos of the night sky. Sometimes it is wanted and sometimes not. To avoid star trails all you have to do is follow the ‘500 rule’. Divide 500 by your focal length and the result is the maximum exposure time. For example, let’s say you use 16mm full frame, the maximum exposure time without star trails will be 30 seconds. One more example, for 16mm on a cropped frame the maximum will be 20 seconds. (16mm x 1,5 crop factor / 500).

Copyright: Thomas Kast

Unwanted star trails in a 30 sec exposure at 24mm

Hopefully this will help you to get some decent aurora photos. In the last part of this guide you will find a list of useful and interesting links.

Fox ­fires – an Aurora Borealis guide II: Expectations

Part I: Introduction and Terms

To have a great aurora experience, it is good to have realistic expectations. Not living in a place where auroras are visible may lead to wrong assumptions. To give you a better picture of what to expect, I will go through some common questions and answer them. As you read through, you will understand that there are many uncertainties in predicting auroras.

Are the colors as strong as in the pictures I’ve seen?
Not often, the colors of auroras are usually much weaker to the human eye. There is one big difference between a camera and our eyes. If we look at the sky for five seconds, the human eye sees every moment once. We may remember them in our brain, but our eye can see only one moment a time and erases the one before. If the camera ‘looks’ for five seconds at the sky, it adds all moments together and creates one image from all those single moments. Therefore the colors are mostly stronger in the image opposed to how we see them.
Trying to photograph auroras in its natural, pale colors and strength would most of the time result in a black landscape because there just isn’t enough light.

Copyright: Thomas Kast

How the camera sees things (developed RAW)

Copyright: Thomas Kast

Here I tried to reconstruct how it really looked like

Are there always multiple colors of auroras in the sky?
No, every night is different. Green is the most common, followed by purple, red and blue. Strong green aurora arcs have often a bit of white/purple at the lower end.

Copyright: Thomas Kast

Nothing but green

Copyright: Thomas Kast

Very colorful aurora during geomagnetical storm

Why are there different colors?
Colors appear when gas in our atmosphere is excited by incoming solar wind. Oxygen then can produce the common green color and also the red in high altitudes. The color depends how excited the gas is. Nitrogen is responsible for blue. At times these colors mix and we can see purple, white, etc.

Copyright: Thomas Kast

Common green with red high above

Copyright: Thomas Kast

Green with white and purple at the lower edge

In what shapes do auroras appear?
Shapes are determined by the strength and speed of the solar wind. Depending where you are to view auroras, some shapes may be more common than others.
Let’s go through some of the common shapes and start with the relatively calm ones, arcs, needles and curtains:
Slow, weak wind might create ‘only’ a very pale, green arc on the horizon which barely moves at all, just like a rainbow. With speed and strength picking up, an arc may be higher up and even travel all the way over the sky. There are also times when you can see multiple arcs, one almost above you and others towards the horizons).
The arc can turn into a curtain with needles rising high up in the sky and travel fast through the arc. I like to call this a curtain because it reminds me of a stage curtain in a theater. Usually I imagine someone is at one end of that curtain making waves.

Copyright: Thomas Kast

An arc stretching over the horizon with some needles.

Copyright: Thomas Kast

A curtain made of countless needles

Copyright: Thomas Kast

A green curtain over the frozen Baltic Sea

Sometimes there is no curtain, arc or needles but a fog-like glow filling half the sky.
Let’s go to the crazy stuff now, spirals, coronas and flickering
Spirals travel from the low horizon upwards and dance in curves. This is often happening with strong solar wind and over in just a few minutes. If the auroras are very strong and you are lucky, you can see a corona opening up right above in the sky. Countless rays spread out in multiple colors. This usually lasts less than a minute. After a corona there is often a kind of flickering, where parts of the sky above are randomly lit up and switched off within split-seconds.

Copyright: Thomas Kast

Spiral shaped aurora with twilight

Copyright: Thomas Kast

Corona explosion in green and purple

Can I see auroras right after sunset?
No, auroras will be visible only once the sun is about 10 degrees below the horizon. Before that, the daylight is still too strong. In autumn there can be twilight at the horizon and auroras in the sky.

Copyright: Thomas Kast

Auroras with twilight on the horizon

Are the lights dancing in the sky all night long?
Not usually, this depends on the strength and density of the particles flowing into our atmosphere. However, a long-lasting strong CME or big coronal hole can produce a show that lasts throughout the night and longer.

Can I see Northern lights every night?
No, it all depends on what is happening on the sun and solar wind leaving. If the activity on the sun is high, there can be auroras for many nights in a row. When the sun is quiet, there can be a number of nights without any auroras.

Can auroras be seen through clouds?
Yes and no, it depends on the thickness of clouds. Through a thin layer of clouds, strong auroras can be seen easily. If the sky is filled with thick clouds there is usually no chance to see any auroras.

Copyright: Thomas Kast

Auroras visible through openings in the clouds

A CME erupted, when can I expect to see auroras?
That depends on a few things. First of all, for auroras to show up, that CME must travel towards Earth or at least near it. In case it does flow towards Earth, impact is usually around 24-72 hours afterwards. However, sometimes there may be no impact recorded at all.
The estimate for time of impact not always correct, sometimes it is earlier, sometimes later. The main reason for it is speed as we can’t know for sure how much the solar wind slows down while travelling.

I read online that there should be Northern lights tonight, is that a guarantee?
By now you have probably learned that there are no guarantees. The best way to know is to go outside and look up. Of course there are tools online which can help you. These include webcams showing the night sky, magnetograms showing how the situation of Earth’s magnetic field and pages showing the expected kp-index or auroral oval. The last part of this guide consists of a list of links.

We are at the end of the second part, expectations.
Continue reading:
Part III: Preparation is everything
Part IV: Photographing auroras
Part V: Links

Juggling the plates

This year has been great so far, but also very challenging. One challenge comes to mind in particular: time. Lately I feel like the guy in the circus trying to juggle many plates at once.

There is my family, friends and day job. Since June I am home with my son – quite a ‘day-job’ that is! And of course I do take pictures and videos. Not too many plates to juggle, right? Well, that last plate sounds simple but others doing the same know that there are many things many others may not think of. For example: shooting daytime and nighttime photos, shooting videos, shooting time-lapse, processing photos and videos, archiving files, sharing photos, driving to shooting locations, scouting new locations, cleaning my gear, discuss with clients, discuss with print labs, bookkeeping, updating social pages, writing blog posts and on top of all these I am trying to get my new website up and running.

Last night I almost finished my website, only some small things have to be done, so this week it should be ready. The last puzzle piece of it – the web shop for prints and canvas – will be ready next month.

My family and friends said my juggling of the plates should include sleep and rest as well. Since a few days I couldn’t agree more. With clouds and rain during the past nights, I couldn’t look for auroras but got some much needed sleep. Miraculously I feel now much better..

I guess we are all jugglers and for many of us time is one of the biggest challenges.

PS: Despite all the talk about time, being out and shooting good photos requires one thing: Not to be in a hurry. Here is a 7,5 minute exposure shot 🙂

Copyright: Thomas Kast

Tranquility – reflections of sunset colors and clouds in this lake.

Goodbye winter, hello spring!

All leaves have fallen from the trees. Fields and roads are covered by snow. Almost all water is frozen; lakes, rivers and even the Baltic Sea. Birds migrate to the South and other animals are in hibernation, sleeping for months. Days are short and the long, dark nights are sometimes lit by Northern lights. That is winter here in Oulu – for me.

Then, at some point, the river ice starts to melt. The water is getting stronger, washing away big blocks of ice. The silence is broken and from far away one can hear water rushing down rapids. After months of white everywhere, it is a powerful experience, to both ears and eyes. That’s when spring has arrived – for me.

Copyright: Thomas Kast

Ice blocks surrounded by rapids, Koitelinkoski.

Yes, spring is finally here. A few weeks back we still had about half a meter of snow. All melted away within a few days of rain and temperatures of +10C and more. Shortly after that, the ice layers of the many rivers started to break free. The strong current pushed ice blocks out of the riverbed and along narrow points, ice damns built up quickly causing floods.

Copyright: Thomas Kast

Ice block at Koitelinkoski

Last weekend a friend and I visited Koitelinkoski, a place not far from Oulu. Small islands and rapids lay here in the river Kiiminkijoki. It is always beautiful but at this time of the year, it’s a breathtaking sight. So much water everywhere and ice blocks sitting on rocks. On top of that, slow sunsets and bright nights make great light for many hours.

Copyright: Thomas Kast

Enjoying the fantastic view at Koitelinkoski

If you ever have a chance to visit Koitelinkoski, go there for a picnic and grill some sausages over an open fire. And hey, don’t forget your camera.


Quick tip: If you want to get photos with silky smooth water, bring your tripod. The longer your exposure time is, the smoother the water will be. Choose smallest ISO and smallest aperture possible (highest f-number), then adjust the exposure time until you’re happy with the photo.