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Photographing The Northern Lights

The Northern Lights over Vista House and Crown Point Oregon

I will never forget the first time that I saw the Northern Lights. It was on my first trip to Alaska. I’m talking a real, bright, dynamic display straight above my head and not a faint glow off on the distant horizon like I have seen in Oregon in the past. In Oregon the Aurora could barely be seen with the human eye but was clear to the camera’s sensor after a relatively long exposure.

Trillium Lake Aurora
Trillium Lake Aurora

Photographing the aurora in Oregon required that I set the exposure at around 15-20 seconds on average because of how dim that they were. There was no real definition in the glow nor was there any discernable movement in the light. It was mostly a colorful glow.

Aurora near Hood River Oregon
Aurora near Hood River Oregon

My first real experience with the aurora was on a trip to Alaska to visit my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, who was living near Palmer in a cabin on the edge of the Knik River. My flight arrived at Anchorage at approximately 11pm. Darlene came to pick me up at the airport before we drove to her cabin, arrived there at around midnight. We were sitting in her dining room discussing the lay of the land that surrounded her home when I asked if it would be practical to take a midnight stroll to the river. She said that it would be fun so we grabbed our tripods and cameras and off we went.

The Northern Lights from the Knik River in Alaska
The Northern Lights from the Knik River in Alaska

It was a moonlit night, which would completely cancel any chances of seeing an aurora in Oregon, but I hadn’t even considered that there would be a chance of seeing it anyway. Off we went down a path and through the forest that lined the edge of the river. As soon as my eyes had adjusted to the night and we were about to emerge from the trees I could see a beautiful green light in the sky. When we got to the beach at the edge of the Knik River I was amazed by the scene before me. In front of us was the placid and mirror like water of the Knik River and just beyond in the distance stood the rugged peaks of the Chugach Mountains and above it all was the most incredible aurora. The lights were a vivid green and were moving like curtains in a soft breeze. Over my right shoulder was a moon illuminating the scene. The whole scene was reflected in the surface of the river that slowly flowed past in front of us. Of course I was completely blown away by the view and didn’t know if I should stand and watch it or divert my attention to photograph it. Of course I set up and proceeded to take some photos.

The Northern Lights over Anchorage Alaska
The Northern Lights over Anchorage Alaska

My approach to setting up to get the photos was to start with some longer exposures. That’s the approach that I would take for most any night photos, and was my experience with the aurora here in Oregon, but when I reviewed the photos and looked closely at them the definition of the curtains that I saw was gone. The aurora looked like just a big green cloud or something similar. Then it occurred to me that the lights were moving and were blending together during the long exposure. I thought that I should use what I’ve learned about photographing a moving creek. If I expose longer the water smears. If I want to freeze it I want ta fast shutter speed.

An aurora near Anchorage Alaska
An aurora near Anchorage Alaska

At that point I started to raise my ISO and shorten my shutter speed. I also made sure that I didn’t underexpose the shots. By making sure that the photos were exposed properly, and wouldn’t require me to raise the exposure in post, I would reduce the chance of ISO noise from using a higher ISO. That’s something that I can’t stress enough. It is better to use a higher ISO and to expose the photos properly than to use a lower ISO and underexpose the shots and then raise it in post. When you raise the exposure of an underexposed photo the noise will be greater than one with a higher ISO that was exposed brighter.

Upper Trail Lake Kenai Alaska
Upper Trail Lake Kenai Alaska

Next make sure that you check your exposure by using the histogram. There are two reasons to keep an eye on your histogram. The first is to make sure that you’re ETTR – Exposed To The Right, as much as possible and to make sure that you’re not over exposing the aurora. On exceptionally active auroras the light can be quite bright.

The aurora near Talkeetna Alaska
The aurora near Talkeetna Alaska

And so the short answer to the question about how to photograph the Northern Lights would be to use a shutter speed that is as quick as possible. I wouldn’t recommend exposing longer than 2-3 seconds. It’s acceptable to use a larger aperture opening (f/2.8-f.3.5) to bring more light in, which will help to shorten your exposure time. And last but not least don’t be afraid to raise your ISO. In the case of the aurora it would be better to have a more defined aurora than one that is smoothed together from a long exposure.

The last thing to remember is that although you’re using a quicker exposure to capture the lights, the exposure times will still be too long to hand hold so don’t forget to bring your tripod.

Summary:

  • Use as fast a shutter speed as possible
  • Use an open aperture
  • Raise you ISO
  • Use your histogram
  • Use a tripod
  • And don’t forget to take time to just watch and experience the incredible light show.
A selfie under the Northern Lights in Alaska
A selfie under the Northern Lights in Alaska

Visualizing The Photo – An Outdoor Wedding Portrait

Mount Hood Oregon Wedding Photography

I am glad to be known more for my landscape photography than I am for any other photography style or genre that I dabble in, although I certainly do not limit myself strictly to landscapes, it’s what drew me back to photography in the beginning. This brings clients to me who want a unique heirloom portrait of themselves in the outdoors. As a landscape photographer I have many locations in the back of my mind that would work for the photos that my clients expect from me.

This photo is an example of one such session. The clients wanted a photo of themselves with Mount Hood behind them. We were fortunate to have a window of time when the skies would be clear, and a view of the mountain could be had. I chose White River Snow Park on the east side of Mount Hood. The park is busy, but we did well, and I can always take out the errant person in the distance with a clone brush tool in Photoshop during post processing. We walked up to an area with some trees which gave the photo the feel of being at the edge of a wilderness forest with the incredible mountain in the distance. The scene gave a sense of solitude to the feel of the photos even though there were people all around us.

I took a series of photos varying my focal length from 24 millimeter to 35 millimeter according to the composition that I was trying to achieve. They all turned out fine, but I had a vision in my head of a photo with the couple in the foreground with Mount Hood looming large in the background. An effect that I could not achieve with a wide-angle lens. I had this idea before we arrived and as we drove into the parking area, I surveyed the location to find a place to get the shot. I knew this location very well and so I drove right to where I knew that I would have the best luck in creating the photo. We did not have to walk far, fortunately, as the couple were surrounded by snow and dressed in their wedding clothes.

Once we had finished the photos, and were about to return to our cars, I asked my clients to stay behind with my assistant while I returned to my car to change lenses and take a photo of them from there. They were up on a ridge of snow above where I had parked with Mount Hood positioned perfectly behind them. As I stood in the distance, I mounted my 200 mm lens to my Nikon D850 and then zoomed in to 160 mm to compose the frame. I then stopped the aperture down to f/14 for a clear depth of field. Once my assistant had posed the couple, I took the shot. I had used a method of enlarging the mountain, in this case five miles distant, to fill the frame to give the illusion that the subject is much closer to the background than they were. I and my clients were pleased with the outcome.

Understanding your location and the capability of your gear makes it easier to visualize a photo prior to arriving at the location. And visualizing your photoshoot prior to the day of the event will allow you to be more prepared and to be more relaxed once you go to work. In addition, knowing the capabilities of your equipment will allow you to understand basic concepts or methods such as lens compression to create more compelling photographs.

The Blue Room

The Blue Room

An ice cave at Hatcher Pass Alaska.

What a great day that my wife Darlene and I had. We hiked up the April Bowl Trail to the tarns that are there. As we were hiking up the trail I saw a patch of snow that bridged the creek coming down from above. I told Darlene and I wanted to come back and walk down to see what kind of a photograph that I could get there. At the most I thought that it would be a cool shot of a creek coming out from the bottom of the snow patch.

We returned the next day and Darlene decided to hike to the top of Hatch Peak with a couple of our friends. I told her that I was going to forgo the hike up the mountain to explore this patch of snow. She went on her way and I dropped down to the snow patch with my tripod and camera. I set up below the snow and photographed the creek coming from the bottom of the patch and thought that the photos were a bit unremarkable. As I stood there I examined the opening that the creek emerged from and decided to explore it further. When I approached I could start to see the blue ceiling and the expanse within.

I stood at the ice cave entrance in awe and then proceeded to try my best to capture its beauty. This photograph is the result of my effort.

I have decided to offer this print for sale. You can find it at this link. Thank you.

https://www.gary-randall.com/product/alaska-ice-cave/

Comet NEOWISE at Mount Hood Oregon

Comet NEOWISE at Mount Hood Oregon

Here’s my contribution to the wave of photos that photographers have been getting of this miraculous celestial event. This comet wasn’t even discovered until March of this year, 2020. Whenever there’s an event such as this, which involves the night sky, you will find leagues of photographers armed with their cameras and tripod searching for the best spot to sit and enjoy the view while they create their own version of NEOWISE.

For this photo I decided to go to White River on the east side of Mount Hood to do my best to get a shot of the comet with Mount Hood in the frame. I am satisfied with my attempt. I’m glad that I was able to get a photo that included a place. A foreground that could give the photo more interest and a feeling of being there.

It was quite dark and the snow cats on Mount Hood were shining their lights as they groomed the ski slopes. Photographing the mountain from this direction will most certainly include the lights from Timberline Lodge. I just roll with it.

To create this photograph I took two shots, one being a super long exposure at a lower ISO to reveal details in the foreground, and then a shorter exposure at a higher ISO to capture the sky without any streaking of the stars or the comet. I then stacked and blended the two using layers and masks in Photoshop.

Settings:
Photo #1 Foreground: 180 sec (3 min) exposure – f/4.2 1600 ISO
Photo #2 Sky: 20 Sec exposure – f/4.2 – 6400 ISO

Prints of this photo are available at this link: https://www.gary-randall.com/product/comet-neowise-at-mount-hood-oregon/

Pacific Northwest Rhododendron Season

Mount Hood Oregon Rhododendrons

It’s rhododendron season again on Mount Hood. The “rhodies” are revered here on The Mountain as they are, most likely, the most popular wildflower that blooms around us. We even have a town that is named for the beautiful pink flowers that line our roads every Springtime. They’re very photogenic and my wife Darlene and I are always glad to see rhododendron season arrive. 

The name rhododendron is derived from the ancient Greek words for rose and tree. Of course rhododendrons are neither a rose nor a tree. They’re a part of a genus of over 1000 species of woody plants in the heather family. They’re found mainly in Asia but are also widespread in the mountains of the American Pacific Northwest as well as in the highlands of the Appalachian Mountains. Azalea are related to rhododendrons. Rhododendrons have been domesticated and come in many colors, but the natives are a beautiful blushing pink. Many homes in the area have domestic rhododendrons of varying colors in their yards, but the beautiful native flowers are my favorite. 

Rhododendrons are so beautiful that they seem to be out of place in the forest. I have been asked several times by those friends not from here if they were planted along the highways as a beautification project. Of course these beautiful flowers also grow far from roads throughout the forest but they love sunshine. You can find them growing along the roads because of that. They also love burned areas or even clear cut forests. You can find places where they cover a clearing in the forest. As photographers we can capitalize on that by going to a clearing with a beautiful view of Mount Hood for our photo. But these beautiful flowers will also grow in the forests among the trees with beautiful columns of trees surrounding them. Many views can be found by taking a hike on many of the trails in the area. Or even by taking a drive on some of the forest roads that are near us. 

They are beautiful in a wide angle photo as well as a macro photo. The flower’s pastel pink blossoms, in contrast with a beautiful blue sky, are a perfect color combination and when blended with a beautiful snow capped peak. This creates a classic composition fit for a calendar or a postcard or even a framed photo for your living room. 

And furthermore the bear grass blooms along with the rhododendrons on a typical year. The shape of these flowers, with their stem shooting up from the ground and their hundreds of small, white sparkle like blossoms flaring out into an orb reminds me of fireworks bursting in the sky. 

There’s really not a lot more to say about these beautiful flowers besides my encouragement to take some time to appreciate this local flower that represents the beauty of our forests. 

To make this photo I took focus stacked five images due to how near the minimum focus distance the flowers were. This allowed

Midnight Photoshoot by Candlelight

Will at Stonehenge

I received an inquiry late last Summer from Billy Kyle the singer from the Portland Oregon Metal band Will telling me that they had seen a Milky Way photo that I had taken from the Stonehenge replica in the Columbia River Gorge near Maryhill Washington and was wondering if I could photograph their band at night there. I had a full schedule of workshops but had a day after a videography job in the Eastern Oregon town of Halfway when I was able to do it so we set a date to meet.

Will at Stonehenge
Will at Stonehenge

I had arrived home the day before from eastern Oregon, unloaded my gear and repacked my gear for the photo session before getting some rest and loading back up to head out. I arrived and Billy Kyle and the other band members were there. They had a few props and some excellent red capes that were perfect for the dark medieval theme that we had planned for the shoot. Something reminiscent of an ancient Pict or Druid ceremony.

Will at Stonehenge
Will at Stonehenge

Prior to the photoshoot I had planned on throwing some soft light onto them from some remote flashes. I did a few test shots with the gear that I had brought but the band had brought some candles along with them. We decided to take some shots lit just with the candles, and they nailed the look that we were hoping for. Not only were the candles a part of the shot but their light was the right temperature and gave the scene the right organic feel that helped to make this seem ancient. The architecture of the Stonehenge replica in the dim light gave it a stone castle feel.

Will at Stonehenge
Will at Stonehenge

The only challenge was trying to get quick enough exposures without underexposing the shot. Even at some fairly high ISO’s these were dim, but with some help from the steady nerves of the band we came away with some images that we were all proud of.

Will at Stonehenge
Will at Stonehenge

Will has a new album coming out. They plan on using a couple of these shots for the artwork. The rest they’ll use to promote the band as well as their music. I couldn’t have worked with a nicer, more professional group of musicians. They were all enthusiastic even in the cold of the night.

If you like dark metal music, please go check out Will. https://vvill.bandcamp.com/releases

The Weeping Walls Autumn Color

Weeping Walls Columbia River Gorge, Oregon

This is an off trail location on Eagle Creek in the Columbia River Gorge near the little town of Cascade Locks, Oregon. This area was affected severely by 2017’s Eagle Creek Fire. I feel fortunate to have been able to photograph many of the areas that are now closed to hiking.

Although the Eagle Creek Trail is still closed at the time that I write that, the US Forest Service hopes to have the trail reopened soon.

Although Springtime workshops will be delayed Autumn workshops are still a go. Contact me for more information.

Multnomah Falls Emerging From The Veil

Multnomah Falls

Multnomah Falls through the Columbia River Gorge mist

Multnomah Falls is more than iconic and easily recognized by most anyone who sees it. Even if they don’t know the name, there’s a good chance that they’ve at least seen the waterfalls in a painting or a photo before.

I find that the one best variable in determining how beautiful the waterfall is on a particular day is the weather. And in the case of Multnomah Falls, sometimes bad weather is good. On this particular day the waterfall was emerging from a low layer of clouds and everything was lush and wet and green. The rain had dominated that day but it certainly didn’t hinder our photography.

Nikon D810 – 28mm – f/14 – 3 sec – ISO 64 – CP filter

Fantasy Forest

Fantasy Forest

A day in the Mt Hood National Forest

Here’s my first photo of 2020… and the first photo after my stroke, taken not far from where I live.

It’s kinda funny but while I was going through the stroke I was thinking of potential consequences from the damage that the stroke could cause and if I would still be able to go out and stand in a creek and take a photo. I’m serious. I wasn’t afraid of dying. I was afraid of living but without photography. Thankfully I’ve been blessed to be able to go back to what I love with, perhaps, a new and fresh purpose.

This is a photo of a creek in the Mount Hood National Forest. The moss is in its Winter color and the leaves have left the trees, but the forest is no less beautiful than it is any other time of the year.

I had an exceptional this day with my good friend Chris Byrne and his friend Bronwyn. I needed this day so bad. I was back in my realm doing what I’m meant to do. I was so happy. Thank you Chris. I appreciate all that you do for me.