In a week where I sent out two additional emails to my newsletter subscribers, I wanted to follow up on both of those messages and talk about some lessons learned from both experiences.
- The first post was about the possibility of photographing the northern lights over the north of England. You can find that post here:
- The second was advice on photographing the solar eclipse last Friday. You can find that post here:
In both cases the information there is nothing I would change about the advice I shared and I still believe the advice I gave to be accurate. But none the less, there are still lessons I learned in both cases.
Northern Lights – Lesson Learned
Manchester isn’t Norway! The northern lights were relatively easy to find in Norway, and while they weren’t bright, they were visible. Here in Manchester however it was a different story, although I went out looking for the lights, I didn’t see them or photograph them. There was way too much light pollution. I hadn’t really given light pollution much thought, on a clear night you can see the stars in the sky – right? Well actually not really. I went to a place, not far from my childhood home were I remembered watching the stars at night. When I looked up I could see stars but number of stars I could see I could number on the fingers of one hand. The sky wasn’t black as it had been when I was a child but brown with a glow of street lights making it almost impossible to see anything but the brightest stars in the sky. This was exasperated by a general haze of pollution and mist in the air. When I saw the lights on a plane coming out like search beam in to the night sky, I knew there was no chance of seeing the northern lights.
The primary lesson I learned that night was that to do any form of astronomical photography it is necessary to find a location where the sky is free from both haze and light pollution. For me that would mean going quite some distance outside the Manchester area.
Solar Eclipse – Lessons Learned
I learned a lot of interesting lessons on Friday morning when I photographed the eclipse. Here’s four of them:
Less than ideal conditions can make for more interesting images.
I think like most people I woke up, saw the clouds in the sky and my heart sank. “Not again!” I missed the 1999 eclipse due to cloud cover and I thought – here we go again. In reality however the cloud cover was not 100% and the sun broke through on many occasions. The clouds framing the image of the sun made for a much more interesting image than if the sky had been solid blue.
Too many filters can spoil a photograph
Having spent some time the previous day to working what combination of filters and settings I needed to photograph to eclipse, I went in to auto mode (that me in auto mode not the camera by the way!). I attached all the filters dialed in the settings I had calculated and took a test shot – it was black. Different time of day and with a light cloud cover I didn’t need as much light reduction as I had calculated the previous day. Time to start changing the camera settings and removing filters.
Given the option to do both, I chose where possible to remove filters – some of my filters are old and are not as scratch free as I would like them to be, and besides which images are always sharper for having the light travel through less glass (or plastic).
A partially cloudy sky makes a great ND filter
There were a couple of times during the eclipse where the cloud cover was just perfect – you could easily see the outline of the sun and moon through it but it was not so bright as to need any filters at all. When this happened I was possible to photograph the eclipse without any filters on the camera. I still need a very fast shutter speed (1/4000s) and small aperture. But it was possible – I am guessing but I think this is why so many of the iphone / point and shoot cameras were able to capture the event.
The general lesson here, which applies to most areas of photography actually, is be prepared to adapt to the changing conditions and don’t slavishly stick with the settings and set-up you have previously worked out.
If you go to the trouble of attaching a remote trigger…. use it!
I have some images where the outline of the sun is a double image. I am not sure whether that was caused by too many filters causing odd reflections, or whether it was caused by vibrations caused as I pressed the shutter release. The sad thing was that I had attached a remote trigger and failed to use it. In my defense however my trigger is an intervallometer and if the sky had been clear I was going to do a time-lapse. The light was changing too much from shot to shot that I didn’t bother and because I was thinking shutter speeds of 1/4000s or faster it never occurred to me to use the remote simply as a trigger. I don’t need it for speeds like that. However… with the cloud cover for quite a few of the shots I had to reduced down the shutter speed and in some cases, the act of pressing the button caused a very slight movement and created a double image.
Use post-processing techniques to add something extra
This only struck me when I was working on the images after the eclipse. One of the things I had learned about photographing the northern lights in Norway was how much you need to do in post production to really bring them to life. Applying some of the same techniques to the eclipse images makes for some very interesting photos. Even if you feel changing things like saturation and brightness is cheating. At very least think about cropping to make your images of the eclipse stand out.
None of us are perfect – even professionals make mistakes when making photographs. The difference between a pro and an amateur is that you don’t get to see the professional’s mistakes! In this case I am reasonably happy with the results I got of the solar eclipse – they aren’t perfect but I’m happy.
What is most important with our photography is that we learn from what we have shot. It is good to stop and think after a shoot. Is there anything I could have done better? Are there things I would do different if I was doing that shoot again. Failing to take that step after a shoot, could potentially condemn us to make the same mistakes over and over again, and make the process of improving our skill much slower.
My full set of image from the solar eclipse can be seen here: