Behind the Shot: Winter Paradise

In this article I'll invite you to join me for one of the most amazing nights of my life: a night that began in preparing for sleep after a hard day of shooting in the bitter cold, and finished with a light-show unlike any I'd ever seen before.

'Winter Paradise', Lake Mývatn, northern Iceland

Background

It wasn't easy spending a week shooting in the Mývatn district of northern Iceland. It was early February this year and I was working hard scouting locations for my 'Winter Paradise' workshop. Shooting, withstanding winds and fighting my way in the deep snow took all the precious energy I had. By evening, temperatures were down to -15 degrees and I was getting quite sleepy. On top of that, the Aurora forecast was a disappointing zero!

But the photographer's spirit can't tire, and seeing a clear night outside, I decided to take the short drive to lake Mývatn, hoping to shoot some reflections of the Milky Way. After shooting for half an hour, I began seeing a very faint streak of green color in the images on my camera screen, just above the horizon. I couldn't yet see it with my eyes, but I knew it was very weak Aurora, which matched the forecast. I was happy to get some color in the sky, but still, I wasn't expecting much more than that. As the night progressed, I was seeing more and more of that green light on my screen. At some point, I began seeing it with my own eyes, but it was still quite far from other Aurora displays I'd previously seen. 

But then, something truly magical happened. The green streak suddenly separated from the horizon, rising higher and higher until it was all the way up in the night sky. In a matter of minutes it gained strength and size, until suddenly the sky just exploded with color. It was by far the most amazing natural event I'd ever witnessed. Spirals of green, red, purple and turquoise were dancing in front of my eyes, hypnotizing me and stirring very strong emotions. I was actually shouting with excitement some of the time - luckily for me there aren't many people living there, so I was spared the embarrassment!

I shot many images that night (see some of them here), by the lake and in other locations. This is the one I'm the happiest with, and since it's the image most representative of my heavenly feeling during that night, I decided to name it 'Winter Paradise'.

Setup and Composition

Let's get a bit technical and talk about the setup and equipment I used for the image.

I used my Canon EOS 5D Mark III, and a Samyang 14mm f/2.8. This ultra-wide lens is extremely useful for night photography, since it's very sharp wide open, and its focal length enables the photographer to include a large portion of the sky in the frame.

Since the Aurora was moving relatively quickly, I had to use a rather short exposure of 15 seconds. It's considered short, since with a 14mm lens, you can usually go up to 30 seconds of exposure without getting noticeable star trails. To compensate for the short exposure, I needed high sensitivity, so I used ISO 3200. To get as much light to the sensor, I left the aperture wide open at f/2.8.

As for composition, I can't see much reason to discuss it at length. There's just nothing special about it - only a simple foreground and a simple background, and to tell you the truth, it wasn't really possible to pay as much attention to composition as I usually do when shooting the rapidly changing Aurora. The thing I'm happy about is that the Aurora is filling the sky, providing a very good balance between the lower and upper parts of the frame. The light-spirals also provide a good contrast to the straighter lines in the rocks.

Post Processing

Let's have a look at the unprocessed RAW file. I opened the RAW image using Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) version 8.1.

The Auto white balance went a bit too warm with the colors. I corrected this, and performed additional adjustments in ACR:

First, I cropped the image very slightly, to perfect the balance in the composition. Next, I corrected the WB to have the image look more like reality, and also performed several adjustments to the exposure, contrast, clarity and vibrance. The clarity adjustment is meant to make the Aurora lines more distinguished, thus somewhat compensating for their movement.

An important step was fixing the very strong vignetting common to ultra-wide lenses with wide apertures. I did that in ACR as well.

I continued in ACR, performing several color-specific luminance adjustments. These adjustments are meant to make the Aurora look more pronounced, and to have the different Auroral colors more apparent.

Finally, I did another local clarity boost in the sky area. You can see the parameters and the masked region in the image below.

After finishing the work in ACR, I saved the file as a TIFF and went on to open it in Photoshop.
The current file looks a bit too bright. The image was shot at night, after all, and having it this bright is misleading and doesn't convey the atmosphere like it should. I therefore needed to somehow darken the image. But lowering the brightness level would look very bad, and cause big parts of the image to turn completely black. To solve this, I created a selection restricted to the "not-so-dark" parts of the image. Let's see how this could be achieved.

First, I needed to create a selection restricted to the very dark pixels. This was done by inverting the image (duplicate layer, then ctrl-I), and creating a selection of the brightest pixels of the inverse image. This is done by ctrl-clicking the channel mask (channels view), and then multiplying the selection by itself several times by Ctrl-Alt-Shift-clicking on the channel mask.

The inverted image after selecting its brightest pixels. See the histogram - it looks like this because only pixels 50% or more selected contribute to it. When we restrict our selection to the brightest pixels of the inverse image - we can get rid of the inverse and be left with a selection restricted to the darkest pixels of the original image.

After getting a selection restricted to the darker pixels of the original image, I inverted the selection (Select->Inverse or Shift-Ctrl-I) to get a selection of the "not-so-dark" pixels.

The original image with the desired selection. Note how the histogram takes into account only pixels which aren't very dark.

Once I had the selection I wanted, I simply used a levels adjustment layer to darken the image to my taste.

Upon completing the work, I saved the TIFF file for printing, converted the color space to sRGB for internet-use, performed size-reduction and some sharpening, and I was done.


Erez Marom is a professional nature photographer and photography guide based in Israel. Every January, Erez guides his Iceland winter photography workshops: 'Land of Ice' in the south and 'Winter Paradise' in the north and west. If you'd like to experience and shoot some of the most fascinating landscapes on earth with Erez as your photography guide, you're welcome to see the workshop webpages for details and participation, and view Erez' Iceland gallery. You can watch a teaser video here

You can follow Erez on his facebook page500px and deviantArt galleries.

More articles by Erez Marom:

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions held by dpreview.com or any affiliated companies.

Comments

Total comments: 41
EJPB
By EJPB (2 months ago)

Gorgeous! I'd absolutely love to get some shots of the Aurora Borealis. Very informative article.

0 upvotes
Nicle Jones
By Nicle Jones (5 months ago)

new here. lucky to see such detailed tutorial. thx for sharing. sure can learn a lot here

1 upvote
RBFresno
By RBFresno (6 months ago)

Wonderful Image.

Terrific Post!

1 upvote
ipte
By ipte (6 months ago)

Erez, thanks for the clear, detailed description of your process. It's a great how-to example. Congrats on a nice image!

Please just ignore the commenters who want to use your post as a platform for their personal views on photography. This site has a lot of that; don't worry about it.

2 upvotes
Dietmar van Eijsden
By Dietmar van Eijsden (6 months ago)

Picture does not resemble reality. Much to bright!

0 upvotes
Deardorff
By Deardorff (6 months ago)

Even here in North Dakota we have them bright enough to read a newspaper by at times.

Remember, he is doing longer exposures to bring to life what is an ephemeral event. Oftimes one can't see the violets and purples and reds - which the camera can bring out with the longer exposure.

3 upvotes
JohnyP
By JohnyP (6 months ago)

great shot. Finally someone who didn't over PP their work!

2 upvotes
Vitruvius
By Vitruvius (6 months ago)

I am finding it very difficult to set focus acurratly with night shots and large apertures. You can't just turn it to the infinity end because the lenses go past infinity and the foreground becomes out of focus. Of course the camera can't autofocus most of the time. And the the new lenses aren't designed for manual focus work since rotating the ring just 1mm has a big impact on the focal distance. Lots of time consuming test shot trial and error.

Comment edited 41 seconds after posting
2 upvotes
Deardorff
By Deardorff (6 months ago)

You can make it very simple. Carry something like a mini-mag or a Fenix flashlight. Set them at 'infinity' distance from the lens, focus on the bright light and turn the electronic lens to manual focus. TAPE IT THERE and you are set for the night at wider apertures. Works very well and is easy to do. A Fenix E11 is a lipstick size light that is very bright with 2 light levels, one AA battery. A Fenix LD41 has 4 brightness levels and at the brightest is blinding. Great for spotlighting coyotes 2-300 yards away to shoot(rifle) the damn things. Great for night light painting as well with the 4 light levels. Even better is the 'disruptor' setting or the S-O-S emergency help setting.
Extremely bright LED's with the Fenix lights. Since buying them I don't use the Mini Mag lights much at all. NO, I don't work for them, just have to use lights a lot in farmyards and night photos.

1 upvote
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (6 months ago)

With open apertures you can easily focus on the bightest stars, especially with an f/1.4 lens. I usually remember the 'real' infinity focus point on the lens' scale, and use a small torch (or my cell phone) to set it to this point. It's always easier than you think!

1 upvote
Lan
By Lan (6 months ago)

It can be difficult. If you're using a recent Canon dSLR, I strongly recommend you download Magic Lantern (from: magiclantern.fm) and experiment with the live-view settings in there.

It is possible to set it up so you can focus on the stars manually in live-view if you experiment with the MovieHacks/FPSoverride settings and DisplayTweaks/LVbrightness.

If nothing else, it makes proper low light photography with live view possible in a way it really wasn't before.

I should mention that there is a possibility you'll brick your camera with it. I haven't, nor has anyone else I know, but there's always a first time! As with all these things, it's best to practice and experiment with these things a lot before you need to use it in earnest.

1 upvote
Slurcher
By Slurcher (6 months ago)

Beautiful shot!

At the risk of making myself look like an absolute newbie dick, why isn't depth of field an issue with the foreground at f/2.8?

1 upvote
Allan Ostling
By Allan Ostling (6 months ago)

The lens may not have been focused at infinity. When a lens is focused at the hyperfocal distance the depth of field extends from infinity to half the hyperfocal distance.

2 upvotes
brendon1000
By brendon1000 (6 months ago)

There is absolutely no harm in asking questions if you can learn from them.

14mm is an UWA lens and so DOF is much much larger on such a lens.

There would be DOF problems if there was something relatively close in the foreground that would be OOF with the lens at f2.8 but as per the photo there wasn't anything terribly close and neither was there anything really prominent in the foreground that needed critical sharpness and focus.

2 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (6 months ago)

Brendon's answer is accurate.

Comment edited 8 seconds after posting
1 upvote
JTHAIN
By JTHAIN (6 months ago)

I love your explanation about the post-processing, but I really love your note about the aurora suddenly appearing.

"The green streak suddenly separated from the horizon, rising higher and higher until it was all the way up in the night sky. In a matter of minutes it gained strength and size, until suddenly the sky just exploded with color."

It gave me chills, and more importantly - hope. I've waited many hours in the cold for aurora myself. It can become discouraging, but experiencing a moment like what you describe - with or without a camera - is truly amazing.

1 upvote
ButterflySkies
By ButterflySkies (6 months ago)

Looks good, too bad about the camera shake though.

0 upvotes
Bing Chow
By Bing Chow (6 months ago)

Thanks for sharing Erez! I enjoy your processing walk thru and I agree with your thought process vs the untouched RAW file.

Look forward to meeting you in Jan 2014.

Ryan T

1 upvote
artsantos
By artsantos (6 months ago)

What a great article and an awesome shot!

I have been to Iceland this year as well, in March, with great expectations as regards the Northern Lights and as being able to photograph the displays. I couldn't be happier after having witnessed the phenomena 4 nights. I was carrying an entry level DSLR (Nikon D3100) and mainly kit lenses, so I had to content myself with shooting at ISO 800/1600 at most (in order to avoid excessive noise) using either a Nikon 18-55 @ F3.5-5.6 or a Sigma 8-16mm @ 4.5-5.6 (15 to 30sec exposures). Really basic gear, still I am kind of happy with the way the photos turned out.

I have to confess, though, that photos don't do total justice to the phenomena. This is such an amazing experience that it has to be both seen AND experienced. I fully endorse Mr. Marom's statement - the modified shot does indeed look more like the real thing!

Congratulations for the shot, and thanks for taking the time to explain the post processing steps!

3 upvotes
Omar F1
By Omar F1 (6 months ago)

Wonderful view and excellent shot
Thanks very much for your time.

1 upvote
fastprime
By fastprime (6 months ago)

Thanks for the tutorial. Ignore the haters. Haters hate.

3 upvotes
dyoon153
By dyoon153 (6 months ago)

Another great post. I really appreciate you sharing your work, Mr. Marom.. Thank you!

3 upvotes
peevee1
By peevee1 (6 months ago)

Would it be worse if instead of 15 sec of exposure, say, 8 sec was used and ISO and noise reduction would be increased - given the smooth surfaces of the sky, detail smearing should not matter as much as smearing due to movement of the aurora?

0 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (6 months ago)

I think this was the right balance between shutter speed and ISO setting. I wouldn't want to go up to 6400, although I have done it before.

1 upvote
Deardorff
By Deardorff (6 months ago)

Are the trees and rock formation naturally leaning in the direction we see or is it the wide angle lens that does it?

0 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (6 months ago)

A bit of both...

0 upvotes
Deardorff
By Deardorff (6 months ago)

Why not correct the convergence since you are doing so much other work in Photoshop? It isn't difficult.

0 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (6 months ago)

It doesn't really bother me, plus it wouldn't be 100% corrected anyway and I didn't want to hurt image quality.

0 upvotes
Deardorff
By Deardorff (6 months ago)

Getting the lines correct is easy, doesn't hurt image quality and sure helps with the falling over backward look so many settle for. Not correcting looks like you don't care what the end result is and appears one doesn't finish the images.

0 upvotes
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (6 months ago)

I correct when I think it's necessary. Here I honestly didn't think it was. Correcting always hurts quality, even if it's negligible.

0 upvotes
Johnsonj
By Johnsonj (6 months ago)

Okay....

The first one looks pretty dam good to me. If some Auto Levels don't do the trick then what's the point? I suppose some people like tinkering around with images behind a computer. This appears to be case where a lot of unnecessary steps were taken.

On the flip-side, garbage in, garbage out.

3 upvotes
dyoon153
By dyoon153 (6 months ago)

Are you saying Auto level will bring out the best result?
That sounds very professional.

Really, can't you just appreciate different aspect of post-processing, other than your auto-levelling procedures? Mr. Marom doesn't have to share his steps, but has taken time to do so, even if you think some steps are unnecessary (but isn't that your opinion based on the screen capture, not with an original RAW file...? I won't even ask if your monitor is calibrated).

Yeah, garbage in, garbage out. Take that words for yourself.

6 upvotes
ljmac
By ljmac (6 months ago)

Am I the only one who thinks the original unmodified shot is superior? Indeed, I find I almost always think that when I see these Photoshop tutorials - fake, hyped colour can never look as good as the real thing IMHO.

1 upvote
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (6 months ago)

The unmodified shot looks less like the real thing than does the modified shot, sorry to disappoint :)

17 upvotes
Gurki82
By Gurki82 (6 months ago)

Very nice shot! Wish I could see something like this somewhen in my life :-)

3 upvotes
heavyweight
By heavyweight (6 months ago)

יפה! תודה

2 upvotes
baldfox
By baldfox (6 months ago)

Nice write up, appreciate the steps in ACR.
I was in iceland a couple of weeks ago also shooting the "lights" fantastic experience. I wasn't lucky enough to have snow on the ground, only a gravel area, so foreground interest wasn't as good.. I using a 5D3, 17-40mm @ F5.6, 20secs, iso1250. Worked ok for me ! Tripod, release and "mirror up" a requisite!

1 upvote
Erez Marom
By Erez Marom (6 months ago)

Indeed, the snow on the ground makes the shot since it's both more appealing and is lit only by the Aurora. To shoot the lights, I recommend traveling to northern Iceland, where weather is more stable and snow is more probable.

Comment edited 9 minutes after posting
1 upvote
biza43
By biza43 (6 months ago)

This is of course a very good photo. But I find the branch in the foreground is intrusive and unnecessary.

1 upvote
Hugo808
By Hugo808 (6 months ago)

So what you're saying is I can't just point my phone at the sky and get shots like that. Damn....

8 upvotes
Dianoda
By Dianoda (6 months ago)

Not unless your phone has a camera in it.

0 upvotes
Total comments: 41