State Parks

How to Photograph Northern Lights

How to Photograph the Northern Lights

Despite having made three trips to Iceland, two of which were specifically to photograph northern lights, I had yet to see the aurora borealis until a few nights ago near my new home. I drove only 30 minutes from my apartment to Elk Island National Park after seeing forecasts that called for moderate to high auroral activity. I arrived that night around midnight to find that the northern lights had already started dancing across the sky in various shades of green and purple. Finally! Northern lights! I was beyond excited to see the light show of the north and spent just over 3 hours photographing the aurora from various spots within the park.

If this was my first time photographing the northern lights what makes me an expert worthy of teaching other people how to shoot it? I did face challenges beyond my control while shooting the aurora that cool summer night, but I got the technical aspects (like exposure settings) dead on. I've been photographing the night sky for years, and shooting the northern lights is not much different that shooting a star-filled sky. The main issue I did have was high winds. I was making long exposures, and the breeze made the tree tops move, causing them to be blurry in most of my images. There was also the coming and going of cars with blazing headlights interfering with some of my exposures. Despite these challenges, I'm pleased with my first northern lights images.  Here is how I captured them and what I learned in the process:

Research Weather & Aurora Forecast

The northern lights can only be seen on clear, dark nights. If you live in a city, you have to get away from the light pollution of traffic and street lights. The farther out, the better. In some countries (like Iceland) the aurora can only be seen during winter months when it is dark enough for long enough to see them. Here in western Canada, especially in the northern parts around Edmonton and up, northern lights can be seen year-round if the conditions are right. It was mid-July when I first photographed them. Check the aurora forecast with one of the many websites that predict northern lights activity (I've listed several below). Then check the weather forecast for the area you want to photograph them in. Keep in mind that the weather can change. The night I made these images, there was a thunderstorm that cleared just minutes before I went out to the national park. Dress accordingly, you may be outdoors for a while!

Northern Lights over Astotin Lake, Elk Island National Park, Canada (18mm, f3.5, 13 sec, ISO 800)

Northern Lights over Astotin Lake, Elk Island National Park, Canada (18mm, f3.5, 13 sec, ISO 800)

Prepare Camera Gear BEFORE Going Out

Don't wait until you're on location in the dark to fiddle with your equipment. Choose your lens, pop it on your camera, and put in on your tripod (you cannot shoot the northern lights without a tripod!). Then choose your settings. I turn in-camera long exposure/noise reduction off. That's because I don't want to slow the camera's operation down with these features. Because I chose a full frame camera, I wasn't worried about noise and only needed to reduce it slightly in post (shoot RAW for the love of photography). Crop-sensor cameras are fine for shooting at night. You may have a bit more noise in the shadows, but you should be able to fix much of it later. I set my dial to manual mode and set my ISO at 1250 originally, then, on location, I found I could lower it to 800 for most shots. 

You don't need a fancy f1.4 or f2.8 lens to shoot the northern lights like all those other blogs tell you. It helps to let in as much light as possible, reducing ISO requirements, but don't fret if you don't have one. I used my Nikon 18-35G at f3.5 mostly. I even took a few at f4.5. They're fine. As far as shutter speeds, I chose 15 seconds to start, and when I was shooting, I made adjustments between 8 second and 15 second exposures depending on the situation. To reduce camera shake, turn your two second timer on or use an external shutter release. 

The most difficult part of shooting at night, aurora or not, is focusing. The general rule is to focus to infinity. Turn your focus ring to the infinity mark and turn auto focus off. Rarely are lenses actually perfectly focused to infinity even when set at the mark (for example my 18-35mm is focused to infinity just slightly before the infinity mark on the lens). Make sure you know what infinity actually is on your lens before you go out to shoot. I'd recommend marking this somehow in case you accidentally lose focus. If you're set to infinity, then your foreground (treetops, etc.) should be in focus. 

Finally, make sure to set your compensation to "0." While shooting, check your histogram occasionally to make sure your shots aren't way underexposed. My advice is to adjust shutter speed if necessary and leave the ISO as low as possible. Keep in mind that the slower the shutter speed, the more ovular stars will appear, and the less distinct the shape of the aurora will be as it dances across the sky. 

Northern Lights over Power Lines, Elk island National Park (18mm, f3.5, 15 sec, ISO 1000)

Northern Lights over Power Lines, Elk island National Park (18mm, f3.5, 15 sec, ISO 1000)

Look North, Find a Foreground, and Be Patient

The general rule is to look north to dark, clear skies. If the aurora is strong, then it can actually create waves in all directions and be photographed from the south as well. When you arrive on location with all your gear preset, try and find a north facing direction to start with, preferably with a decently interesting foreground (I approach northern lights photography much like landscape). Take a test shot, or two, and make compositional adjustments accordingly. Another general rule is to shoot super wide, but I also zoomed to 35mm for a few shots. Sometimes the northern lights will be the subject of the shot, sometimes the background, keep this in mind while composing images. Use your LCD level between each new composition to make sure things aren't crooked.

The northern lights can appear anytime of night, but usually between 12AM and 4AM. Be patient if you don't see them and keep in mind that they may first appear very weak and not visible to the naked eye. Take occasional shots to see if the aurora is there. If it swells in color and dances across the sky in a spectacular display and then fades away, don't pack up and go home yet. Stick it out. It may come back again even stronger. 

Northern Lights over Hayburger Trail, Elk Island National Park (18mm, f3.5, 8 sec, ISO 800)

Northern Lights over Hayburger Trail, Elk Island National Park (18mm, f3.5, 8 sec, ISO 800)

Recommended Equipment:

Camera and any lens with manual capabilities and built-in self timer
Tripod (with bubble levels if camera does not have built-in level)
Remote shutter release (self-timer works fine though)
Headlamp
Weather appropriate clothing
Water and/or coffee

Post Processing Tips

Like everything else, if you shoot it right in the field, you should have very little work to do in post. Because northern lights images are dark and lean toward the left side of the histogram, my first task in Lightroom was to increase the exposure, blacks, and shadows a bit while still maintaining that it was nighttime. Once deep blacks were recovered, I simply increased saturation, contrast, and vibrance moderate amounts in order to bring forth the colorful aurora and bring out the subtle orange and purple hues that are less obvious than the bright green. Increasing clarity a slight amount (+10 to +20) helped to accomplish this even more. Then, I adjusted white balance more toward the cooler side on both sliders because I wanted to keep the sky a natural shade of blue (I originally shot in daylight white balance, which I found to be slightly too warm). There was no set formula, I edited each image individually. For me, it's all about creating the look that represents reality as well as what I perceived. It's easy to over saturate and push colors beyond natural levels.

As far as noise reduction, I left everything in the default setting except the luminance slider, which I increased to +16. I didn't add any additional sharpening.

I hope this helps you to be successful on your northern lights shoot. I was very lucky to be able to see and photograph them in mid-summer. I definitely hope to have that experience again soon. Feel free to message me with any questions. To find out what's in my camera bag, click here

Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) in May, Elk Island National Park (18mm, f3.5, 20 sec, ISO 2500)

Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) in May, Elk Island National Park (18mm, f3.5, 20 sec, ISO 2500)

Blue Ridge Day Hikes - Grayson Highlands State Park, VA

View of Grayson Highlands from the Appalachian Trail, Virginia.

View of Grayson Highlands from the Appalachian Trail, Virginia.

Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia is one of my favorite areas of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I'm lucky in that it is less than an hour's drive from my home. Though I've listed this post under Blue Ridge Day Hikes, you should spend more time than that at Grayson Highlands if possible. Grayson Highlands offers excellent camping opportunities. If you're into panoramic views, waterfalls, wild ponies, and primeval spruce forests, this is your place! 

Geography & Location:

Grayson Highlands State Park, established in 1965, is located in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains of southwest Virginia. It's an easy drive from the Boone, North Carolina area, northeastern Tennessee, and, of course, western Virginia via U.S. 58 (aka Highlands Parkway). Two of Virginia's highest peaks, Mount Rogers and Whitetop Mountain, are at the park's borders and the famous Appalachian Trail runs right through the park and continues up all the way to Maine and down all the way into Georgia. The park itself is 4,502 acres of pristine mountain balds and spruce forests. The highest peak within park boundaries, Little Pinnacle, is 5,089 feet above sea level. For more information on entrance fees, park rules, and trail maps, visit Virginia State Park's official website

Hiking Trails & Camping:

There are thirteen hiking trails in Grayson Highlands providing recreational opportunities for every age and fitness level. Some are designated as horseback riding trails. I generally keep to one specific trail that leads through all the rocky peaks of Wilburn Ridge and connects with the A.T., called the Appalachian Spur Trail. I need to branch out because there is so much more to the park, but I just can't get enough of those awesome views along the A.T.! To access my favorite trail, which winds through rocky outcrops, cow pastures, and is guaranteed to take you to ponies, park at the Overnight Backpacker's Lot and follow the trail through the open meadow. In spring and summer, the fields are full of wildflowers, hummingbirds, and butterflies. 

In addition to hiking trails, there are loads of backcountry campsites (96 total) located all over the park area. There are even a few covered shelters for those who need walls and a roof. Along the Appalachian Trail, just outside the park boundaries, you don't need to worry about where you can and can't camp for the night. You can simply set up in whichever spot provides you with the best morning view! Certain rules, including food storage regulations for bears, must be followed inside Grayson Highland's boundaries. For the details on camping in Grayson Highlands State Park, visit the official website

My wife and I hiking with Jack at Grayson Highlands, Virginia.

My wife and I hiking with Jack at Grayson Highlands, Virginia.

Wild Ponies:

Grayson Highlands State Park is famous for its wild ponies, which are actually feral ponies released by the U.S. Forest Service in the 1970s. The ponies are said to be descendants of breeds owned by local, Native American tribes. Their purpose is weed control, but I'd assume the cattle that freely graze the balds at Grayson Highlands do a good enough job at that (watch out for huge cow-pies). Whatever their true purpose, or origin, they attract droves of people to the highlands year-round. They are generally friendly and fun to photograph, but don't come between a mother and her foal and never directly approach a male pony head on. Give them space and you should be able to get some great photos. Feeding the ponies is strictly forbidden. My approach is to let animals come to me. I simply take a seat in the grass and mind my own business for a minute or two, and, sure enough, curiosity gets the best of them (especially the youngsters) and they hobble right on over to me. 

A few-week-old foal noodles on my shoe straps, Grayson Highlands State Park.

A few-week-old foal noodles on my shoe straps, Grayson Highlands State Park.

Feral Ponies Graze in a Mountain Bald in Grayson Highlands State Park.

Feral Ponies Graze in a Mountain Bald in Grayson Highlands State Park.

When to Go & What to Photograph:

Grayson Highlands is open year round from early morning until well after sunset, so this is one of the few pristine wild places you can go in the Blue Ridge to photograph sunrise and sunset without staying overnight. It can be very difficult to access during winter when snows cover the winding mountains roads in the area. The best seasons in general are summer and fall. In summer, temperatures are pleasant and the long daylight hours allow plenty of time to explore if you only have a day to spend. Sunsets are spectacular, but bring a headlamp so you can hike your way out without falling into a gorge or slipping into a rhododendron thicket after a shoot.

Summer is great for wildflowers, birds, butterflies, and lush-green balds. Autumn is always a great time to be in Appalachians, but ironically there isn't that much autumn color at Grayson Highlands because it's mostly balds and evergreens. Autumn would be the best time to see larger wildlife, like black bears and whitetail deer. Both summer and fall are great times to see ponies and newborn foals. There is one notable and sizable waterfall in Grayson Highlands located on the Cabin Creek Trail. I haven't been to it yet, but it's on my short list. No matter when you go, Grayson Highlands will not disappoint when it comes to photography and recreational opportunities. 

Sunset at Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia.

Sunset at Grayson Highlands State Park, Virginia.

All images (c) 2017 Jon Reaves. All rights reserved. 

Blue Ridge Day Hikes - Elk Knob State Park, NC

Blue Ridge Day Hikes - Elk Knob State Park, NC

The north facing view from the Elk Knob summit trail. 

The north facing view from the Elk Knob summit trail. 

I'm lucky to live in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. I have my own place tucked away deep in the forest with no neighbors aside from the furry and elusive kind. I'm also lucky to live near so many amazingly beautiful and protected natural areas. Elk Knob State Park is just a 10 minute drive from my house. I go there often in all four seasons, not only for photography, but for peace and quiet as well.

Elk Knob History

Elk Knob State Park is the newest state park in North Carolina. It was founded in 2003 after conservationists and concerned citizens swooped in to save it from developers who were planning to build housing developments on it; that would have been a sad fate for one of Southern Appalachian's highest peaks and most unique natural areas. The tallest peak at Elk Knob is 5,520 feet above sea level. The views from the summit are spectacular. From the top one can see far into the mountains of Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina. These sweeping panoramic vistas attract lots of hikers year-round, but it's never too crowded. Many people don't know about this state park and so they cluster onto better-known trails along the Blue Ridge Parkway, but Elk Knob is definitely one of the N.C. High Country's best natural areas. 

Thick forest and a well-maintained trail at Elk Knob State Park, North Carolina.

Thick forest and a well-maintained trail at Elk Knob State Park, North Carolina.

Wildlife

Unfortunately, there are no actual elk on Elk Knob. The last one was supposedly killed in the late 1700s according to the NC Parks Service website. The nearest wild, North Carolina elk are a couple hundred miles away. Loads of wildlife still inhabit Elk Knob, including white-tail deer, black bear, owls, woodpeckers, weasels, fox, coyote and many other species. If you're a birder, this is an excellent spot to see bohemian waxwings, nuthatches, and large pileated woodpeckers. I've had several good encounters with deer, owls, and many other species at Elk Knob, but as much as I've hiked there, I've yet to see a bear. Nevertheless, the park service has several signs warning campers to handle and store food properly and even provides "bear boxes" to secure supplies. 

White-tail doe in the misty forest at Elk Knob State Park. (Image captured using a Nikon F100 and 70-300mm VR on Fuji Superia 400 35mm film)

White-tail doe in the misty forest at Elk Knob State Park. (Image captured using a Nikon F100 and 70-300mm VR on Fuji Superia 400 35mm film)

Hiking Trails at Elk Knob

There are four trails at Elk Knob varying in difficulty from easy to strenuous. They are accessible year-round as the park is open all year from morning until dusk (check the NC Park Service site for official hours). Getting there in the winter can be difficult even with four wheel drive, but if you can make it, the opportunities for snowshoeing and backcountry skiing are excellent. Always be prepared for snow in the winter. Even if you don't see any on the drive to Elk Knob, there may be up to a few feet near the summit and ice can cover the trails underneath the snow. Crampons are recommended during winter months. 

The Beech Tree Trail is the easiest. It's pretty level and short and is designed as a light walk for families with young kids to enjoy. As the name implies, it winds through a thicket of Beech on a well-maintained level trail only 1 mile long. It loops back around to the parking lot/trail head. The Maple Run Trail is the next easiest. It's another loop, but designed to appeal more to cross-country skiers as well as hikers. It's the shortest at only 1/2 mile.

The Backcountry Trail is a moderate hike that I have done several times. It descends from the parking area through thick forest via a wide, gradually sloping path. In 2 miles it leads to the backcountry camp sites (which are available with reservations) and mountain streams with a few cascading waterfalls. These streams start at the headwaters of the north-fork of the New River - one of the world's oldest rivers, if not the oldest, according to geologists. In spring, the forest floor is covered with native Appalachian wildflowers, like trillium and trout lily, which are both perfect photo subjects!

The head waters of the New River, Elk Knob State Park's Backcountry Trail.

The head waters of the New River, Elk Knob State Park's Backcountry Trail.

My wife and our dog Jack at the summit of Elk Knob in summer.

My wife and our dog Jack at the summit of Elk Knob in summer.

Last, but definitely not least, is the Summit Trail. This is by far the most popular trail year-round because of the spectacular views the summit of Elk Knob offers. It's a strenuous 1.9 mile hike straight up the mountain with lots of switchbacks. For a healthy person in moderately good shape, it's really not that big a deal, however. I've even seen couples in their 70s hike it in winter! It's worth the trek, not only for the views at the top, but for the opportunities for seeing wildlife and the peace of the beautiful forest along the way. From the top you can see Grandfather Mountain and Mount Mitchell in the distance to the south and Peak Mountain (my home base) and Mount Jefferson to the north. Unfortunately for photographers, the park opens after sunrise and closes before sunset most of the year, so there is little chance of shooting during magic hours, but opportunities for great nature photography are still available within the forest. 

View near the summit of Elk Knob on a winter's day.

View near the summit of Elk Knob on a winter's day.

Near the summit of Elk Knob, the trees become scraggly and twisted as the trail narrows at 5,500 feet.

Near the summit of Elk Knob, the trees become scraggly and twisted as the trail narrows at 5,500 feet.

If you've grown tired of the crowds and traffic on the Blue Ridge Parkway, consider Elk Knob State Park. You won't be disappointed. It's the perfect spot for connecting with nature and renewing your relationship with the Appalachian Mountain's wonders. Take the dogs, the kids, and the grandparents, too! There is lots to do at Elk Knob from hiking, to camping, to snow shoeing, so don't miss this fun and ecologically diverse gem of the Blue Ridge.