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Motion-picture director Wood Allen famously remarked, “80% of success is just showing up.” One wintry night at Iceland’s glacial lagoon (Jokulsarlon), it seemed like all I had to do was show up. The heavens danced with aurora borealis’s green fire for hours. Cascades of light appeared and disappeared, dynamically illuminating the heavens with a light brighter than the stars and moon, rising above the dormant volcano, icecap, glaciers, frozen lagoon, icebergs, black-sand beaches, and crashing surf. The waves of radiation formed and reformed into shapes suggesting animals, birds, fish, flowers, and more. When there’s fire in the heavens, every moment is a magic moment.
That’s what it feels like when you’ve done a lot of preparation. And it took a lot of preparation to make this image.
It took the right location and the right time. It needed a high chance of auroras and dramatic elements to position in front of them. Iceland lies just south of the auroral oval. Jokulsarlon’s iceberg-choked lagoon rests below vast ice caps and beside black-sand beaches. In spring or fall, day and night are near equal; there’s more ice in the spring. I selected a week when the moon was near new and waxing. A fuller moon might drown out stars and faint auroras but better illuminates the landscape below.
It took the right tools. A trustworthy tripod, head, and cable release assured camera stability. A camera model with the most recent low-noise, high-ISO performance. A fast (f/3.5 or faster) wide-angle lens (24mm or wider) with minimal coma and chromatic aberration.
It took camera know-how. Testing indicated that using an ISO higher than 3200 produced more noise than I found acceptable, and at shutter speeds longer than 15 seconds, stars rendered star trails. Trace amounts of camera motion were reduced by adding 2 seconds of increased exposure while the lens was blocked.
It took software know-how. To get the most out of them, the files had to be processed with care. It’s easy to overdo it—and make a mess. Too much contrast and you lose stars. Too much noise reduction and you lose stars—Noiseware’s plug-in does a better job than Lightroom or Photoshop. Too much clarity and you over-accentuate texture and produce unnatural halos. Too much saturation and colors appear unbelievable—really unbelievable.
How did I acquire all of this knowledge? Research, conversations with experts, practice and failure. I failed the first night I tried this. Testing takes time; but it’s time well spent. Working in the dark is challenging; you really get to know the feel of your camera and the location of your camera controls. I learned from all of my failures so I could succeed on future nights. Luckily, I was ready on one of the best nights of the year, perhaps the decade (auroras peak in eleven year solar cycles). The auroras were so strong and filled so much of the sky that I couldn’t fit it into one exposure, so I decided to try a panoramic stitch—and it worked. A little luck helps, too. But remember what Louis Pasteur said, “Chance favors the prepared.” Now I’m wondering how I can apply what I’ve learned to other situations.
I took a relatively light approach processing this file in Lightroom 4, taking care not to overdo noise reduction and clarity. Then I stitched the two shots together in Adobe Photoshop CS6 to make the panorama, and applied finishing sharpening and noise reduction with Imagenomic’s Noiseware plug-in.
About John Paul Caponigro: A contributing editor for Digital Photo Pro and a columnist for the Huffington Post, John Paul Caponigro is the author of Adobe Photoshop Master Class and the DVD series R/Evolution. A highly sought-after lecturer, he teaches workshops around the globe. A member of the Photoshop Hall of Fame, a Canon Explorer of Light, an Epson Stylus Pro, and an X-Rite Coloratti, his clients include Adobe, Apple, and Kodak.