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  • Meg

Lights at Night

This New Year ("Hogmanay" here in Scotland) brought two quite photographically different challenges within minutes of each other. Both outdoors, both after midnight, both capturing lights in the sky....

FIRST there were celebratory fireworks. I love fireworks. I get very excited and bounce around like a small child. Photographing fireworks requires a bit more attention and care... You will need a tripod (a LOT of fireworks images are spoiled by blurred foregrounds or building silhouettes) and you will need to keep tweaking your settings throughout at least the first few shots.

Fireworks are fleeting, and an exposure over 2 seconds or so will start to lose their definition and colours in a mass of white light and smoke, yet the surrounding darkness requires as long an exposure as possible if you are to capture any foreground detail. You are probably going to have to increase the ISO. Each camera is different, but I trust my Canon 7D up to about 1250 before the "noise" starts to obstruct the picture irrecovably. I COULD put it up much higher but I've learned through experience not to. With the ISO as high as you dare, the balancing act between shutter speed and aperture begins. Only trial and error will advise you the best exposure time - against which you can then set the tightest possible aperture to capture the most depth of field.

I ended up using an ISO of 1000, shutter speed of 1/4 sec, and an aperture of F6.3 to capture these:

THEN, when the fireworks were over, we saw (even through the smoke and city lights) the merest hint of green in the sky:

Cue a drive to the nearest unlit northern-facing coastline in order to photograph a rather special Hogmanay treat: Aurora Borealis. A very different challenge from the fireworks.

Because a longer exposure can be used, the ISO can be brought down a little. However , as I have previously discovered, even exposures of 30 sec - 1 minute can capture the relative movement of the stars, leaving you with little lines rather than dots. Sometimes lines are artful (and some day I will find the perfect conditions to experiment with them) however, at the sub-1 minute exposures where I was able to maintain the camera's stability in the wind, the lines are short, and thereby ill-defined. I found that they more often made the image seem blurred. I therefore still used ISO 800 or so in order to keep the exposure time down. In contrast to firework photography, however, a "short" exposure here is still over 15 seconds. Any shorter and the aurora-light would be much less clear and vivid. I ended up settling on 20 seconds, with F6.3, in order to capture these:

Have a wonderful, exciting, experimental 2016.

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