Light is the main ingredient in good photography, may it be sunlight, starlight, aurora lights, streetlights, or a flashlight. Great light will help set your shot apart from the millions of pictures that have been taken without consideration of the role light plays.
I chase amazing skies to feature in my photos, and have a few tips and tricks that will help you capture breathtaking sky in your pictures.
A beautiful blue day will draw you outside, but a lack of clouds means the sky in your pictures will simply be blue, and therefore rather boring.
So let’s talk about clouds.
Cloud cover is something you can easily track online or with apps on your smartphone. I wait until the satellite images show the exact conditions I’m looking for before I head out to photograph.
You want the occasions when, if the cloud cover is solid, the cloud edge is a little to the east for sunrise or a little to the west for sunset. This will cause indirect sunlight to hit the clouds from below, creating amazing colors.
A thunderstorm rolled through Edmonton, Alberta, right around sunset and, when the sun set, the clouds started clearing in the west, which created a path for the sun to light up the sky.
This brings me to my second piece of advice for photographing the sky: be patient!
Sometimes, you only have a limited amount of time to get that perfect shot and don’t have the luxury of waiting for satellite images to reveal ideal shooting conditions. But even without clouds, there is a time for magical light. “The Blue Hour.”
Depending on where you are in the world, this phase can last from 30 minutes (in places closer to the equator) to an hour (during the summer in places further north or south). Everything is illuminated in a blue twilight and the brightest stars are already shining in the sky above.
About an hour after sunset on a perfectly blue day in Banff National Park, “The Blue Hour” helped create the perfect setting at Herbert Lake for this shot.
In mountainous landscapes, the indirect sunlight will allow mountain peaks to glow (known as alpenglow), giving the scene a dreamy feel. The drop in temperature will also help create mist over warm water surfaces, especially in the summer months.
This brings me to my favorite type of photography — night photography.
At night, depending on where you live, there can be various light sources. The stars, the moon, city lights, car lights, or, in some areas, the aurora borealis (australis, for those in the southern hemisphere). The best way to ensure you get the most unique shots of the night sky is to scout the area during the day — looking for good compositions and elements you can use in the foreground of your photos.
Night photography doesn’t require the fanciest camera or lens, but it’s important that you know your gear. Practice at home to get comfortable with your camera and its menu.
While you may not need the most expensive camera for good night photography, you do need a sturdy tripod and a flashlight. The tripod will be helpful for long exposure shots, and the flashlight will not only help you find your way in the dark, but also gives you an artificial light source to use in your photos.
With long exposure shots, keep in mind that the longer you shutter open, the more likely it is that the stars will begin to be streaks instead of pinpoints in the sky (due to Earth’s constant rotation).
There are also specific tricks for creating stunning photos of the night sky. You can take your camera to the maximum usable ISO, combine multiple shots of the sky by stacking them in Photoshop, or expose the shot for a longer amount of time.
I have been taking photography seriously for almost two years now, but it was seeing the Northern Lights in March 2015 that started it all. There was something incredibly special about seeing the green, sometimes red, lights dancing along the horizon in Edmonton, Alberta.
There’s no guarantee of seeing the Northern Lights, but there are ways to increase your odds. Check online to see current geomagnetic conditions in your area. Or, head further north to Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland, or the Faroe Islands. Greenland and Northern Canada are also good spots.
Find a place with an open view of the sky and look for an arc of light that doesn’t seem like it should be there. This arc might become brighter around midnight, and pillars can appear, which seem to dance along the sky. If activity is high, you might see the aurora straight overhead, like the green light is raining down on you, which is a mesmerizing sight.
You’ll want to shoot at a usable ISO (which varies depending on your camera) using the widest aperture possible. Play with the shutter speed, too.
It’s always a good idea to have an object in the foreground when photographing the Northern Lights, like this old barn.
In a nutshell, photographing the sky affords some planning and a general knowledge of how your camera works. It may be difficult to be out shooting while everyone else is asleep, but trading sleep for great light is always worth it.