Photographing Noctilucent Clouds

Photographing Noctilucent Clouds

 

Noctilucent clouds over the town Gjøvik and lake Mjøsa
Noctilucent clouds over my hometown Gjøvik and lake Mjøsa, Norway

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 You never know when or where a good photo op will occur.

That’s why I make a point of always bringing my camera whenever possible.

This time was l no exception.

I don’t remember exactly why, but I went for a drive around midnight august 5h 2013.

As I was passing a vantage point overlooking my hometown and the lake nearby, the sky caught my attention.

This kind of light was something that I had never seen before.

Not knowing at the time what this phenomenon was, I was just fascinated by this light, and the way it looked.

I later found out that it must have been something called noctilucent clouds (night-lit or night-shining clouds).

These are clouds high up in the earth’s atmosphere and they are only visible under certain conditions, which make them a rare sight.

More information about this phenomenon can be found here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Noctilucent_cloud

 

How I set up for this photo of Noctilucent Clouds

Having shot photos from this lookout point many times before, I had a good idea on the choice of lens and the composition I wanted.

I chose my Pentax SMC DA 40mm f/2.8 Limited lens for this job. I knew that the 40mm focal length would provide the framing and composition that I wanted, and this particular lens is of excellent optical quality.

Although late summer midnight in Norway isn’t the darkest of times, I knew I had to do a long exposure.

This meant I had to set up my tripod that was also ready and waiting in my car.

Now, with my Pentax K-5 camera and 40mm lens on my tripod I was ready to shoot.

 

Experimenting with exposure

I knew I wanted to shoot at f/8 because of optimal sharpness, but I had no idea on what to take a meter reading from to determine the correct shutter speed.

The real issue was balancing the exposure between these very contrasting elements: city lights, lake, noctilucent clouds and surrounding hillsides.

I ended up experimenting a bit in manual mode.

The photo at the top of this post was taken with the following settings: 40mm, f/8, ISO100, 30sec.

As you can see, a 30-second exposure has blurred the noctilucent clouds a bit.

Remember, at the time I didn’t know what this light was. It didn’t seem to move that much when I was there.

If I had been more aware of the cloud movement, I would have experimented a bit more with getting a shorter exposure (by bringing the ISO up) and getting less blurred clouds.

Still I think the image works with the slight blur in the clouds as it sets a certain mood.

The bright “dots” you can see in dark portion at the top of the image are star trails caused by the long exposure.

 

What kind of editing did I do with this picture?

I did just a few things with this one.

I did the standard sharpness/contrast adjustment in Adobe Lightroom that I do with all my images as I shoot in RAW (Find out why I shoot in raw here)

Actually, in this particular photo I did more of a correction than usual because of the contrast issues I mentioned earlier.

I had to lighten the shadows quite a bit, and reduce the highlights just as much.

I also reduced the contrast of some of the “normal” clouds in the left part of the image, to make the noctilucent clouds stand out more.

Here is another picture of noctilucent clouds taken from the same place in 2015:

Noctilucent clouds over Gjøvik
Another event of noctilucent clouds over the town of Gjøvik on the 24th of july, 2015.

 

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