James Stone is a talented photographer based in Hobart. His night sky images are popular and he has even won awards, including the 2016 Overall Photo Editor’s Choice Award at the David Malin Awards with Exalted Moon Warrior.
How did you get started in night sky photography ?
I’ve always enjoyed photography, and toyed with star trails once or twice in film days, but I guess I seriously started shooting the night sky in 2012. I had recently moved to Tasmania, and when I heard you could see the aurora from there, then witnessed and captured my first display on camera, I was hooked.
What camera do you use ?
I have a foot in both Canon and Nikon camps. I grew up with Canon, and my trusty old 7D is still my go-to camera, but when I made the step up to full-frame, I decided to go with Nikon D750 as the functionality offered was far better (in-built intervalometer for timelapse etc.).
Favourite lens ?
I love my Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 on my 7D, the infinity mark is spot on and it always achieves great results. However, my favourite lens has to be my Nikon 50mm f/1.8, the night sky images it produces are so crisp. The wider aperture makes a huge difference in terms of light reaching the sensor, and the resulting shorter exposure time brings out so much more detail and movement when shooting an aurora.
If money was no object, what would be your ideal setup ?
I would really like more motion control for timelapse work, an eMotimo and some Dynamic Perception gear would be great. A fish eye is something I would be keen to try, along with some f/1.4 Zeiss glass. Apart from night-sky kit, I’m thinking about getting an old body converted for infrared for landscape work, and I would really like a good 600mm for wildlife photography.
What resources for night-sky photography do you use ?
I’m a firm believer in going outside and looking up! My go to site for aurora prediction would have to be Solarham (http://solarham.net/solarwind.htm), I find a combination of prolonged and strong negative Bz with a high solar wind speed tends to give the best conditions for visible aurora. I never rely on the gauges entirely though, I’ve had surprising occasions when an aurora has completely defied the stats and frustratingly, times when the stats say it should be pumping and there is nothing. I like to experiment on my own with settings and techniques, and have learnt a lot from that, as well as online tutorials with Lonely Speck (www.lonelyspeck.com).
What inspires you to go out under the night sky ?
I feel at peace under a blanket of stars. The night sky is all encompassing, ever changing and more happens up there than most people realise, if only you stop and look for a while. Regularly being out under the stars you begin to pick up the rhythms of moon phase, planet position and seasonal changes. Even at the end of a long day, I find the night sky (particularly with a thumping aurora) rejuvenating, a great place to clear my head and to really appreciate the amazing natural world around me. It doesn’t matter how tired I am before I go out, once out I could, and do, often stay out all night.
What is your best memory while aurora hunting ?
I guess each ‘chase’ is different and each display is memorable for it’s own reasons, be that it’s intensity, colour, particular uncommon formations or other things going on in the night sky, and of course the company. I often shoot solo, I enjoy solitude, but equally I regularly shoot with Blackpaw Photography, and we have had some fun times ‘dancing’ under the aurora with our trademark pirouettes (https://vimeo.com/161863122). I’m not sure why I started the Aurora Dance many years ago, and I certainly need some better choreography and some new moves!
I think some of my favourite displays have been shot in the swamp; the reflections add another dimension to the light and movement in the sky (https://vimeo.com/209701716). This particular night was one of those rare cloud and moon free nights, with the aurora kicking off before it was fully dark, and lasting all night. At times, the sky was literally pulsating and rippling like someone was throwing pebbles into a pond.
What about post-processing ?
I’ve always used Lightroom, and have purposefully avoided Photoshop until very recently, I see Photoshop’s place as a great tool for getting the last few percent out of an image and for creative editing, but I’m a LR user through-and-through. Since the Nik collection became available for free, I find I’m using Viveza 2 and Silver Efex Pro 2 more and more.
I also use LRTimelapse for my timelapse production, Autopano Pro for panorama stitching and StarStax for startrails.
What advice would you give to aspiring night sky photographers ?
If in doubt, go out and look up!
Never stop learning; never stop trying new things and re-visiting old images.
I have been fortunate to be able to shoot with, and learn from, several Nat Geo photographers, and I’m a huge fan of Ernie Brooks’ underwater photography, I spent a few weeks with him in the Arctic last year, and despite being over 80, his passion and enthusiasm for capturing great light was inspirational.
If you could choose one thing to improve on in the next 12 months what would it be ?
I would like to improve my [absolute lack of] Photoshop skills, and to spend more time and effort growing my online presence. I’m looking forward to an upcoming ‘Artist in Residence’ spell over winter at a Tasmanian location I’ve wanted to shoot an aurora from for a long time so hopefully the aurora plays ball.
If you could travel to any location on earth to shoot, where and why ?
I have been incredibly fortunate to be able to travel a lot. The world’s polar regions hold a special affinity for me, I would love to spend more time in the Norwegian Arctic and Greenland, and to return to Antarctica, particularly during winter to experience nature at it’s most raw and to capture the dancing lights at all hours of the day and night. I’m constantly searching for new foreground interest for night sky shoots, I’ve recently returned from Flinders Island and it had plenty, but the full moon or cloud thwarted my efforts.
Do you have a website or dedicated photography page you can share?
I have an online gallery on my website james-stone.com
I am most active on Facebook www.facebook.com/JamesStoneChasingLight/ and slowly getting to grips with the frustrating world of hashtags on instagram (@james_stone_photography).
My timelapse work can be viewed on Vimeo, https://vimeo.com/jamesstone
I (in partnership with Jo from Blackpaw Photography) hold Night-sky and Aurora Photography Workshops; providing one/two-on-one and small group tuition to help new and accomplished photographers learn how to capture the beauty of the night sky.
‘Exalted Moon Warrior‘
This image was awarded the 2016 Overall Photo Editor’s Choice Award at the David Malin Awards, Australia’s premier astrophotography awards. It is a 15 frame pano of my partner Carolyn ‘holding’ the moon under the arc of the Milky Way with a faint aurora on the horizon, shot at Peron Dunes, NE Tasmania.
Nikon D750, Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8 lens, 10s @f/4 ISO 2000.