How I Shot It – Northern Lights and the Moulton Barn

Northern Lights Above Moulton Barn

I was recently asked on my Facebook photography page to do a blog post on how I shot this photo. It seemed like a good idea to me, so here’s the first installment of a series of posts that probably won’t have any kind of regularity, but I hope some people will find useful.

This photo had very little post-processing work done to it; just the usual contrast, exposure, and color settings. One thing I believe heavily in is in getting the shot right from the start in the camera. This includes everything from effects, when possible, to even the cropping. As a result, this is the full crop of this image and the light-painting on the barn was just about the exact exposure I wanted. It only required a slight amount of tweaking that I couldn’t get from reviewing it on camera.

The photo itself came from a desire to have more foreground interaction in my northern lights shots. I have been getting a good amount of northern lights for Jackson Hole, Wyoming in the last year or so, but very few of them have much in the foreground, if anything. I decided that the Moulton Barn on Mormon Row would make an interesting test subject to see how experimenting there would go. It took a great deal of experimenting and getting the shots down to what I wanted, but in the end, it’s always worth the effort. I also found it a lot of fun, so if you’re not having fun with it, there might be better ways to be spending your free time, or in this case, nights.

While most shots of the Moulton Barn are of the east side with the Teton Mountains in the background, I chose to shoot the west side so that the northern lights would show up a little better due to the angle as well as minimal highway distractions in the distance. I positioned my camera (on a tripod of course) in a number of different spots, until I found a composition that created a dramatic presence from the barn, as well as leaving a nice balance of auroras in the shot. I then put the camera on the built-in 10-second timer and when I pushed the shutter button, ran over to the other side of the barn and lit the barn briefly with my headlamp. Since a headlamp tries to light everything in the vicinity, I had to put my hand at the base to prevent too much light spilling onto the ground which would create a distracting element. This particular exposure was eight seconds which preserved a few of the finer details of the auroras, so I also lit the barn for roughly half the exposure. The amount of time to light something will depend on a variety of factors: ISO, shutter speed, intensity of the light itself, etc. The beauty of digital is that you can experiment with a few shots before ultimately finding the perfect balance of it all.

Any questions? Please feel free to leave them in the comments!


  1. Did you have to color balance the barn and the sky separately? the barn feels cool and the sky feels warm.

    • Color balance was all done in post-processing since I shoot RAW, but the whole image was given the same white balance treatment. The barn appears cooler because it was shot with an LED headlamp, which is typically a cooler white. The image itself does look a little cool to me though now that you mention it so I may go back and tweak it.

  2. Mike, I was never aware that the northern lights could be photographed from the Jackson Hole area.  Is this possible every year? Lousiana is much farther south than JH so I imagine that the northern lights could never be seen from this area (near New Orleans). Thanks for posting your methods. 

    •  Thank you for the comment! If there’s a strong enough solar flare that hits Earth just right, the northern lights could be seen as far south as Louisiana. They were visible in Alabama just last year! They’re not always out in Jackson Hole, like you see in Alaska and northern Canada, but since we are entering the peak of a solar maximum cycle, they have been out more frequently lately.

  3. Great Shot Mike.

    Due to all the clouds up in my neck of the woods, the Northern Lights are nearly impossible to see.

    I know this post was a few months ago, but I love the simple technique you used to capture the scene.

  4. Sharong532000

    Northern Lights were viewed from SE Louisiana, north shore, back in the late 80s They appeared on a cold , clear night in the NW, low on the horizon, about 10 to 20 degrees. Luckily, my husband a transplanted Yankee was there for an explanation. Still hoping for a repeat performance.

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