The Perfect Solar Storm

Chasing The Aurora • The Full-Frame Advantage • The Silent Click • Please, Release Me
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tech-tips This is the wallpaper image included in Microsoft Vista OS. If you’re running Vista, you can use it as wallpaper on your monitor. The image was taken with a Mamiya 645 on Kodak E100S slide film in approximately 1999. The image is available through

Chasing The Aurora
Q I saw your photograph of the looping aurora borealis as one of the wallpapers within Microsoft Vista OS. Where did you take that photograph, and what’s the best time of year to try to capture the aurora?
B. Weber
Via the Internet

A The shot you mention was taken in September on Muncho Lake in Northern British Columbia, Canada, located at Mile 462 on the Alaska Highway. The aurora borealis (the northern polar lights) is increasingly evident as you approach the magnetic pole. The easiest place I’ve found to view and photograph the aurora is Fairbanks, Alaska, and a number of tours will help you. (To name two designed just for photographers, see and; these companies use photographer/guides I know and recommend.) Or you can join us at Camp Denali ( in Denali National Park and Preserve in fall 2010, where we’ll most likely have the aurora experience right outside our cabins. The best time, of course, is during periods of extended darkness, so for the northern lights that means September-October and March-April, when it’s also really cold. For more information about the auroras at both poles, see a great website from the University of Alaska that even forecasts the best displays (

The Full-Frame Advantage
My issue is with cropped sensors vs. full-frame sensors. Full-frame cameras cost more than those with smaller sensors and, I guess, they’re assumed to take better photos. It seems most professionals use full-frame cameras. But if you have two cameras, one with a cropped sensor, and one with a full-frame sensor, both with the same number of megapixels, shouldn’t the cropped sensor, by logic, have a higher resolution since the same number of pixels are more spread out on the full-frame sensor? When you break it down, wouldn’t there be more pixels per inch on the cropped sensor since it’s the same number of pixels in a smaller space?
N. Gardner
Via the Internet

A Your analysis overlooks a critical variable: All pixels aren’t created equal. The quality rendered by any sensor is a product of the number and size of pixels and the technology in the camera that manages their collection and processing of data (that is, the information that makes up your image). In your example, the pixels on the larger sensor are themselves larger. The advantage to this is that each pixel gathers more light, improving the overall image quality in terms of color and detail. Furthermore, larger pixels improve capture at higher ISOs by reducing noise. When smaller pixels are compressed into a smaller area, noise is increased due to transference of information from one pixel to another.

But another question logically follows from this. Consider the Canon EOS 5D camera with its 12-megapixel full-frame sensor. The new Canon EOS 5D Mark II has 21 megapixels on a sensor of the same size. You might conclude that the quality of the Mark II’s images would suffer from all those pixels packed into the same space. They must be smaller, right? In reality, the newest generations of D-SLRs have mitigated the problem of information transfer among packed pixels by improving the processing capabilities of the cameras. The result is that quality is greatly improved, even at very high ISOs, in both larger and smaller sensors.

I personally use full-frame sensors almost exclusively because of the larger and better-quality image file they produce. I make extremely large prints from those files. That doesn’t mean that professional work can’t be accomplished with the less expensive APS-C-sized sensors.

The Silent Click
What tips do you have for making a digital SLR less noisy? Under some circumstances mine can really spook a subject, more so than my film camera, which was pretty quiet.
J. Yett
Fowler, Colorado

A It’s frustrating when you take the time to carefully approach a wild subject, or you’ve spent long, hot hours in a blind waiting for the animal to approach you, and the first click frightens the subject into flight. But usually, this doesn’t happen. The initial click typically gets their attention, but once the sound has been accepted, subsequent intermittent firings tend to be ignored by most subjects.

You’re not going to find a silent digital or film SLR because the noise actually is made by the movement of the mirror as the image is captured. There are some D-SLRs that offer a “silent” mode, which just extends the time between the capture and the mirror’s slap. Another thing to avoid with sensitive subjects is the “let-her-rip” technique we tend to use with digital SLRs with capture rates as fast as 10 frames per second. That repetitive sound is almost certain to cause alarm.

Please, Release Me
What kind of permission, if any, does a photographer need to have to publish or otherwise sell a photograph of someone else’s property? I have a picture of a house that I took in Lewiston, Idaho. This particular house sits on a hill, and its surroundings as well as its distinctive features make it unique. Basically, if the individual who owns this house saw the image, there would be no mistaking that it’s his house. Would I need to have some sort of release from the owner of this house before posting it for sale on my website? This seems like a gray area because everyone can recognize the Eiffel Tower, but releases aren’t required for posting pictures of that on the Net.
B. Steinagel
Via the Internet

A First, thanks for inspiring the side trip we took to Paris while researching the answer to your question!

Actually, the issue of securing permission to market a photograph of recognizable private property doesn’t fall into a gray area at all. You must have a release from the owner of any private property you photograph before you use the image for any commercial purpose. If you want to use it for an editorial purpose, the rules are different. Say you photographed lightning striking the neighbor’s house and sold it to the local newspaper for a story about the big storm. That’s an editorial use. The problem is that when you take the photograph you can’t possibly know what all the potential uses are, or who might pirate the image and turn it into a commercial venture. So get the release and keep your options open.

Private property includes the farmer’s house, horse, barn, tractor, cows in the field and, most especially, daughters. If you take a picture of the cows and you can’t recognize their brands or their surroundings, you’ll probably get away with it. But it’s still his property, and if you’re going to be responsible, you should give the farmer the opportunity to approve your use.

For this reason, I always carry both model and property releases in my camera bag. When I’ve been particularly interested in photographing a stranger or his or her property, I just ask. It usually works, especially if I arrive with samples of my work and a promise to provide prints as compensation for the release. If you’ve already taken the photograph without advance permission and want to market it, go back to the owner in person with image in hand, or send one by mail with your request for a release.

Your last sentence raises two separate issues. First, the Eiffel Tower is owned by the city of Paris, and is therefore a public landmark. That typically means you can photograph it and market to your heart’s content. But there are some iconic landmarks that are privately owned. We’re reminded of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, surely one of the most representative examples of an American historical treasure. It’s owned by a foundation that closely controls photographic access. For an eye-opening lesson, visit the website and search “photography.” Unfortunately, professional photographers (that is, those who carry big lenses and tripods and presumably make money from their photography) are made increasingly unwelcome at zoos, botanical gardens, aquaria and other seemingly public places because, in fact, they’re privately or foundation-owned.

The American Society of Media Photographers offers a variety of publications on business standards for commercial photographers, all available through their website at

For information about upcoming seminars and digital-imaging workshops, visit

One of North America’s best-known contemporary outdoor and nature photographers and a leader in the field of digital imaging and photographic education, Lepp is the author of many books and the field editor of Outdoor Photographer magazine. One of Canon’s original Explorers of Light, Lepp finds inspiration in advancing technology that fuels creative innovation and expression of his life-long fascination with the natural world.