April Fool! – Aurora on George St

At last I can share the results of another art-driven project, now that it’s all delivered. Last year my friends Chris and Adrienne Roy of 315 Euro motel here in Dunedin asked me to create some images for a new motel they were designing.  They had settled on the name Aurora on George and were looking for some Aurora-based images to decorate their rooms and reception area.  I was immediately excited by the prospect, having had some fun shooting the local aurora australis already. Even though the aurora is a lot more subtle phenomenon here than in higher latitudes, it’s quite a thing here in Dunedin, thanks to the body of work produced by photographer Paul Le Comte and astronomer and director of Otago Museum Ian Griffin. My own efforts have been quite modest in comparison, having made a couple of images I liked, I’d moved on to explore other subjects but I was keen to revisit the genre and come up with something special for the new venture.

Otago Harbour Aurora--5

The extra twist was that the Roys only became aware of the local aurora buzz after they’d chosen their name. When I showed them some of the local aurora pictures, they told me they wanted something unique and weren’t bound by the reality of local conditions. What they asked me for was to be 1: Much more spectacular; 2: In line with their chosen brand colours and 3: To feature Dunedin city – something not achievable in reality because for the best view of the city you need to face northwest-ish and the aurora can only be seen to the south. It became clear that I had to really push my creative envelope here and create some kind of composite image.

For those who think that’s easier than the dedication needed by Paul and Ian, think again. Just like shooting the real aurora, it meant I had to go out on several occasions to try and get the best set of light and sky conditions, taking into account the light output of the city lights that had to be included. Since most of the images had to be panoramic and a daughter shot would be a large glass piece placed behind the reception desk, the only way to get the resolution I needed was to shoot on a long lens and stitch several images together.  Add to that the fact that I wanted to be able to use images with high dynamic range, meaning three long exposures for each frame, it got a little more complicated, especially since around dusk when I needed to shoot, the light changes so rapidly, shots at each end of the panorama differed considerably in light conditions.  For one of the series, I was able to use a frame I shot a few years ago looking up the harbour from Otago Peninsula. It would need some work though!

Otago Harbour Aurora-2

Pano’s made, then came the heavy post production.  First I wanted to change the colour balance of the originals to be much more sympathetic to the brand colours. Then I replaced the sky. Originally, I blended one of my own starry sky shots onto a dark blue, but wasn’t satisfied with the resolution, so created a photoshop brush to paint the stars in.  For a really spectacular set of aurorae, I also used photoshop brushes, using each of the brand colours in a separate layer and playing around with the stacking and blend modes.  So over the course of many hours, the shots went from this:

Otago Harbour Aurora--3 Otago Harbour Aurora--4

to this:


Otago Harbour Aurora- Otago Harbour Aurora--2 Otago Harbour Aurora-3-2


Once the finals were approved, they were printed on canvases for the rooms, and the 2.4m wide glass piece is behind reception at last. Chris and Adrienne say it brings passers by in just to look, which is very pleasing.  I hope they let on that the pictures are ahem, enhanced. Just to get a few extra eyeballs, I released the panos on Facebook and Twitter, April 1.  They got quite a reaction, especially from those who don’t get out to see the real thing. Of course I posted the originals by the end of the day.

I guess one or two purists might be offended by this sort of manipulation but for me the camera, lighting, Photoshop… they’re all just tools to create the image you want. That’s the life of the working photog, making images somebody wants. And happily, having a lot of fun along the way.





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