Archive for the ‘Landscape’ Category

The Making of a Photo: Aurora Over Wrangell Mountains

Thursday, June 12th, 2014
The Making of a Photo: Aurora Over Wrangell Mountains

Michelle and I decided to spend a long weekend at the end of March to get away and scout for locations to shoot for a future workshop, and to find a base of operations for that workshop. Unfortunately, the bed and breakfast we stayed at did not pan out as a potential workshop location – it lacked a central meeting space, had far too few rooms, and was too comingled with family spaces within the structure.

But along the way, we found a few good vantage points to capture the aurora borealis along the Richardson Highway north and south out of Glennallen. The weather forecast looked good for providing us clear skies during the trip, but the question remained as to whether the space weather would cooperate. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), one of my more reliable forecast sources, did not have a good forecast for the time period. So, the only thing to do was to watch the real time data on and see if conditions would develop that were favorable to aurora photography.

When we went to bed, I set my alarm to go off once an hour so I could get up and check the Spaceweather data. In each instance, the data did not look conducive to producing an aurora borealis that would be worth shooting. But at 1:00 a.m., which is when the aurora had been “going off” recently, I decided to add a visual check in addition to my look online. I went to the front porch, went outside, and looked north – to see the aurora dancing in the sky. It was a dim display, but I went inside, grabbed the gear, and headed out to a pullout I had scouted earlier.

When I arrived, I set up the camera and took several test shots to check for focus and exposure. Even though the display was dim, I kept taking pictures occasionally to watch for increased activity. In many cases, the aurora can be doing things that are not visible to the naked eye, but will show up on a long exposure. After a while, it built enough to where it was dancing over the St. Elias Range, and spiking with peaks of reds. And while it was a moonless night, the aurora produced enough light to show silhouettes of the trees in the foreground and the mountains in the background.

Nikon D800E, Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8, Gitzo tripod, Arca Swiss ballhead, ISO 3200, f/2.8, 10 seconds.


Top Images for 2013

Monday, December 16th, 2013
Top Images for 2013

One of the treats of looking back at the year is realizing the diversity of what you captured, and recognizing that each year, something new comes along. This year saw three principal areas of photographic exploration for me: the American Southwest (in winter), the Bristol Bay region and the aurora borealis. And while my aurora borealis prints are definitely my top selling category of print right now, I would be remiss if I did not give the other areas equal weight.  This is especially true for my Bristol Bay images.

In January, Michelle and I were in the American Southwest, starting in Las Vegas (the best place to fly into from Alaska for a visit to the Southwest). We went to Death Valley National Park, Mono Lake, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Unfortunately for us, for the first part of the trip, it was actually colder than our home in Alaska, where we found unseasonably cold weather in Mono Lake and the Moab area. But, for me, it reiterated that winter can be a fantastic time to visit national parks – far fewer people and the opportunity to take some more unique images.

The year’s fieldwork for the book started out in the village of Nondalton, a small community of Dena’ina Athabascans on the edge of Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, and situated only about 11 air miles away from the proposed Pebble Mine site. I photographed some winter scenics, spent some time with a trapper as he checked his trap lines, and went for a snow machine visit to some friends near the mouth of the Chulitna River. Next, in May, I flew out to Dillingham where I met up with Frank Woods and joined him and his crew to head out to the Togiak herring fishery.  Five days on the boat during incredibly clear and gorgeous weather produced a lot of fantastic images of hard work in amazing scenery. In June, I joined a group of Alaska Alpine Adventure clients for a guided backcountry trip into the Twin Lakes area of Lake Clark National Park & Preserve. Next month would find me visiting fish camps on the Newhalen River and out on the Cook Inlet coast visiting the Silver Salmon Creek Lodge to document brown bear viewing and flyfishing. Finally, in September, I flew out and spent a few days with the team at the No See Um Lodge, documenting sport fishing and the incredible scenery of the Kvichak River.

And then, there was the aurora chasing. In March, I was joined by Hawaii photographers CJ Kale and Nick Selway, owners of the Lava Light Galleries in Kona, and Eastern Sierras photographer Nolan Nitschke. After they did a mad-dash run up to Prudhoe Bay, I joined them in photographing the Broad Pass area of the Parks Highway one evening, and then we happened to be in Portage Valley of Chugach National Forest for the incredibly epic St. Patrick’s Day display. And then, this August, September and November, I was out again capturing more images in the vicinity of Anchorage to build up my aurora borealis image collection.

And then, there were a few things here and there that rounded out the year.  Countless incredible Cook Inlet sunsets photographed from the deck of my new home on the Anchorage hillside. A jaunt out to Prince William Sound for a reality TV show episode. A flight to do some aerial photography of properties in the Knik Arm area for Great Land Trust. Exploring fall colors in Southcentral Alaska.

You can view the totality of my “Best Of” selection in my 2013 Year in Review gallery, but here are my some highlights from my favorite images from the year.

How to Chase and Shoot the Aurora Like a Pro

Monday, November 25th, 2013
How to Chase and Shoot the Aurora Like a Pro

Alaskans tend to take advantage of their long days in the summer by getting out and hiking, biking, camping, and fishing.  We savor the opportunity to have six hours of sunlight to enjoy on a weekday even after the work day is done.  Farther north, the sun never even goes down.  But as winter comes, the light goes down sooner and the nights grow longer.  Temperatures drop, chills set in.  And while some types of activities go away, they are simply replaced by others that can be pursued in the winter.  Nordic skiing, snow shoeing, trapping and snow machining take over as popular outdoor activities.  And then, there is a small but growing (thanks to the prevalence of digital cameras) sliver of the population that pursues another activity: aurora borealis chasing.

There is a lot that goes into planning and preparing for a night out in the cold and dark seeking the perfect aurora photograph.  Some people head out more prepared than others.  I lean toward the prepared in order to not only be successful but to enjoy the experience.


Unless you live north of the Arctic Circle, you can’t just head out on any clear night to photograph the aurora borealis.  There are certain conditions that produce strong auroras, strong enough to be seen farther south; and they are not always present.  So you need to know how to interpret the space weather as well as the Earth weather, and get a read on current conditions.

First, you can’t see the aurora if it’s cloudy where you live.  In Alaska, your best source of getting weather information is the NOAA Alaska Region website. You can get detailed regional forecasts and examine real time satellite imagery of cloud cover, including six-hour loops, in your area.  That way, if it is cloudy where you are, you can at least look for the holes in those clouds using satellite imagery.  Your best bet for nighttime imagery is to go with the “Thermal IR” or “Infrared” images.

Second, you need to know if the space conditions are going to produce an aurora in your area.  The first indicator is the strength of the forecast for that night.  The best forecast service I have seen yet is offered by NOAA, and you can subscribe to a variety of email alerts, but I recommend the 3-day forecast.  You can also view the 3-day forecast for geomagnetic activity directly on the NOAA Spaceweather Prediction Center website. It is updated at least twice times a day and has proven quite accurate since I started using it in 2013.  NOAA also has a 30-minute forecast.  Other short term forecasts include Soft Serve News.  I have not found the Geophysical Institute Aurora Forecast page to be accurate, as it is not updated regularly. You will want to look for what “KP Index” or “Planetary K-index” is predicted.  The higher the number, the further south the aurora will reach.  For example, a KP3 aurora can reach overhead Anchorage, while a KP7 aurora can reach overhead Seattle.  Your best bet for obtaining and understanding the data necessary to determine if there is going to be an aurora is to visit and SolarHam. Look for discussions on when a CME (Coronal Mass Ejection) is expected to hit the Earth’s magnetosphere, as well as the speed of the Solar wind (look for increasing winds, better than 500 km/sec) and a southerly Bz in the Interplanetary Magnetic Field.  The higher that Bz (south) number, the better. For the St. Patrick’s Day 2015 display, it was over 20. You can also see the current and anticipated KP Index.  Additionally, you can sign up for text alerts on Spaceweather, for a nominal monthly fee ($5).

Finally, in addition to the real time data on Spaceweather and NOAA POES Auroral Activity, sometimes it’s nice just to be able to look and see.  There are two aurora cams that are worthwhile to bookmark on your computer and smartphone. For Alaska, you can’t go wrong with Ronn Murray’s Alaska Aurora Cam, housed at Sirius Sled Dogs in Fairbanks. For Canada (even though I know of many Alaskans who follow it), keep an eye on the AuroraMAX aurora cam in Yellowknife.    For Facebook reports, join the Aurora Lovers and Aurora Borealis Notifications pages. I also follow the @AuroraMAX and @AuroraNotify Twitter feeds, which provide real time updates.

Ready for the Road

Most people who are experienced and prepared drivers in Alaska have a winter survival kit in their car.  I have one of those.  But I also have an extra set of gear in the back of my car to provide some additional comfort in my aurora hunting.  I have a bag that contains a MSR Whisper-Lite stove, a MSR bottle of white gas fuel, a Ziploc with snack bars, instant Starbucks coffee, hot chocolate, and plastic eating utensils.  There is a bag of Sailor Boy Pilot Bread and a container of creamy peanut butter to go with it.  I also have a small cook kit and a kettle for boiling water, and a travel mug for drinking hot liquids.  This bag, along with a few camping chairs and a -20 F sleeping bag, stay in my car at all times.

In my office, I keep a camera bag fully-loaded and ready to go for running out after the northern lights. Having the gear ready eliminates frustrating and stressful running about and panicking when you realize the aurora is going, and it avoids missing something important during that chaotic time. The bag contains my Nikon D800 and three lenses: Nikkor 14-24 f/2.8 AFS, Nikkor 24-70 f/2.8 AFS and the Nikkor 70-200 f/2.8 AFS VR.  I also stock an assortment of CF and SD cards, spare batters, lens cloths, Lee GND filters (in case there is a great aurora display over some artificial lighting, like the city or a cabin, or to balance exposure involving a reflection), battery charger, and AC inverter to plug into my car “cigarette lighter” outlet.  Sitting next to it is a one-gallon jug of water I take with so I will have something to boil to add to the coffee or hot chocolate packets.

Before heading out, you need to make sure you are dressed for the long haul.  From head to toe, you will not see me wearing cotton.  It has to be either synthetic or wool or fur, for the simple reason that cotton, when wet, takes longer to dry and does not retain heat as well.  For my head, I take a seal/beaver/otter hat handcrafted by an Inupiat artist, a thin hood layer, and a mask.  I wear two layers under my jacket, and a pair of thermals under a pair of snow pants.  For my hands, I prefer a thin liner glove underneath a set of fingerless gloves with a mitten flap.  On my feet, a pair of wool socks and a set of Baffin polar industrial boots.  Sometimes I wear moose hide Steger Mukluks of my Baffin boots, depending on how cold it is or how much snow depth there is, or if I anticipate possibly having to step through shallow water.

When to Go

Then there are certain times of the year that are best for chasing the aurora; you can’t effectively go aurora chasing when it is not dark.  (You could go in the daylight if you are a sucker for quixotic pursuits.)  I know, it seems crazy to mention, but a lot of people ask me when the best time of year is to see the aurora, or they ask if it has to be cold in order for the aurora to come out.  So, my answer is, the best time is when it is dark and in Alaska, that more likely than not means cold.  Sure, it starts getting dark enough to see them in August, and you can still see them in April, but most of the time during those months in between, it is cold outside.  Also, the aurora is most active around the fall and spring equinoxes – no one knows why, that’s just the way it is. That makes September-October and March-April the best times for viewing and photographing the aurora, although I have photographed some good displays in August and November.

Another consideration is the phase of the moon.  I rely on the U.S. Naval Observatory to check the phase of the moon and when it will rise and set at a particular location.  Unless you are planning on using silhouetted trees as your foreground, a new moon is not the best time to capture the aurora. A little bit of moonlight will bring some detail to the landscape and make your photo more interesting.  With a dim aurora, a full moon will provide too much light and overpower the aurora (but with a strong aurora, it doesn’t matter).

Where to Go

If the conditions are right and you have the gear ready, you need to decide where you are going to go for the evening.  I have scouted several locations within an hour to hour-and-a-half from Anchorage that have proven to be good locations.  What makes a good location? If you don’t want city lights in your photo, get out of the city and out to a location with an open view of the sky to the north.  Try to find a place with some foreground elements to add interest.  While sometimes the aurora can be awesome enough to stand on its own with a flat foreground that is generally not the case.  A great aurora photo also includes an interesting landscape.  Look for a location with some good foreground elements – water, trees, distinctive mountains, maybe some sort of structure (like an old bridge or building). Near Anchorage, good locations can be found along the Turnagain Arm and Knik River (although, be on the lookout for the pink glow of Palmer on your horizon).  The Matanuska Valley and Hatcher Pass offer excellent locations as you get farther away from Anchorage. Suitable landscapes with open skies can be found on the Parks Highway in the Broad Pass area just south of Cantwell.  The Interior regularly gets good views of the aurora on clear nights, from Fairbanks to Delta to Copper Center.  Farther north, great viewing can be found on the Dalton Highway near Wiseman and in Atigun Pass.

Taking the Photos

It may seem like a lot of settings at first, but once you get familiar with capturing the aurora, these settings will become second nature.

Lens selection and focus.  It is preferable to have a lens no slower than f/2.8 and as wide as 24mm.  Shooting at f/4.0 or slower will often produce too long of an exposure to get the brilliance you need for some of the less brilliant, but still lovely, displays, and it will create undesired star trails at exposures longer than 30 seconds, sometimes even 15 seconds depending on your focal length.  And having that wide focal length of 24mm or wider is key when you are trying to capture a phenomenon that encompasses the whole sky.  Disable your automatic focus and use manual focus; then set the focus point to near infinity.  If you place your focus point right at infinity, then you will get slightly-out of focus images.  Use your initial waiting time to take several test photos, moving slightly off infinity in each direction, and check the focus of the image (by zooming in on the stars while viewing in your LCD display) each time until you find the right setting.  If the moon is out and bright, I will actually turn on the auto focus, focus on the moon, and then turn it back to manual focus, locking in that setting.  You can also use Live View mode to zoom in on a focus point and manually focus on that.

Filters.  Remove any and all filters from your lens.  We all like to put UV filters or some other neutral, clear filter on our lenses to protect them from damage.  But any filter of any kind that is screwed onto a lens will create a distortion, represented by concentric circles, in dead center of your image.  Somehow, the light of the aurora bounces back and forth between the lens elements and the filter during long exposures to create the undesired effect. With that said, I have used graduated neutral density filters (square filters in a bracket attached to the lens) to darken a brightly lit foreground or to balance the exposure of the aurora with its reflection on a water surface.

Camera functioning.  The key to keeping your camera working is its batteries.  I always take at least three spare batteries with me when venturing out into the cold.  I keep them in a quart-sized Ziploc™ bag and tucked inside amidst the many layers I wear to keep myself warm.  As your battery power starts to wane, simply replace the cold battery with a warm one.  Also be mindful of condensation.  At extreme colds, your breath will fog up and frost the back of your camera, including the viewfinder and LCD display.  So, hold your breath when composing.  To prevent fogging and frosting of your lenses, either keep your camera and lens together in a camera bag when bringing back into your vehicle (and keep the bag away from a heat source), or simply remove your battery and leave everything outside.  If leaving your camera outside for extended periods of time, you may also want to cover your lens element to prevent frost buildup. One thing I will also do if I have my vehicle nearby is to run my camera directly on A/C power, running the power cable through an A/C inverter that is plugged into my “cigarette lighter” plug.

Settings.  With your aperture set at f/2.8 (or whatever is the widest opening on your lens), set your exposure mode to manual.  Then, set your exposure at 8 seconds and ISO at 1600.  This is a good starting point, but, depending on the intensity of the aurora and the brightness of the night sky (if the moon is out), you may need to adjust your shutter speed faster or slower and/or adjust your ISO up or down.  My most common settings are ISO 1600 at 6-10 seconds, but I have done it at ISO 400 at 2 seconds for a really bright aurora and ISO 3200 at 30 seconds for a really dim aurora.  If your exposures need to be longer than 30 seconds, then use a higher ISO before you set a longer exposure.  If your camera has the function, enable your High ISO Noise Reduction.  You may also want to enable your Long Exposure Noise Reduction.  Set your white balance to Auto. Finally, make sure you are shooting in RAW mode for the type of file you are creating.

Tripod.   Of course, the basic rules of long-term image stability govern: tripod, cable release, and using the mirror lock up feature.  One of the more challenging aspects of composition for an aurora shot is ensuring that your horizon is level.  This can be accomplished by using (a) a bubble level for your hot shoe, or (b) using the viewfinder grid in your camera (if you are lucky enough to have one; the newer Nikon cameras do).

Now you Wait

Now that you are suited up, geared up, have checked the latest data on what the geomagnetic activity is and have found a good location with clear skies, it’s time to wait.  And be patient.  And wait some more.  On a good activity night, you will not have to wait long, as the aurora can hit as early as dusk.  And if it is good and looks like it is going to remain busy all night, don’t stay in one location; move on to somewhere else to capture other images.  I like to diversify my shooting locations so that all of my aurora borealis photos do not all look the same.  Diversity is one way to make your aurora images stand out compared to others.  And just like any other landscape photography situation, it is key to vary compositions, lens focal lengths, and orientation (horizontal or vertical).  If you feel like you have captured “the shot” for the night, keep shooting and try new techniques and compositions.  When I can, I like to set up and capture images for creating a time lapse movie.  It’s best, though, to take along a second tripod and camera (or even a “rail” system) to capture the time lapse so you don’t have to worry about missing a good still capture.

A short night is typically about three hours.  On an October night in 2012 with a particularly spectacular display, I was out for eight hours, and could have stayed out more.  I felt, though, that by 4:30 a.m. I had captured a lot of really good images and could go to bed satisfied.  But even having great aurora borealis images to show for a night out in the cold cannot truly capture the thrill of just being out there and witnessing this amazing phenomenon.

To see my successes based on this approach, visit my Aurora Borealis gallery.


8th Annual Nature Photography Day

Saturday, June 15th, 2013
8th Annual Nature Photography Day

The North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) is a membership organization dedicated to promoting nature photography “as a medium of communication, nature appreciation, and environmental protection.”  I’ve been a member of this organization for a decade, taking advantage of its membership by attending annual seminars, enjoying inexpensive equipment insurance, and receiving guidance on ethical field practices.

One of the things that NANPA promotes is an annual Nature Photography Day on June 15.  It began Nature Photography Day to “promote the enjoyment of nature photography, and to explain how images have been used to advance the cause of conservation and protect plants, wildlife, and landscapes locally and worldwide.”  Rather than calling upon people to go to great lengths to fly or drive great distances to some dramatic, iconic location, the idea behind Nature Photography Day is to go someplace close, some place within walking, hiking or biking distance and examine the wonders of nature in our own backyard.  Fresh air and less carbon footprint that way!

Since the snow finally went away just a few weeks ago, I have been enjoying getting out and exploring the trails near my new hillside home above Rabbit Creek. The other morning, when doing my usual hour-long circuit, I noticed that the wildflowers were in crazy bloom.  Arctic lupine, bluebells, Western columbine, Narcissus-flowered anemone, forget-me-not, dwarf dogwood; all were bursting from the grasses, alders, aspen, cow parsnip, and just about every aspect of hillside and trail.  Knowing that I would be going for a hike this morning along the same route, I decided to take my camera long for the first time and capture some of this fleeting beauty.  Of course, with all of the stopping and composing, the usual hour turned into two.  But what a way to start a day.

The day is still young.  If you have a trail, park, stream, lake, coast, woods, or anything not made entirely of concrete and steel nearby you, I encourage you to get out and explore it with your camera.  Don’t be in a rush, either; take your time.  You may be surprised as to the many wonders you can discover if you give nature a chance to reveal herself to you.

The push to Homer

Thursday, March 21st, 2013
The push to Homer

Sometimes things can take on a life of their own.  This is especially true if you are traveling with a group of photographers fresh from a sleep-deprived high of some spectacular aurora photos the night before – March 8, 2012.  With space weather forecasts suggesting another good night for aurora borealis displays, we headed out to the Kenai Peninsula.  It seemed to be the only place in our region where the clouds might be clear.

With clouds enshrouding the Turnagain Arm area, we pressed through a snow storm in Turnagain Pass, turning instead of toward Seward but down to Cooper Landing.  This small town on the Kenai Peninsula is ideally situated for landscape photography – high mountain ridges rise up on both sides of the town, which rests at Kenai Lake and the headwaters of the Kenai River.  A bridge on the Sterling Highway that crosses those headwaters marks the key launching point into the river, which also presents an opportunity to photograph the landscape in the flowing waters of the river.  Scattered clouds allowed us to view the tandem of Jupiter and Venus in the western sky, and even a bit of a green aurora glow rising up above the mountains to the north.  But before the aurora could grow and present a stronger display, the clouds rolled in.  We had come too far to turn around and head north of Anchorage – so we continued on down the highway toward Homer.

Most of the trip down to Homer was a blur for me, as I sat in and out of consciousness in the back seat of one of the two vehicles making the photo convoy. At one point I awoke to us being pulled over by Alaska State Troopers because the vehicle I was riding in had one headlight that was inoperative.

Before I knew it, we were at a well-known overlook that presents sweeping views of Kachemak Bay, the Gulf of Alaska, and the Homer Spit.  A nearly-full moon was blasting its way through a strong cloud canopy that swallowed the sky.  I captured several images, drawing upon the various tonalities in the scene and textures represented in the clouds and mountains on the far side of the bay.  After a while, we headed down to Bishop’s Beach, a public beach adorned with driftwood and rocks polished and shaped from eons of tumbling in the surf.  Surprisingly, we easily spent a couple of hours playing with low light photography, long shutter speeds, rolling surf, and various compositions of deadwood and stone. While not stellar images, it was fun to take advantage of being all the way down in Homer in the middle of the night and making the best of a cloudy night.

Shortly after 3:00 a.m., we headed back to Anchorage.  Again, I dozed through most of the four hour drive, catching glimpses of clouds, darkness and falling snow.  By the time we got back to Anchorage, the skies had opened up and the sun was shining. No aurora, but a photo adventure that ably reflected the craziness that can ensue when a group of photographers decide to head out and try to capture some nighttime magic.

Magical Mono Lake

Sunday, December 30th, 2012
Magical Mono Lake

Mono Lake in the Great Basin of the Eastern Sierras in California is a popular photography destination.  With the bizarre tufa formations, created from the accumulation of numerous minerals over thousands of years, and the backdrop of the Eastern Sierras, it presents many opportunities for the landscape photographer to explore.  Like many photo destinations in the area, it is not often photographed in the winter.  Since this was my first time to the lake, located near the town of Lee Vining, I was there more for scouting than to fulfill a particular photographic vision.  Having never been there before, it was hard to pre-visualize.

Mono Lake is considered one of the oldest lakes in North America, with an estimated age of somewhere between one and three million years.  High in alkaline content, the lake contains an unusual combination of chlorides, carbonates and sulfates.  It has fluctuated in depth over the years (current average depth is 57 feet),  but has steadily been losing water levels since 1941 when the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began diverting water from the lake to meet the water demands of California’s largest city.  As a result, the volume of the lake dropped while its salinity doubled.  The Mono Lake Committee was formed in 1978 to bring legal, legislative and social pressure to bear in an effort to protect the lake, and its unique tufa features, from destruction.

Most of the tufa formations are located in what is called the South Tufa area, approximately a ten-minute drive from where we stayed at the Lake View Lodge in Lee Vining.  My first view of the tufas came by headlamp when Michelle and I hiked down to the lake from the parking area for the first time about a half hour before sunrise.  It was cloudy that morning, but return trips in the evening and next morning and evening produced some good results.  Temperatures were a bit chilly on the second morning; as the clouds cleared, the temperatures dropped to -11 F on the road, and a meager 3 degrees at the lake itself.

That raises a few points worth mentioning about visiting this part of California in the winter.  As we were driving north from Bishop after visiting Galen Rowell’s Mountain Light Gallery, we diverted to the community of Mammoth Lakes to refuel.  As we came into town, we noticed several vehicles pulled over in pullouts, parking lots and side streets so that drivers could position chains on their vehicle’s tires.  It was an interesting experience, as people generally don’t use chains on their tires in Alaska – we get to use studded tires in the winter.  But it brought to light the fact that this is winter in high elevations (7,000 to 8,000 feet) in the Eastern Sierras.  The area gets a lot of snow, and it can be cold.  Plus, businesses are generally closed.  When we stayed in Lee Vining, there was nothing really open other than the General Store and one restaurant, Nicely’s Diner.  I must say, though, we really didn’t need much more – Nicely’s turned out to have very well done American diner cuisine at really reasonable prices. 

But the drive through this stretch of Highway 395 exposed me to some incredibly inspiring scenery – I can see why Galen Rowell chose to make this part of California his home.  Michelle and I determined that another, longer trip to the region in the autumn would definitely be in our future.  Then we would also be able to explore Yosemite National Park from the east, an option not available in the winter as the mountain passes into the park from the east are closed in winter. 


Star Trails, old and new ways

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012
Star Trails, old and new ways

On those clear starry nights when I am out searching for the aurora borealis, but no lights come out to play, I like to make sure that the effort of being out late and freezing my tuchus off is still worthwhile.  One way to do this is to highlight the magic of those starry skies through a star trails capture.

Up until about 2009, the only way I had ever considered capturing star trails was with a single, multi-hour exposure.  The technical aspects of capturing such a photo are fairly simple.  Set the ISO of your digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera to 100, white balance to auto, exposure to manual on the “bulb” setting, and the f-stop to f/2.8.  Turn off the auto focus on your camera and set the manual focus to Infinity.  Do not turn your focus ring all the way over to the end where the Infinity symbol is, that is not a true Infinity.  It will take a couple of test shots, zooming in on the stars following each capture, to determine where the true Infinity focus point is.  Finally, you will need a shutter cable release that allows you to lock the shutter open.  Once you have everything set up and have isolated the composition you desire, push the button on that shutter cable release and lock it in that position.  Then, go find something to do for a couple of hours.  With DSLR cameras, you will likely not want to set an exposure for longer than three hours or so, as the noise build-up in the image after such a long exposure will not be fixable.  This is one advantage film still has over digital – you can create a four-hour star trail photo with no image quality degradation.

The other critical element for capturing a single-image star trails exposure is the phase of the moon.  Anything brighter than a quarter moon will overexpose the landscape when exposed for two or more hours.  You cannot compensate by adjusting your f-stop to something higher, like f/8.0 or f/11, as that will take away the much needed exposure of the stars.  But, that is not to say that it is impossible to create a star trails image under a bright moon.  I have created star trails images on full or nearly-full moon nights before.

The key is to capture several images and then merge them into one using Photoshop.  You will need to have a camera with a built-in Intervalometer, like those available in Nikon cameras starting with the Nikon D300, or you will need to purchase one to attach to your camera.  The Intervalometer is what allows you to set your camera to take pictures at regular intervals, the key technical requirement of creating a star trails image using several images.

On a recent nearly-full moonlit night, I captured 1,000 images over a one-and-a-half hour period.  I set my exposure manually to 4 seconds and ISO to 1600 (applying all of the other settings mentioned previously), and set my Intervalometer to take a photo every 5 seconds for 999 photo captures.  It is key to make sure that there is as little gap as possible in between exposures in order to minimize or eliminate gaps in star trails that may occur as a result of star movement in between exposures.

Once you have captured your 1,000 or so images, now you need to bring them all together.  In order to make the files manageable in size, I typically will not shoot these files in RAW mode (with my Nikon D800, each RAW file is 25 megs – things add up after a while).  Place all of your star files in a folder that will be easy to locate and isolate.  Next, search the Internet to find a usable action that you can download and incorporate into Photoshop.  (Photoshop does not have any built-in feature that can do what needs to be done; you cannot simply stack the images in layers and easily merge them into a single layer.)  One action I used recently is the Star Circle Academy Stacker. I found the instructions relatively easy to follow and the Action is free – a teaser to sign up for some of their nighttime photography courses.  I used a similar action three years ago when creating a star trail photo during a full moon in Badlands National Park while spending time there as the park’s Artist-in-Residence.  In that case, I had set my camera to take photos all night in order to create a time lapse.  This presents another advantage of setting up a star trails photo using this method – the images captured can also have other applications.

Finally, there is actually a star trails feature built into Photoshop CS5.  I prefer not to use this method because it really is cheating.  It also requires you to separately capture a blank star field, with no landscape, and whatever foreground landscape you want to have in the image.  To create the star trails using this method, open up your RAW star field file in Adobe Bridge, adjusting the Clarity to bring out the whites of the stars.  Once the file is open, select your Actions feature in Photoshop CS5, then click the fly out menu on the upper right portion of the Actions tab.  Toward the bottom you will see “Star Trails Rotation.”  Select that and then hit the Play button on the bottom of the Actions window to see the rotations created.  You can repeat this function several times in order to lengthen the star trails.  You will note, however, that the more you do it, the more fake the image becomes.  Once you have created this star trails image, you can place it in the background of your foreground landscape.  Again, I do not use this method because it is not only cheating, but does not produce as visually stunning of a result as a single exposure or a thousand-image star trail photo.

The nighttime is a wonderful time to be out in the winter, especially on a cold, clear night.  Just because the aurora has not come out as you hoped does not mean you have to go home empty-handed.


A new age of aurora viewing

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012
A new age of aurora viewing

Back in 2002, I was only three years into being what I considered to be a serious nature photographer.  What was that dividing line, you may ask?  There were two things that happened that helped me to understand I was getting more serious.  One was beginning to truly understand how light affected film, and the other was switching from color negative film to color slide film.

I had only been living in Alaska for three years in 2002, and the experience was overwhelming.  So many new sights, new places to explore and photograph, new friends, new work obligations, and a relationship that was in a plateau just before it started its decline.  With a demanding day job, I lacked the time and leisure to be able to go out and chase after the aurora borealis, which was putting on some rather vibrant displays because it was the peak of the eleven-year solar cycle.  I could only live vicariously through the works of local photographers who had the time and knowledge necessary to go out and capture stunning aurora images.  All of those photographers were shooting film.  There was no Twitter, no Facebook, and no smart phones.

Aurora viewing had a certain level of popularity at that time, as it has through the centuries.  Japanese tourists in particular have been reputed to visit Alaska in the winter time specifically to view the aurora and make love under its magic.  The commonly-held belief among the Japanese is that conceiving a child under the aurora will bring good luck.  The Nunamiut of the Brooks Range of Alaska believe that if you whistle at the aurora, it will move to your tune.  They also tell their children that if you go outside without a hat on, and the aurora is out, it will chop your head off and play with it like a ball.  The Tlingit, along with the Kwakiutl and the Salteaus Indians, believe that the aurora represents the spirits of ancestors, while the Yup’ik Eskimos of southwest Alaska believe that the northern lights were dancing animal spirits, particularly deer, seals, salmon and beluga whale.

That fascination had also translated into a photographic fixation for certain photographers in Alaska.  Most notably, Todd Salat, who for many years has been a mainstay at the Anchorage Downtown Market & Festival (aka “Saturday Market”) in downtown Anchorage and at the Dimond Mall during the holiday season, was a busy and successful aurora photographer going into the 2002 solar peak.  Back then, he, like pretty much all other photographers, was still shooting film.  And how did you know the aurora was going to be out back then?  Well, there was some raw data to observe and then you had to be out there to observe the good displays.  Salat notes, “It used to be that after a good aurora show, mark your calendar for 28 days. That’s how long it takes for the sun to revolve around it’s axis and hopefully the same sunspot/coronal hole would be pointing toward earth (geo-effective) and, once again, would be sending life-giving energy into the aurora.”  There was no means of coordinating your efforts based on multiple sources of real-time data.

How different of a world it is now as we approach that next solar cycle peak.  Everyone has a digital camera now, with a few die-hards out there capturing the natural world on film.  (I, occasionally, will take along my Hasselblad and capture images on Fuji Velvia 220 film.)  And then there is the real-time exchange of information available through Twitter and Facebook.  Twitter offers several accounts to follow for current and near real-time data, like Aurora Alerts and AuroraNotify. On Facebook, several user groups have sprouted up, such as Aurora Lovers and Aurora Borealis Notifications, sharing real time data and the success of a good night of aurora through pictures and stories.  And there are countless photographers posting their own updates via Twitter and Facebook.  One dedicated aurora hunter has even gone so far as to post suggested locations using Google maps for viewing the aurora in the vicinity of Anchorage, the Mat-Su Valley, and Fairbanks.

The proliferation of the smart phone has had a particular impact.  Rather than being chained to a desk or laptop computer to monitor these real-time aurora and weather reports, the smart phone has allowed the intrepid photographer to be out in the field, closer to the locations necessary to capture great aurora images.  So long as there is cellular service, which is still quite sketchy in several areas of Alaska -even on the road system – the in-field photographer can react quickly to new individual reports or updates from NOAA.  There are also a variety of applications, such as 3D Sun and Aurora Buddy that offer yet another source of information to supplement the smart phone data access.

But even with all of these new, grand advances in technology, it’s still technology, which means sometimes it goes down.

Following a peak of aurora activity over March 7-9, 2012, then heading into another three days of activity on March 11-14, 2012, the Alaska Geophyisical Institute page that is famous for providing its aurora forecasts simply went down from too much traffic.  Charles Deehr is the dedicated man behind those aurora forecasts, having been inspired to create the forecast based on a particularly vivid display he viewed in 1989.

Even with the occasional glitch, the new age of aurora-hunting technology offers more benefits than faults, according to Salat.  “A perfect example just happened yesterday.  I woke up in my truck camper and saw it was snowing with a forecast for more snow in my area.  The space weather websites were predicting active auroras that night because of an incoming solar flare (CME).  On my iPhone I viewed dozens of weather reports for every town and city within 300 miles then made a best guess and took off.  At 4 am, 200 miles from where I started the day, I finally found a clear patch and had a wonderful aurora experience.  Thank you smartphone.”

But even with all of the claims that social media and new technology create social barriers in the real world, among real people, the current aurora craze certainly goes against that common belief.  A vivid display in March 2012 over Anchorage provides a good example of this.  Fueled by promising aurora forecasts, crowds of people headed up into the hillside above Anchorage, crowding trailhead parking lots and any pullover with a view to the open sky.  I, along with several other photographers, headed down the Turnagain Arm to a pullout at the boundary of the Chugach National Forest.  After the initial display, the Facebook and Twitter feed went crazy, with people sharing reports from Fairbanks down to the Kenai Peninsula.  I saw one Tweet from local progressive radio show host Shannyn Moore, and gave her a call – she was driving up the winding roads of the Anchorage hillside, looking for a spot to view the aurora.  When the next show erupted, I abruptly hung up on her and went to photographing.  The next day, she recounted the event on her show, The Shannyn Moore Show.

Todd Salat also agrees that the real-time, shared experience, creates an added dimension to the aurora experience.  He notes, “Scientists can model the flare and are getting darn good at predicting the actual time of impact (+/-).  We now know the minute a geomagnetic substorm is in progress. You can even get alerts emailed or phoned in to you. If you’re sitting warmly in front of a home computer, time to throw on a coat and get your eyes on the sky. If you’re out in the field it’s incredibly fun, educational and almost addictive to monitor a northern lights show while it’s in progress.”

In this brave new world of aurora viewing, people will be able to enjoy and photograph the aurora borealis unlike ever before.  I can only hope that the technology that fosters greater opportunity does not outshine the magic of the aurora itself.

Feel free to visit my Aurora Borealis gallery on my website.  I also have a prior instructional post on how to capture the aurora.


Aurora out on the Knik River

Friday, March 16th, 2012
Aurora out on the Knik River

Sometimes it starts with a text or a post on our secret Facebook photo group or a quick email from a smartphone.  In each instance, it is driven by what “the donut” is doing.  “The donut’s on fire” or “The donut’s raging!”  Egged-on by Aurora alerts constantly reminding us that we seem to be on the wrong side of the world for the really spectacular aurora displays this year (they tend to hit during our daytime, but when it is nighttime over in Norway and Finland).

Regardless of how it starts, we all meet up somewhere to consolidate bodies and gear into two vehicles, typically in a Carrs or Fred Meyer parking lot on the way out of town.  From then on, it is just anticipation; waiting for the sun to go down, waiting for the skies to darken, waiting and hoping that “they” will come out.  The subject of a seemingly exploding global phenomenon fueled by the proliferation of social media.  The northern lights.  The aurora borealis.

Last night was no different.  Once assembled, we headed north out of Anchorage on the Glenn Highway toward Palmer.  After an obligatory stop at the Taco Bell – one of the group’s founders has a thing for Taco Bell – we headed out along the south side of the Knik River, finding a nice open patch of snow covered, frozen river and a grand view of the Talkeetna Mountains to the north.

It took a while before the first hint of a green glow began to appear.  It teased us off and on for about an hour, never really developing into a particularly memorable display.  All the while, many of us found other things to occupy our time, experimenting with time lapse or short star trails captures.  But after the skies completely darkened and stayed dark for a while, we decided it was time to pack up.  The “donut” had never really looked promising all through the evening, even though we kept refreshing the NOAA image on our smart phones every half hour or so to make sure.

So, at 12:15 a.m., we were in our vehicles and on our way back to Anchorage.  Shortly after passing the Old Glenn Highway bridge, I looked out my window and up.  There was a strong aurora beginning to developed.  I got very animated and excited, and apparently someone thought I had left some gear behind.  No, the lights are coming out.  Pull over!

We found a small pullout, stopped, and proceeded to pile out of the SUV, making a mad dash for the hatch and our gear.  I grabbed my tripod and camera bag and followed another photographer in a haphazard scramble over a snow berm and down the side of the bank to the river surface to set up and photograph.  While Venus had set, Jupiter was still aloft, providing a sharp point of focus in the sky.  The glow of Palmer lay before us, providing some light to silhouette the prominent landscape of the Butte.  Off to our right, the mountain ridge we had been working before when we were further upriver.  For the next hour and a half, I would use many of those landscape elements in composing images as the sky went back and forth, offering some decent displays.

Eventually, the clouds rolled in from the north, and our view was obscured.  But overhead, a new phase of the aurora developed.  Cascading shimmers of light bounced and flowed overhead, like waves of hyper-rapid surf washing over a glass ceiling.  There was nothing any one could do to capture it, the movement was too fast and the light too subtle for our gear.  We could only stand there on the frozen Knik River, craning our necks to look overhead, and stare in wonder.

These and other aurora borealis images are available for sale in my Aurora Borealis gallery.


Crazy aurora night

Friday, March 9th, 2012
Crazy aurora night

It is 2:36 a.m., Alaska Standard Time.  I have only been home for about twenty minutes after a six-hour venture out into a clear, cold Alaska night to wait for and capture the anticipated aurora displays of the evening.  Finally, the aurora lived up to the hype, and I was at the right place at the right time.   Wow.  What a night.

While everyone else headed to the Anchorage hillside or north to the Valley, particularly Hatcher Pass, I and some other photographers headed south to Turnagain Arm.  I have been photographing along the Turnagain Arm ever since I moved here almost 13 years ago, and I had never had the opportunity to photograph the Arm with the aurora borealis before tonight.  We found a perfect spot, spent some time photographing the night landscape before the moon and the aurora came out.

The Turnagain Arm is a fantastic area to photograph for so many reasons.  I go back year after year, season after season, because it has so much to offer.  I suggested a location I have stopped at many times before because of how the mountain ridges on the other side of the Arm line up – the pullout at the Chugach National Forest sign, past Girdwood but before the Twenty Mile River pullout.  With high tide peaking just about an hour before, we had lots of calm water before us to provide some really nice reflections.  A couple of snow covered rocks and a large chunk of snow covered ice presented great foreground elements.  All around us, from the mountain ridges to the water and fading colors of twilight, there was plenty to keep us busy until the aurora appeared.  Having that extra time to become familiar with the surroundings and of the various composition possibilities became crucial once the auora borealis display began.

At first it was just a dim green glow in a band reaching from over the mountains toward Anchorage to our right and arcing across the sky and to the left toward the Portage Valley.  I captured a few images just of that first dim showing, wanting to capture some additional color to add to the fading hues of dusk.  And then, the first wave hit at around 9:30.  The curtains appeared to our right toward Girdwood, right over the pinkish hues caused by the lights of Anchorage. The green curtains reached straight up and over us, bending and undulating slightly as they shifted their position from right to left over the sky.  It was so thrilling to finally see a decent display after so many years of being content with moderate-to-mild displays that did nothing more than slightly shift across the sky.  Fortunately, though, this particular display was not moving so fast that I couldn’t keep up, constantly checking to ensure that the focus was adequate, that the horizon was level (most times it wasn’t despite my best efforts).

And then, the display calmed down. We all took a few minutes to share images, ooh and aah at each other’s successes, and remark on how nice of a display it was.  Then, the waiting reconvened.  I took some time to set up a time lapse of the moon coming around the Chugach Mountains to our left, then captured a single image of the moon casting a long shadow over a snow-covered rock.  And since we were only 100 feet or so from where we parked our cars, we all agreed it was time for a warm up.

I don’t really know how long we waited in their, car running and iPod providing some entertainment, but at some point, someone noticed “they” were back out, so we all hopped out and resumed our stations.  The second wave started much like the first, with tall, green curtains coming over the mountains near Girdwood.  Again, the curtains moved from right to left and we watched and photographed.  Then the pattern shifted.

A long, horizontal band started to form over the Kenai Mountains, directly across from us, and I flipped my camera (mounted on a Kirk Enterprises L-Bracket) from vertical to horizontal.  Already, the small group of photographers, amidst the snapping of shutters, were starting to become very vocal and animated.  Yips and hoots accented by the occasional bit of profanity.  After the first part of the second wave had quieted down a little bit, I called up Shannyn Moore who had been Tweeting about where were good locations to watch.  We chatted a bit about what she had been seeing, how the parking lots at all of the trailheads along the Chugach State Park boundary in Anchorage were jammed packed, and then the lights really started to erupt.  I exclaimed, “Holy shit, gotta go!” and hung up on her. Then the lights really started to dance, hopping in these vertical spikes that moved up and down the length of the ribbon.  The faint hints of pink or purple started to show, reminding me quite a bit of the color combination found in certain types of crystal tourmaline.

And then the lights also exploded directly overhead, presenting the classic corona display.  With my arm still in a sling from shoulder surgery, I couldn’t get down to see my composition in the view finder.  All I could do was flip my camera so that it was shooting straight up, point it in the general direction I wanted it, and release the shutter again and again.  Now the group was really animated, exulting cheers to statements of disbelief, to comments about how hard it was to keep up with the multi-faceted display before us.  All we could do was keep up as much as we could with an aurora display that was showing its magic in as many as four different locations at once.  I don’t think I have ever worked my camera so frantically before.

But, as the aurora goes, it calmed down, leaving the skies filled mostly with dim green hues again.  It took us a while to calm down, but eventually we decided it was time to warm up again.  After a few minutes, we decided to call it a night, agreeing that perhaps a few hours of sleep would be a good idea since we would be doing this all over again the next night.  And then an Aurora Alert came out over Twitter, asserting that the aurora would be at Level 7.67 in 39 minutes.  We decided to take the opportunity to start heading back toward Anchorage.  We stopped at a pullout near Indian and waited for the next wave to hit.  Since it was a different vantage point, I captured a few images of the mild display that was presenting itself down the Turnagain Arm.

At 1:45 a.m., we decided to call it a night.  Weather permitting, we would be out doing it again the next evening.  Such is the life in the modern age of aurora chasing.

Great photos with narrative simply cannot compare to being out there, in the moment, observing a Level 7 aurora storm in progress.

These and other aurora borealis images are available for sale in my Aurora Borealis gallery.