Archive for the ‘Aurora Borealis’ Category

Portage Persistence

Wednesday, March 20th, 2013
Portage Persistence

I have been trying for a couple years to capture a good aurora borealis photo in the Portage Valley of Chugach National Forest, located just a few miles south of Girdwood, Alaska. I have always loved winter landscape photography in that valley.  It’s magnificent for sunrise photography in the winter because the sun rises right down the valley, allowing early light to hit the ridges on the north side of the valley and light up its features with pink alpenglow.  It is isolated enough from nearby artificial lighting sources to make it a great spot for nighttime photography.  Portage Creek stays open all winter, even when it is -20F outside, giving it an additional feature not readily available in other valleys. Plus, it is only a 45-minute drive from home, which is a bonus.

What makes Portage Valley great for winter landscape photography also makes it a prime location for capturing a dynamic landscape with the aurora borealis.  But it took me a few years to be in Portage Valley when the northern lights magic finally struck. The first time I went I captured a dim aurora that faded fairly quickly, leaving me to take a one-hour star trails photo that contained a dim glow of green aurora residue.  The next two times I went down specifically to capture the aurora borealis, I ended up instead with star trails photos and nothing else.  But in one of those cases, it produced a marvelous image showing the sky circling around the Northern Star. 

Then, in November of 2012, I was out there with a couple of other photographers after we captured some magnificent aurora over the Twentymile River Valley along Turnagain Arm.  While we did capture a nice aurora borealis display with some greens and vivid pinks, my picture did not turn out as I hoped because, unknown to me, my Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 AFS lens had been damaged when I dropped it the previous week, creating a distorting effect in the lens optics.  The result was an image that was sharp in the center, and out of focus and distorted around the edges.  While it is an interesting effect, it was still not what I hoped for.

Then, the Luck of the Irish finally came to my aid.  Joined by fellow photographers C.J. Kale and Nick Selway of Lava Light Galleries in Kona, Hawai’i and Nolan Nitschke of Bishop, California, we headed out on the evening of March 16 to try Portage Valley again. This time, we had more confidence due to a forecast by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) indicating it would be a KP6-level event.  We arrived at the planned location and took our time setting up as there was not even a glow in the sky. As is good practice, we set up compositions and started to test exposures and focus.  A waxing crescent moon provided enough light to give the landscape detail without being too bright in the sky. After a while, we started to notice a deep purple hue showing up in the sky.  Soon, it had spread across the whole sky.  While not visible to the naked eye, the long exposures in the camera captured them.  As the purple built, I told the other photographers that early purple in the sky like that indicated it would be a strong aurora event.

Then, the purple started to fade as a dim green glow started to develop in the space of sky in between the peaks on the ridgeline before us. Building like a slow sunrise, the green rose to the summits of the peaks and then started to spread further skyward.  Then, the green turned into a chorus line, dancing in a line on the edge of the ridge to the west. The dance line then rose above the ridge and spread out into the sky, producing spikes and undulating curtains in greens with hints of red and pink.  After a while it calmed down, and we headed up to our cars to regroup and consider moving to another location.  It started to build up a little bit, so we headed back down to the creek, took some more photos and posed for a group picture.

When we had gone up to our cars, I placed my camera bag in the back of my car, leaving me with just my camera and a 24-70mm lens on a tripod.  During the mild buildup, I took just my camera and tripod down to the creek, leaving the bag (and my 14-24mm lens) behind.  Down at the creek, the show started to build a little bit more.  At one point, I was back on the road as we had again contemplated moving to another location.  Then, with little warning, the moderate show started to erupt.  I moved down the road a little bit to get a different vantage point, with the creek in the foreground right and a spruce tree in the middle.  Part of my decision in the position related to using the tree to cover CJ, Nick and Nolan who were down at the creek.  I didn’t want to have to spend the time to remove them later in Photoshop.

But the aurora display continued to build and build, making it too large and covering too much sky to capture with just a 24mm lens.  I internatlly debated for a while running back to my car to grab my bag and my 14-24mm lens, and ultimately knew I had to do it.  So, I took the time to stop shooting, sprint about 100 yards back to my car, grab my bag, and tell my nephew Daniel, who was sitting in the car watching the reboot of “V” on the iPad, to get out and watch this amazing show. I ran back to my where my tripod waited, pulled out the lens, removed its cap and promptly dropped it, lens face first, into the snow.  Loudly cursing while I frantically used my lens cloth to clean off the lens, I managed to afix the lens to my camera just in time to position for a vertical composition of a double question-mark shaped aurora curtain forming over the spruce tree in the middle. 

The rest of the evening was a bit of a blur, with all of us scrambling and changing to multiple locations to bring diversity to our compositions. A red aurora so bright it was visible to the naked eye pulsed over the south side of the valley, complimented by a split red-green corona. There were many exclamations of wonder and delight, I slightly fell into the creek after slipping on some ice (fortunately, my Baffin boots kept my feet warm and dry), and after a while, the dancing, undulating rainbow display of colors settled into a constant shimmering of white-green aurora.  When the craziness calmed down to this constant white-green overhead wash, we posed for another group photo, this time with a background sky completely full of aurora.  I took another portrait of Daniel under this brilliant sky.  By 3:00 a.m., we decided it was time to go out and explore more photo opportunities on the Turnagain Arm.

More photos from this night and other northern lights adventures can be found and purchased in my Aurora Borealis gallery.


Anatomy of an aurora hunt

Thursday, November 29th, 2012
Anatomy of an aurora hunt

Alaskans tend to take advantage of their long days by getting out and hiking, biking, camping, hunting, 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. 

Most people who are experienced and prepared drivers 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 aid 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 utinsels.  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. It 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), 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. 

But that’s just the gear; there is more to being prepared for aurora photography – like knowing when the aurora is going to be on display.  There are several web tools that I consult in determining whether or not I will go out.  Top of the list of tools for me is, which provides real time information as welll as some forecasting information (you can also sign up for text alerts).  Two other real time sources are the NOAA POES Auroral Activity website and the SALMON Cam, which is a camera at the Poker FLats Research Range for the University of Alaska Fairbanks showing a still image that is refreshed every minute during nighttime.  I also follow the @AuroraMAX and @AuroraNotify Twitter feeds, which provide realtime updates. 

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. 

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, 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 handcrafted by an Inupiat Eskimo, 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, depending on how cold it is or how much snow depth there is. 

Then, 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 – open sky, good foreground, and minimal city lights.  But whether the location will be good that evening depends on cloud cover.  Again, I look to the web for that information, consulting the most recent thermal satellite images on the NOAA Alaska Region website. 

 Now that you are suited up, geared up, have checked the latest data on what the geomagnetic activity is and know a good location with clear skies, it’s time to head out.  And 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 9:00 p.m., or earlier.  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. 

While you are out there for many hours, there are several challenges you face throughout the course of the night.  The primary of those challenges is the care of your camera gear.  In colder temperatures, frost build-up on the camera and lens is a constant issue of concern, regardless of your proximity to an open water source.  Power drain on the batteries is a concern.  Being able to see your viewfinder and LCD display are also an issue, as you typically tend to exhale while composing images, and that breath creates frost on the backside of the camea. There are a lot of ways to deal with these challenges.  I deal with power issues by keeping spare batteries warm in a pocket.  For frost build up, I will either cover the camera or lens element, or take the camera back inside the car, but inside a sealed camera bag in order to slow the temperature transition and prevent fogging.  As for breathing on the back of your camera, well, sometimes I just hold my breath, or consciously make an effort to breathe off to the side. 

A short night is typically about three hours.  On a recent Ocotber night 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. 

For technical aspects of aurora photography, visit my instructional blog post on the subject.  Visit the Aurora Borealis gallery on my website to view and purchase some of my aurora images.

Aurora madness

Saturday, October 13th, 2012
Aurora madness

It was getting late in the evening and I was tired.  I had only just earlier in the day returned home from a three-day business trip out to the remote Yukon River village of Holy Cross.  I had stayed up late each night watching, hoping and waiting for an aurora borealis display.  On the last night, at around midnight, a dim display popped up just above the horizon.  I was excited because I finally got to see the aurora during the trip and it was my first time seeing it from the banks of the Yukon River.  There was just something very Alaskan about the notion of seeing the northern lights from Alaska’s most famous river.

But I was tired and getting ready to go to bed, making my last rounds of checking email and Facebook messages.  Then I saw the message from one of my fellow photographers, Carol Henke Lahnum, “dude where r u?”  I responded, “I am at home. Should I be somewhere else?”  Then I started to see the posts among the two different aurora groups I belong to, and it was clear that an aurora event was in progress, despite the forecast for a weak night in the skies.  I sent a text to Chris Beck, another photographer in a small group of us that go out and shoot together, inquiring whether he was out there.  For a while, there was no response.  Then, he texted back, indicating he was heading out.

Fortunately, my gear was all together as I had not even had the chance to unpack from the Holy Cross trip.  I grabbed some snack bars, filled the water bottle, made sure I had hat and gloves, dressed for the cold and headed out.  When I saw that the aurora was directly overhead and visible above my home in south Anchorage, I went back in and woke up Michelle, who was able to get up and see it right outside the window.  It was the first time I had ever been able to see the aurora from inside my home in Anchorage after living here for 13 years.

I quickly zipped over to Jewel Lake, just a block away from my home, to capture the aurora over the lake – it was 10:21 p.m.  But soon I moved on toward Point Woronzof, which is the closest location within Anchorage where I would be able to shoot the aurora with minimal light pollution.  After I was satisfied there, I headed out toward the Glenn Highway, planning to meet up with Carol and Chris, who were already on site at one of our usual aurora locations.

As I approached the weigh station on the highway north of town, I noticed that the aurora was building up to my left (north).  I pulled over and stopped on the shoulder, grabbed the camera and tripod, and started shooting.  Soon, there was a display that reached all the way from the north to overhead and then to the south.  There is nothing that can adequately describe the exhileration of seeing the colors, the movement, the seemingly lifelike nature of the aurora snaking its way across the sky.  I can only hope to photograph it, which is sometimes challenging when it is lighting up all over the sky and moving around as much as it does when it gets cooking.  But shooting from the shoulder of one of the busiest stretches of highway in Alaska was not where I wanted to be.  Shortly after midnight, I decided it was time to move on.

Shortly after crossing the Eagle River, I noticed the aurora kicking up a little to my left.  I rolled down my window to get a clearer look, but I really coulnd’t tell what was going on overhead.  While driving close to 70 mph, I stuck my head completely out the window and looked up – it was moving around, but did not seem to be approaching the level of activity that would warrant pulling over.  I pulled my head back in, rolled up the window and continued on.  A few seconds later, I realized that my head felt differently, so I reached up and touched my head – only to find that while my headlamp was still on, my favorite winter hat – a gift from my artist residency at Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve – was no longer there.  I was easily now at least a half mile past where the hat had come off, but there was no way to turn around safely or legally.  I made the decision to continue on without it.

I met up with Carol and Chris on the banks of the Knik River along the Old Glenn Highway, quickly set up and surveyed the landscape.  I captured my first image here at 12:34 a.m. The aurora was not as active or bright as it had been, but it had changed character a bit.  Normally, an aurora display will be an isolated band of light dancing against a dark sky (if you are lucky enough to have clear skies).  Now, the aurora was spreading out and covering almost every inch of the sky, moving in spurts and waves of energy, undulating and jumping over a blanket of sharp points of light in the sky.  Occasionally, we would look overhead and see flashes of soft light brushing across the sky, as if it were skipping on an invisible surface.  After we felt we had exhausted what was available with the different options of the landscape, we decided to continue on down the road toward Jim Creek.  It was 1:25 in the morning.

The turnoff to this particular location is hard to see in the pitch darkness, even with the help of headlights.  Chris, who was lead car, passed it the first time, and we did a caravan u-turn and headed down the driveway onto the frozen mud flats of this part of the Knik River, settling to a spot a short walk from the river itself.  The sky was still acting as it had at our previous spot, with the aurora spreading out in spurts and patterns across the entire sky.  While to the naked eye it looked like a pale green/cyan, with a 13-second exposure, I could see faint magentas and yellows mixed in.  As it often goes with the aurora, we had periods of calm and periods of bustling energy, but there was never a time when the aurora just stopped.  This was completely foreign to me; I am accustomed to having a 20-minute burst of activity, followed by an hour or more of complete darkness before the lights kick in again.  After two more hours of peaks and valleys, of shooting in a complete 360-degree view – as well as directly overhead – we decided to call it a night.  The season was young – we would still have all winter to capture the aurora during the eleven-year solar peak that was before us.  Chris left before Carol and I – he was clearly wiped; I had a hard time waking him from a nap in his car as our last peak activity started to brew.  Carol and I headed back to Anchorage in our separate vehicles, with Carol in the lead.

As I was transiting down the ramp from the Old Glenn Highway to the Glenn Highway, heading in the direction of Anchorage, I saw the sky brewing up yet again to the north – directly over the nearby city of Wasilla.  I quickly pulled over, grabbed the tripod and camera one more time, and started shooting.  It turned out to be well worth it, as soon there was an absolutely crazy, bright and busy green and purple display exploding over the Chugach Mountains to the south.  In elven minutes, the sky reverted to is more mellow state of soft waves and curtains.  I decided that now, finally, I had seen and photographed enough.  That last stop on the off ramp had given me the finale for the night and, like George Castanza would say, leave on a high note.  It was 3:58 a.m. As I approached the last Eagle River exit when heading toward Anchorage, I took the exit, crossed over to the other side, and turned around headed back north again – I was hoping to find my beloved Gates of the Arctic hat.  Driving slowly (there was not much for traffic on the highway), I was able to see its crumpled form in the middle of the road; I pulled over, snatched it, and then turned around at the next exit.  I arrived home, set the CF card full of aurora images to download into the external hard drive that holds my photo library, and went to bed.  It was 5:00 a.m.

These and other images of the northern lights can be found in the “Aurora Borealis” gallery on my website.

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.


Operation Aurora Phail

Monday, February 20th, 2012
Operation Aurora Phail

It has been a frustrating winter for me as a photographer.  A week before Christmas, I had surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff, and since then, nine weeks and counting, I have had my right arm in a sling.  That’s made it challenging to do most things I enjoy to do in the winter, such as Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, and photography.  And it will still be another four months or so before I have a useful percentage of mobility again in my arm.

I had a rare opportunity to actually get out there and take some photos on Saturday evening, flying up to join some other photographers up in Talkeetna who had already had some good results.  So, after finishing a nice dinner at the Kincaid Grill, I headed home, gathered up the cold weather and camera gear, and made my way over to Merrill Field,where I met up with a plane and pilot.

We took off by about 10:30 p.m. or so and headed on up to Talkeetna.  We saw a glimmer of aurora over the Mat-Su area, but by the time we got to Talkeetna, the clouds had rolled in and the northern lights had died out.  We stayed on the ground for about a half hour or so and came back.  While I was not able to capture the aurora, I did have an unusual chance to do some nighttime aerial photography of Anchorage.


Aurora chasing

Sunday, June 13th, 2010
Aurora chasing

Had an unexpected couple of nights chasing the aurora when I was down in Juneau on Memorial Day weekend.  Unexpected because you just get accustomed to there not being enough darkness for the aurora in Anchorage come early May.  I knew there was a good forecast for the evening, but had not expected I would get a chance to see it.  But there I was with my friend Chris Beck photographing departing cruise ships at night when we looked up and saw the aurora faintly dancing in the sky.  The party-goers who were enjoying bonfires nearby on Sandy Beach let out whoops and cheers of celebration.  Good to know even Alaskans can get excited about the northern lights.

The exposures were a bit challenging, to say the least.  My usual approach for a less-than-vivid display would be to open the lens all the way open to f/2.8, set the ISO to 400 or 200 and enter a manual exposure of 15-30 seconds.  But, in both cases on these two nights, I had to deal with an additional light source – either the city or the glaring bright lights of the cruise ship.  I found myself shooting at aperture priority and having as fast as 1/5 second exposures.  In retrospect, had I thought of it and had the time, I would have put my Lee graduated neutral density filters on – upside down so as to darken the city or ship.  But, the displays happened quickly and did not last long.  Unfortunately, at least for the cruise ships, I will not likely again have the unique combination of elements taking place to create the images.  And sometimes, that is all you get – one chance.

On our second night, after shooting the aurora with the skyline, we headed over to Mendenhall Lake in the hopes that we could get some aurora displays over there.  But, after much waiting, the aurora failed to revive for us.  So, instead, I captured a few images of the clouds moving across the moonlit sky, as well as the offending full moon peeking through some trees along the side of the road.

Photos in the Arctic night

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010
Photos in the Arctic night

During my recent trip out to Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve, I only had two nights actually out in the field.  This placed considerable limits on my photo plans, because it often requires several nights to actually capture what I wanted to: star trails, aurora, general night sky, lighted tents, etc.  Add that the moon was half full complicated the star trails and aurora photo plans, especially when combined with the fact that we are currently in a down-cycle of the solar activity that creates vivid aurora displays.

For my goal of capturing star trails, I used my Hassleblad 503CX, loaded with Fuji Velvia 220 film.  (I have yet to process the film, but when I do, I will post the image here.)  So, for the first night, I took three hours for the star trails photo, then captured some images of the tent and faint aurora display with my Nikon D300.  The next night, with the assistance of my camping companions, Zak Richter and Seth McMillan, I caputured some shots of the tent, some with headlamps illuminating the interior and another set with Christmas lights adorning the tent. 

To power the Christmas lights, I had taken a Powerbase battery along with an AC inverter.  However, even keeping the battery in the tent was not enough to keep it warm.  After stoking up the fire and keeping the battery really close to the heat, I was able to warm up the battery, but only enough to provide intermittent power.  The lights would only light briefly when plugged in.  So, I had Zak plug and unplug the lights repeatedly over the 30 second exposure in order to display the lights for the photo.  For the headlanp shots, I had both Zak and Seth move the lights around so as to disperse the illuminating glow, rather than produce a spotlight effect on the side of the tent.

One of the joys of photographing the night sky in the Arctic is the simple clarity of the sky and the abundance of stars it allows me to see.  There are simply hardly any places left in the United States where you can photograph the night sky free of light pollution.  Even when I was down in Badlands National Park and Rocky Mountain National Park last year, nighttime photography was affected by the nearby towns of Rapid City and Boulder, respectively. 

What I really would have liked to capture is a time lapse of the night sky, which would have been especially successful given the half full moon.  But, I obviously need to work out some power issues under the extreme cold for any future attempts.  I am thinking that perhaps Winter 2012 will be a good time to return, as the aurora should be kicking back up rather nicely by then.  And rather than two nights, perhaps two weeks would be a good amount of time.  Then I could photograph under the bright full moon as well as the darkness of a new moon.  That’s the problem with photographing in Gates of the Arctic … there are always more things that I want to capture on a future trip.

The aurora borealis – myths, science and photography

Saturday, March 13th, 2010
The aurora borealis - myths, science and photography

I first saw the aurora borealis long before I contemplated the mystery of it.  I was working as a bartender at the Birch Terrace Lounge in Grand Marais during the winter between my two summers as a canoe guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.  It was a Sunday night, and I was taking out the trash in preparation for closing.  I dropped the trash in the bin out back and lo0ked up into the crisp, cool November night to see dancing waves of green light in the sky.  I knew instantly that I was looking at the northern lights.  Why had I not really thought of these before?  How was I not spending every night out looking for them?  What wonderful, magical curtains of shimmering mystery they were, casting aside all thoughts of the dreariness of the tasks I had ahead yet that night.  When I was finished closing, I grabbed my camera, a Minolta X-700 and headed up the Gunflint Trail out of town to capture some images.

Unfortunately, I was not much of a nature photographer then.  And I certainly did not know much about nighttime or aurora photography.  I only had one other chance after that to capture the aurora when I was working and living in northern Minnesota that winter seventeen years ago, and the display was fairly faint.  During that time, though, I was watching Northern Exposure.  There was a memorable episode dedicated to the aurora and a particularly powerful display that occurred again and again over several nights.  During that time, it appeared that members of the town were swapping dreams, and some attributed it to the power of the aurora.  There I was introduced to the idea that people and cultures throughout the ages had attributed so many things to the aurora, and built strong mythologies around explaining its power and allure.   In the episode, “Mr. Sandman,” which aired in the fifth season, we find Marilyn, Dr. Fleischmann’s Tlingit assistant, telling a story about how her people believe that the northern lights were the spirts of people who had passed, and how you could make them dance by whistling to them. 

The Tlingit, along with the Kwakiutl and the Salteaus Indians believe that the aurora does represent the spirits of people, while the Yup’ik are said to believe that the northern lights were dancing animal spirits, particularly deer, seals, salmon and beluga whale.  The Yup’ik also believe that when Aurora is red, it indicates that “there will be war and blood shed” in the near future.  I also learned during a visit to Anaktuvuk Pass that the Nunamiut people believe that, if you are not wearing a hat, the aurora will chop your head off and play with it like a ball.  They also believe that you can manipulate the aurora by whistling at it.

The conventional wisdom has always been that the sun is on an eleven-year cycle, with the peak of that cycle creating the hyperactive sun spots that lead to the most brilliant auroral displays.  There are several websites that offer either the raw data you can interpret for yourself or the intrepreted data if you lack the faculty.  One of the more well-known raw data sites is Spaceweather.  On the Science-NASA site, there are some recent studies indicating the explanation behind the solar cycle may be changing (particularly with regard to why the low point of the cycle has been so low in activity).  One of the more well-known interpretive sites was created by the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, the Aurora Forecast site.  You can also sign up for aurora alerts via email at the UAF site.  Spaceweather also has options for receiving text alerts for different levels of activity. 

With the proliferation of smart phones and various apps, I would be remiss if I did not mention some useful, free applications for Android or iPhone systems: Aurora Buddy and 3D Sun.  And, if you are on Twitter, make sure to follow @AuroraNotify (a network of Fairbanks, Alaska residents who provide real time information) and @Aurora_Alerts (automated and fairly accurate, provided by 

Having a passion for the mythos of the aurora and an understanding of the science will get you out at night, enduring those cold conditions waiting for long hours for the sky to produce the display of your dreams.  How disappointed you would be, though, if you ended up making a technical mistake that costs you the shot to share with others.  I learned some of those mistakes early on, when I was still shooting negative film before switching to slides, and ultimately digital. 

So, here is a comprehensive list of settings and other equipment issues you will need to know to take great aurora photos:

  1.  Lens selection.  You need 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 infinity. 
  2. 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 on 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.
  3. 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. 
  4. 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 15 seconds and ISO at 400.  This is a good starting point, but, depending on the intensity of the aurora, you may need to slow things down or adjust your ISO up or down.  My most common setting is ISO 400 at 30 seconds.  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.  Also enable your Long Exposure Noise Reduction.  Set your white balance to Auto
  5. 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, (b) using the viewfinder grid in your camera (if you are lucky enough to have one; the Nikon D700 does), or (b) setting up your composition before it gets dark and waiting for the magic to happen.

The last thing I want to address is when you can photograph the aurora.  It is a common misconception that the aurora only “comes out” when it is cold.  It is always cold for the aurora, because it is in the vacuum of space.  In reality, the connection with cold comes from the fact that it is only visible when it is dark.  For northern latitudes where the aurora is most frequently observed, this means the winter months.  In Alaska, that means from mid-August to early April.  The farther north you go, like above the Arctic Circle, the later you have to wait before it is dark enough.  The first time I was in Gates of the Arctic was in mid-August.  It never got dark enough to see the aurora.  During my next backcountry trip the following early September on the Noatak River, it was dark every single night and I saw the aurora every single night.   And darkness inherently also includes periods where it is not cloudy, which in the wintertime also means cold, but clear skies.  Finally, it is best to photograph the aurora during a new moon than a full moon, because in these northern latitudes, a full moon puts out a lot of light pollution.