Archive for the ‘Nighttime’ Category

Aurora hits and misses

Friday, October 11th, 2013
Aurora hits and misses

There are the technical aspects of capturing the aurora borealis with a camera.  There is all of the preparation and study that is necessary for a successful aurora hunting outing.  And then, there is just the repetition and the waiting.

So, I’ve been doing a bit of chasing and waiting so far this aurora season.  It started with what is perhaps my earliest venture in the autumn for chasing the northern lights – late August. For that early start, I went back to a familiar location that showed me great success during my last aurora hunt back in March – the Portage Valley of Chugach National Forest.  Located less than an hour away from Anchorage, but far enough away to avoid the city’s lights, it provides a spectacular landscape to compose with the aurora.

There was a brief aurora show that produced some vivid green spikes with some pink highlights. But that was really a warming up for the season, a chance to clear the cobwebs and make sure that everything was in working order. After my St. Patrick’s Day weekend success in Portage Valley, I wanted to start trying some new locations.

The next time I headed out on the aurora hunt was the first week of October.  Weather in September was mostly crappy and made aurora chasing fruitless.  I wanted to try a new location, so I headed north along the Knik River via the Old Glenn Highway.  I discovered a marvelous creek with some easy access to a gravel bar to provide low-to-the-water views for compositions. There was a very brief, very weak aurora borealis display that barely provided some green highlights to the sky.  I checked out a couple of other locations that I determined would not be suitable for future northern lights shooting – way too many artificial lights in the vicinity.


That night was a consolation prize.  The night before, there was an incredible aurora storm, with displays vivid and visible as far south as Iowa.  Unfortunately, it was cloudy as far as one could reasonable drive in one night  and still get to the location in time. A week later, the same pattern emerged: a strong aurora storm with displays visible in the Lower 48, but a vicious wind and rain storm struck Southcentral Alaska, wiping away the peaking colors of autumn and obscuring any opportunity to view the northern lights. Again, the night after the storm was clear, and with a NOAA forecast that suggested a KP4 level aurora, I headed out, looking for new locations.  This time, I headed south again, but past the entrance to Portage Valley and around past the Placer River crossing on the Turnagain Arm.  There is a series of ponds and standing dead trees with a view to the north that I always thought would make a great landscape setting for an aurora image.

So, I found a good spot, put on my headlamp and scouted the grounds.  Sure enough, it was very wet ground, with standing water up over my ankles even before the edge of the pond.  Fortunately, I had my Extra Tuffs in the rear of the car and changed into those. I grabbed the camera and tripod and headed down. I took several shots to check compositions, exposure and my focus point, noticing a dim green glow on the horizon in the long exposures. I also tried some compositions that showed the orange glow of Anchorage on the horizon. And, after all of that, I even captured an image of my 2010 Toyota Prius with the Milky Way towering overhead. But I could only do so much of that before it was time to go back inside the car and wait.

Waiting inside my car with the seat tilted back so I could rest and look out the window for the glow of the aurora on the horizon, I took the time to get caught up on podcasts of The Shannyn Moore Show, a local progressive radio talk show on, of all things, a FOX affiliate radio station. It’s smart and entertaining radio, and Shannyn has a thing for the aurora borealis so it seemed like good synergy. After waiting and dozing off and on for an hour and a half, I looked over to see a solid curtain of green starting to develop on the horizon above the mountains. It was a sure sign of a building display, so I pulled out the gear and, by the time I was setting up, the lights were well underway. I sent a message to photographer friend Joe Connolly to let him know the lights were out and continued shooting, changing lenses and compositions.  After about a half hour, the lights calmed down. I changed to another location for more scouting and captured some images of the dim aurora on the horizon.  Again, another good location for future use.

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.

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.


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.


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.


Shooting (for) the Moon

Monday, March 21st, 2011
Shooting (for) the Moon

Knowing how to shoot the moon requires a solid understanding of how exposures work, or more specifically, knowing the limitations of how cameras see light.  You cannot photograph the moon in a nighttime landscape and expect a good result if you are exposing for a city skyline, for example.  Why is that?  Well, think of the light source for the moon – the sun.  The moon is simply a large reflector with an ash gray surface, reflecting the sun’s light back at us at an intensity comparable to midday light.  In fact, you can use the “Sunny f/16 Rule” to manually set the exposure for a full moon at its brightest.  Understanding how truly bright the moon is and how quickly it moves across the sky are key to knowing when and how to photograph it with a broader landscape.

When is the best time to photograph the moon with the landscape?  The absolute best time is when you can set a single exposure that both correctly exposes for the moon and the landscape.  That means, the best time is when there is some amount of daylight available, usually at the margins of the day.  I have found the best time is to capture a moonrise at or near sunset or a moonset at or near sunrise.  At those times, the exposures necessary to capture the moon without blowing it out (losing the detail in its surface) are about the same as those needed to capture the landscape.  How do you know when this timing occurs?  I regularly use the U.S. Naval Observatory “Complete Sun and Moon Data” web page for this information.  There, you can enter a date and location, by either city name or latitude and longitude, and get complete information as to sunrise and sunset, moonrise and moonset, twilight, and the phase of the moon.  This is also useful for aurora photography, because you want to know if the moon is going to be too bright to capture the aurora.

Now, if it turns out that the exposure time needed for the moon is slightly faster that what you need for your landscape, then simply use a graduated neutral density filter to darken the moon just enough to balance your exposure.

But what about those nighttime exposures?  First, you have to decide whether it is important to capture the detail in the surface of the moon.  If it is not important, and you don’t mind (maybe even want) the moon to be a large glowing orb in the sky, then simply expose for your landscape and click that shutter release button.

But, if you want the moon to be correctly exposed and you want your landscape to be correctly exposed, then you have to take two exposures – one for the moon and one for the landscape – and then merge the two together in Photoshop.  When you do this, however, you will notice that the moon looks really small, particularly if you are shooting a wide angle lens or a panoramic.  The only way to make the moon look big is to really zoom in, typically with a 500mm lens.  But you run the risk of creating a VERY obvious composite if you use that 500mm moon capture and merge it with your landscape that was captured with a 70-200 lens, or even worse, a 500mm moon with a 24mm landscape.  The moon ends up looking unnaturally and ridiculously large.  To see an example, check out the panel of three panoramas below: one with the same exposure for moon and city, one with separate exposures, and one with separate exposures AND different lenses.  Of course, whether it is still “appropriate” to use the composite with the unusually large moon depends on whether you are trying to depict things as they naturally are or as they are perceived.  For the composite example below, it was our 18-year “super” moon, where it is perceived as much larger than a usual full moon due to the closer proximity of the moon.

The other important thing to remember is that the moon is moving faster across the sky than you realize.  This will affect how your exposure looks if you are using a wide angle lens and you are using a longer exposure to capture a dark landscape.  During that exposure, the moon is moving, and burning its light across the sky in your composition.  It will also affect the framing and composition of your image if you are using a long lens, like a 500mm.  If you have a tight crop, the moon will move quickly out of your frame.  To illustrate, check out my multiple exposure below of the lunar eclipse that occurred during the winter solstice last year.  Each image of the moon represents about a 45 second time lapse.

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.