Archive for the ‘Instructional’ Category

On Darmok

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013
On Darmok

I have increasingly been including my car, a 2010 Toyota Prius, in photos taken during my nighttime forays into aurora chasing. After doing it a few times, I decided I needed to come up with a name for the car.  I figured, in the interest of more colorful captioning, a name would be a good addition to the photo’s story.

I realized early on that I did not want to select a human name.  Part of it was that I wanted to avoid a gender-specific name.  Who am I to say what my car’s sexual identity is? Only it knows that sort of detail, and fortunately it does not share it with me. So I thought that I would look to legends and mythology, seeking out a name that would be synonymous with “friend” or “companion” or “buddy.” Some good ideas came out at first, and I even solicited ideas from the general public.  In the end, though, the idea I settled on came from a Tweet.

I was reading my Twitter feed one day, and I saw a Tweet from Wil Wheaton (@wilw) that referenced “Darmok” from “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” I knew then that I had chosen my car’s name.

If you are not familiar with the episode, “Darmok” aired during the 5th season of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” I will leave the full episode synopsis for your reading pleasure.  The highlight is that the Enterprise crew makes first contact with a race calling themselves “The Children of Tama.” Captain Picard is forcibly removed from the Enterprise to meet up with the other ship’s captain, Dathon, on the planet below.  It takes Picard a while to figure out what the other race’s intentions are because they communicate entirely through metaphor, drawn upon the stories of their own myths and legends.  Quite frequently, the other captain uses the phrase, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.”  Darmok and Jalad were mythohistorical figures who met on the island of Tanagra and worked together to defeat a terrible beast, something that Dathon had hoped he could do with Picard in order to build relations.

So, naturally, I envisioned posting on Facebook or Twitter things like, “Darmok and Carl, on the road.” So, my first Tweet on my first aurora outing after the naming was, in fact, “Darmok and Carl, on the road. The aurora borealis, its sails unfurled.” Of course, you would have to have seen the episode to understand the “sails unfurled” reference.  I recommend you find it and watch it if you can.  It is definitely among the top ten of all episodes generated by the “Star Trek” franchise.

How to Chase and Shoot the Aurora Like a Pro

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

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

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

Preparation

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

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

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

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

Ready for the Road

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

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

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

When to Go

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

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

Where to Go

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

Taking the Photos

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now you Wait

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

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

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

 

Why I love Winters in Alaska

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

It has been a long, snow-less autumn. As a landscape photographer, I hate the shoulder seasons. After the snow melts in the spring but before things get green, it’s an ugly, brown, muddy mess. The departing winter has revealed six months-worth of trash lying around.  It’s not a pretty time.  The same goes for the transition from autumn to winter.  Once the leaves drop, it’s just a bunch of dead brown lying around.  Well, here in Anchorage, the leaves dropped over a month ago.  We’ve had a record-setting warm October, and finally the temperatures are starting to drop. Now, as crazy as it sounds, I am looking forward to the ice and the snow and the darkness.  Here’s why.   

  

Reason No. 1 – Golden light all day long

Most photographers will prefer to photograph at the margins of the day – early in the morning and late in the evening.  There is a good reason for this.  No, it’s not because we like to punish ourselves by getting up early (sunrise in Anchorage in the summer is about 4:40 a.m.).  The golden quality of light you can find at those times of day will make any landscape or wildlife subject sing – visually.  But in the summer and fall, that golden light dissipates fairly soon after sunrise, and does not come until late in the evening.  The higher the sun gets, the “cooler” the quality of the light, leading to less rich colors.  But in Alaska, in those parts where the sun does actually rise (Barrow experiences as many as 67 days of continuous darkness from November to January), the sun stays low on the horizon all day, leading to wonderful, golden light from sunup to sundown.  And you don’t have to get up early or stay up late to enjoy it. 

 

Reason No. 2 – the Aurora Borealis

A common misconception about the aurora borealis is that it only comes out when it is cold.  The fact that it is cold is purely coincidental.  It only gets dark enough to see the aurora in Alaska from about August through April, and that also happens to include the coldest months of the year.  But even as far south as Anchorage, you could easily spend twelve hours of the day out photographing the aurora because the skies are dark enough to see them.  See more in my Aurroa Borealis gallery.



Reason No. 3 – “I’m thinking, Pastels!” (Thank you, Regent Vitrini)

When the sun is low and the mountains (and landscape) are covered in snow, a magical thing happens, called “alpenglow.”  The result is a landscape aglow with a bold pink hue.  The presence of ice and the Earth’s shadow on the horizon before sunrise and after sunset add blue hues to the landscape.  The result is a luscious combination of pinks and blues that make for a wonderful tableau of color.

 

 

Reason No. 4 – Hoar Frost

Despite the extreme cold temperatures, there are many areas of Alaska that have open sources of water throughout the winter.  From moving water where streams and rivers collide to coastal zones, these open waters add moisture to the air, creating low-lying fog that clings to branches and plants.  The result is “hoar frost,” a thick, crystalline structure of delicate ice that turns any plant into a work of art. 

 

 

Reason No. 5 – Ice and Moving Water

It’s always interesting to combine movement with a static object.  In wintertime, you can have water be both the movement and the stable object.  Whether it is icicles clinging to logs over a flowing stream or tidal ice moving out with a retreating tide, there are plenty of opportunities to capture interesting compositions with movement. 

 

 

 

Reason No. 6 – Bohemian Waxwings

Usually in December when the air takes its first dive into deep cold, they come in waves to Anchorage.  Hundreds of feathered bodies swirling and moving together, Bohemian Waxwings move from tree to tree, usually picking at the frozen red berries of the mountain ash tree.  See more Bohemian Waxwings in my Birds gallery.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reason No. 7 – Coastal Sunsets

I do not know what it is, but there is something very magical about sunsets in Alaska in the winter time.  It’s probably a combination of the all-day low light as well as the length of time it takes the sun to set.  But when you add in snow drifts, ice, alpenglow and all other variety of factors, winter sunsets, especially along the coastal areas, are simply awe-inspiring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reason No. 8 – Dog Mushing

It’s the official state sport and it is a load of fun to watch and photograph – a team of high-energy dogs doing what they were born to do; pull a sled.  There are a lot of opportunities to photograph dog mushing at various competition events throughout the year – Iditarod, Yukon Quest, Fur Rendezvous, and various regional races.  Some people will simply mush for recreation, like can often be found in Anchorage’s Far North Bicentennial Park area, particularly at the Tozier Track.  And with the magnificent landscapes, dog mushing subjects allow any photographer to capture an iconic Alaskan image. 

 

  

Reason No. 9 – Moonrises and Moonsets

The absolute best time to photograph a moonrise or moonset is when they correspond with sunsets or sunrises.  Why?  It is easier to get a balanced exposure – with detail in the landscape as well as the moon – when the moon is rising or setting while there is some light in the sky.  And as it turns out, there are some periods during the winter months – January is my favorite – when the moon is rising or setting at that perfect time. 

 

  

Reason No. 10 – Only the Dedicated are Out There

News flash – it gets cold in the winter in Alaska.  The record cold temperature in the United States was registered at Prospect Creek Camp in Alaska in 1971.  It was -80 degrees Fahrenheit.   The Prospect Creek Camp is located along the Trans-Alaska Pipeline in the Endicott Mountains of the Brooks Range, way north of the Arctic Circle.  While that temperature may be rare, certain parts of the Interior of Alaska will routinely see temperatures in the -50 to -60 degree range.  In Anchorage, we routinely get long snaps of below zero, and frequently see -20 degrees Fahrenheit.  Cold temperatures tend to thin the herd of photographers gathering at photo hot spots.  That is just fine with me, because cold is not a deterrent; it is to be embraced.  Photo magic happens in the cold, so long as I keep my spare batteries warm. 

See these and other images in my “Winter” gallery.

 

 

The Making of a Photo: “First Toss”

Friday, September 27th, 2013
The Making of a Photo:

It was a curious chain of events that found me on a drift commercial fishing boat in the Ugashik District of Bristol Bay, at the height of the sockeye salmon fishery in 2011.  As I prepared to launch into my Bristol Bay photography project, I was searching for that first connection to introduce me to people in the region.  I was looking to get my foot in the door of Bristol Bay, so to speak. Fortunately, my wife Michelle worked with someone who was the grand daughter of a matriarch of a commercial fishing family – four generations of commercial fishermen going back to before Statehood. In short time, I was on a flight to King Salmon, where a ride awaited to take me to Naknek to meet up with the matriarch herself, Violet Willson. That evening I was out photographing one of her other grand daughters, Rhonda, working her set net with her husband and son.

The next afternoon, I was on the tender Westward on a 13-hour ride down to the Ugashik Bay. As the sun rose just under a band of clouds on the horizon, I caught my first glimpse of the commercial fishing fleet, scattered about on the horizon.  They were in the midst of a sockeye salmon opener, often a limited period of time around six hours where they can catch as much as they can before the opener is done and they move into the river to deliver their catch to a waiting tender.  The Westward was on its way down to relieve another Ocean Beauty tender, which would take its haul of fish back to Naknek and deliver to the cannery.

My purpose in riding the Westward down to Ugashik was to hook up with another one of Violet’s grandchildren, Everett Thompson.  He was the skipper of the F/V Chulyen.  After several boats had delivered their catch to the Westward, I finally caught my first glimpse of the Chulyen as she approached to make her delivery; the tell-tale “No Pebble” flag was flying from her mast, and Everett was at the helm on the pilot house waving to me as he approached. When the Chulyen pulled alongside to deliver her catch, I tossed my personal bag over and jumped over with my camera bag on my back. The next opener was not until 6:00 a.m. the next day, so after the Chulyen delivered her catch, we anchored out in a small bay sheltered from the wind and caught some rest before the next day’s work was upon us.

As the opener approached, the two crewmen got the nets and the buoy ready to go.  Everett maneuvered the Chulyen around to a location where he was confident would bring in a good catch.  He suggested I join him on the pilot house for a higher perspective of the crew and the net drum. So, I pulled out my Nikon D700 and selected my Nikon 12-24 f/4.0 AFS-DX lens.  Given the brightness of the sky compared to the color of the water, I selected a Lee graduated neutral density filter (.09) to balance the exposure.  Then, it was just a matter of waiting for the crewmember to toss out the buoy at the beginning of the opener.  Everett was both driving the boat around to get it in the right position (constantly changing the scene as the sun was coming up about then) and keeping an eye on the clock to make sure his crew did not start setting the net before they legally could.

So, I waited.  All the while, the boat was constantly changing orientation, the swell of the ocean constantly forcing me to readjust my camera to match the ever-changing horizon. And, I had to make sure that the dark line of my GND hard filter matched that of the shifting horizon.  Then, the moment came.  Everett gave the signal to toss the buoy and start casting out the net. The crewman tossed the buoy, and my finger pressed down on the shutter button, while simultaneously making sure that my camera was as level as it could be with the shifting sea and all.

This was the first trip on my fieldwork for the book, my first time out on a drift commercial fishing boat, and my first drift commercial fishing opener.  So in more ways than one, this picture truly is “First Toss.”

8th Annual Nature Photography Day

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

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

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

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

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

Nature’s Best submissions

Sunday, May 5th, 2013
Nature's Best submissions

I’ve been submitting my photography to the Windland Smith Rice International Awards hosted by Nature’s Best Photography magazine for almost a decade.  I’ve had a mix of success, with several semi-final images and one photo selected as a category winner.  I have tried different ways of figuring out what images to submit, but I really have not settled on any particular method that is as successful as I would like.  So this year, I thought, “What have I got to lose?”  So, I selected 50 images to submit to my Facebook fans for a vote.  These are the 20 images that garnered the most votes, with the featured image at the top of this post gaining the most votes. There are some images that I wanted more than my fans, but, to stay true to the experiment, I am going with their will.

I also have mixed feelings about submitting some of these images as they are of iconic locations that have been done a few times.  Now, I like to think that what I have done with them – most notably the sunrise at Mesa Arch photos – have enough elements to make them stand out from other Mesa Arch photos.  But I am intrigued to see how the selection committee reacts; I often find that many of the images chosen for the exhibit are of iconic locations and that there could be more new locations selected.  So if one of the iconic locations is chosen, it will be a mixed bag: my suspicions about what they select will be proven, but I will also have been successful in having an image selected.

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 Spaceweather.com, 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.

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.

 

And the universe goes on …

Wednesday, November 7th, 2012
And the universe goes on ...

I sat home on the evening of November 6, enjoying dinner with my wonderful wife, Michelle, watching the returns come back about the results in our 2012 national election.  I would take a few bites, then pick up the iPad and skim Salon.com and NYT.com for the latest results, while also flipping over to the tab open to Spaceweather.com.  I was watching another set of numbers – the solar wind and the direction of the Bz in the magnetic field.  The winds weren’t as high as I would like – only 365 km/sec – but the Bz was 7.7 south; a good number.  I stayed long enough to see that President Barack Obama was re-elected to a second term – an announcement that came surprisingly early – then gathered my gear and headed out.

On my way down the Seward Highway south of Anchorage, along the fjord-like Turnagain Arm, I listened to the National Public Radio coverage of the election returns, which included some content from our local NPR affiliate, KSKA, on local election returns.  Our polls had only just closed recently, so it was too early to tell for most races.  Representative Don Young, the “congressman for only the Alaskans who voted for him,” was celebrating yet another easy victory that will take him into his 21st (no, that’s not a typo) term in Congress.

I did not hear any reports on how the conservatives were reacting, but I suspected that every gun shop in the United States that was still open for business in the day got yet another rush on its doors from the perpetually paranoid and afraid.  I am sure that some people – in combination with the gay rights victories in Maine, Maryland and Minnesota – were ranting about the signs of the end times.  And I am confident that thousands of Americans were grumbling about how now this was really going to be a “socialist” country and the end of our society as we know it was near.

As I continued down, I did the best I could (while driving at 55 mph) to check the skies for cloud cover and any hints of the aurora borealis.  With the exception of what appeared to be a fog hanging over Girdwood and the Alyeska Ski Resort, the skies were clear.  When I turned from the Seward Highway onto the Portage Valley road in the Chugach National Forest, I pulled over to check the latest spaceweather updates on my smart phone.  The Bz had flipped to north (not good), but the “donut” was still looking like it had promise.

I checked three locations I had scouted a week before, visualizing what I would want to do if the aurora showed up.  I waited for a little while at each one, then had to drive almost out of the valley before I could get a strong enough signal to check the usual websites for updates.  The conditions were not promising, and getting worse.  So, I picked my favorite location, set up the camera and took a couple of test shots to make sure the stars were in focus.  I set my camera to ISO 100, f/2.8, manual exposure to “bulb” setting, and locked the shutter open.  Then, I took a nap for about two hours.  The end result was this image, with the starry sky swirling around the North Star.

When I posted the image on my Facebook page, a fan made a comment noting that while there was division in our land, I brought joy to her morning by sharing something beautiful.  Her point is one that should not be lost.  As a country, we just spent billions of dollars to keep our political landscape the same as it was prior to the election cycle (same President, Democrats in control of the Senate and Republicans in control of the House).  There was a lot of acrimony generated with little or no mention of whether anyone would do anything to benefit the beautiful world we as a species call our home.  (Well, one of the candidates openly joked and mocked about the notion of the oceans rising, a few weeks before they rose in response to a super storm and swallowed New York and New Jersey.)

But fortunately, the Earth wasn’t paying attention to our elections.  It continued on as it has for billions of years.  It remained a place where beauty, life, solace and energy can be found for those who seek it.  The streams ran, the lakes and ponds continued to freeze up as winter continues to take hold of the land, the ptarmigan kept to the willows to protect themselves from predators, the wolves kept patrolling their territory for the next meal that would feed the pack, and all other sorts of natural events continued on while the humans of this continent went collectively crazy.  We are lucky to have such a place that can always be there for us, always provide the spiritual renewal we need to recover from the last crisis or cope with the next …or, perhaps, allow us to just remember what gives us life and how we can feel when we are in its presence.

Someday, though, this Earth will no longer be here.  We will likely forever change its surface because of our various manipulations of it, and then one day the Earth itself will be pulverized when our sun enters a Red Giant phase and expands its diameter out to the orbit of Jupiter.

But the same stars that gave me wonder this night will always be there, shining down on this space we currently call home, regardless of what happens on or to this world.

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.