Archive for October, 2013

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.

Two Cover Images Selected

Thursday, October 10th, 2013
Two Cover Images Selected

If you know great Alaskan-themed photo calendars, you know about the collection created each year by local publishing firm, Greatland Graphics. They produce three wall calendars (Northern Light: Alaska Wildlife & Wilderness, Denali Wildlife & Wilderness, and Aurora: Alaska’s Northern Lights) and two daytimer calenders (Alaska Time and Alaska Engagement) each year, featuring splendidly gorgeous images from dozen photographers, featuring everything from the micro to the macro of Alaska’s beauty.

I have been submitting images to Greatland Graphics for a decade. There were several years earlier on when I did not have any images selected. I don’t envy Ed and Alissa, the founders and owners of Greatland Graphics, their daunting task of selecting images for their calendars.  In recent years, they have had to consider approximately 20,000 submissions from 50 photographers, and narrowing down the selection to only 150 images for inclusion in their calendars and note cards.

This year, I had my best year yet for selections.  Five separate images were selected for use in four calendars, including two images that will be used a second time as cover images.  That’s right, two of the five 2015 calendars will feature my images on their covers. The aurora photo will also be featured in the Greatland Graphics note card line. Woo hoo! So, when those calendars are available for sale in local stores starting early 2014, look for the moose and aurora image featured in this blog post and you will know they are mine. I will also have some available for sale if you would like to order some directly from me.

The aurora borealis image was captured during an intense and amazing aurora storm that hit on the weekend of St. Patrick’s Day this year.  The moose was from last year. I captured her near the bend where O’Malley Road becomes Minnesota Drive in south Anchorage.

Gorgeous day in Prince William Sound

Wednesday, October 9th, 2013
Gorgeous day in Prince William Sound

Prince William Sound, particularly the town of Whittier, is known for its crappy weather.  So to plan to do a photo shoot for a particular day and to have that day to be a calm, sunny one … well, it’s like hitting the photo weather lottery.

I went out with Mike from Lazy Otter Water Taxi to test a new piece of custom gear specifically designed to aid in boat-based wildlife photography with a long lens. It also involved a TV crew, shooting for a show that, for now, must go unnamed.

We went out on the Qayaq Chief, a 40-foot craft with a front ramp that can be lowered for bow landings and drop-offs out in the Sound. The forecastle area was rather spacious, allowing me to move around from one side to the other, reacting to wildlife as we spotted it. And while it was later in the season than usual, we still had some good luck with wildlife.  Visiting Beloit and Blackstone Glaciers, we saw a large number of Brandt’s Cormorants – as many as eight in one group – floating, sitting on flat, floating pieces of glacial ice, gliding by against the ice-gouged landscape. We also encountered a couple of solo sea otters with young, and a small raft of sea otters.

It’s always amazing to get up close to these glaciers, seeing their massiveness from the water, observing the scar in the deep bedrock that is left behind as the glaciers retreat. It is difficult to photographically capture the scale of these rivers of ice, but when I can, I try to show it through some foreground element, like a tree or boat. But the other thing that you cannot capture is the amazing sounds. At one point, as we were floating through a patch of small bits of ice, I could hear a crackling sound in the water (like Rice Crispies), small chunks of ice bouncing off the keel of the boat, and the roar of a distant, massive waterfall. And then, occasionally, the cracking, thundering sound of the glacier calving.

And while it may not have been a major wildlife bonanza, it was a great day to be out on a boat in Prince William Sound.