Category Archives: Landscape Photography

The First Taste of Spring

Like a chick pecking its way out of a shell, one by one the patches of snow fell off the trees of the forest. As each ounce was shed from the trees, they raised up their still lifeless twigs up as if glorifying the sun, thanking it for removing the burden of many months. Throughout the forest cascades of snow starting from the tops of the highest branches tumbled and glinted like diamonds in the sun as the chunks were forced through the sifter of small branches by gravity. The warm rays of sun, an unknown entity through winter, warmed the dark branches. One by one they were free. 

The first time you taste spring after the winter is a moment of true joy. The resilience to cold developed through the winter makes you bold enough to walk in the 30 degree temps in a flannel. Moist air on your lips from evaporating snow, the heat of the sun on your face, and a touch of warm breeze on your face may make you bound for joy. Literally bound. It’s a bound that brings a smile to your face, and if others saw you, they would smile too. The feeling of spring is infectious.

Watching the bonds of spring being softened and eventually broken is a great thing! As the sun warmed my face this week the world was a visual wonder. Snow fell from the trees in smatterings and piles, sliding off from its own weight or from external catalysis. Busy chickadees feeding around the well-stocked feeder at my house perched on twigs, gleaned through the branches, soaked up the heat, and ensured all of the snow was sloughed away from the imprisoned trees before taking flight again. 

The first taste of spring is bittersweet. The knowledge that it ‘came too soon’ only pushes me to enjoy it more while I can. Winter certainly will try to take hold once again, and I will inwardly smile knowing that the next time it may be vanquished for good.

A few days ago the winter wonderland at the Sustainable Village was erased in an afternoon. I realized that the moment was happening so quickly that it could be captured on camera. Setting my up my camera I timelapsed the scene for the rest of the day. As you watch this video, focus on a spot and watch the change. I hope it gives you cheer and excitement for spring. Even if it is just a taste!

February 16th, 2015 : The “Coronal Hole” Red Aurora

Traditionally I think of the aurora being generated from a sun event. Often C-class flares, M-class flares, and X-class flares (the largest) hurtle plasma towards at the earth resulting in brilliant auroras. I have dug into the science of auroras during previous posts, and wrote about some of the science of the auroral colors and why the aurora can go from a nice show to a great show.  However, last nights aurora event was generated by a “Coronal Hole” in the sun. That term was new to me, and although it sounds like a headline from an end of days article, it’s really not that bad!

Coronal holes are a simple concept. The sun normally has a stable magnetic field that controls solar winds and energy from the sun. During a coronal hole event, magnetic field lines extend far away from the sun and allow high speed solar winds to escape. Solar wind speeds may exceed 10,000,000 km/hr! Translating that to terms I understand more, solar winds can travel at 500 miles/second. That’s a quick commute to work, or in this case the earth!  If the coronal hole is ‘geo-effective’ it means that those solar winds are headed towards our planet. These events can lead to a lot of high energy resulting in red and multicolored auroras even during times of low solar activity. (http://www.spaceweatherlive.com/en/help/what-is-a-coronal-hole, http://www.exploratorium.edu/spaceweather/holes.html)

Last night’s show was stopped at 10:30 due to clouds over Fairbanks. From 8:30 – 10:30 it remained subtle, but beautiful. The high energy from the coronal hole produced a quickly changing, but not well defined red aurora. I hope you enjoy!

February 7th : Dog Day in Alaska/ Live Aurora Footage

Saturday was a dog day for me in Alaska. When my friend Brandon and I arrived at noon to Black Spruce Dogsledding the dogs greeted us with baying and loud voices. Or mission for the day :do some mushing and then shoot some night sequences of the dogs and mushing for an upcoming video.

My confidence was much higher from the last time I had been mushing. As my six dog team took off the same adrenaline rush hit me, but my newly acquired skills reigned the excited dogs to a more reasonable pace. My heel weighed on the drag a bit to control the sled speed, and my toe sat on the runner. The stance allows stability around turns and maintains control on the sled during downhills, it is a very useful position!  As we headed into a north wind the -40 below windchills were exacerbated by the movement of the dogs. Any bare skin was out of the question! I pulled up my facemask over the tip of my nose and adjusted my ski goggles. Once encased inside of my cocoon I stayed very warm, in fact, my hands broke a sweat due to the activity!

Of course the temperatures were very limiting for shooting, but I do have some stills of the day which capture the dogs and some of the cold!

February 7th : Sled dog at Black Spruce Dog Sledding
February 7th : Sled dog at Black Spruce Dog Sledding
Stopped along the way for this trail groomer, and to take a chance to warm up! Photo Credit : Brandon Donnelly.
Stopped along the way for this trail groomer, and to take a chance to warm up! Photo Credit : Brandon Donnelly.
Made it through the cold temps -
Brandon made it through the cold temps.
These pups are ready for a run!
These pups are ready for a run!
The eyes of sled dogs are so beautiful!
The eyes of sled dogs are so beautiful!

We settled into the house after our 9 mile mush and warmed up with some hot supper, by the time we stepped outside again at 8PM, magic was beginning to happen in the sky.  A faint rivlet of aurora was growing, and by 10:15 had grown to a flowing stream which  then topped its banks! Ribbons of pink, green, and purple aurora flowed and dashed across the sky. The show lasted for 15 minutes, and then mysteriously faded away. Sometimes seeing the best aurora is just about being at the right place at the right time. The images I captured that night are easily some of the most colorful and sharp to date! What a show!

Part of what I have to offer today is footage shot with Brandon’s Sony A7S. This camera can almost literally see in the dark. Although the footage is not of the highest quality possible (for that check out Ronn Murray’s incredible work!), I couldn’t be MORE happy to catch some real-time auroras for you! These have been sped up to make it a bit more interesting to watch (since we didn’t catch the show at the most epic point), but allows you to see all of the movements, rather than what you miss in the timelapse!

Last, but not least, I have a new photo project! You can  check it out at the 2015 Photo Project!

February 8th : Aurora borealis panorama. Taken 02/07 at 10:30 PM, however, since the aurora extended past midnight I'm counting it for the 8th
February 8th : Aurora borealis panorama. Taken 02/07 at 10:30 PM, however, since the aurora extended past midnight I’m counting it for the 8th
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Certainly one of my favorites shots to date! The blues, purples and pinks here are all visible to the naked eye too. A Stunning show!
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Brandon posing for an Aurora shot.
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A bright band of pink lights up the bottom of this aurora. The reason this shot feels ‘fuzzy’ is the aurora was moving too fast for the exposure length. BUT, it still captured a lot of great color!

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Aurora Borealis Panoramas

Last night’s unexpected G1 (minor storm) came with high solar winds and a LOT of early promise. The data was looking good as I polished my lens and charged my batteries. By 9:30 the Aurora had flared up into great form with evidence of the high solar winds showing. The speed of the aurora was astounding – it rippled and flowed in one direction like a river of green light in the sky. However, in truly unpredictable fashion, the fat lady sang at 10:15 PM and it was over. That’s an early considering peak, average activity is at midnight.

I’m continuing to push the envelop of what I’m capable of for shooting the aurora.I took the opportunity last night to experiment with my first aurora panoramas. Often times a single image cannot capture the scope of the aurora, so the advantage is capturing the whole arc of the aurora in the sky. These images were stitched in Photoshop 6 and are comprised of 4 – 5 images each. I am happy with a first attempt!

Aurora borealis panorama 2. These images of the aurora were taken after the aurora activity picked up. I wanted to test how well the panorama would stitch with the higher activity - pretty good! The 'break' you see in the aurora is exactly how it looked. 2 bands in the sky.
Aurora borealis panorama 2. These images of the aurora were taken after the aurora activity picked up. I wanted to test how well the panorama would stitch with the higher activity – pretty good! The ‘break’ you see in the aurora is exactly how it looked. 2 bands in the sky.
Aurora borealis panorama early in the night. Stitched in photoshop, these are 4 second images which capture the whole arc of the aurora.
Aurora borealis panorama early in the night. Stitched in Photoshop 6, these are 4 second images which capture the whole arc of the aurora.

Beyond the panoramas I experimented with timelapse last night too. Incredibly, the timelapse here has shots taken down to 0.5 second exposures and at only 1 second apart. It gives the aurora incredible flow! I am getting closer and closer to it really feeling real which is my auroral goal. The speed of the technique differs from the past (2-4 second exposures and 2 seconds buffer) because of some high speed SD cards I got for Christmas which removed the need for much buffering/write time. It’s great!

There’s PLENTY of snow on the north side of Spinach Creek and it can make moving around a bit of a hassle. The snow itself is pure powder and easy to navigate, it is the grabbing stems of vengeful, cut black spruces which muddy the waters! You are often in the trap before you know it, and several times I was successfully taken down during my saunter. For scale I plopped down on the hillside and snapped an image – a good 3 feet or so!

The Negative 40F Aurora Club

While my friends on the east coast are getting pummeled by a record blizzard, here in Fairbanks, Alaska we’ve finally hit “seasonably cold” temperatures. As the mercury dropped On January 25th – 26th to 40 below, the clear skies were coupled with good looking aurora data. The humidity was only at 5% which for me meant perfect clarity to the stars! As I stepped out of the truck I sucked in my first breath of the cold air; it’s always the hardest one! The sting is from both the cold air and the dryness.It bursts into the lungs and bites the nose.

Although this was not my first 40 below night walking around in Alaska, it was the first time I took my camera out into those temps! Shooting at 40 below presented some unique challenges. First, battery life is depressingly short and I could only take about 300 images in contrast to over 1000 on one battery. Second, anything metal is extremely dangerous to the bare skin, and when you are out shooting metal is a common thing! I was carrying a magnesium alloy camera, and aluminum tripod with an aluminum head. Dealing with these items meant wearing liner gloves which resisted the cold like an ant resists a lollipop – I’ve never seen an ant that could resist a lollipop. The result is that I watched the aurora play across the sky in beautiful patterns on several occasions while warming my fingers! Of course, the disadvantage of that is I cannot print my photographic memory, but I still enjoyed a great show as my digits warmed up.  Third, clumsy mits made adjusting a cold, stiff tripod head quite difficult! What did I learn: future cold excursions will include a better pair of gloves!

With my petty whines aside it was a glorious night of aurora and aurora photography. I really focused on composition of shots, and although I did shoot a very short timelapse, most of my night was spent wandering through knee deep powder in the black spruces. Through the night the aurora shifted from an overhead band to the northern skies and danced in vibrant colors. Now that I am indoctrinated, I am looking forward to more auroras in the -40 club!

The other side of the story is the temperatures when I back to the University of Alaska Fairbanks. I was hoping their thermometer would read an official -40, but couldn’t quite reach that. Although at 8:00 AM the sign read -40, so close enough! I’ve included a screen capture of the temperatures and humidity as a some proof as well 🙂

At 1:30 AM the temperatures were hanging around 36 below F (-38C).
At 1:30 AM the temperatures were hanging around 36 below F (-38C).
When I awoke in the morning the temperatures had dipped to -40 and humidity was holding at 5%!
When I awoke in the morning the temperatures had dipped to -40 and humidity was holding at 5%!

Dog Mushing in Alaska

On Martin Luther King day I got to take a new ride out for a spin.This ‘ride’ was not like many you find in the lower 48! It had 16 legs and accelerated like a drag racer; when the dogs at Black Spruce Dog Sledding take off they do so with gusto! Check out the video below for an excerpt of an afternoon of mushing!

This actually wasn’t my first dog-sledding rodeo, but it was 11 years ago that I was on a on a dog sled. Some things I remembered well. For instance, I remembered the excitement! As you stand on the rear of the sled and the dogs are baying and pulling against the gangline the feeling of thrill builds! When the quick release (a rope and pin tied to a non-moving object) is pulled the team takes off like a race car. Rule #1 is to hold on!  From the kennels we headed out with our tag-sled team for a 13 mile loop. The dogs settled into a rhythm of about 7 mph on the uphills and ~10 mph on the flats. That is the pace that Jeff tries for when racing his dogs for mid-distance (300 mile) and longer races (1000 mile Yukon Quest or 2000 mile Iditarod). The constant pace of the run is essential for the dogs, they perform the best by establishing that pace.

On this particular trail it’s not long before the beginner’s baptism-by-fire comes into a view. A 90 degree turn after a road crossing was looming and my senses were keen as I considered how to navigate the obstacle. Jeff coached me by telling me to lean into the turn and try to stand on one ski while peddling one foot on the outside of the turn. He deftly performed the lesson he gave to me and I deftly tipped the sled into the snow bank! “I’m Down!” was all I had to call before Jeff had put on the break and I righted myself. Rule #2 – hold on during a fall! Fortunately, it was the only time I dumped the sled on our tag-sled tour. However, that doesn’t mean other section did not feel harrowing! On steeper down hills it was critical to keep plenty of weight on the drag to slow the sled and the team down. Zipping between black spruce trees we hurtled over snow drifts, wound through tight corridors, and leaned around turns. It’s amazing to me how mentally active you have to be when riding with a dog team in those conditions! Anticipating the turn or terrain ahead was essential to placing my weight correctly in the sled. Being centered, on the left ski, or the right ski changed how well I coped with the turns and the terrain.

I think it took me about five miles to start to feel comfortable in the sled. I no longer felt that I was going to tip at each turn and I began to feel my body relax. The smile which had not left my face since take off was still glued on. The joy of running with the dogs is infectious and the beauty of the scenery was unforgettable.  During the night and morning a heavy ice fog had built up scales of hoar frost on the trees. The encapsulated trees glinted in the sun that burned through the fog bank. We concluded our 13 mile tag sled run (2 sleds pulled by a larger team), and then I took my own 4 dog team out for a short, local loop. It was great to test my skills with my own (albeit smaller, but more manageable) team! By the time I left that day the sun, now low in the sky, ricocheted through the gem-encrusted limbs in an orange light ending a truly great day!

For more information on the kennels you can always check out : http://blacksprucedogsledding.com/

Gray Jay Black Spruce Dog Sledding
At the kennels the Gray Jay is a food thief. All food containers have to stay closed to keep these marauders out!
Laughing Sled Dog
We stopped to tell some jokes along the trail – I guess Inferno thought they were pretty doggone funny! 🙂 In reality though, each time we stopped the dogs LOVE to dive through the powder that their ganglines allow. Here, the dog “Inferno” is enjoying a roll in the snow.
Sled Dog Profile
Take a break – but ready to run!
My team of 4 is taking a quick breather - but they're ready to keep running!
My team of 4 is taking a quick breather – but they’re ready to keep running!
The sun breaks on the hillside behind black spruce encrusted in hoar frost.
The sun breaks on the hillside behind black spruce encrusted in hoar frost.
The hoar frost built an intricate lattice of ice on each needle of this black spruce. Quite pretty!
The hoar frost built an intricate lattice of ice on each needle of this black spruce. Quite pretty!
Hoar Frost builds up up on a black spruce limb. Look at the size of those crystals!
Hoar Frost builds up up on a black spruce limb. Look at the size of those crystals!
A shrub with a heavy layer of hoar frost was illuminated by the setting sun.
A shrub with a heavy layer of hoar frost was illuminated by the setting sun.
A frosty beard after the 13mile tag-sled run!
A frosty beard after the 13mile tag-sled run!

January 17th : Alaskan Snapshot

When I was home for Christmas break one of the questions I got asked fairly regularly was “what’s it like to live in Alaska in the winter?”. I always grin, which seems to be what people expect because they grin back, but I think I disappoint them by explaining that a lot of times the winter conditions are not as desperate as you think. Yes, 40 below is cold, but in Fairbanks the wind rarely blows making the cold very tolerable. 20-25% humidity ensures that it is a ‘dry cold’ (think of someone from Arizona explaining the dry heat). In the eyes of many, the hardest thing to adapt to is the short days in the winter. Although we are gaining length now, the dark days at bottom of winter make getting out of bed hard and sleeping easy. In Alaskan winters I celebrate and cherish the sun because I miss it! The darkness lately has been compounded by cloudy skies, so when the sun was out this morning I knew I wanted to be outside for it as much as possible! I gathered together my gear for setting burbot lines (more on that soon!!) and headed to the Tanana river. But, my trip to the river certainly was not linear, all along the way I found things to swing my camera lens at in that beautiful sunshine. So, today I give you a snap shot of January 17th in Alaska, a beautiful day! Photos are time-stamped and in order of occurrence. Hopefully you’ll see that not all winter days are so bad in Alaska!

11:37 AM : A boreal chickadee poses for a cute picture just outside of my house
11:37 AM : A boreal chickadee poses for a cute picture just outside of my house
11:37 AM : A boreal chickadee plans its next move at my feeders outside of the house
11:37 AM : A boreal chickadee looks before it leaps and is eyeing up some suet.
11:39 AM : Red-backed voles are a common Alaskan rodent. I have counted up to eight at a time under my feeders scavenging what they can find.
11:39 AM : Red-backed voles are a common Alaskan rodent. I have counted up to eight at a time under my feeders scavenging what they can find. Red-backed voles have actually been demonstrated to spend a large portion of their days in black spruces which is a recently documented behavior!
11:43 AM : A sharp tailed grouse sits under the spruces.
11:43 AM : A sharp tailed grouse sits under the spruces. This seems to be a pretty normal winter behavior – move as little as possible to conserve energy.
12:06 PM : The sharp-tailed grouse is actually a pretty small bird. Tucked up high in the spruces it is safe from almost any predator present in the Alaskan winter. Most raptors have migrated for the season, although a lingering great-horned owl could get bold and try for this big meal!
12:06 PM : The sharp-tailed grouse is actually a pretty small bird. Tucked up high in the spruces it is safe from almost any predator present in the Alaskan winter. Most raptors have migrated for the season, although a lingering great-horned owl could get bold and try for this big meal!
12:06 PM : Sharp-tailed grouse moved to the birches to pick at the catkins
12:06 PM : Sharp-tailed grouse moved to the birches to pick at the catkins
2:18 PM : I spent the afternoon drilling through the Tanana River to set burbot lines. The ice was thick! About 36 inches. However, early in the season the river broke up and formed "jumbled ice". The shadows of small snow-dunes are beautiful!
2:18 PM : I spent the afternoon drilling through the Tanana River to set burbot lines. The ice was thick! About 36 inches. However, early in the season the river broke up and formed “jumbled ice”. The shadows of small snow-dunes indicate a rough texture underneath!
4:29 PM : As I got back into town the Alaska Range (South of Fairbanks) was lit up by the low sun. The mountain range is always beautiful, but on nights like this you cannot stop watching! The pinks and purples of this sunset were amazing!
4:29 PM : As I got back into town the Alaska Range (South of Fairbanks) was lit up by the low sun. The mountain range is always beautiful, but on nights like this you cannot stop watching! The pinks and purples of this sunset were amazing! This is easily my favorite panorama to date because it is a view I get to enjoy everyday, and this picture captures it well!
4:32 PM : The sun is almost ready to disappear. We've gained an amazing amount of time back since December 21st when the day length was 3.5 hours. Todays day length is just over 5 hours!
4:32 PM : The sun is almost ready to disappear. We’ve gained an amazing amount of time back since December 21st when the day length was 3.5 hours. Today’s day length is just over 5 hours!

At the Bottom of Winter : Alaskan Tradition

This composite of the sun was compiled from 6 shots throughout the day. Quite beautiful! The composite was compiled in the "Star Trails 2.3" software.
This composite of the sun was compiled from 6 shots throughout the day. Quite beautiful!

For months we have been losing daylight. June 21st marks a daylight decline which has defined cultures and natural systems in Alaska for millenia.  The short days of winter psychologically effects the mind and  physically alter the body. As it we roll out of our beds the morning after solstice we know that today is just a little bit longer the last! It is uplifting. Until that moment when the days lengthen, the waning light indoctrinates residents into the darkness. You simply get used to doing things in the dark! The changes of daylight we experience now have been celebrated by the traditions of the Inuit and Athabascan people of Alaska; their traditions are symbolic of change and new times. The Athabascan name for the solstice is “dzaanh ledo” which means “the day is sitting”. This description of the actual phenomena that defines solstice is fitting, the day is not gaining or losing time; it is stationary (ttp://goo.gl/cFN613). The Inuit of far north Alaska experience times of no sun at all, and during solstice communities held feasts where shamans prayed for the communities. Meat was eaten by each individual at the same time, and each person eating the meat focused on Sedna. Sedna is a diety of the Inuit underworld and a god of marine animals. After the meat was consumed, water was drank one person at a time in succession, and each person stated the time and place of their birth. To the Inuit this distinguished the summer and winter people. After a trading of gifts, the festivities ended by extinguishing lights in all of the homes which were kindled by a common, newly-lit fire garnering a new relationship with the new sun (http://goo.gl/aRyByZ). Inuit people were able to indentify the solstice when the star Aagjunk (literllaly “sunbeam”) lay directly below the sun which, although unseen, was just below the horizon (http://goo.gl/Rzzttg).

The solstice occurs at 8:30 PM in Alaska, but occurs at different times throughout the world (http://goo.gl/G6QEvw), and rekindles hope that winter is ending and that the new day will be longer.

I shot this timelapse of the Solstice sun on December 19th to give you a feel of the solstice sun (fear not, we only lost 2 more daylight minutes by the 21st). In Fairbanks Alaska, it barely crests the Alaskan mountains (Mount McKinley/Denali visible) before dropping below the horizon again. You can always check out the timelapse of summer solstice when it it never sets in the land of the Midnight Sun. Happy Solstice!

When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Them Into Photos!

Ice fog and hoar frost greeted me as I stepped into the inky-darkness on December 1st at 7AM. I was snowshoeing up the Pinnell Mountain Trail in search of caribou. Specifically I was hoping to harvest an individual from the “Forty Mile Herd“, because the hunt opened on December 1st, and would be closed by December 2nd due to a high amount of animals near the road. The goal of the hunt was to harvest 283 animals, and it was projected that hunters would achieve that in one day. In short, it was expected to be a zoo of hunters steaming around on their snow machines. I wanted to skip the crowds and headed north over the snowfields where most people head south. Robert Frost would declare I took the one less traveled.

The sun finally broke over the horizon in 10:15, and I glassed over the shrubs again in the drainage that I sat high above. The sled that I drug made an excellent seat; I was anticipating filling it with caribou! However, 60 minutes of glassing used up 20% of my available daylight, and I decided to move to the next basin. After looking into the nooks and crannies of the next valley, it seemed the drain had been pulled in this basin, if there had ever been caribou there they had emptied out!  By the end of the day I had traveled over 7 miles over mountains, and through the snow, but no caribou to be found.

However, on a beautiful day like this one, there is always a silver lining. Each mountain side was filled with hoar frost encrusted spruces and the day finished with a great moonrise/sunset combination. So, rather than pictures of a trophy, I bring the pictures I shot of the Alaska Winter Wonderland!

By the way, let me know which shot of the moon with trees you like the best, I would love to hear!

As the sun rose the clouds went pink and orange overhead. I was in the shadow of the moutain, and wouldn't see the sun for a few more hours until I reached the otherside!
As the sun rose the clouds went pink and orange overhead. I was in the shadow of the mountain, and wouldn’t see the sun for a few more hours until I reached the other side!
This lone spruce is toughing out an existence on along the ridgetop. Sure is beautiful!
This lone spruce is toughing out an existence on along the ridgetop. Sure is beautiful!
The sun sets along the Pinnell Mountain trail. A great way to end a beautiful day!
The sun sets along the Pinnell Mountain trail. A great way to end a beautiful day!
One more look at the hoar frost as a rounds a large clump of spruces encased in hoar frost.
One more look at the hoar frost as a rounds a large clump of spruces encased in hoar frost.
A beautiful moon splits some spruce trees in the alpine tundra of Twelvemile Summit
A beautiful moon splits some spruce trees in the alpine tundra of Twelvemile Summit
Unfortunately computer screens are too small to do a panorama justice. However, here the moon rises and the sunsets. Pretty cool to capture it all in one image!
Unfortunately computer screens are too small to do a panorama justice. However, here the moon rises and the sunsets. Pretty cool to capture it all in one image!
Up in the alpine tundra of the Pinnell Mountain trail, the moon sits high over all.
Up in the alpine tundra of the Pinnell Mountain trail, the moon sits high over all.
Christmas came early to the Pinnell Mountain Trail - star on top of the tree!
Christmas came early to the Pinnell Mountain Trail – star on top of the tree!