Tag Archives: Aurora Borealis

The Lights and ‘Bergs of Yakutat, Alaska

In the north end of Southeast Alaska lies Yakutat, Alaska. The community sits in a cathedral of mountains that make up Kluane National Park and Reserve. Among its peaks, Mt. Saint Elias soars to over 18,000 feet, earning it the title of second highest mountain in the U.S. and Canada.. All of the mountains are snow covered and laced with glaciers. They create remarkable, never ending scenery when the sun is shining and at night they provide a remarkable backdrop for the Northern Lights.

Yakutat Glacier, Aurora, Iceberg, Northern Lights, Alaska
An iceberg floats under the Northern Lights in Harlequin Lake.

Forty-five minutes outside of Yakutat plus a 20 minute hike will bring you to Harlequin Lake. The lake is at the outflow of Yakutat Glacier, possibly the fastest retreating glacier in the world, which dumps a constant supply of ice into it the lake’s waters. We arrived at 10PM as the aurora was starting to intensify into a solid green band. Icebergs floated in the lake like ice cubes in a drink. They were  about 30 feet from shore which left me in a dilemma – go into the lake to bring the icebergs closer in my photos, or be happy with images from the shore? As the aurora exploded overhead into pinks and greens it made my choice clear.

My boots and then socks came off quickly and I sucked in my breath as I stepped into the frigid water. It crept over my knees and then to my mid-thighs before I finally stopped wading in. The aurora was still dancing overhead and the adrenaline kept my mind off my numbing feet. I stepped out of the water a few times to warm up, but was forced back into the water by the beauty of the combination of ice and aurora. The fifth time back in the water was nearly unbearable! I finally conceded that it was time to warm up, not knowing the climax of the night would come after I put my boots back on.

Yakutat Glacier, Aurora, Iceberg, Northern Lights, Alaska

When a glacier “calves” a chunk of ice breaks from it and crashes into the water forming a bouncing baby iceberg. It was evident from the gigantic sound coming from across the lake, that Yakutat Glacier was calving off a behemoth chunk of ice. The cannon-like roar that boomed across the lake accented the dancing Northern Lights overhead. The goosebumps stood up on my arms from the power of the moment. It was a fitting end to one of coldest and most memorable nights of Northern Lights watching that I have done.

Yakutat Glacier, Aurora, Iceberg, Northern Lights, Alaska

The aurora storm (kp5) lasted for another night and aligned with clear skies – a two night feature of cloudless skies which is unusual for Yakutat in October. There are many areas close to town that are devoid of light pollution, and I departed to Grave Yard Beach outside of Yakutat which is most famous for its surfing.  Adding to the sound of the gentle surf, the ocean-side location provided open skies for the aurora to dance, reflections in the sand, and a moonrise over the mountains. Whenever I return to Yakutat again, it will be impossible not to think of these two remarkable nights in the darkness and under the lights.

Yakutat Glacier, Aurora, Iceberg, Northern Lights, Alaska
“The Double Dipper” – Ursa Major reflects in the sand and shines in the sky.

Yakutat Glacier, Aurora, Iceberg, Northern Lights, Alaska Yakutat Glacier, Aurora, Iceberg, Northern Lights, Alaska

Ocean Biolumination and the Aurora Borealis

Although late April in Alaska typically spells the end of the “dark days” of winter and hence the aurora borealis, we were fortunate to have an active aurora forecast (KP6) and clear skies on April 23rd. Perhaps the fates were aligning without my knowing it as spring in Southeast Alaska is known for its clouds and rain, but as  I drove out to The Cannery at Icy Strait Point I was greeted by stars and a moonless night.  From the parking lot my feet crunched on the gravel of the rocky beach. I walked along with the water lapping near my feet and the sea-air filled my nostrils from the swelling waters of a high tide. I was not alone out there. My headlamp lit up only a small portion of the inky-dark night, but up ahead a mink’s eyes showed brightly like two opals in the dark. Another mustelid, a River Otter, swam in the waters just offshore. He got closer to me several times, obviously trying to figure out what I was up to. All of these wonders were the precursor to the amazing show that was only be beginning.

At 12:30 AM The aurora began to intensify over the waters of Port Frederick. Soon the pulsing green, pink, and white lights turned the ocean fluorescent green and my eyes wide. I had never seen a display this active in Southeast! I worked with my camera to tether together the sea and the Northern Lights. I was fortunate enough to have the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry add some scale at about 1AM.

Icy Strait Point, Northern Lights, Hoonah, Alaska, Southeast Alaska
Sea shells accent the Northern Lights from the Cannery in Hoonah.

Icy Strait Point, Northern Lights, Hoonah, Alaska, Southeast Alaska

At 1:30 AM the adrenaline of the incredible show finally started to wear off. I set off down the shore to go home,  staring at my feet to avoid tripping. That’s when the first small blue light in the water caught my eye. I splashed a rock into the water and blue waves of biolumintation echoed out from its crater. I stepped into the water, and my footprints erupted with light. All around me in the waters of Port Frederick, small, bio-luminescent creatures swarmed and let off burst of cerulean blue light like underwater fireflies at the slightest disturbance. It was then that I knew what I had to do! My camera began clicking 6 inches from the water’s surface as I sought together bond together the lights of the sea and the lights of the sky as its unlikely I will ever have this unique experience ever again!

Icy Strait Point, Northern Lights, Hoonah, Alaska, Southeast Alaska, Phytoplankton, Biolumination, Bioluminescence
A huge bloom of bio-luminescent creatures provides a blue glow to the foreground of this image. You can see their streaks in the water in this long exposure.
Icy Strait Point, Northern Lights, Hoonah, Alaska, Southeast Alaska
Bio-luminescent creatures in the waters of Port Frederick and under the Northern Lights.

 

Icy Strait Point, Northern Lights, Hoonah, Alaska, Southeast Alaska
The aurora borealis arches over all of Hoonah, Alaska.
The incredible dark skies of Hoonah are offset by the Aurora Borealis.

Did You Just See A Proton Arc?

A proton arc is oftentimes described as a broad band of diffuse aurora. If you do a Google Image search for “Proton Arc” a plethora of beautiful images depicting a purple, red, green, or pale band of aurora will greet your eyes. Go ahead, really, search it, I can wait. Or, you can visit this website at Spaceweathergallery.com.

I had the pleasure of seeing this pale phenomenon in Juneau on September 20th, 2016 for the first time ever. In the scene, the aurora swirled to the north in front of me over mountains.  However, a  pale, confined, band of aurora ran perpendicular to the northern display, and stretched far to the south past a large, brilliant moon. In my camera it was cool blue/white in color and was in stark contrast to the green aurora that played on the northern horizon over the mountains of Juneau.  I posted the image to an aurora group on Facebook and labeled it a “proton arc” as so many before me had done. However, I received an interesting response from renowned aurora researcher Neal Brown – a true “proton aurora” is nearly undetectable by the human eye and the concept of a “proton arc” is a widespread misconception. The disagreement between the science and the public perception set my wheels turning, and even though I am not an aurora scientist, I would like to dissect why proton arcs are not truly visible.

Proton Arc, Hoonah, Alaska, Aurora Borealis
On September 20th, 2016 I thought I saw a “proton arc” in Juneau, however, it seems my misunderstanding of this auroral phenomenon is the same of many non-scientists.

There are two ways that auroras may be formed. Most auroras are formed when excited electrons collide with oxygen or nitrogen or if protons collide with nitrogen or oxygen. Electrons which are lighter and have a lot of energy result in the traditional, dancing auroras. Electron auroras emit light at many wavelengths including 630nm (red) and 427.9nm (blue). The second way that auroras can form is when protons collide with nitrogen and oxygen. The proton collisions result in emissions of 656.3nm (red) and 486.1nm (blue) (Lummerzheim et al. 2001).  Separation of these light bands are difficult because at 656.3 the emissions require a precise instrument to differentiate them from the electron aurora. The same can be said of the emissions at 486.1 which are nearly indiscernible from the electron emissions.  To quote Neal Brown’s response in the aurora group, “To prove it is a true proton arc one would have to use some sort of spectral discrimination to see if it contained only 656.3 and 486.1 nm emissions”. Aurora researcher Jason Ahrms had this to say in a detailed Facebook post – “We don’t use color, location in the sky, how long it’s been there, or anything like that to identify a proton aurora.”. This means that simply looking at an aurora with your eyes is not enough to determine if it is a proton arc – so why is it so commonly mislabeled. The mistake is likely an innocent use of scientific jargon; those posting the images (like me) simply did a brief search to confirm what they saw before spreading the lie themselves.

A chart of the light spectrum. Copyright : http://techlib.com/images/optical.jpg
A chart of the light spectrum. Copyright : http://techlib.com/images/optical.jpg

 

The Aurora Borealis shows off a pale display in Hoonah, Alaska which is often identified a "Proton Arc"
The Aurora Borealis shows off a pale display in Hoonah, Alaska which is often identified a “Proton Arc”

Although it is impossible to detect a proton aurora with your eyes, they have been successfully photographed once identified with instrumentation. Tony Phillips of Spaceweather.com discussed the phenomena with University of Alaska Fairbanks Researcher Jason Arhns.  His image below shows how difficult true differentiation between electron and proton aurora is. Where the proton arc has been identified is barely discernible from the aurora.

This proton arc was captured by Jason Ahrns of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. The region fo the proton arc was determined from spectral instruments, but as you can see it is very similiar in form to electron auroras. Image copy right to Spaceweather.com

It was interesting to realize that my perception of what a proton arc was had been so wrongfully influenced by what I saw online. However, if the pale auroras being captured by photographers (like the photos below) are not truly proton arcs, what are they? Incredibly, as Jason Ahrns explains, to date there are is no known explanation for these pale, elusive aurora displays! They are a new opportunity for scientific exploration in the aurora research arena. I hope they keep us posted.

 

Citations:

http://pluto.space.swri.edu/image/glossary/aurora2.html

Lummerzheim, D., M. Galand, and M. Kubota. “Optical emissions from proton aurora.” Proc. of Atmospheric Studies by Optical Methods 1 (2001): 6.

news.spaceweather.com/protonarc/

 

Sightseeing Sitka, Alaska

Sitka, Alaska is known for its mountains which sprout from the ocean and provide a stunning backdrop to the fishing boats which constantly traverse its water. However, Sitka averages 87 inches (7.25 feet) of rain per year which means it is constantly cloudy. It was pretty lucky that our first visit to this scenic city coincided with 3 days of sunshine! We were blown away by the juxtaposition of mountains and ocean. A series of fortunate events allowed us to explore enjoy the region and my camera was constantly clicking.

Mountains and Sunsets

We stepped off our short, 40-minute, flight from Hoonah to Sitka and received an invite. My pilot was an avid hiker and wanted to bring my wife, Kassie, and I out hiking at Mosquito cove. After an instant “yes” on our part  we were on our way. The coastal drive brought us to the edge of town (Sitka only has about 17 miles of road), and in short order we were on the trail to Mosquito Cove. Tall spruces provided a high canopy and the loamy smell of the undergrowth mixed with the salty-fresh air of the ocean. The rocky coast reminded me of the shores of Maine, except the tall mountains made it distinctly Alaskan. A colorful sunset met us at the end of the hike and graced us as we returned to the trail head. An amazing way to start our time in Sitka!

The next day we ventured to the top of Harbor Mountain. Winding switchbacks made me a bit car-sick, but the big payout was the views from the top. The many islands of the Sitka region lay below us and the blue skies allowed for miles and miles of views.

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Blues skies reflect off a pool on Harbor Mountain, Sitka, Alaska.
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The sprawling bays and Islands surround Sitka, Alaska as seen from Harbor Mountain.
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I was struck by the character of this dead tree in the alpine on Harbor Mountain, Sitka, Alaska.
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A colorful sunset puts Mount Edgecumbe in shadows in Sitka, Alaska

The Aurora Borealis and Night Skies

The clear conditions in Sitka happened to align with a level 5 aurora forecast. I knew the only place that I wanted to go was to the dark skies and huge vistas of Harbor Mountain. The Northern Lights began almost as the sun went down and stretched far to the south over Mount Edgecumbe.  By 10:30 PM the aurora was far overhead and dancing in incredible sheets of green and pink. I was blown away by its presence over the oceans and landscape.

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The moonless night in Sitka, Alaska made the Milky Way shine. I caught this shooting-star, whose tail stretched long in the sky.
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The Milky Way over Harbor Mountain, Sitka, Alaska.

On the Wing

The flight from Sitka to Hoonah was the capstone to a remarkable trip. The sunny conditions persisted and showcased tall mountains, alpine lakes, colorful bays, and long fjords.

First Impressions of Hoonah, Alaska

Incredibly I have been in Hoonah, Alaska for an entire week already. There is so much to see, learn, and do in Southeast Alaska that I cannot wait to dive into life here more fully, but I hope to give you a small taste of what I have experienced up this point and foreshadow future opportunities.

Seeing as the community is along the rich waters of Port Frederick and the Pacific Ocean there is strong interest in the cycles of fish. The chatter throughout town is that the herring will be here any day and will fuel an entire diverse ecosystem. Once they arrive the whales, salmon, halibut, eagles, bears, and much more will all follow in short order. Four types of salmon may be commonly caught by simply casting a spoon from shore, and if you have a boat, the opportunity of a 300 pound halibut is just a stones throw away. I was told that whales bubble feed underneath the docks on the Hoonah Harbor. The waters here are so clear that if they are near the docks you can likely watch their underwater feeding before they break the surface.  Once the salmon are in the rivers, the highest concentration of brown bears in the world will flock to the rivers to fatten up on salmon for the winter.  All of these wildlife will present photographic opportunities that I cannot wait to shoot!

Clouds and rain are a staple of Southeast Alaska and fuel the temperate rain forests containing mammoth spruces, hemlocks and cedars growing to over 200 feet in height. Some regions of Southeast receive over 200 inches of rain each year and never seem to have cloudless nights. To my delight I was presented with a relative rarity in Southeast Alaska : clear skies. There are very few large towns in Southeast and light pollution is minimal. The conditions are perfect for night photography. I ambled my truck filled with camera gear high above the ocean to Gobbler’s Knob. From there the Milky Way stretched out in front of me and the aurora emanated from the far northern horizon. I listened to the sound of Long-tailed Ducks from the ocean below, the rumbled of diesel boats, and my own heartbeat. Certainly a memorable night more easily expressed through photos! The photographs below are a slice from Hoonah which I look forward to embellishing on and bringing your more of!

Into the Alaskan Night

This winter, and the winter before that, and the winter before that, I spent more time outside in the darkness than I did in the sun. It is the nature of living in a land where the Lights in the darkness outshine in beauty the pleasure of the sun’s flare.  I have found tremendous joy, solace, quiet, and refuge in watching the Aurora Borealis sway and bend across the northern sky, and documenting the Northern Lights has been an endeavor that has kept me up hundreds of hours. Locked away in terabytes of pixels are the proof of my labors. The images that I hold will be a legacy to pass on to my children and perhaps to my grandchildren. It is possible the pictures I have taken will even document change in the Arctic as our climate warms and the landscape transitions to something else.

I have learned more than I can measure about the natural world in Fairbanks because the Arctic is a deceptively complex place, and it is rapidly changing. There are many examples of its uniqueness. Its ecosystem has evolved to support wildlife at extreme temperatures from -60F to 80F. A highlight of its incredible diversity and unique importance are the hundreds of species of birds that return there each year from several continents to breed. Without the Arctic as a breeding ground, populations of waterfowl would be vastly diminished. To create the right conditions to support life for a short summer, the input energy into the system has to be massive, and the never-setting Midnight is the catalyst that fuels the prolifery. From its heat and light rise the microbes,plants, insects, and small mammals which fuel an entire ecosystem that provides resources for those animals and humans that live in it, as well as humans who profit from its export to other regions of the world. The Arctic has become a land which I look forward to returning to, as there is still so much to learn about and see!

At the end of every  night comes the dawn. A chance for the world to be seen in a different light, from a new perspective. I have been incredibly blessed with the opportunity to experience the wonders of Interior Alaska, but along with the moving world, I will be shifting my life to Hoonah, Alaska. In Southeast Alaska along the coast, I look forward to plying the sea for salmon and watching its waters for whales, otters in seals. With endless photographic opportunity in the region, I am thrilled to show you and write about the resource rich world of Southeast!

This season’s Aurora Borealis Time-Lapse, “Into the Alaskan Night”, comes not at the end of the Aurora Season but at the end of my time in Fairbanks. In a way, its production is a piece of closure of my life in the interior as I move to Hoonah, Alaska, where I look forward to wandering into the night.

The Galaxy Rises in Alaska

Growing up in Minnesota one of my favorite constellations was Orion. The appearance of his belt at earth’s horizon was a sure sign that autumn was approaching, and as I fell asleep each night I would watch him out my southern facing window. Many people, cultures, and seasons are tied to the position of the stars. In Alaska and as a night-photographer, I have grown to appreciate the rise of the Milky Way Galaxy to the north as spring approaches. Although at least a part of the Milky Way is visible through the winter, its growing prominence and brightness in February and March really documents the changing season. The Milky Way rises through the summer, but by the time we are able to see into the center of the Galaxy the sun will never set! Of course, the sun blots out any opportunity to see the center of the Milky Way from Fairbanks, Alaska.

Earlier in the night (about 10 PM) the galaxy was very bright and intersected a red and green display of the Northern Lights.
Earlier in the night (about 10 PM) the galaxy was very bright and intersected a red and green display of the Northern Lights.

I have been researching and “perfecting” techniques (lots of room for growth and creativity!) to stitch together large panoramas. The images here were created from stitched 25 – 32 images. The results are certainly  interesting and beautiful! My goal when creating these images is to capture as much of the Milky Way as possible. On moonless nights like March 2nd in Fairbanks, Alaska the Milky Way shows up as a bright band in the sky. With some luck, the aurora accents its celestial beauty. As part of the Panoramic technique the resolution of the image grows to extreme proportions. These panoramas here are approximately 21,480 x 10,850 pixels! That’s nearly 233 megapixel resolution! The power of the technique the possibility of wall-sized panoramic prints. Hint, hint – I would love to see one of these printed to 50″ or bigger! If you are are interested, you should contact me!

A lone birch stands as the focal points of this large panorama. The city lights of Fairbanks show up on the right.
A lone birch stands as the focal points of this large panorama. The city lights of Fairbanks show up on the right.
A large panorama showing off the Galaxy and the Aurora Borealis over Black Spruce Dogsledding.
A large panorama showing off the Galaxy and the Aurora Borealis over Black Spruce Dogsledding.

From a bit purer side of photography, I was also able to capture the galaxy and aurora in single images. However, there is an interesting distinction in them over many of my other aurora shots – they are no longer “real”. I am a stickler for not over-processing aurora shots to  give the viewer the truest colors and most accurate representation as possible. However, to emphasize the galaxy it necessary to compromise on the color of the aurora. The aurora in these single shots and the panoramas is more vibrant than it was to the naked on this night.  Because of the color changes these are truly “works of art”, not just documentation of the aurora.  Its not a bad thing, but I feel should be made clear, as there is a growing opinion that aurora photography does not represent how it truly looks. In this particular case, that is true.

A bright section of aurora hightlights a beautiful scene capturing the Milky Way over the sleds at Blackspruce Dogsledding
A bright section of aurora hightlights a beautiful scene capturing the Milky Way over the sleds at Blackspruce Dogsledding
A fusion of the northern lights and the Milky Way Galaxy at Black Spruce Dog Sledding.
A fusion of the northern lights and the Milky Way Galaxy at Black Spruce Dog Sledding.
Star Trails
A long star trails shows off the multitude of stars on a moonless night in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Music of the Aurora

In Barry Lopez’s book Arctic Dreams, he spends a short amount of time reminiscing on the first time he saw the aurora borealis and how it can be difficult to put into words its colors, movement, and beauty. I was relieved to read that I was not the only person having that issue! I often struggle putting into words a description of the aurora that will cause those who have seen it to glaze over as they dream about it, and those who have not seen it to yearn for a huge night of northern lights. While writing this entry I reviewed the first time that I ever tried to explain the aurora. Reading “Poeticism, superlatives, and lists of glamorous, stunning, beautiful adjectives will abound in this post, for this was no mere night and cannot be described with just plain words. If this grammatical superfulism is not your style,  I would not blame you for skipping straight to the images on this one.” from that post almost three years ago makes me smile! I am not convinced chaining longs lists of adjectives together aptly describes aurora. It is as emotional as it is visual and is something best experienced for yourself.

Muted Aurora
Muted tones during a period of aurora pianissimo.

Thinking about the writing I have done in past describing the aurora, I was struck by my usage of musical terms to describe the aurora. In fact, the feelings music terms invoke bring both emotional and descriptive meaning to the adjectives I use to describe the aurora.  Reading back on an entry from September 2015 I found this, “As evening progressed the auroral symphony started to tune its strings. Beginning to the north it solidified and moved into a broad crescendo of dancing lights, and then falling to pianissimo, the lights went out. But then from the orchestral pit,Double Forte!“.   I love the vision it invokes in my head. A crowd of expectant viewers hush their voices and the lights are dimmed, a few plucks are heard in the pit of the orchestra, the conductor raises his hands, and the show begins!

Aurora Star Trails Purple
A long star trails shows of the changes of the aurora borealis over a couple of hours.

The idea of translating the aurora into music prompted me to work through formally composing and recording my first ever song on the guitar.  I began the song the way the aurora often begins. A steady, solid pulse of light that builds one beat at a time. The song is timid, unsure if the aurora will come to fruition, but then a light harmonic symbolizes change. The tempo of the song forces the aurora higher into the sky as it builds in speed and intensity. Shifting across the sky, short bursts of light are like a staccato.  They punctuate the underscore that has now turned into a fast steady rhythm. Rapidly the aurora rolls across the sky changing the visual dynamics. A region of forte that held your gaze diminishes to pianissimo allowing you to refocus to a new part of the sky. In the orchestra, the conductor is no waving stage left at the delicate sounds of violins but instead at the soft lyrical voices of the flutes. The change gives you goose bumps as it seamlessly transitions to a new rhythm and sound. The swell of color and light has finally ceased and the the steady pulse of light returns before finally fading out. The lights of the auditorium fade out, and the applause of the crowd erupts as they lavish in what they heard and saw.

Aurora Star Trails Collosus
“Collosus” A composition of change in the aurora over a 1.5 hour period. This composition shows off a variety of color changes and intensities.

As this posts winds down and concludes, I would be interested to know if the use of music and musical terms helps describe the aurora for you. In the video below, I tied together time lapes from this season in the Fairbanks region. The guitar track was composed and performed by me. I hope you enjoy!

Northern Accents

It was negative 5 degrees Fahrenheit in Fairbanks, Alaska as I stepped outside to engage in my photographic addiction : capturing the northern lights. I set off into the night, stomped a trail through knee-deep snow, and tripped on a hidden tree. The trip loosened up a signature item of the black spruce bog that I was walking in; a four foot Black Spruce tree encased in snow. Around me arranged in clumps and with varying snow loads were hundreds of Black Spruces. Each layer of snow deposited through the winter hung heavily on each tree.  Some of them sustained the burden of winter and maintained their dignity by standing upright, however, many bowed over in graceful arcs waiting for the warmth of spring to set them free. The beautiful landscape I stood in was classic to the interior of Alaska in the boreal forest. On this night I was in luck, the aurora started up and with my camera and mind racing I began to take pictures that fused together two iconic elements of interior Alaska.

I began photographing the aurora borealis three years ago and since then have continued to morph my skills and technique. It is actually pretty amazing to consider the transition that my photography has gone through as I began to realize that although the northern lights are stunning they are only an accent to unique landscape. I began to focus less on tack-sharp stars and large vistas and more on the foreground elements. I no longer only seek tall “domes” (i.e., mountains, hills) to stake out my my tripod. Instead I often look for integral pieces of the landscape that epitomize it and place them close and directly in front of my camera. In order to capture landscapes like these I change my techniques. My camera and tripod are almost always at ‘snow level’ to take advantage of unique angles, and I set up only a few feet from the object in front of me. A bulbous, snow-covered black spruce only two feet away becomes the tack-sharp focus that the eye is pulled to. The dreamy and soft aurora and stars  provide the lighting that help pull out the essence of the landscape. They are punctuation to the beauty which lies all around.

In the age of digital photography that makes capturing the northern lights “easy”, I offer this article as a challenge to photographers to think outside of the box when shooting the aurora. You may find that it provides inspiration to your work and a beautiful twist to an astounding phenomenon.

Northern Archway
I chose this archway of spruces to photograph the aurora in. I was intent on capturing the aurora in a way that complimented their shape.
Window to the Northern Lights
I got closer to the archway and was thrilled by the aurora that dance in this natural window.
Northern Lights
Bulbous, snow-covered spruces and a framework and a dead spruce are set by the aurora borealis.
Aurora Borealis
A window to the aurora beyond.
Northern Lights
A broad vista of red and green aurora in Fairbanks.
Northern Lights Archway
Northern lights in an archway of black spruces.

Northern lights archway Aurora Borealis Panorama Alaska, Aurora Borealis Spruce, Northern Lights, Black Spruce Aurora Borealis Alaska Fairbanks Winter Snow Northern Lights Black Spruce Alaska Aurora Borealis and black spruces Northern Lights, Black Spruces, Bog

 

Creating an Image 365

For the last year I have strapped my camera to my back, placed it in my backpack, or put it in the front seat of my truck to meet my goal of taking a picture a day for 365 days. My intent of the project was to simply take a picture each day to improve my photography skills. Looking at the results I am shocked by how the project changed my view of photography and my photography skillset.

30 days in the project I was already starting to feel that I was repeating the same shots days after day. The constant feeling of the need to do something different each day forced my growth as a photographer. It was critical  I go out of my comfort zone of wildlife and landscapes by taking advantage nearly any shot that presented itself and finding an opportunity when there was an obvious one. The greatest lessons I learned was defining the difference between “taking a picture” and “creating an image”. I think creating an image captures the essence of the object or the moment and is ultimately at the heart of the what brings me joy in photography and continues to make it interesting. The difference seems subtle, but to illustrate it,  standing parallel to the horizon and taking a picture of the sunset is different than making an image of that same sunset by adding in the reflection of the water through the trees. By creating an image, you can tell a story through photography. That became my goal as the days ticked on by.

The results of this project provided a picture diary for a year. Be sure to flip through full gallery from January 1st – December 31st, 2015 here . As I flipped through them it was a trip down memory lane. I selected images  exemplifying essential lessons I learned from this project. Many of them are connected to each other and all of them helped me create an image rather than just take a picture.

10 Takeaways When Creating an Image

  1. A portable system is a huge benefit.  First and foremost I really appreciated the portability of my Olympus OMD Micro 4/3 system. The small size enabled me to carry a full featured camera and an array of lenses everywhere that I went.  That portable system helped me take advantage of the opportunity to capture this Sharp-Shinned Hawk. I was biking to the office when I encountered it and was able to snap a great moment.
July 30th : Sharp-shinned Hawk
July 30th : Sharp-shinned Hawk

2. Take an opportunity when you have it. I learned really quickly that if you intend to take a picture every single day, it is absolutely critical to capture an image regardless of the cost. Okay, I am definitely being a bit facetious, but this particular sunrise caused a five-minute tardiness on my way to class. It was just too beautiful to pass up, and I needed time to set up a tripod!

February 2nd : Sunrise over the University of Alaska Fairbank's ice climbing wall
February 2nd : Sunrise over the University of Alaska Fairbank’s ice climbing wall

3. Be creative. I often mounted only a single lens to my camera, and then forced myself to capture an image with that lens. In line with taking advantage of an opportunity (see #2), it is was also necessary to look for opportunities.  The particular image below was created because I had an f/1.0 50mm lens. I knew that depth of field would enable me to have tack-sharp pieces of an image, and a soft background which I think was effective in this skull image.

January 21st : Empty your mind.
January 21st : Empty your mind.

4. Diversify by taking advantage of all forms of photography. As I searched for shots, I extended into photography that is not my bread-and-butter wildlife or landscapes. Learning to set up food shots, portraits, and composites all helped build my photography skill set.

June 17th : Anniversary!
June 17th : Anniversary!

5. Light is everything. Photography is the “art of capturing light”, and living in Fairbanks, Alaska most of the year presented a significant challenge in the winter months. Short days ensured that if I was going to take advantage of an opportunity (see #2) in the daylight I had to be quick. I also had to get creative (see # 3) on cloudy days by either moving indoors or finding a shot that worked in flat light.

September 9th : Golden Birches
September 9th : Golden Birches

6. Make something out of nothing. There were a lot of cloudy, dark days where I never got the opportunity to take an image outside. If that was the case, it was time to be creative (see #3) by designing indoor scenes, capturing phenomena in the dark (aurora borealis, moon, or stars). I dug around in the kitchen and provided some side-lighting for this scene (see #4 on diversity). In these situations my goal was creatively create an image.

November 24th : Cooking Essentials
November 24th : Cooking Essentials

7. Have fun editing. As a wildlife photographer I often consider my work to be documentation, rather than art. I would point to a critical difference that documentation should represent the subject closely whereas art is the utilization of creative license. It was a new realm for me to experiment within Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom to manipulate imagery and create art out of them. Often I used effects to emphasize the subject of the image.

June 3rd : Bluebells
June 3rd : Bluebells

8. Take advantage of your cameras settings. I pulled up to the train tracks right as the arms went down in front of me. I had not taken a picture yet (see #2) and was drawn to the stationary cross arm. Rather than “stop” the train, I slow down my shutter speed and stabilized my camera on the dash of my car. By taking advantage of my cameras settings I was able to capture an interesting shot showing motion.

August 10th : Waiting for the train to pass
August 10th : Waiting for the train to pass

9. You won’t always knock it out of the fence. It’s inescapable that poor lighting (see #5) and not taking advantage of an opportunity (see #2) will result in a less than optimal image. That’s OK!! I found the most important aspect of this challenge was to find an object and capture it in the most interesting way possible by taking advantage of interesting angles or the camera’s settings (see #8).

July 18th : Sawyer's tools
July 18th : Sawyer’s tools

10. Learn from your mistakes. Mistakes are beyond the realm of “not knocking it out of the park” (see #9).  Mistakes are fine unless you only have one image from the day.  The image below is a mistake that was meant to be a starspin. However, I learned why the image did not work (see #8), so that I would not repeat it in the future.

September 23rd : Light pollution
September 23rd : Light pollution

In summary, this project provided incredible growth for me. A photography growth spurt if you will. The results created a photo journal of an entire year of my life and I hope that you can take away  a few key points along with enjoying the imagery of my self-imposed assignment! Just in case you missed it, you can review the full gallery HERE!