On September 1st, 2019 I crept outside into the dark night of Alaska to meet STEVE and it and I had a photo shoot together. It had been awhile! But usually once a year we have a chance to get a look at a each other. I’m not talking about my cousin Steve, in fact, STEVE is not a person at all. STEVE stands for Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement.
The last time I wrote about STEVE it was to dispel the mis-classification of these images online as “Proton Arcs”. At that time scientists were grappling with what caused this mysterious form of the aurora. There was uncertainty on why it showed up white instead of green and what form of energy would cause the aurora at all. Although it has likely been observed by sky watchers since the point where humans could comprehend its beauty it was relatively new to science and only really entered the literature in 2016.
Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement
” Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement ” – that’s quite a load of Jargon! However, once you understand how these auroras form it makes mores sense.
Typical auroras are formed when energy from the sun collides with nitrogen and oxygen in our atmosphere. The collision results in green or red light being let off. However, based on recent science published on Space.com STEVE forms when charged particles are super-heated outside of the “auroral zone”. The particles emit the white and pink light we see on the ground.
If you are still a bit unclear remember that light occurs as a physical process – it’s the release of energy. For instance when you heat an electric cooking stove the orange light emitted is the release of energy. STEVE is a bit like a monstrous electric coil in the sky!
A Gallery of STEVE
I think my latitude in Southeast Alaska is a hotspot for STEVE. I have observed it 5 times to date since 2016. I recently added my photos to a database of STEVE observations. The images below are from the same night as the images above. You can see a short timelapse of STEVE that night by going to a video on my Facebook page.
The Rest of the Show
STEVE shows up on the biggest nights of aurora. It definitely seems to be linked to high amounts of energy coming in. During the nights and mornings of August 30 – September 1st the Aurora was visible almost anytime it was dark.
On the second night of the show I focused less on photography. My wife and I curled up on a blanket on the beach and watched the lights dance overhead. We had some pretty amazing coronas for Southeast Alaska!
I’ll be keeping an eye out for any further science and revelations on STEVE. I hope to see it again!
It’s 2019 already. Wow! This last year I’ve been streaky on blogging, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been taking lots of imagery! I’ve enjoyed seeing and photographing new things as well as learning new things, too! The gallery below shows off some new techniques in drone photography and underwater photography. I worked to select my favorite images across a spectrum of simplicity and complexity, small animals to large ones, and photography genres. Aside from the work here I’ve been writing for Digital Photography School and focusing on custom framing in driftwood and red cedar. 2019 is going to be a great year, so I hope you remember to follow along on Facebook or Instagram!
A few nights ago I had a “breakwater” experience in my photography career. A tidal one. A heart-stopping, adrenaline pumping, oh-shoot-what-now, moment. I’ve had quite a time laughing at it now and feel I need get it down for the record so that 10 years from now I can’t stretch the story too much.
So here’s the scene. It’s is April 16th, 2018 and a new moon is leaving the sky void of light pollution. It was a slam-dunk, shockingly beautiful night with clear and luscious dark skies. For a night photography junkie like myself the opportunity was too good not to go out. I arrived at Long Island outside of Hoonah, Alaska at 10:00 PM. This area is situated right on the ocean and a saddle of coarse sand connects the mainland to a 200 foot diameter island. I began to shoot along that sand spit and was thrilled with the shots I was getting : smooth seas reflected the stars like opalescent pearls on the surface. The edge of the Milky Way rose to the north and was showing up brilliantly in my camera. It was simply a stunning night to be out . Satisfied with the individual shots I was getting I began to deploy three DSLR bodies on 6 foot tripods being conscious of the high tide line. I programmed two to take images at regular intervals in order to create Star Trails images and one I placed on a robotic head to capture a timelapse of the Milky Way. The robotic head was tethered to a battery which sat on the sand 5 feet below the camera. Smugly I thought to myself how good I was getting at this and decided that a few winks of sleep would be a great way to pass the time as the cameras did their thing. Sleep is a great way to lose track of time and reality.
You may already know sleeping in a car seat never provides the best sleep. I woke up at 11:30 and saw the green light on my camera flicker, noting that it was taking pictures and that everything was OK. I woke up at 12:00, 12:30 and then at 1AM. Again, everything looked great! The stars were speckled across the heavens, the ocean was calm, and no sea-fog had rolled in. I wedged myself into a comfier position and passed out stone cold until 2:30 AM. When I awoke was when the real fun started.
I guess I have to tell you a bit about the tides since not all are familiar with them. In Hoonah, our tides swing as much as 23 feet from low to high. Huge amounts of water move like a large river and quickly flood tidal areas over 6 hours and then recede.In the video below (a result of the night) you can watch the tides come in fast. Like all coastal areas there are two times of the month when then tides are greatest : full moon and new moon. I’ve already told you which moon I lay sleeping under.
At 2:30 AM I yawned, stretched, smacked my lips, yawned again, and then decided I should go check on my cameras. I opened the door and came face to face with my situation – salt water was rushing by my truck just below my floor boards like a river. Due to the new moon there was no regard by the ocean for the “normal” high tide line, it had gone past with the regard a lion gives a cob of corn. I tried to step from the truck and over-topped my 16″ tall rubber XTuff boots. Oh shit. I knew my first priority was to get my truck to high ground. Fortunately I had parked facing the right way and was soon there… but now about those cameras.
Desperate times call for desperate measures. When you have thousands of dollars of water-sensitive camera gear caught in the embrace of a rampant high tide it is desperate times indeed. My first few steps to Camera # 1 with the extra battery brought me over my boots and then over my thighs. I was shocked to see 6 foot tall tripod only sticking out of the water by 18inches. Rescuing the large battery from the bottom of the ocean required submerging my arm up to my armpit in the icy brine. And I knew I was just getting started as I rushed the camera to safety on shore.
Camera # 2 was placed much further along the saddle that connected the island to shore. I was over my boots and over my thighs when, to my dread, the ice flows began to solidify in the 25 degree night. A skim of quarter inch ice had built up like tiny armor plating to rub against my stinging legs. Fortunately (I guess?) I had no choice to scrutinize my options and further in I went. By the time I reached Camera #2 I was over my belly button. As a man I can say that it was extraordinary uncomfortable to be that deep in those icy waters.
Camera #3 was placed on a flooded bolder field. Hindsight is 20/20, but my legs were so numb and becoming dysfunctional by the third camera that navigating my waterlogged boots over the volcanic rock was quite difficult. With a few stumbles I was able to retrieve the camera which was still taking images and toddle my way back to my vehicle.
It is truly remarkable I didn’t lose any camera gear. The tides were a full 4 to 5 feet higher than I ever would have suspected. In river terms it had “topped” its bank. On that night I did a rare thing by raising all of my tripods to their highest height. It is much more typical for me to shoot with low tripods which would have flooded for certain. I’ll count my blessings and do a much better job of measuring the tides next time I go out!
It has been a looonnnng time since the aurora forecast has lined up with clear skies here in Hoonah, so when they finally did this weekend I wanted to make the most of it! Although I do not often focus on writing about photographic techniques on this blog, I thought I would focus on some creative photography techniques I employed and how they can expand your shooting opportunity. Read along to learn about some skills to expand your nighttime shooting (foreground composition, focus stacking, panoramas, light painting) or scroll along to check out some of the images from the night.
Foreground Composition & Light Painting
When I am out photographing a scene I am forever on the hunt for interesting foreground elements. Of course the definition of word “interesting” is determined by the photographer, but I search for elements that capture the essence of the scene, amplify the impact of a phenomenon, or create a pleasing set of lines that lead the eye. On this particular night I was drawn to a rock face that was draped in large icicles. They were translucent and I knew that I could shoot the aurora through them – they were also perfect as a piece of the scene because they provided texture to the aurora’s light and were a part of the essence and juxtaposition where the ocean meets the shore. I call the resulting shot “Aurora Light Sabers” and am thrilled with the unique perspective it provided to the landscape and aurora. Not all foreground elements are so well lit, so you may consider bringing a flashlight along to help paint the scene.
Modern cameras are incredibly adept at picking up light, however, moonless nights in regions with truly dark skies will still leave foreground elements black unless you use a bit of focused lighting and enhancement. Thus, the creative photography technique “Light Painting” can help you emphasize and highlight your foreground elements.
On this night I brought a very unique foreground element with me. This model (maquette) of the Goonz Totem Pole in Hoonah, Alaska is an exact, 18″ replica of the life-sized pole. It was used to guide the carvers as they brought the full sized pole to life and it was truly a privilege to have the maquette with me. I set the maquette up close to my camera and began to shoot, creating the illusion that a full-sized totem was in front of my camera. I used a light panel and bounced the light off the surrounding snow to softly light the totem. Without light painting, the totem would have been completely dark and blank – simply a silhouette against the sky.
This it the full-sized Goonz Pole located in Hoonah, Alaska
You can expand your depth of field and create sharp images using a technique called focus stacking. I am a novice at the technique and referenced this article.
One of the disadvantages of using such a small maquette is that I had to be very close to it to take the shot and make it a significant foreground element. The close object brought the stars far out of focus (as seen in the maquette image above). To get over this hurdle, I shot multiple images of the totem at different focuses in rapid succession and then combined them in Photoshop. Through focus stacking I was able to have my cake and eat it too – I created an image with a dominant maquette in the foreground and sharp stars in the background.
Often scenes are so expansive that they cannot be captured in a single image, and that is where a panorama can be very helpful. As I stood on the beach and photographed I knew that I wanted to capture the Milky Way and the Northern Lights together (about 160 degrees field of view). I created the panorama below using 6 images and a 24mm, Sigma f/1.4. Each image is separated by 20 degrees using a rotating ballhead. I used 20 degrees because I know it provides ample overlap in the image for Photoshop to align and stitch with. You will need to change the amount of rotation depending on the length of the lens that you use. Using the panoramic technique expanded my field of view and helped me capture all of the celestial elements that I had in mind as well as the mountains of Homeshore and the mainland.
The Take Away
I am always learning new techniques and refining ones that I already know. Thinking outside of the box and on your feet during a photography session can expand your shooting opportunities during a single night. As I like to say “pixels are cheap”, so be sure to make lots of pixels as you shoot more creative photography.
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.
The aurora borealis from the cannery at Icy Strait Point
The Alaska Marine Line Ferry comes into Hoonah at under the Northern Lights.
The Alaska Marine Line Ferry comes into Hoonah at under the Northern Lights.
The aurora borealis over the pilings at Icy Strait Point
The aurora arches south over Neka Mountain.
This large panorama captures the scale of the aurora over the waters of Port Frederick.
A corona erupts overhead during a brilliant show of Aurora in Hoonah.
As good as it gets! This was the most amazing displa of northern light that I’ve seen in Southeast Alaska.
A tall aurora stretches above the waters of Port Frederick, Hoonah, Alaska.
The aurora borealis above the dock at Icy Strait Point
A brilliant band of aurora erupts over Port Frederick.
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!
I have a story to tell about the kind of thing that only happens once in a lifetime. Last night I arrived home at 1AM from an amazing night of aurora watching with my parents – their first in Alaska! The forecast, a level 2, tripled to a KP 6 with an unexpected shock passage of energy. Throughout the night the Lights waxed and waned until the entire sky was covered from the southern constellation Orion’s Belt through the north star and to the northern horizon. Throughout the sky the Aurora Borealis shifted and rippled in green curtains of light. Outside of my car at my house, a dancing corona erupted over my head so I quickly snagged my camera and sprinted for the ski trails behind my house to begin shooting. It was as I stepped into the woods that the remarkable part of this story began to unfold.
I was making no attempt to conceal the heavy pound of my foot steps, and my first few steps into the woods were loud enough to wake a grouse which was sleeping along the trail. It started from its slumber, and with rapid flaps, thundered its wings just a few feet from me. I jumped high at the sound in a blind moment of panic thinking for a second it was a moose. As I gained my composure I noted where it landed in a spruce tree only about 15 feet from me. I turned my headlamp in that direction, and the beady, black eye of an immature Ruffed-grouse glinted at me. The opportunity to shoot wildlife underneath the aurora has always been a desire of mine and I was keen to take advantage of it here! I set up my camera and began to shoot, hoping to capture the scene. My shutter clicked twice and the grouse stayed in place, although I’m surprised the sound of my pounding heart boosted by adrenaline in my ears did not spook it. My shutter clicked a few more times and I boldly moved towards the grouse. With each crunch of snow underfoot, I moved closer, and closer, and closer. The grouse, either too scared to move or over-confident in his camouflage did not move a muscle and soon my camera sat only 18 inches from the nervous bird. Overhead the aurora was still brilliant and as my shutter clicked I pulled off an image that may truly be the first in the world – a wild Ruffed Grouse perched under the shimmering emerald of the Alaskan Aurora Borealis.
It is amazing that the grouse did not fly away. I think it was a combination of the pure confusion of the moment, the shine of my light, and the benefit of the darkness. Perhaps he had convinced himself that even though I was so close, I had not noticed his presence. However, eventually he decided that enough was enough. He could watch the aurora without such nosy neighbors and took off into the night leaving me to revel in the unbelievable encounter.
Now that we are past Thanksgiving I am definitely in the Christmas Spirit. I took my festive passion into the Alaskan wilderness last night to fuse together a little Christmas Cheer and the aurora borealis. I sat in the waist deep snow and tossed Christmas ornaments into the powder as I belted Christmas carols and watched a crescendo of pink and green aurora dance over my head like the twinkling lights of a monstrous, celestial Christmas tree. Of course, there is no reason to put a star on top of this metaphorical tree, it is a tree that is covered in them, not crowned with one. There were no presents under this tree, because it was already a gift. I had a lot of fun doing this shoot last night, I hope you enjoy!
If you are interested in a one-of-a-kinda Alaskan Christmas card and before you send your greeting cards this year, consider a purchase from my Fine Art America website. To browse a selection of these images as a greeting card, framed print, phone cover, or many other products please visit my page : Ian’s Fine Art America.
I experimented with a variety of arrangements through the night, but I trended towards ones with color in front.
The aurora is reflected perfectly in this shiny Christmas Ornament
A drop of green aurora fell from the sky and landed in the snow 🙂
I took advantage of this fully covered black spruce to make a Christmas tree!
The hoar frost on top of the snow just adds to the beauty of the scene!
I love the splashes of color the Christmas Ornaments provide!
I am reflected in this stack of Christmas ornaments 🙂
A big moon shadows the ornaments, and is a brilliant aurora reflection shines from overhead.
We shut the truck off and stepped out into a cool night and a light breeze which shocked the face. My friend Ross and I were after auroras, and we planned to summit Angel Rocks in the Chena Recreation Area to spend the night and watch it. The sun was low in the sky as we started up the 1.6 miles to the summit of Angel Rocks. By the time we had reached the top of the ~1000 foot climb, the breeze funneling up the canyon below had stopped, and the sun melted into the horizon leaving a blue and gold light which lingered for hours. With short days in Fairbanks, it was hard to forget it was only about 5:30! There was a lot of night to go.
I was delighted to find a cave at the top of Angel Rocks. It was two ended and had large crevasses in the ceiling to view the stars. In the middle I could stand all the way up, and the larger south facing entrance was almost 8 feet tall. I’m just speculating, but I think this cave was formed as a magma bubble. The geology of the summit was far different than any geology I had seen in the Fairbanks region. In contrast to the normal scree slopes and shale of the region, the exposed rocks were granite and had forms which suggested bubbling magma. The rock outcrop where we stood was very unique!
In a collision of natural phenomenons, the Leonid meteor shower lined up with an incredible aurora display. Each year the Leonid meteor shower peaks around the 17th or 18th of November. Named after Leo, the constellation that they seem to radiate from. The Leonids Meteor Shower is actually small pieces of the comet Tempel-Tuttle which burn up as they enter our atmosphere. Incredibly, the size of the majority of particles range from grains of sand to pea-size.The largest meteors are often only marble sized pieces of comet. That’s a lot of light from a particle the size of your favorite shooter!! These particles burn up because the air in front of them is compressed and heated which scorches the meteor. That’s way different than I was ever taught (i.e. they burn up because of friction with the air). How fast do they have to be moving to build up that air pressure? The particles can enter the upper atmosphere at 160,000 mph! The Leonids were 24 hours from peak activity, and throughout the night they dazzled us with frequent and long tails.
As the sun set the aurora immediately started up. In fact, with an ‘official’ start time of 5:30 PM it was the earliest I have ever seen the aurora appear! It certainly seemed to be a good omen for the night to come.
Over the course of the night we enjoyed three bursts of incredible aurora. From 5:30 – 7:00 PM, 9:30 – 11:30 PM and from 5:30 – 6:30 AM. Although sleeping in the cave would have been VERY awesome, the night was so warm that I was content to roll out my sleeping bag under the stars and slumber around midnight. I awoke at 5:30 AM not minutes before an incredible corona dominated the overhead skies (captured in timelapse!). I think my aurora sense was tingling and telling me to wake up!
The Aurora was all around us, here’s from the summit of angel rocks looking through a small chute
An Aurora selfie. Silhouettes are great!
Ross says “The Aurora is over here!”
The Aurora and Milky way melt together over angel rocks.
A red aurora band streaks through the milky way over Angel Rocks
An amazing corona formed over Angel Rocks. This was at 5 AM!
The scale of the aurora on 11/16/2014 was like nothing I had ever seen!
A remarkable corona overhead at Angel Rocks!
For the second night in a row the aurora put on an unforgettable show. I think the aurora are like fingerprints. They may look alike, but none are ever the same! For its immense status in the sky, I had never seen aurora that stayed as intense as this one. At times you could have read a book by it, and all through the night the sky was filled with incredible beauty and auroral ballerinas. In Minnesotan, it was “oofda good!”.