Last night I was grinning ear to ear, and as I write this the corners of my lips are still curled into a smile. In September, I wrote about the joy of bringing someone out for their first aurora. Last night I was able to enjoy a whole new facet and spectacular joy of aurora photography by hosting an “Aurora Portraits” program through the University of Alaska Fairbanks Residence Life. When we arrived at our destination 10 miles out of Fairbanks the thin layer clouds had just started to burn off. A full moon lit the landscape around us allowing even the naked eye to see to the horizon line 10’s of miles away. A flash of green in the sky around 10:30 indicated to us that the auroral show was just starting to kick off and from that point on the aurora continued to build. As the green shifted and danced in the sky groups and individuals jumped in front of the camera and we proceeded to make memories. Between drinking hot cocoa and warm cider we laughed and enjoyed a beautiful night out. Last night’s aurora will be memorable for its beauty, and its friendship!
Incredibly, these shots are lit only by the moon. The gallery here is a select few images from the night – if you are getting this post via email be sure to click on the gallery images to enlarge them :). I also captured one shot (without people) that I’m particularly proud of. It is featured below this gallery.
The group poses for one of my most memorable portrait shots ever captured!
Getting a little goffy!
Panav doing the “Bolt”
Posing in front of the Aurora with fellow residence life staffers.
In Fairbanks, even when you can’t get out into the real ‘dark skies’ of Alaska (for instance, last night I had to work :|) you can still enjoy the Aurora. Although I would prefer to shoot the aurora in pure darkness, the effect of moving cars and the moon tracing across the solar panels located near Cold Climate Housing Research Center is actually pretty cool! This footage was shot just down the road from where I live at the UAF Sustainable Village. This footage was shot over the University of Alaska Fairbanks on 11/06 – 11/07/2014. I hope you enjoy!
What does it mean to have a “long day” of fly fishing? The old adage says : a bad day of fishing is better than a good day in the office. Agreed. However, by the end of our sunny, late April day at the Magalloway River of northern Maine, my friend Kevin Shea and I were doubting that any of the trophy 22″ brook trout we were seeking could ever be caught in a river renowned for them. The brookies were not intrigued by our fly fishing techniques of finessing nymphs or stripping streamers, and drift after drift our lines stayed slack. After hours of the torturous work of standing in the water to fish (sensing the irony?), I turned my eyes to a soft spot on the bank and took a seat. The sun shown overhead, and in my memory not a cloud could be seen in the sky. At least that explained the poor fishing – they never bite on the nice days! The Magalloway River flowed in front of me, and several fisherman were down the bank from me about 25 yards still dredging the rocky bottom with their #18 beadheads.
It was the movement that caught my eye. A bird had flown near my left shoulder and disappeared. Turning my full attention to the area I watched a black-capped chickadee emerge from the end of a rotten alder log and fly off with a face full of sawdust. As it flew off, another of the gregarious birds quickly flew in to take the first’s place in the hollowed log, and seconds later reappeared with a mouthful of sawdust. The bird flew to the nearest branch and pulled apart the sawdust, apparently looking for some type insect or larvae. In its place a train of birds flew into the hollow log and then back out creating a constant stream of entertainment for a curious human.
The fearlessness of chickadees makes them a favorite bird of children and adults alike and is part of the reason chickadees are one of the best-known birds of North American feeders. [As a side note, these tiny birds are able to survive brutal winter (e.g. -40 F in Fairbanks, AK) temperatures by dropping their body temperature as much as 12-15 degrees below their average body temp every night, conserving as much as 25% or their body energy!] However, even though I had seen their antics many times at a bird feeder, this was the first time I had seen them so voraciously ripping apart wild fodder. It was addicting to watch the organized flow of black-caps eagerly looking towards their next meal!
Their consistent pattern of entering the log, and emerging a few seconds later gave me enough time to snag my camera and take some shots. The shots I captured sealed the moment in time and memory of these great birds for me, which is what I offer you today!
So, the old adage is right. However, arguably based on my day, a bad day of fishing is worse than a good bout of bird watching! The images, antics, and thoughts of these birds have stuck with me for the last 18 months. There’s always something to watch in nature, even if the fishing isn’t good!
For those of you who haven’t read through one of my ‘photographic reflections’ before they are entries from pictures I took before the blog started, but have a story. This one took place in 2013, I hope you enjoyed! I will leave you with this short clip of the Chickadees using the alder-log bonanza
Ice-up will be happening any day now in Fairbanks. The small ponds and marshes have been locked with ice thick enough to walk on since the end of September, but the rivers have resisted a solid state owing to a not-too-cold October to date. However, in the Interior it seems that 40 below could only be the next day away!
I took the opportunity to find a new aurora watching spot. My goal was to shoot over an open river. I headed to the Chena Lakes Recreation area and found my view at the Granite Tors campground. The North Fork of the Chena was running, snow-covered and beautiful! As I walked up it’s banks I was a bit on edge however. On a moonless night at 12:00 AM in Alaska, moose look the same as the inky blackness. Although they shouldn’t pose any real danger this time of year – they just want to get away – I was not looking to be scared tonight! However, in dramatic fashion a cannoning KAPLOOSH echoed up the river, and the source came from the river only ten feet away from me. A beaver, out for a midnight swim announced its presence and effectively scare me into nearly dropping a load! Lol, nights in Alaska.
The rev of the aurora engine was a bit slow right away, but a broad overhead band suggested that sometime during the night the show could be spectacular! At 12:45 AM the broad, undefined band erupted into curtains of pink and green (another example of Why The Aurora Flares Up). A hint of blue shimmer lit up far edges of the aurora in space. Overhead they danced and danced. The timelapse here captures the night. I have continued to develop new video editing techniques, and I think some of the motion introduced in this particular timelapse is pretty effective, but I would love to know what you think!
Just as a little fore-shadowing I spent yesterday putting up a friend’s Yurt. It was great, and I shot a fun timelapse of that. More on that soon! 🙂
Here’s a gallery of some images from the night. Be sure to click on them to expand. Thanks for checking in!
Two nights ago I watched the Aurora with someone for whom it would be their last (for awhile), and last night I brought someone out for their first experience of it ever! Both moments are joyous, I believe and this is the tale of two auroras. Both of the nights have been put together into this timelapse which is undoubtedly one of my best to date. I grin at how well the music matches the event and the footage here gives a certain feeling to the urgency of the Aurora.
On September 25th my friend Jonathan and I headed to Eagle Summit (the same place where I timelapsed the solstice) for the aurora. Its location 120 miles north on the Steese Highway provides huge vistas and no light pollution aside from any passing cars. This Aurora was actually Jonathan’s last of his current career in Alaska, so we wanted to make it memorable 🙂
The new moon on the 25th provided inky darkness for a backdrop and the aurora used green and pink ink to sign its signature in the heavens. We were able to enjoy the brilliance of the Milky Way just as much as the Aurora which presented us an excellent show!
On September 26th the hype was high that the Aurora would be booming. In fact, I believe there were shows in Minnesota last night, and may be tonight too. Keep your eyes up!
One of the shots I wanted to highlight was this 30 minute exposure of the aurora. I have been trying to pull of this shot for a very long time, and the moonless night provided just the backdrop! The north star is the non-moving point of this shot. I couldn’t be more happy with it!
I wrangled my housemate Roman to go out for the Aurora with me. He is an international student who had not had the opportunity to see the the Lights before. The show actually burst at 9:30 and presented some great colors including the “watermelon aurora”. To top it off Roman was creative enough to build us a small fire – it was a great night!
The aurora last night was a prime example of what I want to illustrate – why does the aurora flare up? In the timelapse below the aurora dances on the horizon before exploding into one of the best shows I have seen overhead. During my time in Alaska I have tried to glean scientific information on the aurora. Last week I attended a talk by Dr. Akasofu who has been studying the aurora for 50 years, and his talk was focused on the very question I pose here.
So first, the setting. You are on top of a large hill in Alaska and it’s 11:00 PM. As you stare into the inky darkness of the moonless night a green band of light plays in front of your eyes, and it is OK, but it’s not a jaw-dropper. Often time that is the form of the aurora. But suddenly as you watch the green smudge it goes super-nova expanding rapidly in size, color, and intensity. In fact, it’s so intense that the snow is lit up green and even your coat might be. Over your head and on all sides, the aurora builds in greens and reds. Pulses of light can be seen on the far horizon which flow towards you like a wave over your head breaking in unpredictable patterns. Green light shoots in all directions.
Why did that happen? I always assumed the high intensity auroral moments were created by extra energy (solar wind) entering the system. In contrary to that, the research conducted by Dr. Akasofu and other suggests the aurora is a circuit. Incoming solar wind is pushed against the earths magnetosphere where it reacts in an auroral sub-storm. If more energy is input into the system than can be output it starts to build up in a ‘secondary circuit’. The extra energy is stored and builds up within the atmosphere. When the conditions are right the energy is released in ONE pulse of energy causing the aurora to erupt suddenly. It also explains why eruptions last roughly the same amount of time (1 hour) since a finite amount of energy can be built up.
Based on this model, the aurora goes through three phases. Growth which is aurora formed directly by solar winds and is often manifested by low-grade auroras. Expansion which is the unloading of the secondary circuit and direct solar wind. And finally recovery, which is just driven by solar winds.
I hope you’ve enjoyed some of the science of the aurora! I’ll put my disclaimer on the end that I disseminated the information of the talk to you the best I could, and I hope I got it right!
Ahoy Readers! It is 3:47 AM in AK, and I have been sitting out all night enjoying a level 4 Aurora. That is how my day ended, but it began with class until 11 and then burbot fishing from 12- 1:30 – followed by burbot cleaning, because I got three today! The largest was a true ‘trophy’ of the burbot world and was 31 inches long. Tonight the burbot turned into a stirfry with onions, carrots, green pepper and tomato. Quite tasty!
After dinner I was looking forward to a night of the Aurora. I was sorely disappointed when unexpected clouds began to roll in at 3:00 PM. I need to have a discussion with the weatherman around here because they consistently blow the cloud cover forecast. However, by about 10 the clouds were cleared off to the north, which gave me hope to see the aurora. I headed to Murphy Dome, my favorite borealis perch, and when I got there it had already started! The aurora tonight was had an added twist of some cloud cover. I was a bit disappointed by that at first, but soon realized it had its benefits! A green ‘lightening’ storm was happening over head. The thin clouds were lit up much like the clouds of a thunderstorm. The effect was really quite stunning. I think that the timelapse video below captures that!
But, what is a timelapse? I use it a lot, and thought I would give a quick tutorial for those unacquainted! It is one of my favorite techniques to shoot, because it allows me to be hands-off with the camera and enjoy whats around me. The camera does a majority of the work! To understand a timelapse you have to first understand a movie. Movies are traditionally shot at about 24fps (I believe that’s correct, but let me know if I am not). That means every second 24 frames are shot and displayed. A timelapse, rather than shoot in ‘real time’ (ie: 24 fps), takes shots over an extended period of time and then combines them together at 24 fps. So, for example : tonight I was shooting 20 second exposures (22mm, f/2.8, 800 ISO) and taking one shot every 25 seconds. A little bit of simple math of 24 (frames)x25(seconds between each shot) gives us 600 seconds for every second of compiled video. In essence, that means for every second of video you are seeing 10 minutes of ‘real life’. That makes time pass pretty quickly!
I had a new, added benefit tonight. I am shooting my new Tokina 11-16. This is the first time I have mounted it to my OmD Em5, and wanted to give a little review for any Micro Four Thirds users. The lens shoots almost perfectly on the MFT system. One thing I noticed was some distortion on the edges. Definitely keep your shots in the center of the lens. This contradicts what I read about the lens being clean from edge to edge. Even adapted this lense shoots very fast and is a markable step up from my 12-50 EZ kit lens which I have traditionally used due to its viewing area. And, on the topic of viewing area, I didn’t seem to lose any of the 108 degree specified by the manufacture. I am shooting a Nikon Tokina, and was a bit worried I would lose some of the width due to adapting it up, but that didn’t happen. The only beef I have with the adapter is that it didn’t open the aperture all the way to 2.8. Rather, I had to wedge a piece of cardboard into the aperture expander to keep it open. I can adjust my aperature setting digitally with the MFT system, so it doesn’t really bother me that much. I basically want to shoot it wide open anyway. Overall though, I couldn’t be more happy with the lens for this Aurora shooting!
So, without further ado here is the Aurora from tonight. There is a good Aurora forecast coming up. If you are in Alaska, keep you eyes to the sky. I know I will be!