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.
You are sitting on a warm, tropical, beach drinking a margarita. As you watch the day wane away the sun dips lower on the ocean horizon, and the landscape transforms into brilliant oranges and purples. Behind you the palm trees are bathed in orange, and the landscape has taken on incredible colors with accentuated shadows of even the shortest plant or sandcastle. Almost certainly you bring out your cell phone or camera, because, like all photographers, you find the beauty of the Golden Hour to be irresistible, and you know the peak experience will be short lived. Perhaps you even think to yourself that you wish the beauty of that light could last forever. What if it could?
The Golden Hour is also called the “magic hour” and for a landscape photographer there is no better time to be outside. The terms refer to the period of time when the sun is 6 degrees or less from the horizon. In many regions, like the balmy beach scene above, the moment as the sun sweeps through that 6 degree sweet-spot is relatively short. However, in Polar regions like Alaska, the winter sun has such as a low, southern trajectory, that the sunset-like colors almost never fade.
There are a variety of tools, apps, and websites to calculate the solar angle at your location. I used the NOAA ESRL Sun Position Calculator to determine that in Fairbanks the sun dips to the 6 degree mark on October 24th, 2015 and will remain below 6 degrees until February 26th, 2016. To illustrate the effect of the polar magic hour the images below showcase the colors, and shadows achieved by the low-lying sun. For 3 months, the silver lining of our short, winter days is a luxurious landscape lit by an eternal Golden Hour.
Golden Hour Sunset at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
The golden hour casts long shadow, even filling in these fox tracks.
The light of the Golden Hour turns the landscapes into shades of pink, red, and orange.
Long shadows casts by the low sun.
The light of the golden hour pouring through a valley at Angel Rocks, Alaska.
The beginning of the Golden Hour reflecting off the trees and a tributary to the Chena River.
Subtle shades of pink during the Golden Hour.
Shades of pink and orange during the eternal Golden Hour of the Arctic.
The low-lying sun peaking through a downed spruce during the Golden Hour
Pink shades and long shadows in this golden hour shot near the top of Angel Rocks, Alaska
Magic lighting and sunset from Angel Rocks, Alaska.
Beautiful light off the peaks and snowdrifts.
I used several key resources for this article. If you are interested in calculating your sun angle check out :
The feedback on An Early Christmas Part 1 has been really great, thanks! I wanted to share with you how I have embellished on that first concept of shooting Christmas ornaments under the Northern Lights and also get a bit poetic about the aurora. The aurora this week has been remarkable thanks to a coronal hole from the sun allowing high speed solar winds to reach earth.
I walked out on the ski trails behind my house because the broad and brilliant band of aurora overhead indicated to my aurora-sense it was going to be an early showing. I meandered through snow covered trees maintained in their icy encasement by complete lack of wind for nearly two months. The trail was firm, but as I stepped off my body sunk into thigh deep snow which even though it had fallen 6 weeks ago, was still perfect, soft powder thanks to consistently cold temps. In fact, on this night my breath steamed away at -15F, and a few days earlier I woke up to -23. My anticipation grew as the aurora continued to build in strength and at 10:30 PM an auroral bomb exploded in the sky. The metaphor of a bomb is perfect because it was so sudden that I was caught off guard, and was forced to shoot my camera where I stood in an effort to capture adequately the green and pink shrapnel which rippled and writhed in the sky. The explosion caught me in a towering cathedral of spruces which in the images all point to the source of the disturbance. In five minutes the waves of light ended, but it was only the beginning of series of barrages that kept me awake and in awe until 3AM.
I have been building on the initial ornament concept in a few ways. Although it is difficult to hide a camera in front of a mirror, I am placing it in ways that is not obtrusive. From its hiding place I have shot a full 90 minute star-lapse in the bulb! That image, featured below, is the only one not taken on the night I described. I have also shot a full time lapse in the ornaments which turned out quite wonderful! I hope you enjoy the festive twist on the aurora 🙂
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.
It has been awhile since you’ve heard from me, but all of that is about to change as I get my blog’n legs back under me. Until now I have been prioritizing my thesis which has now been defended. There will be several upcoming articles on the results of my work. I see no use in writing it if noone is reading it! I deem the upcoming articles as science communication”, and I hope you will find them informative.
Now onto the meat of this entry. Yesterday was my first day back in Fairbanks after being away for over 10 days. When I left, the remnants of a huge September snowstorm (17″) still lingered on the ground in low, shaded areas, but for the most part the ground was barren. It is amazing how only 10 days can change that. We now have 16″ of pure powder on the ground which is maintained by cold nights. Yesterday morning when I awoke it was -15F with a promise from forecasters that those temperatures will continue through at least this week. A seasonally late sunrise began at 9:15, and by noon the low light illuminated the tree tops and extenuated the shadows. I nearly skipped with joy into the spruce bog behind my house where snow hung on the trees. I passed under trees that with a touch would have doused me in snow, and found pure joy in the beauty of this winter wonderland.
Later that night the landscape of refracting light and black spruce shadows transitioned to twinkling stars shining through a moonless night. I retraced my steps from only a few hours earlier and watched as the aurora built to the north. I watched for awhile and smiled outwardly at my knowledge of the stark contrast in light from just hours earlier.
I jumped when my alarm went off at 11:30 PM, and I looked at my surroundings to remind myself where I was. The sleeping bag wrapped around me and my reclined seat reinforced I was in my truck as my blurry eyes brought the steering wheel in focus. My memories flooded back to me; I arrived 30 minutes ago, and with no aurora in sight had set an alarm and took a nap. I was expectant that a G2 storm forecast was going to pay out, and as I peered out of trucks window it seemed I was in luck. The aurora was starting to show a band high in the sky. I turned the ignition, and drove down the road to find the “perfect”, golden tree – my goal for the night was to fuse autumn colors and the aurora together.
I stood on the road with my head craned up, watching a beautiful, green aurora band overhead. This aurora was Mr. Jekyll which soon morphed into Mr. Hyde – albeit a beautiful version of him. I was not ready for the full force of the aurora as it transformed the sky into a green and pink blanket of shimmering, dancing lights so different than what I had been looking at minutes earlier. The energy that rolled overhead, I learned later, was the result of a monstrous, KP7 event, that pushed the aurora into Washington and the Midwest. I was so overwhelmed by the aurora that I expressed myself by simultaneously singing, praying, and taking pictures by myself under the vast display of lights. For those who know me, you might guess that I was also grinning broadly from ear-to-ear. My smile would not have disappointed you!
For parts of the night, my only focus was to capture the overhead aurora corona to the best of my ability. The last time I successfully captured the corona was in Denali National Park last year. I couldn’t be more happy to show you this gallery of images from last night – there were many more taken! The gallery is chronological, and hopefully gives a sense of the scale of the aurora and how quickly it built. These images are taken at 9mm, and hence have a ~120 degree field of view!
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!
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!
This is likely my best aurora image to date! I was really focusing on composition all night, and this one has all the pieces of a great image!!
Tracks in the snow indicate where I came from as I moved along the firebreak.
The aurora is just starting ‘heat up’ in this great image looking through the black spruces.
Anytime you see pinks in the aurora it means there is quite a bit of activity coming in. The pinks came and went quickly in smothered by curtains of green.
Panorama from 2 images stitched in PS6.
A second image with the sentinel pine – do you like the square crop, or vertical crop better?
Bundled up for that -50 below windchill! Temperatures hovered at about -35 and a slight wind plummeted the “feels like” temp to -50
A lone, scraggly pine tree stands sentinel on along the fire break.
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 🙂
This post is a celebration of the beauty and invigoration fresh snow, and early winter days when a cold nose is not a drudgery. Instead, a rosy tip is acknowledged as punctuation to an exciting time as the season changes. During the early days of winter, fall has not quite relinquished its beauty. Animals and humans alike are fat-and-happy.
Setting the poetry and light thesis statement aside, to all who read this, beware! Winter is here in Alaska, and for my friends in the lower 48, it seems it will descend upon you in short order! On Thursday a friend and I left for the North Slope for some caribou hunting (Note : I can’t leave that story open ended. I was archery hunting, and was a mere 3 seconds from success on two occasions but did not have the chance to deliver the coup de gras on some keen caribou.) The trip over the Brooks Range was marred by sloppy roads and rain. My truck was caked in thick mud which was slippery to walk on, not to mention drive on. Fast forward 60 hours, and the trip south revealed 8 inches of snow 80 miles north of Fairbanks which had fallen in our absence. What a change, and so quickly! It is likely that winter is here to stay, temperatures are staying around freezing during the day and dipping to the lower teens at night.
The snow did bring some incredible beauty as only a first snow can. Rivers were still flowing, and the bending branches of snow-laden spruce leaned into river channels along the Dalton. On Wickersham Dome ghost-trees already heavy with their first layer of hoar frost for the year kept silent sentry.
I did observe a very novel phenomenon – I would love to hear if anyone has witnessed this before! Behold, the snowbow. On our drive home we were met by gray skies and the hills were wreathed in falling snow. However, at the end of the Dalton Highway the sun broke and the landscape was lit as far as the eye could see. A snow cloud hanging low to the north of us caught the rays and formed a snowbow. I have seen many sundogs, but had never seen a rainbow caused by snow crystals.
I will leave you with this northern hawk owl which was a great bird to see along the way. These birds are known for their boreal habits. They spend the days on spruces watching for rodents and can be hard to spot. This was my first time seeing this bird, although they do occur in Minnesota in the winters during owl irruptions (i.e. owls heading further south than their ‘normal’ range due to environmental or food conditions). The clip below is a short one of a hawk owl behavior, cleaning.
It’s the great debate. As an Alaskan, winter resident, are you a skier? or do you don the snowshoes? I think the questions really waters down to : how much do you like getting off trails? Because, although I realize cross country skis CAN BE USED for off-road style outdoor adventure, I see that happening on a very limited basis. Anybody want to chime in here? I snowshoe because if you want to explore the woods during the winter you need mobility, and besides, I fall less on snowshoes :D.
Living in Fairbanks has proved to be a far different winter than my experiences of three years in Maine and my childhood (22 years a child) in Minnesota. One of the primary differences in the winter here in the interior is the wind! I have never seen anything like it, and my friends from Minnesota won’t believe this – we do not have wind. Blizzards, the bane of Minnesotan school systems, are unheard of here. In fact, school systems in Fairbanks do not close when the mercury dip to -40, they close when the weather warms up resulting in icy conditions! Snow that accumulates on railings and fence posts is likely to be in the same pile when the spring thaw begins. The stillness of the wind creates an interesting climactic condition in Fairbanks known as the ‘temperature inversion’. During the winter, the winds are an important mixer of air and because that mixing does not happen here, strong differentials are set as you climb elevation; in short, cold air is trapped in the valleys of the Interior region. This has a couple of ramifications, the first is as a home-owner you would rather have your house high on a hillside, because in extreme cases it could mean an extra 50 degrees of warmth! (http://www.alaskareport.com/science10059.htm). Secondly, below the inversion the development of ‘ice fog’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice_fog) is a pest for home-owners and can build up on your house and car. I have watched this ice fog man mornings while studying from the Margaret Murie building on top of campus- a good example picture is shown in the Wikipedia article I’ve listed. The ice fog creates havoc for humans and incredible beauty in the wilderness. The white spruce, willow, dogwood and shrub birch become encases in ice crystals and look like long-forgotten freezer burned hotdogs. As you walk through the areas of hoar frost it is not hard to imagine scuba-diving through a snow-reef; the trees the coral and the snow the sand.
I’ve had a great time snowshoeing some of the lower and higher elevation areas of the Fairbanks. I’ve been focusing on Bonanza Creek Experimental Forest and the Murphy Dome region. Some of the days have been cold and require some extra face protection, but the views and sights have been exquisite. Although I did not see any wildlife, during my last trip to Murphy Dome I followed a fresh set of moose tracks, and found scat so fresh that I made sure to keep a watchful eye for any watching eyes; I was sure I was going to walk up on a moose. Snowshoe hair tracks were abundant as were red fox, mouse, and ptarmigan.
The series of images below represent the two different winter types of Alaska. The first three are all from Bonanza Creek. You’ll see that the wind doesn’t blow here too often, and tree-corals abound! The the sunlight illuminates them it is snowshoe stopping, many pauses were taken to observe the beauty of this classic,winter, wonderland!
This second set of images shows life in the ice fog area. The trees here are heavily laden with icy and snow and are bent and stopped. A stark contrast to the lightly laden branches of the bottom lands! The low-lying sun cast long shadows around all the trees. This time of year the sunrises at 10:20 AM and sets at 3:00 PM. The short days are illuminated by a sun that slides along the horizon, rather than going overhead and the cold sets fast once the sun is no longer keeping it at bay.
I wanted to leave you all with a short timelapse video of the sunset on Murphy Dome. This timelapse is comprised of 530 shots over an 1.25 hours time and is played at 30 frames per second. Some of you read in my post about my problems with my camera in the cold shooting the Aurora. I wanted to shoot this timelapse in good light conditions at similar temps (-10 degrees F) and see how my camera reacted. It did pretty well, and makes me think that some of my issues with the Aurora shoot were due to the High ISO and a stressed sensor. Lots more to learn!
My goal of this timelapse video was to capture the changing shadows on the hillside and the sunset. Enjoy!