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.
When many people think of Alaska they imagine wild places and providing for themselves while taking on the harshness of the wilderness. This notion is true. In fact, up to 70% of Alaskans report harvesting wildlife and almost 100% of Alaskans report harvesting fish. However, in hundreds of small communities which are deemed as “rural” Alaska for regulatory purposes, harvesting local food can offset the high cost of store-bought food. It is simply impossible for many to live on $15/lb beef, 6$ gallons of milk, and $5 loaves of bread. The Alaska Department of Game Division of Subsistence estimates that nearly 37 million pounds of wild, subsistence food are harvested in rural Alaska. In Hoonah, many of the harvested foods are just as important for cultural reasons as they are sustenance. The rich, Native Alaskan history of Hoonah ensures that regardless of whether you are pursuing shellfish, halibut, deer, crab, salmon, berries, or plants, that there is plenty of advice on how to prepare and store your catch.
Every day I appreciate the wealth of food in my freezer and in jars on my shelves. Five mornings a week I eat the same thing for breakfast – oatmeal with wild blueberries from the freezer. The other two mornings of the week pancakes are likely to be spread with thimbleberry jam or other preserves made from wild berries. For lunch? Well, there’s a good chance that it was a simple fair of halibut with a salad and at the end of a long day of work its venison, not beef, that finds its way onto my plate. These are just a few of the foods that I have grown to enjoy and expect in my first year of living in Hoonah, Alaska. Although I have always enjoyed harvesting wild foods, they have never been more abundant, accessible, or important than here in this small, rural community. I wanted to convey a fraction of what I’ve learned and of the general subistence culture in Hoonah.
Once the summer warms up it doesn’t take long for the first berries of the year to come into season. Orange and red salmon berries are the first to ripen. These luscious berries are best enjoyed fresh and are found in the sun of the tidelands and open river corridors. They are a staple of the bears on the island which feast on them until the salmon runs begin. While on the subject of bears, it’s impossible not to have them on your mind when out picking. Chichagof Island has the highest density of brown bears in the world and contains no black bears. The best berry patches are those where you have good visibility to see the bears coming, but just in case always make lots of noise and carry protection. Throughout the season there are upwards of 15 species of wild berries that can be harvested and used. To date I’ve harvested or tried blueberries, thimbleberries, raspberries, strawberries, lingonberries, cloud berries, salmonberries, huckleberries, crow berries, high bush cranberries, black currents, gray currants, nagoonberries, and red currants.
A caveat of wild berries is they are never sprayed with pesticides, and hence you have to clean them to separate them from the wriggling chunks of protein that like to live on them and in them. We experimented a lot this year on how to quickly sort and clean blueberries which we found had about a 25% chance of having a small to medium (0 – 4mm) worm inside of them. The best solution was to roll the berries down a towel to remove the leaves and then float them in water. I scooped off the floating berries with the assumption that trapped air inside meant a worm or some defect. The rest of the berries were quickly examined and then frozen. Although that all sounds simple, there was a steep learning curve and lots of trial and error – it’s a necessity to clean them quickly as two people can pick 5 gallons in about an hour in a good patch.
Rolling blueberries down a towel ramp to clean them.
Abudant blueberries for subsistence in Southeast Alaska!
Berry claw make the picking fast and easy!
A mix of blueberries and red huckleberries.
A mix of blueberries and red huckleberries.
Wild blueberries after a rain.
All wild berries can be made into a jam or jelly, but of all the berries picked last summer we found that high bush cranberries and thimbleberries made the best jam. Each are tart, sweet, and full of flavor. When making highbush cranberry jelly, be sure to save the pulp! We found this cranberry catsup recipe from the University of Alaska Fairbanks to be incredible! It is sweet and tangy and excellent of poultry.
Turning cranberries into Jelly.
Finalizing some thimbleberry jelly.
Black currants dangle from a heavily loaded bush.
Chicken of the woods provides a welcome change from berries!
In the thimbleberry patch and keeping an eye out for bears :).
Fried chicken of the wood.
Diced chicken of the wood.
Mollusks and Fish
Moving on from the produce aisle, the seafood aisle in Hoonah is an excellent next choice. Dungeness and Tanner crab are abundant all year around and subsistence/pots use is permitted rural Alaskans. If shellfish legs is not your thing, pick up a rake and scrape the beach for six different species of clams. Many people enjoy Butter Clams, and steamers (Pacific Little-Necks), but the real pride-and-joy of Hoonah is the cockle. This bi-valve is abundant and coveted. Their ruffled shell makes them easy to identify, and once smoked-and-jarred they make incredible fare for the summer months. Unlike some clam species they are not very chewy, and they soak up the smoky flavor of smoldering alder readily.
Smoked and jarred cockles.
Getting ready to smoke some cockles.
A smoker full of cockles – yum yum!
A successful night of digging cockles! We dug these 15 gallons in about 30 minutes with 2 people!
A bowl of fresh dungeness crab.
A successful day of crab pots!
Setting a dungeness crab pot.
Steaming some dungeness crab.
A pot full of dungeness crab.
Each of the 5 species of Alaskan salmon may be caught in Hoonah or its surrounding waters. King salmon are pursued by boat all year in Hoonah, with “winter kings” being one of the most sought after fish for their delicate meat and flavor. Huge runs of pink salmon, chum salmon, and cohos surge up the rivers around Hoonah each year and they can be caught with hook-and-line once in the rivers. In the salt water subsistence fishers often use nets to capture salmon. Sockeye salmon may be caught near Hoonah, although most sockeye fisherman cast their nets at Hoktaheen inlet. When trolling for salmon you are very likely to catch a halibut. Although these flat fish are most associated with the bottom, schools of fish may feed in the middle of the water column as well. Because of the rural status of Hoonah, many halibut are caught on skates – subsistence longlines of up to 30 hooks allowing users to rapidly fill their freezers.
A large halibut jigged near Hoonah, Alaska.
Fresh coho salmon caught before it went up river.
These pink salmon were caught on the fly from the ocean as they staged to make a run up river.
Although not subsistence, this beautiful cuthroat trout is one of many that I’ve wrangled on the fly rod.
A beautiful dolly varden became a pan-fried dinner later that day :).
Cleaning a catch of Pink Salmon.
Pink salmon caught during the run in Hoonah.
A large halibut caught near Hoonah.
A rack of smoked salmon waiting to go into jars.
A smoker full of color, red salmon just before smoking.
A smoker full of color, red salmon just before smoking.
Sitka Blacktail are the only ungulate on Chichagof Island, and are extremely important as a red-meat source. Hunting here is far, far different than the White-tailed Deer hunting that I grew up with in Minnesota. First of all, trophy hunting is all but non-existent in Hoonah. Although many hunters target bucks so as not to be too detrimental to the deer population, the subsistence lifestyle here is all about filling the freezer and any-buck or nice deer will do. Hoonah enjoys some extra benefit as a rural community including up to six deer per person and a one-month extended season which ends in January. Many hunters proxy hunt for elders in the community and much of the venison that is shot is shared around quickly. I saw this first hand this year as although I shot 3 deer, I ended up giving away about half of what I shot, but received that same half back from others who were willing to share.
The last aspect of the Hoonah subsistence lifestyle that I’d like to leave you with is the idea maximizing effort. For example, a day out in berry picking isn’t just a trip for berries. We often cut and gather firewood or fish for salmon at the same time. When taking a skiff out to go ‘beach combing’ for winter Sitka Blacktail, that same trip will involve checking a crab pot, trolling for salmon and perhaps jigging for a halibut. If you find a couple of deer on the beach and can harvest one all the better! Stretching a dollar by capitalizing on multiple opportunities at once, and then taking the time to properly prepare your harvest and store it for the winter is rewarding, healthy, and can save your some money to boot. Happy Harvesting!
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.
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.
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.
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.
When I first took this image in Juneau I believed it was a proton arc. I now know that is incorrect.
This image of a pale aurora is incorrectly called a “proton arc” by many photographers and aurora chasers.
The Milky Way collides with the aurora borealis in Hoonah, Alaska.
A pale aurora shows to the south in stark contrast to the green aurora surrounding it.
Standing in the water
Some personal reflection as the aurora bounces off the water on North Douglas Island, Juneau.
A reflection of the aurora over the Mendenhall Towers, Juneau, from North Douglas Island.
The aurora at low tide from North Douglas Island.
The aurora at low tide from North Douglas Island.
A green crown on the mountaintops outside of Juneau, Alaska.
“The Emerald River” The aurora shines off a tidal river in Hoonah. Alaska.
Columns of aurora reflect from the ocean in Hoonah, Alaska.