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.
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 🙂
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!
Merry Christmas!… and a happy New Year. It is Amazing that in 5 more days 2014 will be here, and we once again will mis-write the date on our checks as many times as it takes to break a habit – a debatable number.
I’ve had a busy last few weeks of the semester and am looking into the next one. With graduate level statistics and thesis development on the docket, it will be busy for sure.
Being home for Christmas and the Holidays has been a real treat, and this more even more than others, I’ve really felt blessed to be home and back in the tradition of Christmas. The house where I grew up is adorned with lights over the doors and windows and stockings on the Chimney. Every year after Thanksgiving my brother and I would haul box after box of Christmas decorations from the basement and place them up around the house. Two balsam fir Christmas trees, often harvested from the woods around Grand Rapids, Minnesota were put up. One of them ‘belonged’ to my brother and I; it was garnished with lights and personal ornaments collected through the years. The other tree was for my parents.
One of the decorations put up in the house is the ceramic village pieces which my mom hand-painted through the years. The pieces are set up as a village lit by LED lights and represent a quiet town or village. These pieces drew me, and for some reason I have never looked at them as closely as I did this year. The detail put into them upon close inspection brought them to life. The small eyes of carolers have pupils, the tiny window displays of toys are colorful and distinct, and each house is painted uniquely and ornately. I want to do some photography of this Christmas Village and thought the results were just fun to look at and full of life!
After taking pictures of the village I couldn’t help but feel more connected to it. Taking pictures up and down the alleyways gave it life meaning. I have been looking at this village for more than 15 years without ever appreciating the Christmas tradition of it. Here’s a look at Christmas town from a distance, I hope I’ve given you some appreciation of it through these close-up shots of life in Christmas town.
Of course Christmas Tradition is also about a Christmas tree and family. Below is the tree this year and a group shot of my immediate family. If you have Christmas traditions and stories I’d love for you to post them below. This is the best time of year!