Tag Archives: aurora borealis

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland

Night photography is a passion of mine.  I don’t know if I can explain exactly why.  Possibly because the images simply amaze me, maybe because of the solitude and quiet, perhaps it is the wonders that photography reveal that my bare eye can only hint at.  Don’t know, but I do love it.

The Milky Way has long been my favorite subject for night photography…and with good reason.  It is mind-boggling, majestic and awe-inspiring.  But I have a new night-time fave:  the Northern Lights!

I photographed the Aurora Borealis for the first time five years ago during a trip to Alaska. Unfortunately, I only had two nights when I could see the lights during that visit. 

“Ribbon Highway”  A favorite shot from my trip to Alaska.  The ribbons of the Aurora above mimic the Dalton highway below (of “Ice Road Truckers” fame) 

In the intervening years since I had forgotten how breathtaking it can be when the night sky dances in swaths of colorful ribbons and the landscape is bathed in its soft green light.  During my trip to Iceland last month, I was able photograph the Northern Lights six times over a two week span.  Seeing the northern lights is truly hit or miss.  Some nights the aurora is weak or simply non-existent…other nights are overcast and it’s hidden.  I have met many folks who spent a couple weeks in Iceland and never saw the lights so I felt blessed to have had such good luck.  In this blog I will share some of those experiences and photos. 

After a day in Reyjavik, I took a two day tour up to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.  We stopped at a small hotel (the Langaholt Guesthouse) on the peninsula’s southern coast for the night.  I woke up at 4am and saw a grey glow over the northern horizon.   I knew that until your eyes adapt to the dark, the aurora appears faint and nearly colorless so I hurriedly dressed and ran outside.  In my haste, I put on my pants backward, but I didn’t notice until hours later;)  

 To be honest, I had failed to scout the area before I had gone to bed, so I really didn’t know where I would find a decent foreground.  First I headed out to the main road. 

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland Snaefellsnes

The aurora was killer, but the rest of the view wasn’t as impressive…

As my eyes adapted, I could see the colors.  The green was magnificent and city lights glowed red on the lower clouds above the mountains.  I shot for twenty minutes but couldn’t find a  foreground that made me happy.  So I hiked back past the hotel and toward the coast.  And I’m glad I did!  Between the hotel and the coast there was a tidal flat filled with water.  Plus, there was no wind, so it was reflecting the sky almost flawlessly.

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland Snaefellsnes

“Odin’s Mirror”

Amazing, huh!  I was blessed with a red aurora as well.  The crimson color occurs only at higher altitudes and it is relatively uncommon…and uncommonly beautiful.  To top it off,  the snow-capped mountain ridge provided interest and leading lines.  It was a magnificent setting…and I knew it.  I photographed blissfully for the next couple hours until the eastern sky started to lighten.

One of my best shots was an accident.  I took a few long exposure images at low ISO just to get high quality/low noise images of the foreground that I could later merge with the higher ISO, shorter exposure sky shots.  Well, this happened:

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland Snaefellsnes

Valhalla’s Kaleidoscope

 This exposure was for a minute and a half and it did capture the high quality foreground image I intended.  But it also made the low, fast-moving clouds appear as streaks that nicely reflected the aurora’s light.  Usually you take aurora shots for about 7 to 15 seconds so you can capture the ‘grain’ and delicacy of the aurora…but I really like the way this image turned out…sometimes you just get lucky!

The next few days were overcast.  I was having dinner on the southern coast near Vesterhorn when the skies cleared again.  I bolted outside and saw that the aurora was dancing! 

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland

The restaurant didn’t have much of a foreground but the sky certainly had promise…

Our tour guide, Aron, knew of a nearby spot that featured a shallow inlet framed by a mountain ridge.  We jumped into our truck and soon were standing in front of this scene: 

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland

I was fortunate to capture a comet in this image. You can also see another happy photographer and his (her?) tripod to the far left (look for the red LED).

There was another cloudless night a couple of days later.  I set my tripod up a few inches above a small frozen pond which was reflecting the aurora’s joyful glow.

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland

The photo tour I was on (Arctic Exposures) circled the entire coast of Iceland via the ‘Ring Road.’  By the time we reached the far eastern coast, people and towns were few and far between but the landscapes were anything but scarce.  Godafoss roughly translates to “Waterfall of the Gods” and that is no hyperbole.  Magnificent as it is during the day, it is truly something sublime when illuminated under the Aurora Borealis:  

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland Godafoss

The aurora usually is concentrated toward the north, but this night it covered the sky from horizon to horizon…always shimmering and moving as it danced its magical light fantastic.

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland Godafoss

Have I mentioned the cold? It was -22° F the night I took this shot…a personal record that I hope to never break.

By now we had reached Myvatn in northern Iceland.  One of my favorite locations there wasn’t a grand landscape.  It was this small pond that had a puny island in its center crowned by an even smaller tree. 

 Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland Myvatn

Even after the red faded the ‘normal’ green aurora was enchanting.Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland Myvatn

You know, as I think back now, what I really love about the Aurora is its movement and unpredictability.  When you shoot the Milky Way, it doesn’t change much one minute to the next.  It is beautiful, but consistent.

The aurora is always changing.  The shape, color, intensity, texture…they are all in flux and never the same.   It’s kind of like the difference between photographing landscapes and wildlife.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed the photos.  I’m off to the Bisti Badlands and Moab for the next couple weeks.  I’ll share my images when I return!
Jeff

 

PS:  Check out my other photos on my Iceland trip recap and my blog about Iceland’s Ice Caves !

 

Posted in Iceland, Night Photography Also tagged , , , , , , , |

Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography

The Earth is blessed with many beautiful and emotionally provocative sights, but I seriously doubt that any of them can top the Aurora Borealis for sheer sensuous and awe-inspiring beauty. The Northern Lights have amazed mankind long before the ancient Romans named ‘Aurora’ the Goddess of Dawn and the Greeks called the wind ‘Boreas’.   Unfortunately for most photographers, the ‘Dawn Wind’ is not something we get a chance to capture often.  When we do, it is often after travelling long distances and spending some serious dollars.  So, if you do get the chance to photograph the Northern (or Southern) Lights, you probably want to make the most of the opportunity  That became very clear to me after I published my last blog, which was a recap of a recent Aurora photography trip.  I was deluged with emails asking for specifics on how to take Aurora photos.    So, in this blog, I will share with you the Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography.

Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography

Scout locations that include water for some great reflective shots of the Aurora. D800E / 14-24 Nikkor f2.8 / 15 seconds @ f2.8 / ISO 400

Where can you find the Aurora?

  1. The Northern Lights are sometimes visible far below the Arctic Circle…but if you are going to plan a trip to see them, you really need to go north…way north!  The northern areas of Alaska, Canada, Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Finland and Russia are all prime locations.  For most of us, the best choice will depend on how close/affordable each option is.
  2. Most of the towns in these areas are pretty small, so city lights are not much of a problem.  Fairbanks Alaska, for example, has only 32,000 residents and I didn’t find light pollution to be much of an issue.
  3. Personally, I thought Fairbanks was an excellent Aurora location.  It had a fine international airport with lots of daily flights, rental car agencies and plenty of hotels.  Plus, if I got tired of town,  it had good roads heading out into the back country that I could explore and photograph.  It also didn’t hurt that I spoke the language and felt very comfortable there.
    • Keep in mind that if you live in the southern hemisphere, the Aurora Australis might be your best bet.  This counterpart of the Aurora Borealis is visible in Antarctica, of course, but sometimes can be seen from the South Island of New Zealand , southern Australia (especially Tasmania), and southern Chile/Argentina.

When is the best time?

  1. Aurora Borealis season in northern polar latitudes (Alaska, northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Siberia) runs from August to April.  During the summer months of May thru July, the sun rarely sets and it is just too bright to see the Aurora.
    • Statistically, the equinox months of September and March are best for aurora activity. The winter months of October to February should be your second choice.
  2. You will still be at the mercy of the clouds.  A few clouds can be a nice accompaniment, but if your trip is only for a few days and it is totally overcast every night, you are out of luck.
    • Schedule as long a trip of you can to increase your chances of having at least one or two clear nights.  When you consider a location also take into account if it has any daytime photo ops that would keep you busy if the Aurora is elusive/
    • Check out the long-range weather forecasts and historical weather patterns for the locations you are considering.  See how many clear nights they usually experience.
      • Iceland, for example, is overcast nearly 90% of the time.  Plus, the clouds are constant…one time of the year is about as cloudy as the next.
      •  Alaska, on the other hand, does have fewer clouds in the spring…about half the nights are clear or partially cloudy.  In the fall, however, it is cloudy nearly 80-90% of the time.   On my last 10 day tip to Alaska in September, for example, I had only 3 clear nights.
  3. The Aurora can be pretty bright, which means you don’t have to schedule your trip during the part of a month with moonless nights.  In fact, I prefer full moons, since they light up the landscape with out you having to try to do so with your own lighting.
  4. There actually is a daily forecasts for the Aurora.  If you are going to Alaska, check out the University of Alaska, Fairbanks’ Geophysical InstituteIceland and the other places you might travel to also have their own forecasts, just Google it.
    • However, if you’ve travelled a great distance to photograph the Aurora, you shouldn’t write off a night of photography because of a bad forecast.  Like weather forecasts, these aren’t always accurate.
    • Forecasts range between 0 and 9 with the higher numbers indicating more intense Aurora activity.

Scout Locations during the Day

Any photo of a nice Aurora is wonderful, even if the surrounding landscape is flat and boring.  BUT…the same photo can be magnificent with a killer foreground.  Spend your day driving around looking for locations that will add interest to your shots.

  • Calm rivers and lakes can make wonderful mirrors for the Aurora.
  • Mountains and hills will break up the horizon and give your shot some pizzazz.
  • Putting a cabin or tent in the foreground (with a light on inside it) is a great touch.

The Aurora usually appears to the northwest/northeast.  If there are any cities around, look for potential locations that would allow you to photograph the Aurora to the north but place the towns behind you (to your south).

Consider hiring a local guide

I rarely hire guides.  I like doing things on my own.  I’m tight with a dollar. One of the few times I did hire a guide, was the last time I went on an Aurora Photography tour…and I’m glad I did.

The fact is that the Arctic is much different from the world most of us know.  Here is one example: Many of the best locations for Aurora photography in Alaska are north of Fairbanks off of the dangerous Dalton highway.  However, it isn’t legal to drive most rental cars on the Dalton.  Which means either you hire a puddle jumper, take a heck of a chance and illegally drive your rental car anyway or pay an insane amount of money to the few rental agencies that will let you take their vehicles on the Dalton.  My guide had his own custom-made van, has driven the Dalton for years and knew the best spots for Aurora photography.

I worked with Hugh Rose.  He lives in Fairbanks, has been a photographer and tour leader there for decades and he seriously knows his stuff.

Have the right equipment

I’m personally a bit sick of hearing “It’s not the camera…It’s the photographer!”  The statement is true…to a point, but even the best photographer would be up a (frozen) creek without a paddle if he/she didn’t have the right equipment when photographing the Northern Lights

  1. The Camera.
    1. The new, full frame DSLRs truly excel at low-light photography.  The Nikon 600/700/810s, etc, as well as the Canon 1D/5D/6Ds are all excellent choices for this type of work.
    2. ASPC cameras (“cropped-frame”) are certainly more affordable but they can’t quite deliver the same quality.  Nevertheless, I’ve seen them produce great Aurora shots.
  2. Tripod.   Since you are taking long exposures, a tripod is mandatory.  Use a tall tripod so you won’t spend all night bending down into uncomfortable positions as you try to review your camera’s LCD screen.
  3. A cable or wireless shutter release.
  4. Lens:  Fast!
    • The Aurora is much brighter than most subjects you would normally photograph at night so you might think you wouldn’t need a particularly ‘fast’ lens.  However, unlike the slow-moving Milky Way, Auroras can move across the sky at a pretty good clip.  As a result, you need to take much shorter exposures in order to capture the  quick-changing aspects of Auroras.  Some details, like the ‘curtain-effect’ (see the reddish area of the Aurora on the left side of the photo below) will be blurred and  lost with exposures over 10-15 seconds.  Therefore, I’d suggest a 2.8f lens or faster.
    • Let’s put this in perspective:  A 2.8f lens is twice as fast as a 3.5f.  In other words, if you took an 8 second exposure with a f2.8 lens and then switched to a f3.5 lens, you would have to take a 16 second exposure to get the same amount of light.   By the same token, a f2.0 lens is twice as fast as a 2.8f and so on.

      Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography

      I love how the red Aurora reflected off the river in the bottom right of this shot, while the green Aurora on the left reflected off the Dalton Highway. D800E / 14-24 Nikkor f2.8 / 15 seconds @ f2.8 / ISO 3200

  5. Lens:  Wide
    • Aurorascan be WIDE…they can stretch from horizon to horizon.
      Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography

      Moonlight backlit this Aurora and turned it into something truly special. D800E / Nikkor 14-24 f2.8 / 30 seconds @ f2.8 / ISO 2200

      • If you have a full frame camera, then 14mm would do the trick.  I use my 14-24mm Nikon 2.8f zoom and have found it to be an excellent choice for Aurora photography.  For Auroras that span from horizon to horizon, you might want to try a 16mm fisheye lens
      • If your camera is ASP-C format, then a regular 10-12 mm would work ( or a 8 or 10 mm fisheye),
    • Panoramas?
      • With the Milky Way, you can take multiple shots with lenses that aren’t particularly wide and then stitch them together in Photoshop (or a similar program).   However, since Auroras move quickly, panoramas are usually not an option….so you really need that wide lens.
  6. Photoshop.  Right out of the camera, Aurora shots can be amazing.  But often you are going to need to process the photo in Photoshop, Elements or a similar photo processing program to get the most out of the image.
  7. L-Bracket.  This isn’t a Must-Have…more of a ‘really Nice-to-Have.”  L-Brackets attach to your camera and allow you to connect it to your tripod in a portrait orientation without having to swivel your camera sideways on your ballhead.  This means that you don’t have to lean over so much and it gives your tripod better balance. L Brackets are available from a number of companies (Kirk, Really Right Stuff, etc).  Basically no more than a well-machined piece of painted aluminium, the pricing can be surprising high.  I have found that  Hejner products to be high quality and reasonably priced.
  8. Headlamp.
  9. Extra Batteries.  The cold will drain your batteries quicker than normal.  Keep a couple spares in a warm pocket.
  10. Warm clothes.  This topic could be the source of a whole article.  Obviously if the temperature will be low and you will be standing outside for hours, you won’t be able to concentrate on the Aurora if you can no longer feel your extremities!  Pay particular to your feet…the cold will seep into them from the ground.

Technique

  1. Focus. 
    •  The best idea is simply to focus on an object in the far distance before the sun sets.  Then turn off the auto-focus and put a couple pieces of tape on the focus ring to hold it in place.  This way, your camera will already be pre-focused before it gets dark and you can be assured your shots will be perfectly focused.  Otherwise, you have to try to focus in the dark, which is more difficult.  Plus, without the tape, you will likely bump your lens at some point…and that will throw all future shots out of focus.  Unless you review EVERY shot at full magnification…which you should do of course (but that is a habit difficult to learn…at least for me!)
    • If you don’t get a chance to focus before it gets dark you need to keep in mind that your autofocus won’t work well at night.  So you will need to switch to manual focus.
      • Simply setting your lens to ‘infinity’ usually won’t work…many lenses don’t have a hard stop on their focus ring at infinity…if you go a bit too far the stars will be unfocused.
      • Focus manually on the moon,  a distant streetlight…or particularly bright star.  Take a shot, then review it at full magnification to see if your focus is crisp  (use a loupe if you have one available).  Then lock your focus (if your camera has that ability) or use tape.
  2. Camera Orientation (portrait or landscape)  simply depends on what the Aurora looks like the night you are photographing. Most of my shots are taken in portrait orientation, but within a few minutes, the Borealis can shift and you might find that a landscape perspective would be the better choice. Be prepared to shift your camera between both orientations (another benefit of an L-Bracket).

    Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography

    The full moon really illuminated the fall foliage on the other side of the Chena River in this image. D800E / Nikkor 14-24 f2.8 / 15 seconds @ f2.8 / ISO 400

  3. Lighting.  If you are shooting under a bright moon, ambient lighting might be all you need.   However, if there isn’t much moonlight or if you want to draw attention to a particular feature in the foreground you will need to illuminate it yourself.  Sometimes a headlamp will do the trick but for larger subjects you might need a portable spotlight.  Bring both so you are ready for any eventuality.
  4. Composition Test.  Once you have selected what you want to include in your composition, take a trial shot.  If it is too difficult to really see the results on your LCD screen, increase your ISO to 10,000 and run your shutter speed up to a full minute.  This will result in an overexposed shot, but you will be able to clearly see if your composition is perfect (you can also use this technique to check that your focus is perfect).
  5. Aperture.  Now that your composition is determined, set your camera to Manual Priority and dial in the widest aperture your lens is capable of.
  6. Shutter Speed.  First set a  shutter speed of 8 seconds (or put the camera in “Bulb Mode” and count the seconds yourself).  Take the shot and look at your histogram.   If  the histogram is bunched completely to the left (too dark), reset your camera to a slightly longer exposure and try again.  Keep adding seconds to the exposure until you get proper exposure (the  histogram should be bunched somewhere near the center).
    • Ideally, you want an exposure in the 8-15 second range.
      1. Anything over 15 seconds will ‘blur’ detail in the Aurora.  Some Aurora’s don’t have much detail, so that might not be an issue
      2. Anything over 30 seconds will likely result in ‘streaked’ stars.
  7. Adjust your exposure.  I find it helpful to dial in a +2/3 to +1 Exposure compensation
  8. Shoot in RAW.  If you are a pro, you are already using RAW exclusively.  If you’ve never shot anything other than the default JPEG format, then give RAW a try.  Unlike JPEG, which condenses and throws away a lot of the data your camera’s sensor captures, RAW files keep all the data.  As a result, the files are larger, but they also give you the potential to do much more with your shot.
  9. ISO. This really depends on your camera and just how bright the Aurora is on the night you are shooting.
    • The newer full frame cameras can take good quality shots well over ISO 1600, while older cameras and those with smaller sensor might create so much noise that you might not be able to go over 800.
    • The brightness of the Aurora, however, will be the primary factor that determines your ISO.  I’ve seen some nights that the Aurora was so bright you could read a newspaper by its light.  In that case I was able to shoot with an ISO as low as 400 with no problem (see the shot to the right).  Other nights, the Aurora was be much dimmer (but still beautiful) and I’ve had to dial the ISO all the way up to 2200 with my Nikon D800E.
    • The way to figure out the right ISO is simply to take practice shots after you first set up and adjust from there.  Find out how high you really need to set your ISO for your camera and the brightness of the Aurora.  Remember that the lower your ISO, the less noise in the resulting image.  Also keep in mind that the Aurora’s brightness will change during the night, so you might have to adjust your ISO setting accordingly.
  10. Turn off your IS/VR.  This is the ‘anti-shake’ function built into your lens.  Since you are shooting from a tripod, it won’t be necessary.
  11. Remove any filters from your lens.  Many photographers, myself included, attach high quality UV filters to the end of every lens and leave them there.  They provide some protection to the lens and don’t affect the quality of the image.  However, some reputable photographers have reported issues with these filters when photographing the Aurora, especially during severe cold.  My advice would be to remove any filters…no reason to take a chance on ruining a once in a lifetime shot.
  12. Blend the Foreground. If there isn’t much moonlight, the foreground will likely be little more than a silhouette.  That can be a really nice effect, but also try some shots that  include some detail in the foreground.  The best way to do this is take your 8 second (or so) shot of the Aurora and then, without moving the camera, take a much longer exposure (try 30 seconds to start) which will better expose the foreground.  Later, you can blend the two images together in Photoshop which will give you a shot perfected exposed for the Aurora and the foreground.
  13. Test, Test and Test Again!   It can be a real temptation to just start ripping off shots of the Aurora because you are afraid it isn’t going to last.  I’ve fallen for that temptation myself.  But trust me, the right thing to do is to slow down and try different settings and then methodically review them.  Experiment!   Since each shot takes less than 10 seconds, you can afford to take a number of test shots to get everything perfect.

Post-Production Processing

This is where the pure technique ends and you get to be creative!  I will give you specific Photoshop pointers but other photo processing software can give you the same results.

Secrets and Tips for Great Aurora Borealis Photography

If you want a real processing challenge, try a shot with both the Milky Way AND the Aurora!
D800E / Nikkor 14-24 f2.8 / 30 seconds @ f2.8 / ISO 3200

  1. Temperature   I adjust the slider between 3000 and 4800 until I find a spot that has a nice balance between the cold blues and warm oranges.
  2. Exposure   Try increasing your exposure to see if it make a lot more stars visible without washing out the entire frame.
  3. Tone Curve  Darkening the shadows and brightening the highlights often makes things ‘pop.’
  4. Clarity.  A small shift to the right on the clarity slider can really help the stars appear nice and crisp.
  5. Hue/Saturation/Luminance.  Here is where the real fun starts.  Your challenge is to coax your camera’s digital image to accurately reflect what you actually saw.  Be careful not to oversaturate the colors or shift hues to extremes.
  6. The targeted adjustment tool is a great way to focus your efforts just on the main part of the Aurora.   For example, I often find that enhancing the ‘clarity’ of the Aurora can help define details.  This tool also helps you isolate hue/saturation adjustments to specific parts of the image.
  7. Noise adjustment.  You are going to have noise in your raw image.  The amount will depend onyoursettingsandthe quality of the sensor in your camera.
    1. You are going to need to reduce the noise to create a high quality image. There are a number of noise reduction programs you can use (I use Nik’s Dfine 2)
    2. No matter what software you use, remember that noise is usually a lot more noticeable in the foreground elements (darker areas) than in the bright areas of the Aurora, so don’t use a ‘blanket’ or overall adjustment.  If nothing else, just put the foreground on a different layer and apply a different level of noise control.

With these directions and a bit of practice, you should be set to go out and take your own impressive Aurora photographs.  However, I’ve provided only the basics.  If you want to learn more, I strongly recommend the iPhone app How to Photograph the Northern Lights  (or you can get it in an e-book/PDF ).  Written by Alaskan resident Patrick J. Endres,  this is an exhaustive 280 page review on how to photograph the Aurora.  It costs about $25, but if you are spending serious bucks to photograph the Northern Lights, then it would be  a pretty small part of that investment.

The Aurora is truly one of natures greatest wonders, I hope you get a chance to watch a performance soon!
Jeff

 

 

For night’s swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora’s harbinger

William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (c. 1595-96), Act III, scene 2, line 379.

Posted in Alaska, Night Photography, Photo Tips and Guides Also tagged , , , |

A Childhood Dream Come True; Seeing and Photographing the Aurora

Once, when I was a kid, my family was on vacation in Canada.  We were out on our boat fishing in Lake Huron and the wind came up.  It was blowing so hard we couldn’t make it back to camp and we had to spent the night on the rocky shore.   That night, after my brother and I went to sleep, the Northern Lights came out.  Although we had never seen the Aurora  before, my Mom and Dad didn’t wake us up, thinking we really needed our sleep.   The next morning, the wind had calmed and we were able to get our boat back to camp.  But when I found that I had missed a chance to see the Aurora, I was terribly disappointed .   I carried that regret for the next forty years.

Last month, I got a chance to finally fulfill that childhood wish.   I took a ten day trip to Alaska on a Hugh Rose Photography Tour.  My primary goal was to  see (and photograph) the Aurora Borealis.  In this blog, I’ll share with you some photos and highlights of that experience.

The tour group met for dinner the first night in Fairbanks and our guides (Hugh Rose and Ron Niebrugge) gave us some pointers about shooting the Aurora.  They suggested we get some practice that night, so  I set my alarm for 11pm.  When it woke me up in my nice, warm bed a few hours later, I peeked out my window and saw a bit of green in the sky.  It wasn’t much, but it was an Aurora, my first!  I quickly gathered my gear and walked down to the Chena River, which was no more than two minutes behind my room at  the River’s Edge Resort  .  I quickly set up and here was my first effort:

A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis

I didn’t particularly like the lighted highway bridge, so I hiked upstream until it was out of sight and found  a spot where the river turned north (toward the Aurora).  This bend made the river look a lot wider, which allowed me to capture more of the Aurora reflected in the water.  As time passed, I noticed that the Borealis gradually increased in size and intensified in color as well.

A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis           A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis

By now it was midnight and for the next three hours I was totally enthralled by the spectacle in the heavens above me. It was glorious.  What really surprised and delighted me was that the Aurora MOVES.  I had seen time lapse videos which showed the Lights moving, but I thought it did so slowly…I didn’t think you could watch it move  with your  bare eyes.  I was wrong.  I stood there in awe as it slowly and sensuously danced across the sky.

There was a full moon, which did a wonderful job of illuminating the trees across the river.  Fall had come to Fairbanks early, so those trees were blessed with a riot of autumn colors as well. The river was flowing slowly and with long exposures, I was able to capture great reflections!

A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis             A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis

The next morning at breakfast, the tour group was excitedly bubbling about what a wonderful exhibition we had seen the night before.  It turned out that there had been a massive solar flare a few days earlier and it had just hit the Earth’s atmosphere.  And since the Aurora is caused by the collision of solar wind and magnetospheric charged particles, the result was the killer display we had witnessed.

The forecast for the upcoming night promised an even better and more intense Aurora.   Plus, the Northern Lights tend to be better the further north you go and the higher in elevation you are.   Since our plan was to spend the night in Wiseman, which was 270 miles north and at an elevation twice that of Fairbanks, our expectations were thru the roof.    But wouldn’t you know it…as it turned out, the night was pretty much a bust.  The Aurora was pretty wimpy compared to the previous night and to make matters worse, it clouded over as well.

A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis

That little spot of light by the river is the headlamp of a disappointed photographer (me). Photo by Cesar Aristeiguieta

We never did figure out why the Aurora didn’t live up to the forecast.  But the really frustrating thing was that those clouds that had rolled in didn’t leave.  In fact, we didn’t have clear skies for another week.   Fortunately, we had plenty of wildlife to photograph (see my upcoming blog about Polar Bears on Barter Island).

Over the next week, I got up every night a couple of times to see if the weather had broken, but I had no luck.  With the trip nearly over, we were driving back to Wiseman at midnight in the middle of the Brooks Range when I looked back over my shoulder and saw that the sky was clearing…even better, I could see color in the heavens.  Our vans pulled over at a great spot a few miles ahead that Hugh had previously scouted and we piled out to set up our tripods.

A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis

This was a wild view. The nearly full moon backlit this scene and really boosted the Aurora’s brightness…it looked like a rainbow on steroids. This effect was visible for less than a minute and this was the only shot I was able to get before it faded.,

I was really excited to see red in the Aurora.  Red is considered rare compared to the more common green shades I had seen the week before.  I rushed around to find foreground elements and leading lines I could use.

A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora Borealis

Possibly my favorite shot of the trip. The reds had faded to burgundy but the ‘curtain effect’ was strikingly visible on the left side of the Aurora. I loved how the red color of the Aurora was reflected in the river to the left while the road on the right reflected shades of green!

While the other folks pointed their cameras north, where the Aurora was most visible, my attention was drawn the opposite direction toward the Milky Way.  I love Milky Way photography and I  thought : “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool to get the Aurora and Milky way in the same shot?”  I laughed to myself…what would the chances of that be?…

A few minutes later, the gods answered my prayer and a wide band of the Lights swung far to the south.  I excitedly fit it all in my viewfinder and got off a few shots before the Aurora shifted out of the frame.

A Serendipitous "Twofer"

A Serendipitous “Twofer”

By now, the Aurora was starting to fade…as were the photographers.  We got back in the vans and headed for Wiseman.  As it turned out, these would be my last shots of the Northern Lights,  those darn clouds showed up again obscuring the skies for my last couple days in Alaska.

As I flew home, I reflected on a wonderful trip.  I had got to see the Aurora Borealis…and it was far more beautiful and impressive than I had imagined.  I had also captured dozens of photos that would help keep the memory alive over the years ahead!

Next week, I’ll post a separate blog with detailed How-To Tips for Aurora Photography.

Take care!
Jeff

 

 

 A Childhood Dream Come True;  Seeing and Photographing the Aurora

Posted in Alaska, Landscape Photography, Night Photography, Photo Tips and Guides Also tagged , , |

Alaska Photo Tour Highlights

Hello All,

I’ve spent the last two weeks in a frenzy of non-stop Photoshop processing of the thousands of the images I took on my Alaskan photo tour.  Now that I’ve got the bulk of the photos done, I’m in a bit of a quandary about how to write a blog to accompany the pictures.  The problem is simply that it was an incredible 10 day trip packed with an expansive range of photographic subjects…everything from Polar Bears to the Aurora Borealis, so  if I tried to write a single blog and cover all these topics…well, the result would be a small book.

So instead, I’m going to break up the adventure into bite-sized topics and cover them separately in-depth.  Today I’m going to just give you a taste of things to come by providing a brief recap of my Alaska Photo Tour Highlights.

The adventure started off with an incredible night of the Aurora Borealis in Fairbanks.  In fact, it may have been the best northern lights we saw on the entire trip!

Alaska Photo Tour Highlights

The calm Chena River was a wonderful reflector for the Aurora!

Believe it or not, this view was not more than 20 feet behind the little cabin I stayed in.

Day two and three were spent driving up the Dalton Highway (the “Haul Road” made famous in the “Ice Road Truckers” TV show)  which was built to supply the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay. The Dalton is over 400 miles, most of it is gravel and there are only 3 small towns on the entire route (with a TOTAL population of less than 40, combined)!

Alaska Photo Tour Highlights

The Alaska Pipeline has been controversial, but it certainly is an engineering marvel…and it can be photogenic as well!

The Alaska Pipeline was our companion the next couple days and was usually within sight off to the side of the road.

At Deadhorse (the name of the town at Prudhoe Bay) , we took a puddle jumper to Barter Island. This is a small island off the northern coast of Alaska only 70 miles west of Canada which has become justifiably  famous for the Polar Bears that can be viewed there this time of year.

Alaska Photo Tour Highlights

A mom and cub share a polar bear ‘kiss’

We photographed the bears from buses and from small boats.  The weather was pretty iffy, but I got one 40 minute window with good light the last day I was there and made the most of it.  My adrenaline was pumping!

These two sibling cubs were engaged in a good-natured rumble!

These two sibling cubs were engaged in a good-natured rumble!

After three days of photographing polar bears, arctic wildlife and the fascinating native town of Kaktovik, we headed back to Prudhoe.  About an hour south of town, our sharp-eyed guide (Hugh)  spotted a herd of Musk Oxen.

Alaska Photo Tour Highlights

Truly prehistoric beasts!

It was pretty cool ‘stalking’ these huge critters!   You have to walk in single file to avoid appearing like a predator.  Even so, it took every bit of 550mm to get this shot.

Heading down the Dalton a few hours later we noticed that the Northern Lights were making an appearance.  We stopped for an hour or so along the road and didn’t get to our rooms until 3am, but no one was complaining.  Of course, then I had to stay up for another couple hours drinking beers with the guys.  It sure seemed like a good idea at the time…

Alaska Photo Tour Highlights

The Aurora was absolutely breathtaking!

I was the only one up for sunrise…I got precious little sleep but I had plenty of time to make up for it during the 23 hours it took me to fly home (thanks to a couple long layovers).

Sunrise over Wiseman Creek

Sunrise over Wiseman Creek

Okay, I know that this blog was brief, but I’ve been stuck for a few days trying to get started so I’m glad I’ve broken the logjam!  I’ll be writing some detailed articles over the next few weeks about the Aurora, Polar Bears, Dalton Highway wildlife and landscapes .  I also plan to provide a review of the actual tour I was on (Hugh Rose Alaska Polar Bear and Aurora Photo Tour) for those of you who might be thinking about going yourself!

Jeff

 

Posted in Alaska, Roadtrips, Wildlife Also tagged , , , , , |

Upcoming Arctic Photo Tour with Hugh Rose

I am EXCITED!  Tomorrow I leave on an incredible adventure:  10 days in the Arctic!   I’ll be joining Hugh Rose on his Sept Polar Bear and Aurora Photo Tour.  This incredible photo tour covers Alaska from Fairbanks all the way to the Arctic Ocean (maybe I’ll take a dip and join the “Polar Bear Club”).   Click on this link to see the itinerary:  It is simply incredible!  We will be traveling in vans, small bush planes and rubber rafts…heck, I might have to strap on some snowshoes!  My wonderful wife, Anita, purchased my ticket for this extravagant tour as my Christmas present last year and I’ve been looking forward to it ever since.

For a guy from Florida, this trip presented some challenges…like buying a full arctic wardrobe.  Merino wool underwear, down jackets, insulated boots:  these aren’t items that you find in many closets down in this neck of the woods!  But it has been fun planning and preparing for the last nine months.

I’m really excited to get the chance to photograph the Aurora Borealis.    I’ve never even seen it and I am hoping that I am lucky and the Aurora is visible

Next to the Aurora, the next item on my wish list are polar bears.  These predators are not afraid of humans and I’m not as fast as I was when I was younger…but like they say:  “You don’t have to be fast, just quicker than the guy next to you!”

Anita won’t be making this trip with me.  Not because it will all be about photography (she is used to that) but she gets chilly when the temperatures drop down into the mid 70s….so Alaska in the fall isn’t somewhere she wants to be.

I won’t have internet access for most of the trip, so I’m not even going to try to write a daily blog (that didn’t work out well for me when I tried it this summer:).  I will give you all an update when I get back and share my photos as well.

Jeff

(PS:  Did I mention that I’m excited?)

 

Posted in Alaska, Roadtrips Also tagged , , , , |