Alaska, 2014 (Part V)

Will this be the final chapter? I thought so but I just remembered something.  We'll see.

Now that I'm in Fairbanks, Alaska, I have an interesting schedule.  

The entire trip for me was about seeing the Northern Lights and come home with some shots.  Sure, there were a million other things as well but that was key.  To help, with the help of a couple of recommendations, I signed up for a Northern Lights tour with a Fairbanks local.  It was scheduled to run from 9:00 p.m. until 3:00 a.m.  No problem, I am a night owl so I can handle that.  The funny thing though is the the next morning at 6:30 a.m. my friend and I were to be picked up for an adventure to the Arctic Circle.  Oh well, I've lived a huge chunk of my life burning the candle at both ends.

Preparing for the night tour was a bit chaotic when it shouldn't have been.  I have been out dozens of times in the night to shoot the skies, but this time I was all over the ice.  I'm not used to having all of my things confined to an area the size of a bed.  Getting dressed for the cold took me forever, and then once done, it took even longer to get my stuff together, all the while, my temperature rising higher and higher!

Night photography requires a few things.  A sharp, clean lens, a tripod, a remote and memory cards.  Easy.  Night photography when it is -40F needs a few extra things.  Many layers of clothes, a balaclava, a hood for the coat, snow pants, serious boots and chemical hand warmers.  The camera requires extra batteries because they drain quickly, some ziplock baggies and silica gel packs. 

Successful shots at night in the cold requires planning - You cannot simply take your lens and camera out of a nice, warm house or car and start shooting.  Your gear needs to gradually acclimatize.  If you don't, any moisture which may exist inside the lens, inside the body or outside will fog, then freeze and then they will be useless and your night is over.  Further, if you accidentally breathe on your lens, your breath will condense, then freeze and once again, you're finished.  This is where the balaclava comes in.  To protect you from yourself.

Aurora Borealis starting

Above, the lights were just beginning.  Unfortunately a photo just doesn't convey the size of what you're seeing.  We can see the Milky Way to the left, but this green curtain which fades into a magenta above covered probably 100 degrees of horizon width.  So wide that my lens at it's widest could not capture it all.  It was at this moment where I thought briefly of my fisheye lens at home in it's case.  It would have got it all and had room to spare, but these lenses are temperamental and can create wacky shots if not done properly. 

Progression of the Northern Lights

Watching the progression of the lights was quite a thing to see.  Ronn Murray, our guide was great about checking up on each person, ensuring they were getting what they wanted out of a shot, and offered several times to take a shot of each person with a beautiful background.  

I have to say, now that shooting the lights has proven to be quite doable, should I find myself back in Alaska or other similar high latitude area, I will do a lot of daytime research to locate some stunning foregrounds.  Photographers differ on what they like in their shots, but for me, anything celestial should have something interesting in the foreground.  It goes a long way to add depth and give some sense of scale to the final shot.  Ronn's own site contains some really astounding shots that are very achievable if the conditions are right (and with practice!).

Growing in intensity and activity

As the lights gradually grew in intensity, the wind in the area also increased in strength.  Accidentally dropping anything on the ground likely meant disaster as it would blow along the ice on the ground until you either gave up chase, or it got snagged.  There were several occasions throughout the night where I took off a glove to open a handwarmer etc and found that my glove took off, dancing across the ice.  

Bright enough to light up the snow and ice

One sad thing about the lights was that the intensity turned up over the road.  Being in a group, I didn't think it a good idea to go marching off down the hill into the trees and snow so I have many shots that include this road.  That's how life goes sometimes.  

As the night went on, we hoped the lights would slowly move over our heads.  It is unfortunate that they remained as waves so close to the horizon.  For me though, this made me realize that for man a few thousand years ago, seeing something like this truly must have been what gave rise to god-like beings in the heavens.  

I think I'll end this one here.  In a day or two I will update it to include a time lapse of the northern lights.  I did create a quick one, but now that I have some experience editing, I will be able to create something much clearer and appealing to the eye.  Tune in for Part VI where the Arctic Circle becomes my playground!