The weather can be fickle in Alaska

Well we have had some outstanding Aurora events caused by recent solar weather and I have only captured a few scant frames that are by no means spectacular.

Clouds have been a major issue.

On 2/18 the solar numbers looked to be good and all the weather information I had pointed to the skies being best to the north and northwest of Anchorage. So I loaded up and headed out driving just a bit over 100 miles to the Parks Highway Big Su river bridge.

The sky was quiet when I got there at about 9:30pm. There had been a fairly nice show about an hour earlier but I was in transit and driving alone. It is not wise to be looking at the sky while driving at night. I know of at least one person who ended up high centered on a snow berm in the middle of the night farther north where it is a much lonelier place to be stuck.

I got a few images but nothing to rave about. Then the clouds moved in and that left a choice of driving back to town or continuing north. There were a few reports of clearer skies back toward town so south I went. I had been joined at the Big Su with two other members of the Facebook Aurora Notification group and they were as disappointed as I.

The interior of Alaska has been blessed with relatively clear skies and moderate temps for the last week so they have been shooting up a storm.

Parks Hwy at Big Su
Faint Aurora over the Parks Highway at the Big Su river

I will continue the hunt.

It’s All In The Timing

One of the largest solar events of the last 12 months arrived just as a huge weather system pulled a blanket of heavy overcast and snow over most of southcentral Alaska and the interior. Perfect timing.

I can only hope that the displays will last til the next weather window.

Given the circumstances of the solar flare, the displays should be quite spectacular and driven further south than normal.

The solar sunspot 11 year cycle is due to peak in 2013. I have heard rumors of a “double peak” for this cycle. We shall see.

Good luck and good shooting.

1-21-2012 display
Short Display

Huge Solar Event Reported

The University of Alaska Aurora Forecasters have issued a report of three solar events; the last of which was a solar flare with a coronal ejection. The particles should begin to interact with the atmosphere within the next hour.
I have loaded up the Dodge with coffee, hand warmers, and camera gear.
I have motored out to clear skies. And I wait.

Midnight and still I wait.
Here is the text from the forecast.

Forecaster Comments: Three solar events occurred on Jan 18/19, 2012. The first two were small and of short duration. The last one was a coronal mass ejection associated with a long-duration solar flare from the northeast quadrant of the Sun. The location is such that the event is not facing Earth directly, but the intensity, duration and development are such that it will lead to increased auroral activity on this weekend.
The shock and the effects should reach Earth as early as 6 am GMT the 21st. That is approximately 10 hours from the time of this message. We should expect K=4 or greater auroral activity starting late on the night of the 20th in Alaska and North America and on the 21st in Russia and Europe.

Now we are dealing with certain immutable laws of physics. If there was a coronal mass ejection, there will be Northern Lights. Just as sure as death and taxes.
And I wait.

It is now 1:00am AST, Orion spins slowly to the south and I wait.
The only traffic in the sky is the occasional aircraft and the slow transit of a planet. We are too far north to see the ISS as she cruises by. The last highway traffic was almost a hour ago. Even the owls have deserted me.
I have one tripod set up and waiting. I have not activated the hand warmers as yet because I have only been out in the sub zero temps long enough to setup and take a few test shots with the D700 and the 28mm f/2 wide angle.

Other than that, I wait.

The forecast has been upgraded from “active” to “extreme”. This higher than I have ever seen it. However, the short term is still “low”.

1:40am AST

There has been a faint showing to the north and I made a few images. I had to crank in a whopping +3EV but I got something. At the same time there has been footsteps in the snow several hundred feet to the north near the tree line. Most disconcerting since no eyes are reflected back in the beam of an LED Maglite.

I feel the show is near. A few minutes in the cold causes ice to form in my beard and mustache. The ballhead no longer pivots on the tripod but the ball still swivels in the socket so we are still functional.

I wait…..

3:00am AST

She’s teasing me. It will look like a decent display will be starting to form and I will jump out and mount the camera only to have it fizzle out. My fingers got a bit of frostbite on the last go around because the shoe did not want to mate with the clamp. At these temps I don’t blame it.
I had to do a battery swap due to the cold.
Short term forecast is “quiet”.

I wait.

4:00am AST

Absolutely nothing has occurred since the last update. No vehicles. No animals. And no Aurora. She even quit teasing.
I generate more noise than anything else for 15 miles.

We are heading into another sweet spot when “statistically” the lights should show. Why do I get the feeling the event will occur during the daylight hours?
She can’t get rid of me that easy. I have coffee and I’m not afraid to use it.
If not in what’s left of this night, I will be back tomorrow night. The weather is forecast to change and we may lose our clear skies. We shall see.

Meantime, I wait.

5:00am AST

Four vehicles have just went by; one of them a taxi. Don’t know where the taxi was going. The next town in that direction is 50 miles. Hope the driver gets a nice tip.
Still bupkis on the light show. Two hours til daylight. But the coffee is still hot and strong. Thanks Pammy!

I still wait.

6:00am AST

Long term forecast still “extreme”; short term shows low. Will head for the barn at 7:00. Pulled tripod in to thaw in case of need.


7:00am AST

Somedays you get the bear; somedays the bear gets you. Time to up stakes.

Home to sleep til this evening.

Aurora 1-20-2012
Just a Tease

Catching the Northern Lights – Aurora


Photographing the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) can be a long cold test of patience.

I will not attempt to recreate all the excellent information published by Patrick J. Endres at his Alaska Photography Blog as he does a pretty good job of outlining what it takes. In fact, when I first became interested in making my own captures of the Northern Lights I found Patrick’s site with a Google search. He gave me enough inspiration and information to make me dangerous.

Green and Gold
March 9 2011 Aurora display

I am located in Southcentral Alaska, specifically Anchorage. That is about 350 miles south of where Patrick is located. Weather and light pollution conditions are quite a bit different. I must travel a minimum of 50 miles from home to find light free skies. In the winter, the weather is frequently overcast due to the close proximity of the warm Gulf of Alaska. I was able to stake out a decent couple of viewing areas to the south. However, while the view itself can be spectacular, the images may lack the “human” link that you see in many of Patrick’s photos. Many of his include people, habitations, or other signs of human life that helps the viewer place him or herself within the photo. I think that link can lend to commercial success.

March 01, 2011 Aurora
March 01, 2011 Aurora over Chugach. Red - Green - Gold

My skill is nowhere near Patrick’s but I have put together a short list of what works for me.

  1. Check the University of Alaska Aurora Forecast site at Watch not only the long term but the short term and Aurora Activity by Solar Rotation as well. If the numbers are in the 3 or above range, the chances are good for sightings.
  2. Prepare. Here in Alaska we must venture out into the snow and cold for the Aurora. This means dressing well and preparing your gear for the cold. There are many techniques for dealing with cold and I will not list them here.
  3. Look for the Aurora between 10:00pm and Midnight and again in the 3:00am to 6:00am range. Statistically, the lights are most active in those times.
  4. Use a fast lens. This is most important. This means a low ƒ stop. I would not use anything slower than an ƒ/2.0 lens, ƒ/1.4 or 1.2 would be even better. Focal length should be close to “normal” (50mm for film and FX digitals – 35mm for DX digitals) or wide angle (meaning shorter than either 50mm or 35mm).
  5. Use a tripod. Preferably with a remote release of some kind.
  6. Using the view finder for focus and framing will be almost impossible. Aim the camera in the direction of the Aurora, take a shot, and view the results on the LCD. Then adjust as required.
  7. Pre-focus to infinity. Thats how far away the lights are so just go ahead and do it.
  8. Set the aperture to the lowest ƒ stop and leave it there. You will need all the light you can get.
  9. Take a spare charged battery, the cold is hell on battery life.
  10. Patience.

I shoot Nikon so I am not going to pretend to know what other equipment settings should be.

I set the D700 for –

  • Aperture Priority
  • Lowest ƒ stop
  • pre-focus to infinity
  • ISO 1600
  • High ISO Noise Reduction On
  • Long Term Exposure Noise Reduction On
  • -0.33 EV

These are starting settings. I can review the image and adjust accordingly as needed.

For lenses I have the following Nikkors. (Note: these are all manual focus)

  • Noct-Nikkor 58mm ƒ/1.2 (engineered for exceptional low light performance)
  • 50mm ƒ/1.4 (FX normal – 75mm telephoto DX)
  • 35mm ƒ/1.4 (slight wide angle FX – normal DX)
  • 28mm ƒ/2 (wide angle FX and DX)
  • 24mm ƒ/2 (wide angle FX and DX)

All except the Noct were reasonably priced used purchases via eBay, KEH, or from fellow members of the Nikonians website. The 50mm ƒ/1.4 is relatively inexpensive and quite good quality. It is considered “normal” on full frame digital and film Nikons and the equivalent of a 75mm short telephoto on the DX bodies. Over the years I have picked up several versions of the “nifty fifty”, the last was an AF-D model that was less than $200.

I had to do quite a bit of shopping to find good clean AI’D and AI versions of the 35mm, 28mm, and 24mm. AI (auto indexing) is required for metering on the D300, D700 and up Nikon digitals.

Aurora over the Chugach
Aurora over the Chugach

The stretch of highway I use sees about one vehicle per half hour or less as the night wears on. It can be quite lonely in the cold and dark. There is an owl close by my spot that announces his presence by “hooting” long and low in the dead silence. Occasionally there will be other animal visitors that I can hear moving nearby in the snow or making other noises but I have not been able to spot them.

Good hot black coffee, chemical hand warmers, Duofold long handles, insulated gloves, knit head gear, down parka, felt lined Mukluks, a MagLite with fresh batteries, a dependable vehicle with good winter survival gear are just some of the items I take along in the dark.

I have been anxiously awaiting clear dark skies with good forecast numbers even since I missed the huge solar event in September. I was kicking my butt for missing that one but work and weather seemed to conspire against me on that one.

Goodbye Gallery 3 – Hello Zenfolio

Well, I struggled with the inherent limitation of Gallery 3 with respect to shopping carts and user security long enough. Despite my efforts and patience there does not yet seem to be any method using the existing module “basket” that would offer a customer a safe secure transaction. There was no way to encrypt the data as well as no way to require a user to register prior to purchase.

I have gone on to Zenfolio. Their business plan offered pretty much everything I require for beginning ecommerce. I have chosen to use only the products offered by MPIX. I did some test prints via the MPIX site and was impressed with the speed and color accuracy of the final products.

Now this is not to say that the Zenfolio site offerings are perfect. The information they provide on how to set up a subdomain pointing to your Zenfolio images is incomplete as it does not inform you of the full URL needed to link to your images. And only one price list can be applied to a product or group of products at a time.

The first issue took me a bit of time to realize that something was missing. Every time I attempted to go to the subdomain i was rerouted back to my main website. What was missing was the directory f428776771 at the end of the URL.

The second issue is a limitation on Zenfolio’s part. To deal with it, one must set up a separate gallery or group of images that you want to use the second price list.

So I have been busy customizing my little Zenfolio world. I will be offering select images for purchase as prints and cards. I hope to defray some of the costs of my addictive Nikon photo habit.

I highly recommend prints of the Aurora Borealis on the Kodak Metallic Paper offered by MPIX. The colors are simply amazing. Unfortunately it is not available on the extremely large print size.

You may cruise my Zenfolio offerings here.

Thank you for your support and consideration.

If you choose to open your own Zenfolio site, my referral code is 79P-V3P-17E .

Gallery 3 limitations

For better or worse, I use Gallery 3 for viewing and purchasing my photos. It has a bit of a limitation when it comes to shopping cart plug-ins or modules.

I have spent the better part of a day attempting to find a way to restrict access to the cart or basket for unregistered people. The only solution I can come up with at this time is a bit on the kludgie side but it should work.

I have to create a couple of “sample” albums with representative works for unregistered users to view. Albums that contain the majority of items will then be hidden from casual viewing and only visible if the person wants to take the time to register.

This will have to do until the basket module is more fully developed or until someone develops a better solution.

A better way would be to let everyone browse the images but require registration when it comes time to purchase.

Some would ask why require registration, in a small way it helps protect both the buyer and the seller.

I looked at similar offerings by Coppermine and a couple of others but decided to stay with Gallery. Maybe one day when and if a steady stream of revenue develops, I can move to a commercial package.

Til then, we both must adapt to the limitations of the software.

You can cruise the Fortymile Gallery here.

Thank you.

Image Elements

Often we will see a photograph that will catch our eye or give us pause as we view it.

Each day many thousands of images are captured by digital cameras and even film. 99.99% or more of those images will never be seen by anyone other than the person who tripped the shutter. I know, I have a great many of those images spanning almost 40 years in both film and digital format.

For the majority of people the images are pieces of memories of vacations and family events and exist only to help in recalling times and places that are special to them and them alone.  And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Some of us have a desire to share with others the places, the people, and the visions of the world we have been fortunate to experience. To do so effectively, those few must elevate their photographic skills so that the resulting image evokes an emotional response from the viewer.

If you seek to be known as a photographer, you must develop that skill so that there would be no mistaking your work from the millions of snapshots taken each day.

An online photographic school has three basic rules for aspiring photographers to go by.

  1. A Good Photograph Has a Clear Subject
  2. A Good Photograph Focuses Attention on the Subect
  3. A Good Photograph Simplifies

When you think about it, those basic rules make sense. Take a look at some of your recent image captures. I bet that the ones you like best have two or more of the rules working for them.

Bryan Peterson founder of The Picture Perfect school of photography , the National Geographic Society, the Smithsonian Magazine, as well as many other professionals will add a fourth rule. That a great photograph tells a story. The “great” photo will have all the elements of the three basic rules but also tells a story that the intended audience will relate to as well.

A recent debate on the Nikonians website asked what made great images “great”. A majority of respondents all listed the usual suspects. Focus, light, composition, subject, etc. One of the more thought provoking ideas was that the viewer had to be able to place himself within the context of the image. They had to be able to imagine they were actually there. That is probably why you see so many landscape images that are hailed as “great” contain some element that permits the viewer to place himself within the image.

Going hand in hand with those rules are camera technique. Focus, exposure, camera support, light, etc. While a simple point and shoot camera may give you images of acceptable quality, most cameras of that type will not give the photographer enough control over shutter speed and DOF (depth of field) to capture a great image.

No matter what equipment you use, you have a burden of responsibility to learn the features of your equipment. And a burden to learn about the use of shutter speed and aperture to capture the story you want to tell.

Only then can we start on the path to becoming a photographer.

Walk with me as I take this journey.