In my 40+ years as a professional photographer, I have come to understand that luck plays a part in successful imagery. Louis Pasteur shared with us that “Chance (luck) favors the prepared mind.”
I’d like to share with you a recent lucky circumstance, well, a series of lucky circumstances that resulted in a couple of my favorite images of 2015… thus far.
As I was teaching an exciting weeklong course on Landscape photography at West Coast Schools, I was keeping my eye on the sky, so to speak. I was uncertain as to where I would be heading after the landscape class ended. Before the class, I had spent a couple weeks in the Plains States chasing tornados through Tornado Alley. I was watching the weather across the mid-section of the country so I as to determine where I should fly into in order be in position to go after the new wave of storms.
To my surprise, what caught my attention was unique summertime opportunity in the USA. A little research led me to believe that I should forego storm chasing and head as far north as possible. Clear skies, not stormy, were important for this journey. Clear, dark skies. Clear, dark, northern skies.
Seattle became my destination city of choice due to an unusual forecast for Seattle this time of year… dry, clear skies. I called my good friend Marv, who lives just a east of Seattle, and within a few minutes Marv agreed to join me for my hunt. It seemed that good fortune was starting to align, dry clear weather in Seattle and another shooter to share the experience with.
Upon landing in Seattle at 12 midnight on Sunday, Marv and I drove north, seeking those clear, dark skies. Unfortunately, there are too many people living between Seattle and the Canadian border, so darkness was hard to come by. At least we were not in crunch time. This night turned out to be more a late night location scouting. It was time to hit the resources to figure where we should be for when sunset arrived on Monday night. We decided that the western part of the state was too crowded and as mentioned had too much light pollution. We decided to pass over the Cascade Mountains in order to see the horizon and find darkness, real darkness. Once past the mountains we would come into the high desert of Eastern Washington. The combination of farms and desert provided us with an area that was flat, sparsely populated, and therefore DARK! After all, what we were expecting to capture was a rare summer visit from the Aurora Borealis.
I have been blessed with catching the Auroras quite a few times. My previous encouters have come in the winter months, near or in the Arctic Circle in countries like Norway, Iceland, and the Northern Canadian territories of the Yukon and Northwest Territories, and the opportunity to find my Muse when the tempature was above -20°.
With a huge solar flare, a CME (Coronal Mass Ejection), directed toward Earth, I am looking forward to a summer emncounter with my Muse, the Northern Lights. Marv suggested we head for an area near Odessa, Wa., where it should be dark enough to see the splendid colored lights dancing in the heavens.
Marv was at the wheel for the 5+ hour drive to get to that expansive agricultural area. We arrived just as the sun was resting on the horizon. All along the way, I was navigating, and searching out foreground elements I wanted/needed to complete the image I had in my mind of the Northern Lights for this trip. As I saw things along the road I marked them on my GPS, so that we might return in the dark, if necessary. I wanted some foreground elements to balance my images of the Northern Lights. We were quickly runnning out of light and hadn’t found anything too exciting, which meant that we were running out of options. Twilight was fading. What to do? Luckily, this is when Serendipity stepped in.
My head felt like an owl, pivoting left and right as we made our way up that last country road. As I looked west, I saw what looked like an abandoned farm about 1/2 mile away. Could it be? For the last 50 miles, I couldn’t even find a descent windmill, normally rather plentiful in agricultural areas. We took that left turn and as we came over a very short rise, there was the perfect foreground, a magnificent, easy to access, facing the needed direction, abandoned farm house along with a few naked trees. As luck, well, serendipity would have it, the landowner saw us drive up and drove over to see if we were in need of help, we explained our quest and he wished us success and went on his way.
We parked at the drive at the edge of the property and hiked in our camera equipment and chairs for the evenings hopeful festivities. We each chose to set up two tripods and cameras. I mounted my Canon 5D Mark III and the newly released Canon 5DS R, 50 megapixel body, both with 14 mm 2.8 lenses. After attaching my intervelometers, I set up the chairs that Marv wisely packed for our comfort as it would be a very long night.
Getting everything all ready for our nocturnal guest, brought us to the time of the evening where the rich blue sky was just beginning to fade into blackness and the stars began to arrive in droves. It was time to make that first test exposure and see what we could see. There she was, in full color of green, red and purple! With a huge smile on my face, I shouted to Marv, “She’s here!” Time to get to work!
The waning crescent moon was setting in the western sky as we began capturing various compositions of her dancing seductively in front of us. It was magical… as she always is.
Once the moon joined the sun beneath the western horizon, our other old nighttime friend now became fully visible. The Milky Way stretched about 45 degrees above the horizon connecting the Northern Lights with the southern sky. I had permanent grin on my face as I turned to Marv suggested that we could make an amazing 180 degree panorama with the Milky Way starting in the southern hemishphere crossing the night sky and ending in the beautiful colors of the Auroras.
Serendipity came upon us for a second time as there was absolutely nothing in view to our south. Within minutes, I had created a 9 (vertical) images that would become a pano of the active sky, complete from north to south!
The Aurora moved gently from east to west through the night. At a certain point, all of the foreground elements and skies became one in a very strong composition. It really became a curtain call of sorts as we were approaching the slight glow on the eastern horizon. Sadly it was nearly dawn. At about 90 minutes before the sun was scheduled to rise, we ran out of dark. We watched as first the Milky Way disappeared, followed shortly by the visual fading of the Aurora.
Oh, what a night it was!
That reminds me of a wonderful song by David Byrne and the Talking Heads. Same as it ever was……
Ken Sklute has been honored as one of Canon’s Explorers of Light, a designation shared by only 60 top photographers worldwide. Ken has enjoyed a diverse career photographing landscapes, professional sports, and people.
Phone: (602) 738-0601