The Great Aurora Hunt

Living at a latitude of 42 degrees (52 degrees magnetic), opportunities to photograph the Aurora Borealis are few and far between.

When I hear of a solar flare on the news, I check the conditions. This time, the NOAA-POES gave the solar storm a rating of 10, which should show auroral activity as far south as 51 degrees magnetic. Moonrise was not until dawn, and the skies were clear. The weather was hot and humid, so I expected a lot of haze, and as the daylight ended, high cirrus clouds were moving in.  Regardless, the opportunity was there.

Since I love water, especially for night shots, I headed for a friends place on St. Georges Lake, Ontario, arriving just before dusk. After being fed (lovely people!), I set up, framing a north-facing shot across the lake, and waited. If you are unfamiliar with Ontario woods on hot, humid summer nights, let me take a moment to tell you. The flying insects are loud. There are so many the buzzing noise is almost deafening. As the perspiration soaks your hair, and the mosquitos feed, you still have to concentrate on your shot. The exposure is manually controlled using a release (3 minutes), and the focus is manual (at infinity) so you have to frame and focus before it is dark. Be careful not to change any of the lens settings while batting away the bugs.  And the fireflies! All those pretty little flashes of light in front of your camera mean that you will spend hours with the spot-healing brush to get rid of the annoying little green specks. Well darkness has fallen, and the sky is getting darker. Now to wait!

Two hours later, the high altitude haze is increasing, and although stars are still visible, an astronomer would describe the sky conditions as 'poor seeing'. As midnight approaches, clouds are beginning to move in, and no aurora is visible to the eye. Has the trip been wasted? Not at all.

I have a beautiful view of the lake, and I take the shot.

The camera gives me the answer. Behind the haze is a delicate green light, backlighting the diffuse cloud and reflecting off the water. It is so dim that it can only be detected with the camera. I may not have a shot of the aurora, but I do have a unique shot of St Georges Lake under soft auroral light.

Not every field trip yields the shots you expect, and each session teaches you something new. You begin to appreciate the efforts of others when you experience things for yourself. Most unusual shots are unique because others avoid the effort and discomfort necessary to be there to make the image.

If you see a style of photography you wish to emulate, be aware of the effort required, and be willing to make that effort. You will be rewarded.

(For the technophile, image shot in camera-raw using Canon 5D II at 28mm f3.5, using an exposure of 200 sec at ISO 800.)