Thursday, February 16, 2012

Story behind the shot: Sickly aurora.

If you bought one of my twentytwelve calendars (sold out, sorry) and you have it open to February, the keynote shot for that month is of the northern lights, taken in Alaska last winter. As aurora shots go it's fairly average--good ones look more like this. In my mind the most significant thing about it is that *I* took it. At that point in time night photography was (to me) more about magic and conjuring than anything logical and duplicable. The story behind the shot bears repeating.

It was 3 nights into the ITI race and I'd been really sick from the start. Feverish, unable to eat, weak in the legs, too nauseous to get horizontal--you get the idea. But it's a once a year thing, so you just gotta suck it up and keep going, or wait a year to try again.

I'd departed Finger Lake just after sunset and thought I might be able to make it ~15 miles to a quiet little cabin before crashing for the night. The trail out of Finger is delightful in many ways, not least of which is a massive growth of enormous spruce trees through which it passes. In daylight these trees allow occasional views of the Alaska Range looming, but at night they get closer and bigger, and cliched though it sounds this stretch of forest seems somehow enchanted. Spooky even. Every trip through, starting back in '98, has a memorable story attached to it.

After the excitement of The Steps and attainment of The Hill, I'd rolled along on solid hardpack for another hour+. The trail dropped out of the thick spruce onto a little mountain lake and I thought I could see a very, very faint hint of green over the mountains beyond. So faint it might not have been green--might have just been a cloud hanging over the peaks. Guessing that a long exposure might bring out more of the aurora, I stopped and dug everything out--tripod, intervalometer, and the body with the 8mm lens bolted on. Long exposure night shots were brand new to me and it took awhile to get everything set just so: Camera level on a pitched-low tripod, manual focus at infinity, ISO 1600, RAW, WB @3200K, etc..., but then the intervalometer screen went dead because of the cold. So I set the camera to bulb, opened the shutter with my backup remote, and started counting in my head. I figured about 80-85 seconds would bring out any available color without getting too much star movement.

But it was fairly cold on the lake, and when it's like that you tend to pace (or run) up and down the trail to keep warm. While you're pacing at those temps you tend to count faster than normal. So the first two shots were underexposed until I realized what was happening.

By the time I figured that out I was shivering to the core, but knew I was onto an above average shot. So I tried again, deliberately standing as still as possible and counting out loud so that I'd know if I was going too fast. Shivering violently while sick like I was tends to have an effect--I started vomiting. Heavily. But I'm nothing if not OCD, so as I heaved and spewed from hands and knees I kept counting in my head, and when 90 seconds had elapsed I hit the remote button and stopped the exposure. I was using dark frame subtraction so it took another 90 seconds of in-camera processing (me head-down, heaving and spewing the while) before the LCD lit up, brightening the snow all around me.

Lifting my head and looking across my pile of spew at that teeny screen I saw this:

I'm reasonably certain that's the first time I've smiled with puke on my chin.