It was finally time to photograph the Northern Lights after the 5 hour trek up Mount McGinnis. I must admit that I was a bit tired at this point. Being in the 40 year old neighborhood seems to be catching up with me a bit. I can still do everything, I just feel it a bit more now.
Knowing that my criteria for an awesome potential viewing of the aurora was met, I decided to bring my newly acquired multi-row panoramic setup. They make some really nice pre-made setups that work wonders, but I’m a frugal guy and decided to make my own.
Having photographed this area before, I knew exactly where I wanted to setup for the night. The view of Stroller-White is perfect from here due to all the natural leading lines along with the Mendenhall Glacier carving through the valley on the east side.
The clouds were perfect so I decided to take a 3 row panoramic image of the sunset. At 680 megapixels, this is the largest picture I have taken to date. What an awesome sunset it was! Plus, it’s now one of my favorite pictures. Score.
At this point, the clouds rolled in and we were left wondering if we would even be able to see the Northern Lights at all!
I took a few more images in the blue hour before setting up my bivvy. When I’m camping solo and the weather is decent, I find that I don’t need a big tent. This seriously helps with weight and I wasn’t planning on getting much sleep anyways. The view from up here is stunning no matter which way you look.
After finishing up my dinner, I checked the Space Weather Prediction Center. This is a great tool that gives you a visual of what the aurora borealis should look like in the next 30 minutes. I also checked the weather forecast and we were now scheduled to have clouds until 1am. At least it predicted partly cloudy skies from 1-4am and that lined up with when the northern lights are usually making their entrance. Time to get a bit of sleep.
Surprisingly, I never got cold during the entire night. Normally the wind coming off the glacier (combined with the elevation) makes it a bit cold on the summit. I ended up staring at the sky and nodding off a bit until my alarm went off around 1:15.
The sky went crazy!
The clouds started to split and I saw some green pulsing coming from the horizon. The tops of the clouds looked like they were being lit up by some alien craft that was moving through the sky. I yelled at Josh to get out of his bivvy and he wandered up to where I was standing. Then the show really started.
We started having these vertical spikes shoot up from the mountains. The small clouds that remained really didn’t distract from what we were seeing. Many times, what you capture in your camera is much better than what you can see with your naked eye. Not tonight. The northern lights were dancing, pulsing and moving in a way that I had never seen before this far south. Juneau tends to get a lot of green glow on the horizon with some small bands. This was a whole different level of awesome
I took pictures like crazy with my panoramic setup. When shooting with my 14-24 Sigma lens, I needed 8 images to capture the entire field of view. My 50mm lens required quite a few more. I swapped between them a couple times so that I would have options to work with.
When doing a muli-row panoramic image, the big plus is that you can expose correctly for each section of the picture. Manual mode is mandatory since consistency on each row is important. However, the lower portion of the image (mountains and glacier) need a lot longer exposure than the northern lights in the sky. I ended up needing to do a 6 minute exposure for each panel of the bottom row. The sky sections were much faster exposures at 1-6 seconds.
This is exactly why I carry 2 cameras!
North is the direction that you tend to focus on when the northern lights are dancing away in the sky. However, there are plenty of bands that were popping up in the east and west. Since some of these sections were outside of the best viewing angle for my pano setup, I got to be creative. I photographed the 6 minute foreground panels when the light was moving outside of the best viewing angle. The heavy green glow lit up the foreground enough for the exposure.
While my pano setup was rolling, I used my other camera to photograph the lights where they would pop up. Josh told me a couple times that he was getting messages about lights popping up on the summit of McGinnis. Apparently my running around and using a flashlight for a few seconds to make sure I didn’t trip was being noticed from far below.
My second camera allowed me to capture some unique angles that my pano rig just wasn’t setup for. My goal was to get the highest quality images possible with my favorite view. Having a backup body made sure I didn’t miss anything.
The final big band occurred just before 4am. This was the brightest display of the northern lights I’ve ever seen! It stretched from the western horizon all the way over our heads to the eastern horizon. It only lasted about 45 seconds then it was gone. And then the clouds quickly rolled back in blocking the sky.
What an experience! This was, by far, the most amazing display of the aurora borealis that I’ve ever seen. It was a tough hike up, and a long night of photography. Totally worth it! I think I fell asleep just after sunrise (which the clouds were a bit too thick to make anything interesting).
If you’ve never seen them, make sure to add viewing the northern lights to your bucket list. You won’t regret it!