i was with my camera when it saw the northern lights

A few months ago, I was invited to be a speaker at a corporate event in ... wait for it ... Alaska.  It was such an amazing opportunity that I was thrilled to accept, and for the last few weeks I've been working feverishly to put together my talk.  This past Friday morning, it happened.  It was a lot of fun -- the conference attendees were warm and welcoming, there was tons of really great interaction.  It was a great time.

Of course, my main goal for this trip was to do a good job and give the conference attendees the talk that they were hoping for; however, if I'm honest, I had another, more personal goal for this trip.  It has always been my dream to one day see and photograph the northern lights.  During one of the prep calls before the event, I mentioned this to event coordinator, Ginger.

"Do you think there's a chance that I'll see them?"

"I don't know," she responded.  "It might be a bit early.  Let me ask a friend of mine who's a photographer.  He'd know."

A few days later, I received an email from her.  "There is definitely a chance the northern lights could be out while you are in town," it read, and she included a link to this site, which provides short-term forecasts of auroral activity.  I contacted my friend Lola, a National Geographic photographer who lives in Sweden and who has shot beautiful photographs of the aurora, and asked her for tips, which she generously provided, including an article she once wrote on the subject.  (Like a fool, I ignored some of her advice, which I came to regret, as you'll soon see.)

By the time I left on Thursday morning, I had refreshed that forecast link repeatedly over the past few weeks like I had a tic, and was thrilled to discover the site promised a high chance of seeing the lights while I was there.

The conference was held about 45 minutes outside of Anchorage, at a ski resort.   When I checked in to the hotel early Thursday evening, the receptionist made friendly small-talk: yes, I'd been to Alaska before, but only for a very short visit; no, I'd never stayed at the resort before.  And then she said these magic words, completely unprompted:

"You know, we provide northern lights wake-up calls.  Would you like us to wake you if they appear?"

"HELL. YES," I responded, a little too loudly.  Startled, she made a note on my reservation.  "Once you get the call, just come down to the desk, and we can recommend the best place to view them."

"Thank you!"

I went to bed early Thursday night -- my body was feeling the effects of all-day travel, plus the 3-hour time difference -- and about 12:45 a.m., the phone in my room rang.  "The northern lights have been sighted," the voice on the other end calmly intoned.

I was dressed and out the door with my camera in approximately 58.43 seconds.

I ran down to the lobby and raced to the receptionist.  She wasn't the same one who checked me in.

"Where are they?!"  I asked breathlessly.

"Where are who?"

"The northern lights!"

"Um. I don't know.  But they've been sighted ..."

I looked at her.  "Yes. I just got the call."

She smiled merrily.  "Yes, I was the one who called you."

I narrowed my eyes.  "Oookay ... where would you suggest I go to spot them?"

"Do you have a car?"

"What? No, I don't have a car.  Can't you see them from the hotel?"

"I suppose so.  Maybe ..."  She thought for a minute.  "Have you tried walking to the back for the property? I guess it's possible you could see them out there ..."

I blinked slowly.  It was obvious she was getting a bit bored with me.  I forced a smile. "No, I haven't tried that," I said, through gritted teeth.  "Thank you. I'll do that."

I walked outside, and looked up.  It was pitch black.  I wandered a little farther down the driveway -- nothing.  A man, in his 60s, I would imagine, appeared.

"Have you seen the lights?" I asked him excitedly.

"No," he sighed.  British accent.  "I got the call, too. I saw them last night, but not tonight."

"Damn.  Do you know where the best place is to watch them?"

"No, but I'll come with you, if you'd like."  He fell in step with me, and we made small talk, as we scanned the sky.  He was from London, he lives on the east coast of the US now.  He is retired from the American army, and is currently in university on the G.I. Bill.  He had traveled to Alaska alone, as a solo vacation.  And as we talked, we walked farther and farther away from the hotel.

"I think if we go behind that chapel," he said, "there'll be a lot less light pollution."

It was at this point that I realized that I'd walked away from the hotel to a secluded wooded spot.  And I had done so with a strange man I'd just met, who I really knew nothing about.  In the middle of the night.  In the middle of a forest.  In the middle of the mountains.

He started down the hill behind the chapel, toward the dark woods.  "Are you coming?" he called over his shoulder.  I hesitated.

"Ummm .... I'll just stay up here for a second," I called back.  "Let me know if you see anything."

"I think I do!  I see a blue tinge!"

I looked where he was pointing.  I saw nothing.

"Yeah?"  I couldn't hide the skepticism from my voice.

"Yes!  Come down here!"

Resigned to my inevitable death, I followed him down the hill.  When I got to where he was standing, he pointed, and yet I still saw nothing.  He showed me the back of his point-and-shoot camera.  His shoulders dropped.  "Well, I thought I saw something."

"Let me try," I said.  I sat on the ground, and tried to use my body as a tripod, holding the camera with both hands, bracing my elbows with my knees.  I set the camera ISO to 4000, and the camera settings to hold the shutter open for about 1 second.  I aimed the camera to the area of the sky where he was pointing, held my breath, trying to remain as still as possible (to avoid camera shake) and clicked.

There on the image in the back of my camera, as clear as day, was a bright green stripe.

"WHOA!" Stranger Brit and I said at the same time.  

And we stayed out for another 20 minutes taking photographs around the property.  But because I ignored Lola's you-should-never-ignore-advice to always have a tripod with you when photographing the aurora (I decided to leave it behind because I was traveling carry-on only), I ended up with blurry images like this:

Ugh.  I've never longed for a tripod so much in my entire life.

Ugh.  I've never longed for a tripod so much in my entire life.

By about 2 a.m. we'd made it back to the hotel, and I said goodbye to Stranger Brit, feeling a bit guilty for suspecting any nefarious intent:  he really was rather kind, and he warmly wished me luck as we parted.  I returned to my room to get a few more hours' sleep before my talk in the morning.

So, here's the thing about the aurora that I saw ... I didn't actually really see it.  I know that when the aurora really gets going, it can look like the sky is on fire, with reds and purples and pinks.  But what I witnessed was rather faint:  I mean, once my eyes adjusted to the darkness, all I could see was a vague mist.  It looked like a cloud, or even steam from a hot cup of tea.  But it certainly wasn't brightly-coloured.  In fact, it was only because the camera's shutter was open for a while, allowing for lots of light into the sensor, that I saw any colours at all.

Anyway, my flight out of Anchorage on Friday night was just before midnight.  I'd made sure to have a window seat, just in case there was a chance that I might see the aurora as we flew out.  As we taxied out to the runway, I thought I saw a blue tinge on the horizon, so I got my camera ready.

Once we were airborne, I started shooting, but the blue tinge didn't look right.  However, when I looked at the image in the back of my camera, I did notice that there was a very faint, greenish stripe above the horizon ...

That's a green stripe above the horizon, right?  That's gotta be it, right?

That's a green stripe above the horizon, right?  That's gotta be it, right?

... so I kept shooting ...

Man, that green stripe  has  to be it, right?  That's it. That's gotta be it.

Man, that green stripe has to be it, right?  That's it. That's gotta be it.

... and suddenly, the green stripe seemed to transform, and there they were.

Holy crap!

Holy crap!

Again, I couldn't actually see these colours with my naked eye -- when I looked outside, it appeared to be just a very faint greyish-blue mist, dancing along the side of the plane for more than an hour.  It's only because the shutter was open for as long as it was that the colours were able to appear on the final images (and it's why the mountains look so bright, even though the photos were taken after midnight).  If I hadn't actively been looking for them, I absolutely would have missed them altogether.

So, did I actually see the northern lights?  Not exactly -- I was just there when my camera saw them.  But I did get to photograph them.  

Next time, though, I'll take a tripod.

(For less blurry images of my tiny Alaskan adventure, check out the new gallery here.)


UPDATED TO ADD:  I just found this really interesting link that explains why my camera sees the lights better than I do.  Be sure to look at the images at the top of that article, showing the difference between what your eyes might see and what your camera sees -- it shows you that "mist" I was telling you about.