Chicago Architectural and Interior Photographer  | Mike Crews Photography
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Photographing the Aurora Borealis

Last Thursday my wife, Deb, informed me of a solar storm that would most likely trigger the northern lights in the next 48 hours.  The storm was predicted to be strong enough to generate a KP-6 to KP-7 auroral display possibly strong enough to be seen as far south as Chicago.

Deb and I have been fortunate enough to live and travel overseas often fulfilling our bucket list goals such as seeing the pyramids of Egypt (you could see them from my upper patio during our four years living just outside of Cairo), the Himalayas, and a Kenyan safari. Viewing the northern lights has been on our list but has eluded us for years.  We've made several trips to Wisconsin in attempts to achieve that goal each time finding nothing but dark, cloudy skies for our efforts.  We were confident this third try would be a charm relying on several factors that should make this a successful trip.  The solar storm was predicted to be strong, great weather for our chosen location to photograph the event, and an empty calendar for the Labor Day weekend. If the aurora failed to appear yet again at least the seven-hour drive to Houghton, Michigan would give us a break from work and our ongoing home remodeling project.

The drive to Houghton, Michigan was lovely giving us another chance to appreciate the beauty of Wisconsin with its changing eco-regions and geology between Chicago and Lake Superior.  We arrived about 6 PM in Houghton and immediately began our search for a vantage where we could view and photograph the northern lights show.  I wanted not just a view of the sky, but being an annoying photographer, wanted a great northern view plus an interesting foreground to help frame my compositions.  After a little research, we selected to set up at the McLain lighthouse on the northern coast about 15 minutes north of Houghton.  We hoped this location would give us an uninterrupted northern view with nothing but Lake Superior and the lighthouse in view.

Upon entering the park office to gain entry, we were informed that a day pass would cost $5.00 but we would have to leave by 10 PM. 

Frustrated, we drove back into Houghton, crossed the bridge back to west side of the river followed the west side road to the same beach, same lighthouse but on the other side of the Sturgeon River outflow. The detour delayed us by 45 minutes and found ourselves in the midst of 500+ students and observers.  It was a remarkable scene as the crowds were gathering into small groups and building fires in anticipation of the aurora.  


With the beautiful Lake Superior as far as the eye could see we scrambled to find the perfect spot that would minimize the view of the social gathering but still provide us a great composition for our photography. 

Upon selecting an isolated spot and quickly unpacking a beach towel, two folding chairs, a cooler with Jimmy John sandwiches, we quickly reviewed the optimum camera settings for capturing astronomical photography.  Cameras were set to manual focus (and set on the light house across the river), manual exposure, an ISO setting of 1600, and use of a wide-angle lens about 16mm - 20mm and aperture of f/2.8.

As the light dimmed, we worried over a bank of clouds that so rudely parked itself on the northern horizon staging area and questioned whether we would be disappointed yet again.  

After waiting another fifteen minutes our eyes adjusted to the increasingly dark sky and noticed a faint glow peeking over and through that stubborn cloud bank.  There wasn't much color to delineate but it was noticeably brighter than the surrounding sky.  Surely this light was not coming from primitive Isle Royale, Mi., over 60 miles to the north. 


It was time to photograph.  The sky continued to darken and emphasizing a now green cast to the horizon.  Like excited kids, we began to capture images ever adjusting the exposures to optimum settings.  To our amazement, the camera was much better at discerning the true colors of the event unfolding before us.  I later learned that our eyes rely on rods and cones to aid our vision.  The rods interpret most of the color renditions and the cones work mostly on blacks and whites or brightness.  When the brightness dims, the rods can no longer interpret color as they can in the daytime rendering us somewhat color impaired in dim light.  However, we were astonished to find that our cameras were not so handicapped by the low light and the faint hues now spreading across the horizon.  We discovered beautiful colors on our display screens after each capture and were further astonished to see how quickly the colors of the aurora were changing in density, color, and shape.  


With a sense of accomplishment, we photographed for about four hours often pausing as the aurora waxed and waned.  In the end, our spontaneous trip to the north proved to be great success.  We had succeeded in accomplishing a life-long goal. The science behind the making of the aurora is quite complex but the sheer beauty is all you need to be humbled reminded of the wonderful gifts accessible to us here on earth.