There is nothing quite like being under the endless expanse of a starlit, Alaska night sky and watching the Northern Lights dance across the atmosphere. It is an experience that awakens the mind and stirs the soul in unforgettable ways. Being far away from the light pollution of the city, and pondering the incomprehensible vastness of the universe both bestows a sense of humility, as well as sparks the imagination. When we earth dwellers take the time to look up, it can open a whole new beautiful world to explore, especially with one’s camera.
Photographing the night sky, or, astrophotography, as it’s commonly referred to, is a genre I was introduced to by other Alaskan photographers. When I first saw stunning images of star trails, popular constellations, the Milky Way, the moon, and the Aurora Borealis, my mind was totally blown! Astrophotography is very popular in places like Alaska, mostly because it’s an ideal location for it. The long, dark winter nights, lack of light pollution, and breathtaking natural scenery that is all around provide the perfect environment for creating wondrous images of the universe above.
Many subjects of nature photography prove to be extremely elusive, and it can be a great challenge and gamble when seeking to photograph them. This is especially the case when photographing images of the heavens, or even urban subjects at night. A perfectly composed, magnificently captured “nightscape,” as I like to call my nighttime images, is one that is planned out well ahead of time. One has to patiently wait for, and work with, what Mother Nature provides…as there are many organic factors to consider. Too much moonlight, a sudden, incoming wave of cloud cover, rising fog, a burst of precipitation, etc., are all things that can make-
Whether it’s chasing the lights in the sky, or the beautiful, afterhours illumination of man-
Joseph Classen and his wife out exploring and photographing the Alaska night sky.
These two images of the Aurora Borealis were captured while on an Alaskan arctic adventure a few winters ago. More details and photos from that frozen endeavor can be found in the Alaska Winter Gallery. While I got some nice shots of the extreme north during daylight hours, the real show was at night! When the Northern Lights come out and display their glory far above the arctic circle, it’s absolutely unbelievable to behold! It’s reminiscent of a magnificent fireworks display on the fourth of July. An array of colors and dramatic movement shoot out from behind the vast mountaintops when one least expects it. And, as fast as the entertainment starts, it can end just as abruptly. One never knows what the Aurora is going to do…which adds to the excitement, but also adds to the punishment when one is out in subzero temperatures for hours on end waiting and hoping the wondrous lights will make an appearance.
A buddy and I were camped out on the side of the Haul Road when I took these photos. We had a warm campfire going, which gave off a magical red glow, as reflected in the trees of these photos, but it was not enough to ward off the destructive forces of the freezing cold. In just a matter of 20 minutes, two high-
While these two images were taken just minutes apart, and are very similar, the second one was rather unique, in that I not only captured the Aurora, stars and star trails, but also the lights of a fast moving semi-
I captured this image of the Northern Lights at the Olds River, on Kodiak Island. It was another bitterly cold winter outing, and the only one foolish enough to take to the abandoned, ice-
These two Kodiak Aurora Borealis images were taken on the same night. As I’ve mentioned, one often has to wait for weeks, and even months for all the elements of nature to cooperate and produce the ideal conditions for photographing the Northern Lights. These photos were taken on such a night. And, I was not going to wait another several weeks to try it again. The night I captured these images I was racing all over the island in a frantic rush, trying to shoot the Aurora from as many locations that I could. These two are my favorite from that long, cold, but magical night.
While the light from the sky is an endless source of fascination and beauty to both behold and photograph, lights that come from the civilized world can also be quite wonderful to capture images of. These three photos are of the peacefully resting fishing vessels in St. Paul Harbor…one of them during the annual Harbor Lights Festival, when owners decorate their boats with colorful Christmas lights for the town folk to come out and enjoy.
This image is another one that was the result of a tremendous amount of endurance and patience. It was captured on another of those rare, perfect nights for shooting the Northern Lights. My wife and I drove out to a remote beach on Kodiak Island and set up at the mouth of a river. Then, we waited, and waited, and waited. The Aurora forecast was very high that night, and we knew we’d get a great show. But when? Hours had passed with no activity in the sky. It was getting very late (2:00 AM), and we had a long drive back to town…not to mention, we had to get up early and work the next day. Then, finally, it happened. A slow growing greenish haze began to spread across the top of the horizon. Next, sharp, pulsating rays of light began to emit from the haze. And then, the sky exploded with the most intense Aurora displays I have ever seen! Wow! I’ll never forget it! This photo was taken at the peak of the short-
The general atmosphere, lighting, and drastic color pallet change of the night can make even the most uninteresting, rather ugly subjects, take on a whole new visual and emotional appeal. This image is of an old, abandoned fish cannery during a cold winter night. It is certainly not usually an attractive or popular place to be. During the day, it looks like nothing more than a group of decrepit buildings surrounded by piles of rusty junk and a rotten dock. At night, however, the dark blue ambience of the sky and the ocean, as well as the lights of town in the background, make this composition one that evokes a sense of tranquility and peaceful solitude. It’s amazing how a change in light and color can so dramatically change a mood…which is an important lesson for photographers, but also an important lesson for one’s life.
As I’ve mentioned several times in the previous stories about photographing the Northern Lights and other similar subjects in nature…it’s always a gamble. Quite often, I do not get what I was after. However, one must always be ready to improvise, adapt, and overcome as a photographer. In the process of failing to capture or create one particular style of image, many other opportunities for success may arise…if one has the awareness to recognize them. Such was the case with this image. I was set up at a location overlooking a favorite monolith and beach area on Kodiak Island, hoping to photograph the Aurora that night. Once again, I waited, and waited, and waited, but the elusive Northern Lights never paid a visit. Nonetheless, it was still a magnificently beautiful occasion, with a crystal clear sky, lots of stars, calm ocean waters, etc. This photo genuinely captures the feeling of the calm seclusion and soul cleansing stillness that one experiences on such a peaceful night under Alaskan skies.
Unsightly ginormous junk, such as bombed out cars, trashed boats, broken down ATVs, and decades old heavy equipment that end up in people’s yards, dumped in wilderness wastelands, or on the side of remote roads, is not merely large-
I’m always amazed where such artifacts show up while exploring the 49th state. I’ve come across the strangest things in the strangest places. Just when you think you are the only human being to ever set foot on a certain parcel of remote wilderness, you come across a 57 Chevy half buried in the mud on the side of an otherwise pristine riverside. How in the heck did it get there!!?? One will never know. Such is the mystery that possesses the Great Land!
This image was captured nearby one of my favorite Kodiak rivers. I was planning on shooting the Milky Way, which I did, and thought I’d include this abandoned, destroyed car that appeared and then disappeared in a matter of a few weeks. Whether the driver and/or passengers are alive or dead, I’ll never know. Where the vehicle came from or where it went, will always be one of those mysteries. Upon viewing this image, a fellow photographer immediately titled it Ghost Riders in the Sky, which was a perfect name for this strange, mysterious, yet beautiful photo.
This star trails composition is another image which includes one of those great Alaskan artifacts. This old, weather-
The Milky Way has always been a favorite subject of astrophotographers. Seeing that long trail of brilliant, milky white star light is indeed a sight to behold, especially when one is far away from the light pollution of a city, such as the case with this image. This is another of those photographs that I captured as sort of a backup plan. I was hoping to capture a nightscape photo of a beautiful creek that winds though a spectacular set of mountain valleys, but the weather was not cooperating. However, the skies were clear directly behind me, and the Milky Way was shining bright!
© 2017 Joseph F. Classen -
I captured this image of a beautiful lady (my wife) deep in thought and admiring the calm ocean waters and surrounding winter landscape of Kodiak Island under a full moon. It was a wonderful evening, which I was happy to immortalize by means of the photograph.
These two Northern Light photos were taken on the same night on Kodiak Island. Mother Nature cooperated perfectly, as the sky was crystal clear, the actively level of the Aurora was the highest it had been in almost a year, and there was no intense moonlight to wash out the show. In preparation for the photoshoot, I scouted out a few new locations. The first photo, The Gathering Light, is a long exposure shot I captured at the mouth of Pillar Creek: a location away from the light pollution of town, and where I knew I would not have much company, as the road is so treacherous and beat-
While sitting in my Jeep, attempting to stay warm, I thought I saw some strange lights coming through the woods back up on the steep hillside behind me. About an hour later, a fellow photographer came walking down the hill to the beach. We chatted for a bit, and as it turned out, those lights I saw earlier came from him. He ran right into a huge Kodiak bear, which scared the heck out of him! The bruin took off right down the hill in my direction, and the photographer was shining his flashlight in hopes of getting my attention, as I was about to have some big, furry company. I didn’t notice the bear coming by, as it was quite dark and noisy from the crashing ocean surf. But, it was a good reminder to always be prepared for anything while out photographing the Northern Lights in places like Alaska.
The second photo in this group, Mill Bay Aurora, very well may be one of my new favorites. I captured this image from an area known as Mill Bay Beach. It’s the most popular location for photographing the Northern Lights, as it’s very easily accessible. But, I have never shot from there before, as I prefer to venture into and shoot from places that the vast majority of people do not go to. As I was driving by the beach on the way home, the Aurora was exploding and dancing like I have rarely seen it on Kodiak. So, naturally, I pulled over and spent another hour photographing the show. It turned out to be a very late night…with work early the next morning…but it was well worth it. Such is price a dedicated nature photographer must pay.
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