Photographing the Northern Lights

Northern Lights over Upper Stillwater Lake
Northern Lights over Upper Stillwater Lake

Before moving to Montana I had never seen the Northern Lights. The first time I saw them was because I got a text from a friend at the Flathead County Sheriff's Office: "Northern Lights over Big Mountain." That came through a little after midnight. I got up, raced out and started shooting. Mesmerizing. That's what the Lights are. They sway and pulse and dance across the sky in colors and beats that are wildly beautiful and unpredictable. Tonight I woke up at 1:39 a.m. and noticed the particular shade of green that indicates that outside the lights of the city, the Northern Lights are putting on a show. In a matter of minutes I had my keys, clothes, camera and tripod and was starting up the Jeep. The question is where to go...

If you have never seen the Northern Lights in Montana go to Glacier National Park. The dock at Apgar is one of the best viewing spots there is. One, it's Glacier (you can never go wrong there). Two, you'll have the benefit of the frequently smooth as glass Lake McDonald. Three, there are no annoying city lights or power lines to contend with. Four, there is that famous silhouetted horizon the mountains at the east end of the lake. It really is quite perfect.

Aurora Borealis over Glacier
Aurora Borealis over Glacier

Last year I took this photo of the lights from Apgar. The picture was a complete surprise and people responded to it in a way I never expected. So tonight I was faced with the question of whether or not to return to Apgar. The location is perfection, but would it be really any different than the last time I photographed there? It's Saturday night, one of the nights when people can be out photographing the Lights and then sleep in the next day, so I knew I wouldn't be alone if I went to Glacier. And one of the things I wanted was a shot different from what everyone else would be getting.

Years ago I was at a photography workshop and one of the photographers there was a shooter for National Geographic. He wasn't a teacher, he was on a personal retreat and he didn't talk too much. But I noticed the way he deliberately moved away from the crowd. He avoided the obvious shot and would hike much further to get something unique. In one of the few times I was brave enough to talk to him, he mentioned that he hated it when people followed him. He didn't want to be copied, he wanted to find his own images and wanted other people to find what would speak to them. When I was a young photographer I didn't really understand this. It made sense to me to follow him, after all, he knew what he was doing. Now that I'm a pro, I understand better. There is something powerful and magical about going you're own way to find your own view. What you find may not match the perfection of the well known, but it will be your own. I wanted that tonight.

So, two roads: I could go with what I knew would work, or I could take off on an adventure and simply hope for the best. I went with the second option and it was so worth it.

Northern Lights over Upper Stillwater Lake
Northern Lights over Upper Stillwater Lake

Instead of going to Glacier I drove north of US 93. There is a lake called Upper Stillwater and it's the name that made me want to seek it out. I wanted the reflection to double the effect of the Lights. I've seen photos of the Northern Lights from latitudes in the 50s and 60s. And the farther north a person is, the more the Lights seem to fill the entire sky. One day I hope to travel in those regions and see the Lights the way I have seen them photographed. From Montana, (based solely on my own experiences) the lights seem to pretty well hug the north/east horizon.

Since the lights aren't going to overwhelm the sky here like they do up north, when I go looking to photograph them I go looking for north facing water. It's not the easiest thing to find in the pitch black dark of night. But when you do find it, the water becomes a mirror. That's what I'm looking for, that's the shot I want.

Northern Lights over Upper Stillwater Lake
Northern Lights over Upper Stillwater Lake

It is fascinating to stand alone in the dark surrounded by the sounds of the night under the light of the stars. In the coolness of the predawn hours my overactive imagination goes wild with fears of bears and wolves and mountain lions. But even those fears heighten the experience and make me feel more alive. When the Lights are out the stars create points of stillness that accentuate the speed of the solar winds pushing the lights across the sky. The sky dances and it is lovely.

These photos were taken with a Nikon D600 and a 17-35mm f2.8 lens at ISO 640 and exposed for 25-30 seconds. The location is the bridge over Upper Stillwater. What a spectacular night, what a perfect way to begin Mother's Day.

Northern Lights over Upper Stillwater Lake
Northern Lights over Upper Stillwater Lake
Northern Lights over Upper Stillwater Lake
Northern Lights over Upper Stillwater Lake
Northern Lights over Upper Stillwater Lake
Northern Lights over Upper Stillwater Lake
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f20160508NorthernLights_5215
Northern Lights over Upper Stillwater Lake
Northern Lights over Upper Stillwater Lake
Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights
Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights
Northern Lights over Sunday Lake, near Stryker, Montana
Northern Lights over Sunday Lake, near Stryker, Montana