Posted by: kerryl29 | October 29, 2018

Alaska: The Day Everything Happened (Part II)

When I left off the story in Part I of this entry, we had completed the helicopter adventure and returned to Denali National Park.  We had hoped to reach the Mountain Vista area, where the Savage River can be accessed directly; I had scouted the location that afternoon and thought it would be a terrific spot to shoot in good light.  But we reached the park entrance no more than 10 minutes before sunset and when we were still on the park road, several miles away from the Mountain Vista parking area, I pulled off to the side of the road.  The light was already fantastic and the worst thing to do when the light is great is to be heading to a location rather than being on site already set up to photograph.  Besides, even if we did get to the parking area before we lost the light completely it would still take about 10 minutes to hike down to the river.  No, if we were going to get any photography in before we lost the light, it would have to be right where we were.

Last Light, Denali National Park, Alaska

Fortunately, we had views in every direction from this spot along the road.  There was very little traffic so we were essentially free to set up wherever we wanted and to cross the road at will.  There weren’t many clouds in the sky at all–it was almost completely clear–but there were some hovering near the horizon over Denali itself and there was a pretty nice earthshadow effect playing out over part of the Alaska Range to the northeast of our location.

Sunset, Denali National Park, Alaska

Mt. Hess and Mt. Deborah Earthshadow, Denali National Park, Alaska

The Mountain at Sunset, Denali National Park, Alaska

In time, the color faded from the sky and it began to get dark.  Just minutes after the sun disappeared the nearly full moon rose on the other side of the sky.

Moonrise, Denali National Park, Alaska

It took what seemed like forever for it to get completely dark; the full moon was part of the reason for that but, as we discovered later in this trip, the rest of the reason was simply how long it took for the residue of light from the setting sun to disappear completely–on this evening, it was something like 90 minutes.

When the color faded from the sky–and after I’d played around with photographing the moonrise–we retreated to the car to decide what to do.  Given the almost completely clear sky, should we hang out and wait to see if the Northern Lights would make an appearance?  We’d been told that the most likely time to see the lights, if they appeared at all, would be from roughly 1 to 4 AM.  It was, at this point, only a bit after 10 PM.  It’s also worth noting that we’d been up since before 5 that morning…and then there was the excitement of the helicopter trip.

The “smart” move might have been to call it a day and retreat for a decent night’s sleep.  But no one wanted to make that call and so we decided to wait and see what happened.  We killed the lights in the vehicle, to better aid our night vision, and waited.  After an uncertain amount of time–maybe 30 minutes or so–Debbie saw something.  “Don’t you see it?” she asked us.  We didn’t.  Not yet.  But in a very short period of time–a minute, maybe two–I did.  And Ellen was just a few seconds behind me.  We were out of the vehicle very quickly and got set up.  I placed my Sigma 24-35/2 lens, the fastest lens I own, on my camera.  At this point, green streaks were beginning to light up the sky.

None of us had ever photographed aurora before, though we all had a sense of what we ought to do, technically.  I’d read a couple of primers on aurora photography before we left for Alaska and we’d discussed the subject with the folks at Alaska Camera in Fairbanks when we’d stopped there to pick up some items the previous day:  an exposure of a few seconds (3-6, approximately), wide open aperture and the lowest ISO possible to achieve the desired shutter speed.  (This was why the f/2 lens was an advantage compared to either of my f/2.8 lenses).  The tough part was establishing a decent composition (in the dark) and ensuring sharpness at infinity focus (in the dark).  In retrospect I really should have gotten the camera set up–with the appropriate lens, approximate best exposure settings and focus preset to infinity–in advance, but given the specific circumstances and my lack of experience with the subject matter, I didn’t.  This meant there was a bit of learning curve, but I had sense enough to carefully check the results of my first few exposures and was able, with difficulty, to make corrections.  I then rinsed and repeated each time I moved my physical position during the shoot.

Aurora Borealis, Denali National Park, Alaska

The display was, in short, absolutely amazing, one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever seen in my life.  The green elements showed up all over the sky, in every direction, including directly over our heads.  I spent at least as much time just watching as I did photographing and I can’t say I regret it.

Aurora Borealis, Denali National Park, Alaska

Given another opportunity, I certainly would have played with some different shutter speeds, to see how that might have impacted the end result, but I should note that it was a bit tricky to undertake any changes standing there in the dark.

Aurora Borealis, Denali National Park, Alaska

A problem had occurred near the end of the sunset portion of our session.  Ellen mentioned that she was experiencing difficulty with her tripod ballhead.  I took a look at it and, sure enough, there was something wrong.  I suspected that a spring had become compromised–if not broken.  Regardless of the specifics, it had become impossible to lock her camera onto the head.  It is absolutely essential to have a functional tripod support–even more so than usual–when photographing aurora because it’s truly impossible to hold the camera steady for several seconds, even with some form of image stabilization.   Since there was no way to come up with a fix on such short notice, during the early part of our aurora shoot, Ellen tried to use the vehicle itself as a shooting platform, but found it–not surprisingly–essentially impossible.

Aurora Borealis, Denali National Park, Alaska

Debbie, generously, told Ellen to use her tripod to obtain some images.  That seemed like a good idea at the time.

And then, it happened.

I was sizing up a shot, with my back to Ellen, when I heard the sickening sound of something heavy hitting the asphalt on which we were standing.  Unfamiliar with Debbie’s tripod/head combination and working in the dark, Ellen thought she had her camera locked down when it wasn’t.  The camera/lens combination hit the ground.  I heard something–part of the lens, we later discovered–skitter past me in the dark.  The lens had snapped into two pieces and was obviously DOA.  The status of the camera was uncertain.

The incident, it should come as no surprise, took all of the air out of the proverbial balloon.  As excited as we’d all been just moments earlier, observing the remarkable phenomenon of the Northern Lights, that’s how subdued we became.  Ellen was understandably distraught–but not as upset as I suspect I’d have been had something comparable happened to me.  The photo session came to an end right there, essentially without discussion.

Aurora Borealis, Denali National Park, Alaska


Ellen bounced back, psychologically, pretty quickly.  It was approaching 1 AM when we returned to our lodging and the light show had mostly faded by this time.  (Remarkably, it seemed to have peaked by the time of the unfortunate incident.)  We talked about what to do and more or less determined that we’d drive back to the camera store in Fairbanks the next day–a round trip of 4-5 hours–to see what could be done about replacing the broken equipment.  The lens (a 16-35/2.8) was kaput, as I noted above, though the break seemed to be clean.  It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility that it could be repaired, though it would require sending the pieces to Canon’s repair service to find out, and that would have to wait until the trip was over.  (Spoiler alert:  the lens turned out to be repairable and is now back in Ellen’s possession.) The camera, based on some testing, appeared to be fully functional.  But the tripod head wasn’t and a replacement was imperative.  Some kind of a fast wide angle was also needed, in case we had another chance to photograph the aurora later in the trip (it’s important to remember that all of this happened on our second full day in Alaska)–we all hoped we would, of course.

Ellen tried to convince us that she could make the drive herself; she’d drop us off in Denali and we could hike the Savage River Trail or something and she’d pick us up again at a predetermined time.  But Debbie and I both insisted that we’d ride along on the trip to Fairbanks.  (The fact that rain was forecast, pretty much all day, made it easier than it otherwise might have been to make this decision, but in truth we were both committed to going along regardless.)  We spent a fair amount of time talking about this and didn’t turn in until after 2 AM.

It did, indeed, rain essentially throughout the following day and we were able to transact our business at Alaska Camera.  Ellen rented a fast wide angle prime and the people at the camera store found a used ballhead for her to use that was compatible with her equipment.  Everyone was feeling much better about things as we headed back toward Denali–in the rain–that afternoon than had been the case the previous night.



  1. Amazing pictures!

  2. Only one word or these pictures: WOW!

    • Thanks very much!

  3. This was definitely one of the most incredible days ever…amazing highs and devastating lows, but two supportive friends to keep it all in perspective. I keep returning to your beautiful photo of the rising moon. You were able to bring out a lot of detail, highlighting intersecting lines and shapes that might otherwise have been lost in shadow. And, yes, the camera and lens were shipped to Canon the day after we got home and both are back in my bag again.

    • That shot of the moonrise was assembled from nine exposures. There was quite a lot of ambient light still present when the image was made, but the moon itself was so much brighter than the rest of the scene that there was no way to render what the eye saw without resorting to an extreme multiple-exposure process…without blowing the moon out that is.

  4. Love the images! The moonrise is definitely my favorite. Sorry to hear about the end of your photography session, but I’m glad that the damage wasn’t as bad as it could have been!

    • Thanks very much! Yes, the damage to the equipment could have been much, much worse.

  5. I love the light you got earlier in the eve and happy that you all experienced the wonder of the Aurora Borealis. The images are stunning.That is a sickening sound, as lens and camera hit the pavement. I think it is good that you could get to a Camera store, that for safety sake you stuck together and that the employees were so accommodating.

    • Thanks, Jane. It’s all relative, of course, but considering how bad it could have been things worked out pretty well.

  6. What a thrill the Aurora must have been! I’m turning a bit green with envy (to match your Aurora, of course!) So glad that the camera and tripod issues came out OK. It had potential to be devastating!

    • Thanks!

      Yes, the aurora experience was phenomenal; the equipment issues were unfortunate, obviously, but in the end it didn’t overcome the wonder of the Northern Lights. Having discussed the display with some natives it became apparent quickly that we were treated to an excellent example.

      And, as to the equipment mishap…we were really lucky to have relatively easy access to a fully stocked camera store (Alaska Camera in Fairbanks). It was a relatively easy trip back there from the Denali area; had something like this happened when we were up in the Brooks Range it would have been much more difficult to remedy.

  7. Amazing story! Life, like the sky above is, is full of surprises, right?

  8. […] the day’s photography to a close.  It hadn’t been quite as long a day as the one that ended with the aurora, but we’d been up for a solid 18 hours by the time we called it quits.  This was our last […]

  9. […] first “no second camera” incident was the one I related in an earlier post.  Ellen’s camera hit the pavement in the dark.  Something broke; it seemed likely that the […]

  10. […] gone in the shower–I’d gone through the process of getting my gear ready, based on my previous experience with aurora photography. I attached my Sigma 24-35/f2 lens on one of my Z7ii bodies, via the FTZ adapter. I pre-focused the […]

  11. […] marvelous photographic opportunities. We had seen this three years prior when Ellen, Debbie and I visited the park for several days–even if we hadn’t necessarily been there when Denali was at its most photogenic. That […]

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