“remember the quiet wonders. the world has more need of them than it has for warriors.”
― charles de lint, moonheart
this was a night that would be recorded in the annal for all history! well…at least in the annal of my history…
it was april 23, 2023. about a month ago, i had missed out on a whopper of an aurora show. it was so powerful that it was showing up in states well south of us. a local photographer actually captured them glowing above the cityscape that was st. paul! that is hard to imagine; a celestial event that requires dark skies did not require dark skies that night!
as i was getting ready to go to bed that night about a month ago, apps that alert me to current conditions for the aurora started “blowing up”, meaning conditions were strongly favoring not just an aurora show, but a very intense one. in blaine, which is a northern suburb of minneapolis and only a few miles from where i lived, the chance of seeing the lights on the horizon hit almost 50%! the possibility of seeing them overhead (which is not a common thing here in MN) was around 30%! in a suburb of minneapolis!
i found out the next day that this event happening in northern minnesota under dark skies was on a level that had not been seen in years. the night before, i rationalized that i needed to get to bed as i had an early start for work. that was a mistake even if i did need to get to bed. this kind of event is just not something that happens in the metro and suburb areas due to extensive light pollution. i said to myself that if the conditions are right again for an explosive aurora show, i would not stay home even if i worked the next day.
the night of april 23, 2023 began like most nights; just another end to a day in the life of a certain stephen hadeen. i did have eyes on my apps as i had been hearing rumbles of a potential big geomagnetic storm that night and the next. as luck would have it, it was on a night where i didn’t have to work the next morning. the only drawback was it was a mostly cloudy evening. i have another app i watch that tells me atmospheric conditions at certain times, including cloud coverage. it was a 50/50 chance that it would clear up and only for a while if it did.
soon my apps started hitting the stratosphere with both horizon and overhead potential to see the aurora in blaine. i was quite happy about that as i didn’t want to have to drive at least an hour or more to get to darker skies, at least that night. auroras are a finicky thing. i have driven hours north to catch the lights as they were predicted and then it was a dud. our best predictions are just that; predictions. mother nature will do what mother nature wants. sometimes we get a wonderful gift of enjoying the best the skies have to offer; sometimes, though, we are left with twiddling our thumbs waiting for an event that never transpires. for me, though, if that happens, i’ll figure out a plan b. i’m already out and about; i want to make the most of my time and not just throw in the towel.
i packed the car up with my gear and headed out to a favorite park of mine called lochness park in blaine. i actually ended up parking in the village of blaine shopping center by a retailer called at home. it is located across the street from the park and infinite campus, a k-12 software educational business of sorts. the park is actually closes after 10 pm. the last time i had parked there and ran past 10 pm, a police car came patrolling through. this has apparently been a spot for people to park and hang out so now the blaine police routinely patrol it at night.
on that particular night when i had parked within lochness park, i saw the police parked behind my car while i was creating images on the boardwalk. i walked back to engage them in conversation and told them it was my car. they asked what i was doing and asked for my name and identification. i told them what i was doing while i gave them my driver’s id. i also said they were welcome to come and see. to my surprise, they did! i showed them images on the back of my camera that i had already created. we talked briefly about what kind of images i was creating and how i went about that. finally, they said i could stay for a bit but to leave soon. for me personally, i find that almost all of my encounters with police or even park rangers out in state parks are pretty supportive of photography expeditions after hours as long as i and others are respectful of the surroundings. as they were leaving, one of the policemen turned around and said, “you know, you ought to enter one of those images in the (a photography show i can’t remember the name of held in the city of blaine city hall) contest. your images are really good!” i actually have entered that particular show before so i knew what he was referring to. then he turned around and they both continued back to their patrol car.
well, i didn’t want to cause any issues the night of april 23rd parking within lochness park that could distract me from creating images. i parked across the street, walked my way through infinite campus and into the park. i saw another car in the parking lot there so i knew someone might be where i was going. sure enough, as i walked to the boardwalk, i saw another person with his photography gear set up pretty much in the same location i wanted to create images from. i introduced myself to him and asked if he’d mind me joining him. “not at all”, he said. his name was michael; he has owned a photography studio and business for about 35 years along with his wife who was not there that night. he also teaches as well as creates light painting images. i’ve talked about what that is in some of my other blogs so i won’t go into that here. i mentioned to him that i don’t do well talking in the dark, just to give him a heads up, unless a light is shined for me to read lips. then, just like others have done, he talked to me in the dark without any kind of light 😂. i reminded him a couple of times and then just let it go after that. i tried to engage with him as best as i could even though i didn’t understand most of what he was saying.
it was still cloudy when i got there. one thing i did understand from michael was that he was seeing glimpses of the northern lights when there were openings in the clouds. i started creating a few images; the first few just showed heavy cloud coverage. i finally captured one where i could see the aurora in the break of the heavy cloud cover. i started to get excited! again, this just doesn’t happen as far south as we are in minnesota. well, obviously it does as you will see from the images here but it is astoundingly rare. we currently are going through a period of increased numbers and intensity of solar flares and geomagnetic storms from the sun. the intensity is supposed to grow into late 2023 and early 2024 before it starts to die back down again. it doesn’t mean we are guaranteed to continue to see more aurora events where i live but the potential is there.
click on image for larger size
i continued creating images which were consistently showing the aurora where there were breaks in the cloud coverage. then, i made an image that showed the clouds moving to the right without more coming after them. things started exploding! swaths of green light and pillars amongst the stars were being captured! i was thinking in my mind something along the lines of, filmed in slow motion imagery, what the french archeologist rené emile belloq shouted after opening the ark of the covenant in raiders of the lost ark; “it’s beautiful!” fortunately i didn’t explode into a bazillion pieces like belloq did. i guess watching the incredible display of the aurora is an activity completely approved of by the Creator 😉.
click on image for larger size
i started creating vertoramas (vertical panned images instead of horizontal panned images) of the scene unfolding in front of me. with the aurora blazing high into the sky, i wanted to try to capture more of the scene than what one individual image could portray. even the water was reflecting back some of this intensity happening at the moment! then michael came up close to me and asked a question that is not my favorite question from other photographers. “would you be ok if i go further up?” that question almost always results in the person being in the field of view of what i am creating images of. “of course”, i said, “that's fine”. after all, this isn’t my park; it is a public park. inside though, i really wanted to say i would mind in this case as it was not going to be a good addition to my images. as i was shooting longer exposure images, he was going to be a blur in my images with any movement he made. i do appreciate that he gave me the courtesy of asking first. a lot of people would not. to be honest, i think he probably would not have done so if I had asked him not to. it is something that we as photographers have to evaluate each time. this particular night, to ask him to wait a bit first was not really going to make any difference. auroras are not predictable; the best might still be yet to come. i didn’t want to hold him back indefinitely. so, again, i told him it was ok. after all, he’s a photographer. he has a vision in mind he wants to create.
the rest of my time creating images was with him in view of my field of vision in the camera. i thought to myself that i can probably remove him from the image in post processing as it would be distracting. after about 2 hours, the intensity of the aurora dimmed to a sort of faint white pillars and the clouds moved back in. shortly after that, there was nothing that gave any indication of the spectacular show we had been witnessing. the clouds were like one big blanket in the sky, devoid of any shape or texture. at that point, michael and i called it quits, wishing each other a good night. i’m sure he, as well as i, was excited to see on a bigger screen what we both had been creating with the camera! i packed up my gear and began the mile or so walk back through infinite campus and back to my car in the village shopping center. from there it was home and straight to bed as was close to 1 am.
this blog has been in progress for while. not the blog itself but the image that is the “star” of the show. now, i rarely do any “enhancing” of an image. i don’t add what wasn’t there. unless it is really distracting, i don’t remove things from an image. since i shoot using a raw file format, i just bring it back to what i saw in my mind. raw images are generally “flat-looking” when first viewed out of the camera. it might not need much but it will almost always need some processing, some bringing back to what you remember seeing. most all photographers who shoot with the raw format will tell you that. if someone says they didn’t do anything to an image (“sooc” which means straight out of camera), it is almost always going to be a jpeg file format image. and guess what! whether you create images with your smartphone or a camera, jpeg images are always processed in the camera when you “snap” the shutter button! while it may be “sooc”, processing has already been done to it. there is nothing wrong with either way. there is also nothing wrong with “enhancing” an image in my opinion. while it is not my thing, it works for many other photographers, especially those that love to create more fantastical composites (taking elements from different images and combining them into one image).
what really made it difficult for this image is that michael was not all by his lonesome. he is surrounded by other features that i don’t want removed. to remove someone from an image is cumbersome and requires finesse to say the least. with all the added features all around michael as well as behind him ( i was capturing him from behind so all of the boardwalk fencing behind him was in view), it was even trickier and cumbersome for someone like me who doesn’t do “removal enhancement” overall. time after time, i had to start back from scratch as it didn’t look right after he was removed. then, adobe photoshop gifted those of us who use that software both a blessing and a curse. an ai tool called “generative fill” was introduced. the best i can say about it is “wow!” it’s not perfect every time, but it is pretty darn. near. close. it truly seems like magic. all i do is draw a general rectangle around an area, hit the generate button and it’s removal process is truly astounding! generative fill is more than that but that is what i used it for. for the purpose of this blog, i won’t go into more about it except to say this ai tool and others coming is exciting and yet a bit scary. it is definitely going to change the photography landscape in terms of what can be done to an image. you can even create a photo-realistic image from scratch!
long story short, i was able to remove michael (no offense buddy!) from where he was standing and moving around with his tripod and still have the image look like he was never there to begin with. and finally, here is the "star" of the show as far as images for this blog goes...
click on image for larger size
why did i share all of this behind the scene processing? i just wanted to be transparent with all of you reading this blog. i don’t try to hide anything. i think it’s important to just be upfront when a major change has been done to an image. i also think it helps to reinforce my credibility as a photographer when i am forthcoming if i made a major change to an image, at least in my mind. maybe for you, you could care less either way 😂 as long as i create some image(s) worthy of you looking at 😉. and that’s just fine and dandy!
one thing for certain: april 23, 2023 will certainly be a night to remember! a night where a celestial wonder of the skies decided to explode in size and intensity to gift those of us further south with a night of wonderment and awe. it certainly left an indelible image imprinted in the memory of my mind!
there it is! another blog for the books! i hope you enjoyed it as much as i enjoyed writing about it. some experiences are tough to translate into words. i hope i was able to help you create a picture in your mind about some of the things i experienced and saw that night. if you have any comments or questions about the blog and/or the images, please share them in the comments section. I read and respond to them all!
for me personally, a night of this magnitude is best showcased on a larger sized photographic art piece and set in a room where it will be a conversation piece. this will be a custom size as it is a 5 image vertorama stitched together. interestingly enough, i did enough overlapping with each image that it actually ended up as more of a square format. while panoramas/vertoramas generally are more rectangular in format, it is not exclusively so. i think this adds a cool shape perspective for showcasing as well!
36" x 40" wall print - click on image for larger size
this blog was a while in coming so i really appreciate those of you waiting who were expecting it sooner. I do try to put one out no later than every other week; this one just had challenges that i had to deal with image-wise. i don’t like to put out anything other than my best for you as a reader so, again, thank you for your patience.
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