Electric Skies Over Jasper

•April 22, 2017 • 12 Comments

aurora borealis, northern lights, aurora, Jasper, rockys, mountains, Athabasca River, night sky, Canada, Alberta, Landscape

It’s mid-afternoon as I sit at the iMac to write this. I never nap. Ever but I just had a nap this afternoon.

Yesterday, Friday, I thought might be a good night to try my hand again at photographing the milky way. The moon wouldn’t rise till it was just about daylight which meant that the night sky would be dark enough to help with capturing lots of detail with the densest part of the milky way that we see in the northern hemisphere.

The only thing keeping me from making the four hour drive to Jasper National Park would be the weather. After checking with every weather forecast website that I knew and getting advice from a real meteorologist it looked like there would be a window of cloudlessness from 8:00 pm until 7:00 am the following morning.

Rather than detail all that transpired I will cut to the chase. I woke up in the town of Jasper at 1:20 am in the back of my little Toyota and sleepily made my way to the lake that calculations had shown would position itself perfectly with the milky way. Ten minutes out of Jasper I came across a closed gate and a large portable electronic sign announcing that the road was closed. Arrrgh!!!

I quickly thought of all the possibilities to salvage some kind of milky way photo thinking about all of the various locations in the national park that I could think of. Clouds were now drifting in from the north so I made my way south, thought about it and realized that it was an all or nothing gamble, there could be clouds an hour south or there could be clear skies but no chance of getting the easterly setting milky way until I hit the icefields.

Flustered I stopped at an observation spot just off the highway to get some fresh air and think about my options. Then I noticed them. Faint waves of green crossing the horizon from east to west in the north sky. I grabbed my camera and took a few average shots, nothing great but now I had a plan.

I hopped back in the car and made my way back past the town of Jasper and see what I could in the now clouding up sky.

Long story short, an hour later I was witness to one of the most spectacular auroral displays that I have ever seen. Knowledge of the area in the daytime helped as I drove, stopped, got out at an interesting spot and repeated the process until my pictures started showing a blue sky and not a black, starry sky. Wow!

It was now after 4:00 am so I made my way toward home. The next town was twenty minutes down the road. Edmonton was three more hours so I pulled into a parking lot, hopped into my sleeping bag and slept for two hours. The sky was now completely gray and it was starting to rain.

Hop into the McDonalds grab a bite and three hours later after driving through rain and then heavy snow which started to scare me because I just changed my winter tires for summer, and I was home.

The trip wasn’t a waste of time and gas. It was anything but. This is but the first of many dozens of photos that I took that night. Like I wrote earlier it often seems that my plans don’t quite work out the way that I hope but the alternative is usually pretty good too.

Happy shooting,

a sleepy Dan.

Why do we love photography?

•April 21, 2017 • 9 Comments

aurora borealis, northern lights, spring, Alberta, landscape, Dan Jurak, back roads, country roads, spruce forest,

For as long as I can remember there were cameras in our house.

My earliest memories of photography involved getting dressed up with my brothers and sisters while dad arranged the hot lights in the house to pose us. Damn, I hated to get dressed in my Sunday school clothes. They were uncomfortable. I couldn’t play and get them dirty. It was a chore.

Every Saturday it seemed my mother would put a couple of trays of cinnamon buns in the oven and have friends over for hot buns and hot coffee. I got to play with my friends and cousins while the adults sat in the kitchen laughing and telling stories.

After the company left dad would pull out his dark brown gallon jugs filled with fixer and stop bath and developer. For a few hours the bathroom was off limits to us as dad developed his black and white film or made prints. The house smelled of photographic chemicals. To me this was normal. Every family did this.

Dad died a few short years later when I was seven years old. To help us out financially mom put the camera and darkroom equipment in the newspaper. All that was left of dads photo stuff were a few stacks of photo magazines. I pored through them as a young child. The ads at the back fascinated me. All these lenses and bodies and enlargers. It was a foreign language to me. There was no one to teach me about it.

The cameras changed from very professional looking twin lens reflexes to Kodak Instamatics with the cube flashes on top. Photo processing meant going to the drug store to drop off film and get an envelop back a few weeks later with developed negatives and prints.

There were always cameras around and for that I am thankful. There are albums full of memories of our childhoods, my  brothers and sisters, mother, aunts and uncles grandparents and a whole whack of people that I didn’t know.

I didn’t realize it at the time but photography would become a large part of my adult life earning a living for many years taking pictures.

Photography was fun. It was special. It wasn’t until I retired that I realized how special it had become to me.

Photography has become a holiday. A refuge. A source of pleasure. A time to myself. An introspective time.

I swear to God that I have driven home in the morning after photographing the most beautiful foggy summer sunrise that my father was with me. It gave me goosebumps thinking that he was with me during these almost religious times.

You see, the act of being creative for me is at times a primal or visceral experience. Pictures seem to come from out of nothing and every time that happens I am amazed. I am in awe that from something so plain can come such a beautiful experience.

A couple of nights ago while I was wandering the dark, back roads of rural Alberta alone and with only the radio to keep me company I wasn’t really alone. I never feel alone when I am outdoors with a camera. There is a calm standing in the dark at night with a bright starry sky overhead. The sounds of nature around me and somewhere overhead or in my heart is my father keeping me company.

They say that if you train a worm to know that the left door gives it an electrical shock that its offspring will also know to avoid the left door.

Is it like that with photography? Did the joy my father experience taking pictures get passed along to me? It has been over fifty years since he passed but somehow his passions became mine. I love the outdoors. He did. I loved flyfishing and tied all my own flies as did he and on and on it goes.

Are we more the product of our parents than we realize? I don’t know but I do know that although mom and dad are no longer here in the physical form they still remain with me all these years later.

Happy shooting,

Dan

Things never turn out the way I expect…

•April 20, 2017 • Leave a Comment

aurora borealis, northern lights, panorama, Alberta, spring, Dan Jurak, night sky, long exposure,

I’ve been watching the weather forecast closely for the last week and a half hoping to get a clear night sky. Unfortunately central Alberta is having an unusually wet spring which has brought with it many cloudy days and nights. Rain and snow have been the order of the day. On Easter weekend I must have shovelled our driveway three times. We had about 15 cm of wet and heavy snow fall.

Where I live the centre of the milky way doesn’t become visible until around 2:00 a.m. and wouldn’t you know it the moon is rising around that time which washes out all but the brightest of stars so no milky way photos.

The sun has been active though with a few very good coronal mass ejections which usually make for great northern lights but with the cloudy skies…

Last night we had the prediction of a rare clear sky and a forecast of good auroral activity. As the sun set and the sky started to darken I kept an eye on the western horizon. Damn. Clouds. I hoped that they would dissipate by the time it got dark and it would be happy shooting.

Living this far north and during the spring the length of days increases rapidly and the amount of night time darkness decreases. By 10:10 p.m. I was already out of town and driving north away from the bright city lights. To the west the sky still remained bright. It only gets brighter as we approach summer solstice.

Twenty minutes later the sky was completely dark except for… the clouds overhead that were reflecting the lights of the surrounding small towns. Arrrgh.

Should I turn around or keep driving? I decided what the heck, keep going and I did but the skies never really cleared.

Another twenty minutes found me on a very quiet and dark country road. I decided to get out here and have a look at the sky. All around me was the sound of waterfowl making noises in the nearby meltwater. Coyotes yapped and howled in the distance and farm dogs barked to announce their presence.

Looking up I saw… clouds and a faint band of green behind the clouds. It didn’t look good.

I packed up and started driving east in the hope that I would get a break in the sky just enough to grab a picture and head home. A few kilometres down the road I noticed melt water reflecting the night sky. Behind it were a clump of spruce trees. Maybe?

I got out of the Rav, grabbed my gear and made my way down the ditch and plopped my tripod close to the fence that bordered the pond. A single photo wouldn’t do justice to the scene the way I visualized it so I decided to do a panorama. Six vertical images taken on a 14 mm lens did the the trick.

I grabbed my gear, threw it in the Rav and drove some more and found myself kind of lost at 12:30 a.m. I knew roughly where I was but when it is dark, familiar buildings and landmarks don’t look so familiar.

Where I exited the muddy gravel roads onto the highway surprised me. LOL Boy had I gotten turned around.

By 1:20 a.m. I was home. Changed into my pjs and hopped into bed, my wife sleeping and our 95 pound dog hogging my side of the bed. Grrrr. Reluctantly he got up from his warm spot on the duvet and plopped himself down at the foot of the bed. In a few minutes the day was over and I was sound asleep.

Happy shooting,

Dan

Finding out what a poor photographer I am…

•April 8, 2017 • Leave a Comment

jasper, dan jurak, alberta, astrophotography, failure, stars, winter, snow, moon,

I’ve been shooting landscapes off and on, mostly off for just over forty years. A part of those forty years was spent in the studio doing editorial fashion and food photography and before that a smattering of advertising photography.

What I do know about myself and am not afraid to admit is that although I am not the smartest or fastest learner I am persistent and after a time can usually master what I attempt. Everyone is different. Every one of us is unique. There is an innate ability in all of us to be creative. For some it happens almost automatically. For others it means working hard at it.

For a few years when I first returned to landscape photography I stumbled and fumbled and meandered until I found my niche. The golden hours around sunrise and sunset were the best at getting the kind of results that I liked.

Early on mornings seemed to be better than evenings. Evenings although they can be very colourful lacked something that some mornings had… fog and mist. Those two things along with the light being low or close to the horizon combined at times to produce almost magical images.

Eventually I stopped taking photos in the evening altogether and would diligently watch the weather forecast for the conditions that made for the best photos, a sky with mixed or light clouds, lots of humidity and little to no wind. It became almost routine to get dreamy morning landscape photos and after a while, it became boring. Too routine. Too predictable.

All of last year was an experimental year. Instead of doing the morning routine I found myself driving through the country side during the middle of the day experimenting and having fun doing both infrared and long exposure landscapes. Each outing brought new experiences. Some days could be called failures and others successes. I say “could be called failures” because although I didn’t bring back images that I was happy with, each “failure” pointed me more in the direction that I wanted to go. Like I wrote earlier, I am not the most talented, or quickest learner by being observant of what works and what doesn’t work I know that I will eventually get there.

Night time or astrophotography is still very new to me as is panoramic photography. Still being very new to it and making mistakes along the way I decided to head out to the mountains and give it a try.

The plan was to get what I had hoped would be a dramatic image of the centre of the milky way rising out of a frozen mountain lake and soar over a mountain next to the lake.

For that to happen it meant knowing where the milky way would be during this time of year and night. Check.

Having a clear and cloudless night sky. Check.

And more I found out. UNcheck.

The weather around here lately has been very unpredictable. The forecasts even three days ahead have been changing frequently. What was forecast as clear days and clear nights would be replaced with cloudy and a chance of rain or snow.

My favourite astrophotography weather website, cleardarksky.com runs scripts that most times accurately predict the weather every twelve hours. By Thursday morning the weather for the night skies of Jasper were supposed to clear off by midnight. With it being only twelve hours ahead it was with a fair degree of confidence that I decided to pack the Rav and make the drive to the mountains.

On the drive out the skies were heavy and moving quickly which had me hopeful of doing a few long exposure photos of the mountains before night time. Such great luck, I thought. By the time I got the national park gates three hours later the sky had turned to heavy, white, even skies and it was seriously raining. Ew. No pictures until after midnight when the skies cleared.

To kill a few hours I drove to the lake that I had planned to be at just to see what the conditions were like. Being higher up in elevation, the rain turned to snow as I got there. Lots and lots of snow remained, soft and wet. Tonight would be magic.

Back to town, walk around, grab a bite to eat and then find a place to park and sleep in the back of the little Toyota. It made no sense to rent a motel room only to get up at 2:45 a.m. and drive to the lake. So at 10:00 p.m. I pulled the sleeping bag over my head and went to sleep or so I had hope. I tossed and turned and tossed and turned some more. No sleep. Looking at the clock it was now 1:10 a.m. The plan was to get up at 2:45 because the centre of the milky way was visible around 3:30 a.m. Back to sleep, I thought and still no sleep.

At 2:30 a.m. I decided enough laying and the sleeping bag and not sleeping so I got dressed and made the drive to the lake. As I started to make my way I looked up at the night sky only to see… CLOUDS.

Maybe it would clear up in the next hour or so?

Arriving at the lake I noticed the moon over my shoulder. It was a waning gibbous which to me meant that it wasn’t full and it was supposed to set in a couple of hours. I would have called it a quarter moon. That much was lit.

Doing a test photo one thing was apparent. THE MOON WAS BRIGHT!!! The lake and mountains looked like they were in daylight! The portion of the milky way over the mountains looked like only points of light. This wasn’t going to work.

The plan was to stick around and take a few photos and see what resulted.

Now I had a new plan. While in town and listening to the local radio the forecast was for morning fog and mixed skies. PERFECT!!! I could salvage the trip by getting bunch of golden hour landscapes.

I stayed at the lake until 5:00. By then it was obvious that the skies weren’t going to clear. I could drive back to town, sleep for an hour and do some daytime photography.

Twenty minutes later I was in town and tucked into my sleeping bag. Half an hour later sleep had still not come. Grrrr.

Better to grab a cup of coffee and muffin from the shop that opened at 6:00 a.m. and look for pictures. By the time I left the store I looked up to the skies and guess what? All the clouds had gone. Clear skies usually make for horrible landscapes. Oh yeah, there was no fog either.

This wasn’t what I had hoped for. It was then that I decided to make the three and a half hour drive back home.

I gassed up at the next town, Hinton and made my way east towards Edmonton. Forty minutes later I was driving into a wall of white. The fog was so thick on the highway that I was forced to slow down because I couldn’t safely see far enough ahead to do the speed limit and it started to rain.

Less than an hour later I made my way into Edson which is a little over 200 kms from where I live. Catch some sleep here until the fog lifted and then head home I thought. Except that for as tired as I was, sleep didn’t come.

Back on the highway an hour later and the fog had lifted a bit to where it didn’t seem dangerous to do the speed limit.

Two hours later found me at home with the dog wondering where I had disappeared to and my wife surprised that I was back so early. Ugh. Should I tell her what happened?

I made a fresh pot of coffee, had a soak in the tub and eventually emptied the Toyota of my gear.

Was this trip a failure? Hell no!

I learned so much about astrophotography that night. It was time well spent because even though I am not the smartest person on the block I am smart enough to learn a lesson and benefit from it down the road.

It is humbling to have things not go your way when you are used to it. It’s nice to be brought down to earth and be reminded that most good things in life come from hard work and dedication. I am not a gifted or particularly talented photographer but I do dream and enjoy working to make my dreams come true.

Here’s to another successful photo trip!

Happy shooting,

Dan

Spring time aurora

•March 28, 2017 • 4 Comments

Spring Time Aurora

I was looking forward to an evening of spectacular aurora borealis last night. Early in the evening I got an email from aurorawatch.ca signalling an impending storm. Sure enough when I visited the website aurora activity was already listed at high.

With our days quickly lengthening at nine p.m. there was still a blow in the western sky. I figured that by the time I got far enough from Edmonton that the city lights wouldn’t be a problem it would be completely dark and off I went.

While driving one eye was on the road and the other on the darkening sky. There was a smattering of clouds hanging around and my hope was that they would disappear.

Twenty minutes later I stopped at the side of the highway next to a couple of old Ukrainian churches. Grabbing my gear I made my way toward the churches, took a few pics and to my dismay there were lots of clouds obscuring a green glow to the north so back into the Rav I hopped and made my way north in the hopes that things would improve.

Twenty more minutes later and I was off the highway and onto a half frozen, half muddy road in a wooded area with no farm houses in sight. This was a road that I hadn’t travelled before so it was all new to me. As I drove I found the road to be frozen and then muddy and then rutted to the point where my little Rav was getting thrown from side to side in the ruts. I pushed on the four wheel drive button to engage the front wheels because now my fear was getting stuck in the mud and not knowing exactly where I was or if there were even any houses close by should the Rav get stuck.

Northward the Rav and I continued. Thick brush lined the winding road with only glimpses of the night sky. Damn I though to myself, why did I take this turn? Not being able to safely turn around I continued on until the road straightened a bit. Ahead was a hill and a green glow. It was dry enough on the side of the road to safely stop so I pulled over, grabbed my gear from the back and snapped away. Clouds. More clouds and not very well defined northern lights.

Back into the Rav and ten minutes later I could see the lights of a farm yard and then another and another. Whew! A few miles/kilometers east to a well travelled gravel road and then south to pavement.

Not a great sky but an adventure. Life is about the journey and not the destination. Sometimes photography is like that.

Happy shooting,

Dan

2017… the year to get crazy

•March 19, 2017 • 2 Comments

sunrise

Above all else I love learning new things. There is a certain joy that it brings to my old brain when I approach something new, tackle it and then am free to break all the rules that apply to it.

I see colour. All of my most popular landscapes are in colour. My biggest sales have been in colour. Photographing and processing in colour gradually lost its shine and my interest in it waned.

Something new and different for me? Black and white.

Back in 1972 when I enrolled in a two year photo course here in Edmonton the first couple of semesters were all in black and white. Exposing black and white film. Processing the film. Making black and white prints. I hated it.

I thought at the time that it was like going back to grade one after having graduated from school.

Instead of taking photos with an SLR we all had to use heavy and cumbersome 4×5 Calumet cameras with tripods that seemingly weighted as much as us. LOL

Instead of photography being fluid and free it out of necessity was slow and deliberate. Set the tripod up. Mount the heavy camera. Meter the scene. View the upside down and reversed image under a dark cloth. Insert the film holder. Close the shutter. Pull out the film slide. Expose the film. Reverse the process.

Blech!!! But I learned and you can never know too much I found out. You see, the more you experience in life the greater the resources you have to draw upon from.

Last year I gave up colour photography. It was a year of experimenting with black and whites, long exposures and infrared and I loved it. I learned so much.

Over the past few winter months I have been learning more new things. Different ways and programs to process my images. New ways to see. Different subject matters. More learning. More fun.

This year instead of focusing on one thing, this year will be the year to experiment with as many new and different ways to see as possible. Rules and popularity be damned because this year is about having fun.

Happy shooting,

Dan

Black & White Or Color?

•March 7, 2017 • Leave a Comment

monchrome, black and white, black & white, landscape, surreal, prairie, winter, snow, farm, rural, clouds, ethereal, dreamy,

Black and white or color? Which to shoot? Which way to see?

After having spent a whole year of concentrating on black and white images a change from the color that I am used to, I feel the urge to do… both.

There are so many advantages to each. Being able to visualize a color photograph is different than in black and white. It’s not more difficult, only different.

By spending a year on only black and whites I think that I am starting to be able to successfully predict how my final image will look compared to what the eye sees.

Photography is what you want it to be. There are “purists” that take sides and vigorously defend them. Your side is wrong! My side is right! Film is the only way to see! No burning or dodging allowed! And on and on and on they preach. Don’t be swayed or misled by these people.

Photography for me anyway is like religion or politics. We are all entitled to believe what we will and practice what we do as long as it doesn’t interfere with how you live your life.

Getting back to black and white especially at this time of year frees me to take pictures during all hours of the day. I look for shapes and tones. If the bare bones of the photo is there it can usually be completed in post processing.

The photo above was taken during the middle of the afternoon. The color image is white and blue. No matter how I played with the photo in color it didn’t come across the way that I imagined.

Converting this photo to black and white offered many more opportunities to take the image which ever way I wanted. It is the freedom to create without limitations or restrictions that is fun. I keep coming back to photography because it is fun and not work.

Restricting yourself creatively might be a good exercise to learn a technique but the goal is to have fun, create and share.

Happy shooting,

Dan