Alone In The Dark

•October 7, 2016 • 4 Comments


A few days ago just I did something that I never do. I went out at night to photograph the northern lights with three other people. My brother, sister and my sister’s daughter-in-law made the trip out to Elk Island Park to see the northern lights. I found it odd that both my brother and sister hadn’t really seen the northern lights before. After all, we all grew up in the same house and I remember as a pre-teen lying in the grass under a summer night sky with my best friend Russ watching stars and trying to figure out where the constellations were when every few days we would observe the aurora.

When the four of us got to the parking log by Astotin Lake in the park it was dark. There are no lights in the parking lot and in most of the park. Without a moon illuminating the landscape it was difficult to even see the ground. That’s when my sister’s daughter-in-law who is from Taiwan asked if I were ever afraid to be in the dark alone. It dawned on me, no pun intended that almost without exception I am usually all by my lonesome in the middle of nowhere.

I told her that I really never worried about that as I was always interested in what was happening in the sky above.

As it turned out the four of us got to see the milky way and I pointed out a few constellations but the aurora never showed up.

A few days earlier when the aurora were spectacular I was again by myself at night. With no moon it was almost impossible to see any buildings or trees far from the road. Because I have spent so much time driving around the area north of where I live taking photos it is like walking through my house in the dark. I know where everything is.

I was close to the twin grain bins that I had photographed many times before and thought that I would make my way to them. Again because of the darkness  unless you knew where they were it would be easy to drive by them. They sit about 150 meters off the road on a hill.

Once I got to the spot on the road closest to them I pulled over, grabbed my headlamp and camera gear and in almost total darkness made my way up the hill. There was rusting in the mowed flax field all around me. Was it mice or rabbits or coyotes scurrying about in the dark? I didn’t know but wasn’t worried about any threat to my health. After all you never hear of man mauled by field mouse or ravaged by owl stories in the news.

When I took the photos of the aurora to the north the grain bins were all but invisible in the photos. By processing the image twice, once for the sky and once with the foreground and bins lightened up I was able to combine the two photos and selectively lighten the areas that I wanted to show up, the areas that were almost black before.

The result is above.

Now the sun is going into a solar minimum I have read and the chances of good auroras are diminishing.

Along with the diminishing aurora, the leaves have finally dropped from most of the trees and snow is forecast for the weekend. It is cold, for October. It was around zero Celsius today but there was a strong wind that made it seem much colder on my hour long walk with the dog.

I have to chuckle because if we get “cold” like this in February we will all be saying how nice it is outside.ūüôā

Here’s to winter and goodbye to autumn.

Happy shooting,


Another Night of Magic

•October 1, 2016 • 5 Comments

Astotin Lake Aurora

Last night was truly a night of magic. It like the previous night stimulated all of the senses.

Day two of the current solar storm was spectacular.

Like the previous night all the ducks so to speak were lining up in a row. was predicting a storm with a rating of 6 which is really high. by 9:00 p.m. was showing only a 30% chance of seeing aurora which seemed very low given the conditions and was showing clear skies for my are until 3:00 a.m.

On the previous night I had noticed that a lack of any kind of a moon above the horizon not only made the northern lights appear brighter but the landscape below darker. Much, much darker.

Rather than photographing any kind of buildings in the dark without any illumination it was an easy decision to photograph a lake where the overhead lights would be reflected in the water. Nearby where I live is Elk Island National Park. It is about 30 minutes east of Edmonton. The national park is popular with astronomy hobbyists because of the lack of nearby commercial or residential dwellings. Simply put the sky is darker there.

The centre piece of the park is Astotin Lake. That is where I was headed.

At 10:00 p.m. was  still showing a low percentage but I decided to get out anyways and hope that the lights would appear. Five minutes later and I was at towns edge and could see a faint band of green stretching from horizon to horizon. A good sign. A great sign. If you can see the aurora in the city they have to be bright.

Fifteen minutes out of town and half way to Elk Island and the lights were so bright that I almost pulled over to photograph them. Instead I persevered hoping that they would keep up until I got to the lake.

Soon I was pulling into the lake parking lot turning my headlights off as I approached it only to see the reflection of many vehicles from my driving lights as I drove close to the lake. Ah, lots of photographers just like myself I thought. Opening my drivers side door turned on the interior light which seemed to illuminate the lake. I quickly got my hear, donned my headlamp and walked towards the waters edge about 60 meters away.

Near the lake I could see the embers of a fire in a pit. Around it were the silhouettes of people laughing, singing and having a good time. Hmm, I thought what about the aurora? I walked past them and onto the beach. No photographers. I had passed about eight cars stopped at the side of the road in the park. They were near ponds hoping for reflections into the ponds I guess but there were no photographers here that I could see.

I turned on my headlamp, attached the camera to tripod and pointed towards the lake which was roughly in a north westerly direction. In the far distance I could see a faint glow from the lights of Edmonton to the southwest  and Fort Saskatchewan to the west.

Then the show started. At first it was very faint but because of the reflecting water they appeared to light up the lake. Out of the dark a young lady with a camera approached, there were other photogs here I thought. Very politely she asked if it would interfere with my shooting if she walked onto the pier. Of course not. It would make a nice silhouette I thought to myself. She walked on. Took a few photos and returned to where she had come from.

The air was cool and I was glad that I had brought a winter jacket again. And it was breezy. I could smell the smoke from the fire behind me and the singing got louder. It seemed like one happy family was at the lake. So special.

Then it happened. First a few spikes of aurora lit up the sky against the green faded wash. Brighter and brighter it got. Soon the singing behind me stopped and I could hear people commenting on the aurora. Wow! They were as bright as I had seen in years and they were active. Swirling and twisting and making their way from east to west across the sky. It was like a giant fluid monster of light was twisting and turning in the night making its way across the earth.

I kept pushing the camera shutter. Pointing the camera in every which direction. There were lights everywhere but to the south. I put on a fisheye to get more of the sky and snapped a lot.

As the lights danced another young woman parked herself a few meters next to me and I couldn’t help but comment on the lights. The lady said that she was from Australia and had NEVER before seen the northern lights. What a night to see them! She snapped a few photos or tried to as she explained that she did not have a tripod and returned to the fire pit.

Then as quickly as the show started it slowed down to a crawl so I waited. I stood on the sandy and wet beach. I know that it was wet because my knees and pants were wet from kneeling near the camera and tripod. Half an hour passed and only a faint green glow remained so I decided to head west back home. It couldn’t get much better than what I had seen I figured.

As I drove out of the park I passed almost a dozen other vehicles at the side of the road. I could see groups of photographers huddled alongside ponds.

During the short drive home I thought I saw the beginnings of a flare up but it was short lived. Then, five minutes out of Edmonton and the show started up again. The whole night sky woke up but the thought of laying my head on a pillow was too strong. I forced myself not to look back in the rear view mirror. I knew that it wouldn’t take much to convince me to turn around.

It was another night of magic.

Happy shooting,


A Special Night on the Prairie

•September 28, 2016 • 5 Comments


Tuesday, September 27, 2016, and I woke up to cloudy, rainy skies.

The astronomy website was predicting a good night for the northern lights aka the aurora borealis.

My favourite weather forecast website which is usually very accurate to the hour was predicting that by late afternoon the skies would be completely clear and cloudless. The moon would not be rising above the horizon where I live til 3:41 a.m.  All the ducks were lining up so to speak.

I haven’t done any night photography for a year at least. Something always seemed to come up or I would get too sleepy when it was time to head out and sleep seemed the better idea over taking photos. Tonight would be different.

To prepare for the northern lights I charged my camera batteries and put my tiny headlamp in its charger. A headlamp like the ones spelunkers use is handy for night photography. It beats fumbling in the dark to find something that has dropped or to make your way through a field and not trip on something that you can’t see.

Next thing I did was to put my two favourite night lenses in my backpack, a 14-24 f2.8 zoom and a 24mm f1.4 lens. The memory cards were formatted, the car was topped up with gas and I was ready to go, when it got dark enough.

As the evening progressed I kept checking to see how the aurora were. Aurorawatch is great for me because it predicts the possibility of viewing the northern lights at my latitude and it kept looking better and better as time went on.

By 9:30 p.m. I made my mind up to hop in the car and head out. Only ten minutes out of town and I could see a faint band of green on the northern horizon stretching from east to west. The sky was crystal clear. Stars were sparkling and a light fog covered the road as I drove north.

Twenty minutes later I arrived at a favourite spot. There are two churches and a graveyard here. Ahead of me I could see a couple of cars parked on the side of the road. Already there were a few photographers out to see the lights.

Grabbing my gear I walked near the first old church and started taking pics. The sky was awash with the colour green. When I exhausted all angles back into the car I went and drove to the next church down the highway.

This one has much more elegant lines to it but the aurora were starting to fade so I put my camera down and just sat under the starry night sky.

Photography is so much more than taking photos. Driving out here I passed many farmers getting their crops off the fields. Lights flashing in fields of canola. Dust hanging heavily in the air and the smell of freshly cut hay was in the air.

Sitting and waiting for the aurora to appear I heard the faint honk of geese overhead as they migrated south thinking of how beautiful it must appear to them to see the stars high above and the northern lights swirling across the sky.

One coyote started yapping in the distance then another answered and then another. Soon there were the sounds of coyotes all around me yapping and howling and letting each other know where they were.

It was magical. A 360 degree Imax experience. All of my senses were bathed in the sights, sounds and feelings of the cool autumn night. And it was cool. The Toyota thermometer said that it was only a couple of degrees above freezing. Frost was forecast overnight where I was and I could already hear it as I walked on the crunch, frosty grass.

The lights magically reappeared. First in the eastern horizon then swirling and dancing west ward til they were almost overhead.

I grabbed a few more frames and head off to a few more favourite places before turning back home.

Getting home I never even looked at the photos I had taken. The dog greeted me as he always does when I take photos, sniffing all the strange scents that I bring home and in a few minutes both of our heads were on our pillows and asleep to dream.

The beauty of an autumn night on the western Canadian prairies. A dream indeed.

Happy shooting,


In a world where everyone looks the same…

•September 20, 2016 • 7 Comments

The Barn Beside The Road

I have a love/hate relationship with the internet.

I love that information and ideas can be so easily shared. Everyone can have a voice on the ‘net. We are free to express ourselves however we like. Too often for worse rather than better. The hate and bigotry that is rampant on the internet is sad really and says a lot about human nature. Some of us need police and prisons to keep ourselves in check. Happily I think that is the minority rather than the majority.

Expression comes in many forms. Political. Religious. Morality. I choose to express myself for lack of a better word and without trying to sound pretentious, artistically.

The internet has changed me as a photographer. I think that it has probably made me a better one. Digital photography, camera/phones, etc. have made photography more accessible than it has ever been. Everyone is a photographer or wants to be one it seems.

For the last couple of years I have noticed a homogenization in landscape photography. What do I mean by that? Every freaking picture looks like it was taken by the same person.

A visit this morning to the photo sharing website 500px only served to reinforce that. When I look under popular landscapes there is more similarity than uniqueness among the first few pages of photos and I think that is a  bad thing rather than a good thing.

Why does it seem that everyone at least everyone who is “popular” looks the same? What was popular twenty years ago is now outdated and old. What is now popular was once new and beyond the bounds of what is “normal”.

We all want to be liked. We all want the pat on the back that says, well done. Some of us chase it more than others and to what end?

Why is it important to be “popular” on the internet? It takes hard work to be popular. It just doesn’t happen on its own. I see photographers on Flickr and 500pix with thousands of friends. That means every time they log on they get hundreds and thousands of photos in their feed.

Can you really be their “friend” when they are one of thousands of anonymous people you have friended? I don’t think so.

For my whole life I have made a conscious effort to be different. To step apart from the crowd. To speak my own voice.

Maybe it’s more important to have two or three real friends than thousands of “friends” on the internet?

In a world where everyone looks the same I want to look different.

Happy shooting,



Time Passages

•September 4, 2016 • 3 Comments

Time Passages

“All round the day was going down slow
Night like a river beginning to flow
I felt the beat of my mind go
Drifting into time passages
Years go falling in the fading light
Time passages” – Al Stewart

Friday was indeed dark and cloudy but it wasn’t dreary, at least not to me.

There is something about photography that gets me excited about all kinds of weather. The kind of weather that keeps people indoors or depressed gets me outside and invigorates me.

Driving back from Elk Island National Park I zig zagged home in a most indirect way all the while looking around at the low, dark and fast moving clouds.

In Strathcona county which is just outside of Edmonton they must have lots of extra tax dollars because all of the side road, roads which anywhere else in Alberta would be gravel are paved in the county.

I turned the corner on this desolate looking day and started driving up a broad hill. Power lines to the left and nothing to the right it might seem as if there were no photo to be taken but the line of the road diminishing as it went uphill drew me in.

Out I stepped and immediately a cold wind cut through my jacket. The weather here in September can be so variable. Hot short and t-shirt weather one day and looking for a parka the next.

The routine was the same as it usually is for long exposure photos. Take the ND filter off the lens, open the eye piece cover on the back of the camera, place tripod on ground, compose, undo first three steps and wait four or eight minutes for the exposure then move on.

I did this a few times before arriving home cool and refreshed from having been out in the cold wind. A hot pot of coffee was soon brewing and I was deleting the unwanted images that I had taken earlier.

Happy shooting,



Plain And Simple

•September 3, 2016 • 6 Comments

Plain And Simple

Friday morning I was up around 6:00 a.m. like I usually am.¬† It’s funny how as we get older we become more like our parents.

My dad died when I was six years old so my memories of him are few but I have plenty of my mother. She was always up early. Me on the other hand, if I could sleep in till one in the afternoon I could easily do so.

Now 62 years of age I have become my mother, kind of. Without any alarm clock or radio to wake me from my slumber around 5:30 or 6:00 the brain becomes alert and it’s up and at em.

The forecast for Friday and most of this weekend in fact is gray, dreary and drizzly weather. As the morning coffee was brewing I did what I have done for years, check the local forecast and have a peek at the provincial highway webcam website. The province of Alberta like most states and provinces have webcams posted on various highways that usually refresh every ten or fifteen minutes.

With autum approaching and the days rapidly shortening it was still dark. The webcams weren’t showing much yet. But the forecast looked grim. Grim for those that like it sunny and hot but enticing for me.

The skies gradually lightened, the webcams showed mucho rain to the west, the direction we usually get our weather from but that rain was at least one hundred kilometers away. To the east it was heavily overcast but dry. My decision was made, I poured myself a last cup of coffee to go, grabbed my backpack with camera gear and attached the camera to its tripod.

The highways were already empty as I drove out to Elk Island National Park with the morning commute almost over. When I arrived at Elk Island thirty minutes later it was apparent that summer was over and school was in. The main campground was deserted and the one public beach in the park was empty with only a couple on the floating pier taking a morning selfie. Oh yeah, and lots of sea gulls and griebes in the water.

With the sun behind my back and hidden behind a bank of clouds I aimed the camera at the lake and did a test exposure. Rather than use a meter I usually place a 16 stop on the lens and expose for two minutes at f8. The result was almost black. So I doubled the exposure to eight minutes. A little dark but usable.

Last year I picked up a 13 stop filter that I hardly ever use. The three extra stops of light would be helpful in the early morning light so I switched filters. F11 at four minutes and it was perfectly exposed. The curious sea gulls watched me and ducks swam into and out of the image but none of that matters with a long exposure. They all disappear not staying still long enough to register. The same applied the waves on Astotin Lake. The combination of reflected light from the clouds above and smoothing of the waves resulted in a nice, even light tone to the water.

On the horizon were two kinds of clouds. Dark storm clouds interspersed with a bank of low, white clouds moving quickly across the image right to left. At four minutes the light clouds provided enough movement and separation against the dark sky to make it interesting.

I stayed at the lake for another forty minutes trying various angles including the floating pier which you will never see hear. Apparently the pier moves just enough over four minutes that it was blurred and unusable.

I drove home in a very indirect route taking the side roads, zig zagging towards Edmonton amazed at the low flying dark skies and best of all it was still dry outside.

Processing this was very simple. A quick conversion to black and white, adjusting brightness and contrast and a little burning of the sky at the top and water at the bottom to hold the eye in the frame.

Plain and simple. Just the way I like it.

Happy shooting,


Inspiration and Motivation… get out there with your camera

•August 30, 2016 • 4 Comments

Lac St. Anne Rocks

Creativity doesn’t only apply to photography. It is relevant to almost everything in our lives. From how we dress to how our homes are decorated and even how we prepare meals, creativity is involved.

Sometimes we get the creative doldrums. At least I do. Just when it seems like I have run out of ideas or don’t feel like getting outdoors with camera in hand I have a little secret. There resides on the desktop a folder with the name, “long exposure”. I had forgotten about it and while doing a little computer housekeeping came upon it.

I opened the folder to reveal a couple of dozen screen captures from the internet of drop dead, gorgeous landscapes from around the world. Beautifully toned black and whites, brilliantly coloured prairie landscapes with old, wooden grain elevators stading amongst towering storm clouds. As I scrolled through the screen captures something magical happened to me. My heart started beating a little harder. My breathing became faster and shallower. My imagination ran wild.

Why wasn’t I driving the country roads this morning and looking for photos to take I thought to myself. Could I make the four hour drive to the mountains to do some long exposures I had been thinking about and be back later tonight?

That is all that it took. I only needed to see someone else’s creative works to get that flame lit inside me. For me it can be that simple.

So here is what I do to help me fired up.

I usually don’t save photos from websites. I have a fair understanding of html coding so I can usually get around the various ways to prevent downloading photos but I don’t care to steal someones pics to use elsewhere. I only want something to help me “remember” what I saw inspired me. No, instead of trying to download photos I do a simple screen capture.

A screen capture is a simple “snapshot” of the screen. There are various programs for Windows computers that make it very easy. I use a Mac and with the Mac there are two easy ways to do captures. I don’t want to capture the whole screen. I just want a copy of the picture that I like for future reference. If I hold down the keyboard keys SHIFT+OPTION+4 the cursor changes to a tool that allows me to drag out the shape of a rectangle. I only draw out the shape over the photo that interests me and it is saved to the desktop. I drag that screen capture to my inspirational folder and it is saved for a later viewing.

Is it legal? Since I am only saving a low resolution grab for my own personal viewing I think that it is.

I strongly believe in protecting photographers rights to their images. I have many out there on the internet and would hope that others respect my rights as I respect theirs.

That isn’t always the case as I have gotten a few nice cheques from companies that have ripped off my photos for free, without my permission. The images that I have with stock agencies are compared to images on the internet with a special program that crawls the internet and compares files to the ones in their database. If there is a hit, a human will then compare the photos, get in touch with the stock agency which then sends out a legal takedown notice along with a bill for illegally using the picture. I think that I have gotten a few thousand dollars over the years that way. If you steal a photo from the internet and use it on your own website you’re taking the chance that you will get a take down notice and a bill that is actually higher than if you had legally purchased the photo.

Having said that… off I go.

Happy shooting,