You win some, you lose a lot… well kind of

•September 16, 2017 • Leave a Comment

aurora borealis, aurora, northern lights, prairie, green, stars, night sky, reflection, long exposure, Dan Jurak, Alberta, night, astrophotography

“Success is not a good teacher, failure makes you humble.”
-Shah Rukh Khan

Last night i was humbled.

An hour and a half east of Edmonton I stood by the side of a road photographing the beginnings of the aurora that was to come.

Faint green swirls danced on the horizon and reflected in the water below. While I stood in the near freezing temperatures by the water a curious muskrat kept swimming hear me and splashing the water as if to get me to respond in some way.

Behind me the southern sky was cobalt blue with a smattering of stars sparkling and the milky way rising from the horizon and continuing overhead until it merged with the faint aurora.

Geese and swans could be overhead making their way south and in the distant lights from the combines of farmers getting the last of their summer crops from the field shone.

It is moments like these that I cherish. The changing of the seasons. The solitude. To be alone with ones thoughts.

And in an instant it was over. From the east almost instantly the sky became brighter as a wave of aurora made its way across the sky. I pointed my camera in its direction and released the shutter. Two seconds later the back of the camera was showing a washed out stream of light. This aurora was BRIGHT!

I stopped the lens down first two stops and then halved the exposure time before the exposure was right in the camera and the swirls became more intense. From the horizon the waves of green moved directly overhead and continued westward and I snapped furiously trying to capture as much as I could while it lasted. Five minutes later and the lights returned to their dim, normal self.

I packed up and moved to another lake and then a church and then on when close to home drove through Elk Island Park knowing that I had something SPECTACULAR from the first display of the lights.

Driving through Elk Island at 1:00 am was like driving through the park on a hot summer afternoon. There were cars EVERYWHERE. I stopped at the side of the road and tried to photograph an auroral arc over a pond and in the span of one minute five cars drove by. What a zoo I thought.

Forty minutes later I was home and went straight to bed looking forward to editing my photos in the morning.

Saturday morning with a fresh pot of coffee brewed, camera in hand I started editing. I looked and I looked and I looked again. Where were these fantastic photos?

I had some okay photos but not anything that I would call wonderful. All that I saw was a record of what had happened the evening before. The pictures looked flat, unimaginative and the same as I had seen a thousand times before on the internet. Failure.

I trashed a bunch of the photos, I edit ruthlessly. Why keep something that you will never print or that is the same as the half dozen next to it? So I deleted lots and lots of pics hoping that I would be left with that one gem that I aim for. It wasn’t there.

Disappointed I took the dog for a walk and thought about what had happened and then I realized that this is why I keep taking pictures. I am not the greatest landscape photographer that walked the earth. I am not perfect in fact far from it. I was humbled.

Humility is/can be a wonderful thing. It is the realization that we can or that we need to improve. This is a part of who I am. I forgot all about the mistakes and failures that I have experienced and expected to bring back great images. I didn’t.

Through failure we learn. We learn to grow, to improve to understand where we are and what we are.

I have failed before and because of that have become a better photographer. I expect many more failures in the future because I understand what that is about.

Happy shooting,

Dan

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Taken Away…

•September 15, 2017 • 4 Comments

taken away, aurora borealis, northern lights, autumn, foggy, fog, landscape, long exposure, night time, stars, clouds, Dan Jurak, Alberta, autumn,

For most of Thursday it poured. And it poured. And it poured.

The skies were dark and heavy yesterday. Hanging just above the horizon they looked more like the dark clouds of November than mid September.

The NOAA had issued a forecast later in the day saying that a G2 class storm would hit the earths atmosphere soon and that would be sure to spark auroras over the northern and southern hemispheres.

I looked at the forecast, more specifically the Cleardarksky.com website to see what the cloud cover might be overnight and it wasn’t looking promising for the Edmonton area. A couple of hundred kilometres north of me was clearing but I didn’t want to drive that far to see the lights so I waited, hoping that maybe the forecast would be wrong.

Around 5pm when Environment Canada updates their local forecasts there was a chance of frost predicted overnight for areas just north of me. Frost? After having chased foggy and frosty mornings for many years I knew that frost doesn’t usually form when the skies are cloudy. Clear skies I thought?

For the rest of the evening I kept stepping out onto the deck and looking north to see what the sky looked like. It was starting to break up. No longer solid, heavy, grey skies, there were large breaks of blue among them.

Finally just before bedtime I decided to take a short drive north, maybe to nearby Bon Accord and just scout out the skies. If the clouds were too heavy I would turn around and be home by 10:30 pm.

As soon as I left the city limits I started seeing fog on the road. At first light and then heavy. The fog was so heavy that I slowed down until it lightened up a big and then hurried north while watching both the road ahead of me and the sky above.

Ten minutes later and the fog was getting heavier again as I neared the valley where a small river coursed. Valleys like this are usually the first to become foggy and the fog was thick and heavy there. Should I turn around or stop and watch for a few minutes? I pulled over just before the bridge and started taking pics as cars and trucks made their way along the highway.

Happily I had decided to wear long pants and a hoody over my fleece jacket because with the humidity it was feeling cool. Close to 0 Celsius I figured.

After a short while I locked my vehicle and carefully made my way along the shoulder of the highway towards the bridge ever aware of being off the road should a vehicle come my way and SMACK end my photography for the evening.

At the bridge the fog was even thicker and the clouds that were above me were reflecting the lights of the villages nearby. I snapped away watching the aurora behind the clouds stopping occasionally to observe the stars twinkling directly above and then it happened.

It was an unmistakable sound. It was a sound that I had heard since early childhood.

Making their way from their nesting grounds high above the Arctic Circle I could hear the distinctive sound of hundreds and thousands of white-fronted geese making their way south stopping along the way every few hundred kilometres to feed and then off again to the Mississippi Delta for the winter.

I thought to myself in the dark, what does it look like from high above to those geese? With the northern lights dancing high above and the fog and clouds beneath them with the sprinkling of the lights of towns and cities below them what did it look like?

How did it look to the brothers and sisters that had just been hatched that summer making their way together for the first time southward, wings beating, the sound of the wind whistling through their wings. For thousands and thousands of years these white-fronted geese had made the journey together south. Before man had arrived in North America they were flying over this same location where I stood.

I was both standing on the ground looking up and imagining myself among the geese taking in the marvel of the universe because it indeed was the universe that was being showcased with the stars, the earth and the aurora borealis.

It was fall and it was magic, a magic that goes unnoticed by so many of us and it is a shame for indeed for that few moments I was taken away.

Happy shooting,

Dan

Winter Is Coming

•September 14, 2017 • Leave a Comment

winter, snow, landscape, ice, cold, blue, prairie, Alberta, Dan Jurak, cold, frosty,

Since I have been retired for a few years I have something of a routine. Shortly before I took my buyout at the Edmonton Journal we traveled to Prince George and picked up our little Weimaraner puppy. That dog has known me for almost as long as he has been alive and we are almost always together.

Every day almost without fail in the early morning we go for our walk together. I have my iPod loaded with podcasts usually and for an hour or an hour and a half we are in our own little worlds. Me listening to my podcast and him busily sniffing and peeing and once every few days I take him to an open field where there are Hungarian partridge where he joyously scents them out of the tall grass, points regally and flushes them.

Today was a little cooler than normal. The skies were grey and hanging very low to the horizon but taking a chance that it wasn’t going to rain on the both of us we headed out.

Autumn is my favourite time of the year. It always has been. The land gets ready for a long sleep for the following six months. The grasses in the fields are now turning brown. The leaves on the trees are no longer a bright green but are dark and dull and turning golden slowly.

As we walked the colours were all muted by the moisture laden air which made things look almost foggy.

I had run out of podcasts and started listening to a new audio book that I had just gotten by Neil Gaiman called Norse Mythology. As I listened and heard about stories being told over campfires while the northern lights shone overhead thoughts pleasant memories rushed forward of trips into the country both as a child and now as an adult with camera in hand.

We tend to take for granted what we have and where we live and I am as guilty of that as anyone on occasion. When I read on the internet about people from far away visiting here and anxiously looking forward to their first viewing of the northern lights it reminds me of how we take for granted what we have.

Many are the memories as a child lying in the grass in our back yard and looking up into the night sky and waiting for the aurora to make their appearance. It was a time to let your imagination run wild. To think of the future. To dream of what might be.

Now fifty or sixty years later I still look up at the sky and see an old friend. They were there before I was  born and will remain when I pass.

While I was walking the dog and lost in my dreams I was brought back to reality. The skies opened up and a light foggy drizzle turned to a downpour. I am not sure who was in more of a hurry to turn around get back to a warm and dry home. Was it my now soaked canine friend or me?

Autumn is full of many pleasant and a few sad memories. I usually remember the pleasant ones but there is always a sad one that will remain.

On November 11, 1962 my father passed away. A week later I remember standing graveside on a cold November day. The skies were dark and the first snows of winter were were touching the ground. In a way that had become a very symbolic day for me for in autumn most things go to sleep for the long, long winter. At times it seems sad because I lost a father that I never really knew or at least knew as well as a small child could know his father but now with many years behind me I see things differently. For as much as I saw it as affecting me it did also to those around me and to my father as well. A wife/mother with five children to look after had new worries. A young man in his early thirties was dying and knowing that he was leaving behind his wife and family, his brothers and sisters, his parents. It doesn’t seem fair at times but then can we ever really see the big picture?

All things must die. You and I will pass but a part of us will always remain. Whether it is in thoughts or memories or pictures or something that we have done in our lives that has made an impact on those around us, a part of you and I will always be here.

With the passing of autumn into winter the seasons move forward. The circle completes. Life goes on but winter, like our passing is not the end.

Winter is a time of celebration for me.  Things may look quiet and without life but the land is alive. There is so much to see if you look.

Winter in Alberta is a time of magic. Long cold nights with bright stars twinkling overhead. Splashes of green and pink auroras was across the night from north to south.

Cold, frosty mornings when every snowflake sparkles and catches the rising sun. These are my memories of winter.

Being the first vehicle to drive along a prairie road before sunrise even before the snow plow has come to clear the road. Stepping out of a warm vehicle onto the cold and crisp snow to get closer to what I want to photograph as the snow beneath me crunches with each step. I love winter.

But don’t get me wrong. For as much as I love winter I love autumn and will savour every minute of it before the land is covered in ice and snow again.

Winter is coming.

Happy shooting,

Dan

 

Finding happiness on the internet as a photographer

•September 10, 2017 • 7 Comments

barley, harvest, landscape, Dan Jurak, farm, rural, wheat, crops, autumn, sunset, dramatic

The old saying goes that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

Sometimes it is. Most times it isn’t. It’s just an illusion.

I can be as guilty as anyone when it comes to that saying. It’s too easy to look at one of the hundreds of millions of photos on the internet and feel sick with envy or jealousy. Why can’t I do anything like that I have said before.

Did you get the first part of the previous paragraph? One photo of the hundreds of millions out there. What about the other 99.9% of the images that I have conveniently ignored?

Another old saying goes that even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while.

Take a look at a photographers body of work before starting to make any kind of comparison to yourself. There is a time for comparisons and then there is a time that you must stop that exercise in futility and frustration.

I found an absolutely fantastic photo a few days ago and was floored by it. Curious, I went to the photographers website to see what other gems I could find. Could they all be this great? The short answer is or rather was, no.

All the elements and conditions had converged to create the perfect landscape. There was more luck than skill in creating that image. Nothing wrong with that but it needs to be remembered that when shooting landscapes luck is as important as creativity and skill.

When I was shooting in the studio quite a bit I mentored a few students from the local photography college. They were paired with me for a few days to see how things were done. In the studio doing still life photography luck plays less of a role than skill. In the studio the photographer unless they are photographing models is in 100% control of EVERYTHING.

I learned early on when I was doing fashion that a great model can make even the least talented photographer look fantastic. And the opposite is also true. With some people more work is required to get the “perfect” shot. Same photographer in both cases but different results.

The same can be said for landscape photography. Right now it is windy outside, the skies are perfectly clear and the sun is high above the horizon. From past experience I know that I am certain to be wasting my time to go out and shoot landscapes. So you have to be somewhat lucky but it also helps greatly if you can load the odds in your favour.

Lots, perhaps too many of us get caught up in the game of “likes” and “loves”. As if the number of positive comments on your photography is a validation of your work. It isn’t.

Just because someone likes their coffee really strong and sweet does that mean because you like weakly brewed coffee black that they are right and you are wrong? The same applies to the likes and loves.

Have you ever seen a dog chase its tail? That’s the game that is being played by catering to the masses and trying to curry favour.

When I was a young and single men I used to spend a fortune on clothes. Too much money I spent. I was caught up in how I looked. Did anyone really care if I wore jeans to work or expensive slacks? Probably not and if they did would it have made my life any better or happier? Doubtful.

Today I can wear shorts and a t-shirt all summer. My hair is thinning and I don’t hide it. My daughter says that I have the starting of a pot belly and it only matters to me not out of vanity but because I want to stay healthy. You see a long time ago I really stopped caring about what people think about what I do or who I am. As long as I can remain true to myself and not cause harm or hurt to others all is good.

The world doesn’t need a most popular photographer. There are too many already and it is doubtful that they are ever truly happy because they are too busy chasing their tails like the proverbial dog.

The best judge of your photography is guess who? YOU!!!

God has made us all unique and if you don’t believe in a higher power whatever it is that is that we are is different than every other person on this planet.

Cherish your difference. Cherish your uniqueness. There is only one of you and don’t be afraid to show it to the world.

Happy shooting,

Dan

Mindfulness and creativity?

•September 9, 2017 • 5 Comments

mindfulness, aurora, aurora borealis, church, northern lights, Dan jurak, landscape,

I am blessed. I am not the most handsome nor fit. I don’t have an income that people can be envious of. I have never been the most popular person, quite the opposite I yearned to be anonymous and invisible.

But I am happy.

One of the things that I have been blessed with is my relationship with my two daughters. At times it is a love/hate thing which I think is normal. There are times that they do things that I am unhappy with and I know they can say that about me but that is part of being who we are.

I can’t remember why it was interesting at the time but my youngest and I were one weekend headed to a Buddhist temple to get a crash course in mindfulness. If I have it correct, mindfulness is emptying your mind of all clutter, thoughts, etc. and just clearing your mind. If that sounds silly for a moment try it. Sit there where you are reading, close your eyes and clear your mind of all thoughts and you will find that your mind chatters to you. How am I feeling? What is my wife doing? Did I forget to lock the car? A million things race through our heads. It seems like our thoughts are constantly running on and on.

Stop them! Be an observer rather than a participant. Focus on your breath and try for your mind not to wander to other things. It takes practice to master it but when you do accomplish it even for short moments the world is at peace. You are at peace with everything in it.

What does this have to do with photography? Everything.

Where does your creativity come from? I cannot answer that question but I do know that  it is the times when my mind is not cluttered, when I am autopilot that I find myself going in directions that I had not before considered.

Many years ago when I was doing food photography in the studio I was being mindful without knowing it. In a darkened studio with only my Speedotron modelling lights running and music in the background mindfulness came naturally.

To put it in more understandable terms I would be “zoned”. I wasn’t thinking about the lighting or the composition but instead almost unconsciously moving things around and reacting to them. I was more observer than participant.

Fast forward twenty or thirty years and here I am outdoors at night all by myself. The photography becomes almost robotic. I am not “thinking” about composition or lens or shutter speed, I am reacting to the moment without saying to myself, “if I move over there the composition will be better”. I am thoughtless and reacting to what I observe.

Where does that creativity come from? For the life of me I don’t really know. It is there, somewhere and from that creativity and mindfulness comes peace of mind and happiness.

Is it the photography that makes me happy or is it the channeling of that creativity that suppresses a part of me that over thinks things and worries? Am I really blessed or is it an acceptance of my life and who I am?

I don’t see photography as any sort of deep, existentialist exercise in the same way that when I walk my dog every morning for an hour I come back happy and peaceful but I have the same feeling of being blessed.

I know that for some, for too many probably photography has become a contest about the most views or likes or how many friends and followers I can attract and that is not wrong for them but like winning the lottery if you aren’t happy being poor you sure aren’t going to be happy being rich.

So if you really want to improve your photography or your painting or even your cooking, try being mindful. Just go with it. Let whatever it is that is inside you flow naturally out of you and wonderful things will happen.

Happy shooting,

Dan

 

Let’s play where’s the aurora?

•September 8, 2017 • 4 Comments

_DSC4717_

Last night was looking to be one of the best nights in Alberta EVER for the northern lights.

To spare the less technically inclined all that I will say is that there was the largest burst from our sun in ten years and it was headed our way.

What could possibly go wrong? The forecast for the whole night was clear skies with not a cloud on the satellite maps for hundreds of kilometres.

By early evening the CME had struck the earth and there were reports in Scandinavia of the aurora being so bright that people were pulling their vehicles to the side of the road to photograph the aurora. They were incredibly bright.

Screen Shot 2017-09-08 at 8.42.54 AM

The aurora burst was set to peak around from 10:00 pm to midnight. By 7:00 pm I was chomping at the bit. The sun would set around 8:15 pm and it would be dark an hour later. Yippee.

I brewed a pot of coffee from which to fill my thermos for the fun night, grabbed a protein bar and my gear and with a full tank of gas was out the door by 8:00 pm.

Driving north I kept my scanning the darkening horizon hoping to see the burst of the decade.

An hour later found me pulled over by a lake that I had been to previously and thought that this would be a good place to start my shooting. I poured a cup of steaming coffee and waited. By 9:30 it should have been dark and by dark I mean black skies with the stars showing. I had seen a giant orange moon rise in the east so I figured that it was clear out. As the moon rose above the horizon it stayed orange which is odd. Usually it becomes white in colour but orange it remained for the rest of the evening.

I got out of the Toyota and all around me I could hear the bustle of combines harvesting late into the night. The smell of grain was heavy in the air and a dusty fog hung around me.

Flocks of geese could be heard overhead making their way to their favourite grain fields to fatten up before making their journey south. Coyotes, one incredibly close to me yapped at the moon. The one that was so close to me sounded more like he/she was growling at me and not howling so I yapped back answering him. We played this game for a few more times until he stopped answering me.

I looked up and I could faintly see a few stars. I could see the moon. I could not see any northern lights.

Was my eyesight going? I grabbed my camera and took a shot of the lake to see if maybe my eyes were going bad. Nothing. Grey skies? Grey?

No aurora and grey skies when they should be black and full of stars. Hmm. I could still see the almost full and orange moon.

Then it dawned on me, smoke.

The smoke from forest fires in our neighbouring province of British Columbia was faint but and this is a big but, the almost full moon was lighting up the haze making the skies grey instead of black.

Geez. Why now I thought?

Maybe if I drove east I would have better luck getting away from the smokey skies and I drove and I drove and still grey skies lit by a now very bright moon. No matter where I looked the sky was grey and not black.

So reluctantly I turned my vehicle around and started the drive home southward always stopping every once in a while to look northward to see if the skies had changed and always the same result.

Was I disappointed? A little. Am I discouraged? Not at all!

Maybe you are like me in that if things are too easy they are not interesting. If I could go out every night and get incredible aurora photos boredom would soon set in and I would be doing something else.

Maybe there is a little bit of the gambler in me where it is the chance of winning that makes things interesting? You win some. You lose some but I really don’t see last night as losing.

From last night the pleasant memories of autumn. The sights and sounds of harvest. The whole country side being alive after the sun sets is what I brought home with me. Memories.

Great memories aren’t always captured in the camera because photography is not about bringing home the best picture. It is much, much more. Photography like life is about the journey. Not the destination.

Happy shooting,

Dan

The internet has made camera pricing competitive (kind of)… why as a Canadian I usually buy from the US

•August 30, 2017 • 10 Comments

Henrys Camera, Dan Jurak, landscape, aurora borealis, northern lights, camera gear, price matching, night time,

I am seriously thinking of buying another piece of camera gear. As someone who is retired, I have to think twice before I make a major purchase. It is a major purchase for me. So having said that I visited the various price matching websites on the internet and have found that in Canada, ALL the brick and mortar stores have exactly the same price for the same equipment.

Over the years I have been buying everything from one of the large New York City camera stores. The one that I patronize is actually pretty good. Shipping on anything over $100 is free. That’s right it’s free. When I try to buy online here in Canada I am always charged a fee.

So you must be thinking but isn’t their usually a customs import charge? Yes there is and my camera store will also broker the customs and add the fee to me before I purchase. This way I am not surprised when the item arrives in Canada and am dinged with a charge that I wasn’t expecting.

Warranties are also not a problem as some manufacturers will honour an American purchase and service the item in Canada. Others require that you send the item to the US which for me isn’t a problem. I would probably have to send it away to be serviced in Canada if it were a Canadian dealer.

So why the post about buying photo gear from the US when I would rather buy in Canada?

I visited my American website and got a price with shipping paid (free) customs and duty paid and converted to Canadian funds and made a screenshot.

I then sent an email to https://www.henrys.com/. Henrys Camera is one of Canada’s largest brick and mortar and online photography stores. In the email I sent a screenshot of the final price in Canadian dollars and asked them to MEET not BEAT the price as I would prefer to patronize a Canadian firm. An hour later I got a reply from Henrys that they could NOT match the price. The difference was about two hundred dollars from what Henrys charged to what my New York City store charged for the exact same product.

Every other Canadian store that I checked online had the exact same price. That sounds almost like collusion rather than competition to me.

Canadian retailers just don’t get it. Henrys could have easily matched the price that my US store was selling for but chose not to. They just lost a sale and probably many more sales down the road.

In this day and age when people don’t think twice of ordering from Amazon or Ebay if you aren’t competitive you are going to slowly go out of business unless you adapt.

Good bye Henrys Camera. You had your chance.

Happy shooting,

Dan