The Milky Way, the Aurora Borealis and two bootfuls of ice water

•February 18, 2017 • 4 Comments

aurora borealis, northern lights, winter, reflection, Dan Jurak, ice, Alberta, landscape,

I love to learn. At the age of 62 I find myself wanting to know more rather than be content with the little that I do know.

It was in 1992 or 1993 that I was introduced to Photoshop. It was version 2.5 I think. That would make it 23 or 24 years that I have been using the photo editing program both at work daily and at home. Instead of knowing everything there is to know about the program I might know 10 or 20 percent of what it does.

So last week when I stumbled upon a program for the Mac that combined star photography images with lots of noise, aligned them and then reduced the noise (with the image shot at extremely high ISO for eg. 12,400) it piqued my curiosity.

After having watched a few tutorial videos I ordered a digital copy online and anxiously waited for clear evening skies so that I might photograph the milky way.

Friday February 17 looked to be one such evening. The astrophotography forecast has predicted clear skies all day and well into the evening before cloudy skies were expected to arrive. With no moon until after midnight it looked like a perfect evening.

I recharged all my camera batteries, packed my camera bag with the few lenses that I wanted to photograph the milky way with, filled a thermos with hot coffee and made my way in a north westerly direction from Edmonton.

By the time I arrived, 7:30ish the skies were completely black with no hint of light in the western horizon from the days sunset. With no moon it was even darker than normal. But… had forecast the possibility of a good aurora borealis display. Usually we see them start around 10:00 p.m. or so. So when I took the first of my eight exposures that would later be stacked to combine into one image what did I see? A greenish glow. Not from city lights. I was pointed in the wrong direction for that. It was the faint glow of the northern lights arching from the northwestern to the northeastern horizon.

So much for that experiment I thought to myself. But, I continued a few more exposures of the milky way ever aware of the brightening green glow to the north.

I had been experimenting with panoramas for the past few months and instead of concentrating on my experiment and reason for getting out that evening I instead started photographing panoramas of the northern lights.

These were a very unusual for me kind of auroral display. Instead of waves of swirling light overhead the display instead was a constant glowing arch to the north across the horizon. You photograph what nature gives you so that is what I did for the next couple of hours.

I had just done another panorama and was in the car thinking of heading back home when the cell phone rang. I pulled over and on the other end was my wife wondering how long I would be. I thought that I was finished for the night so I told her that I would probably be a half an hour away.

On my way back to the highway I noticed a reflection to my right just across the ditch and in the dormant farm field. Immediately I got the idea of getting to the other side of the ice/water and try for an aurora photo with a reflecting glow in the foreground from the ice/water.

I pulled over, grabbed my gear and gingerly made my way across the ditch and to the far side of the icey water. After a few minutes, thinking that I had all that I would get from that location I picked up the camera and tripod and headed back directly to the vehicle. MISTAKE!

Not realizing that the snow in the ditch that I was stepping into was on top of at least a foot of water I plunged into the water and in the process losing my balance. Trying to protect the camera and tripod with one hand the other came down on the gravel road while my other foot went knee deep into the ice cold water filled ditch.

Two freezing bootfuls of icey water and soaking pants. Brrrrrr. That was it. I was done for the evening. I put the gear in the back of the Rav, poured another cup of hot coffee from the Thermos and made my way home as my feet gradually warmed the ice water in the boots.

Ah, how I love photography.

Happy shooting,



You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours…

•February 15, 2017 • Leave a Comment

jasper, athabasca river, ice, winter, snow, water, river, mountains, black and white, monochrome, boulders, landscape, DAn Jurak,

Photo sharing websites can be a great thing. I enjoy seeing landscapes from all over the world. The variety, the variety of styles and the various interpretations of the landscape are a great source of inspiration for me.

Exposure, no pun intended, to different ways of seeing is a great way to expand your visual tool box.

A few days ago I sent an email to a friend who lives and works in Jasper. He not only gets to places in the Jasper backcountry that few people see he is also interested in photography and as a result has photos of places in the park that very few people have or will ever see.

In our correspondence he mentioned that he noticed on one of the popular photo sharing sites he gets very few views or comments compared to a lot of others with photos that are nearly not as good.

My answer to this was that this has been going on for as long as I have been posting photos on the internet. I see it on Facebook. I see it on Flickr. I see it on 500px and I hate it.

There is a secret well, it’s not really a secret on how to get thousands of views and comments and that is to view and comment on every single photo that you see. Even if you don’t like it, you tell the photographer how good it is and you know what happens? They reciprocate.

Proof? Many times I have seen people apologizing for being away for a few days and not being able to keep up with all the new post. It’s hard to keep up with two or three thousand of your closest internet friends.

I seldom comment on photos that I see and I follow even fewer photographers on the internet.

If you are one of those caught up in the “if you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” thingy, think twice before you do that.

Most landscapes that I see on the internet aren’t very good. Not a knock on the picture taker just stating facts that we all see things differently and are at different levels (thats a bad word but I can’t think of a better one) of skill.

Suppose I told people that had boring or technically inferior photos that they were great or that I loved them. I am doing them a disservice. Instead of helping their progression of the art form I am tricking them into thinking that they are on the right track.

It’s doubtful that people intend to send the wrong message if only because they are more interested in getting page views than wanting to offend someone who might “like” their art.

Know this, if I say that I think your photo is great, I truly believe it. If I fave it, its because I really like it and want to see it again as a reminder of what good art can look like.

Honesty is the best policy and like your mom used to say if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say it.

Happy shooting,


The Colours of Winter

•February 14, 2017 • Leave a Comment

ice, mountains, ice bubbles, canada, alberta, not abraham lake, not spray lakes, rockies, dan Jurak, alberta, landscpae

Ah winter. The season where everything is white. White? Everywhere? Hardly.

I love all of the seasons that we have up here in Alberta. From the browns and blacks of early spring (really, Alberta in March and April is devoid of bright colours), to the splashes of wildflowers against green forests and crops, the golds, yellows and reds of autumn and the spectacular sunrises and sunsets of winter.

For many years winter was my favourite time of year to take photos. While others huddled indoors or jetted off for warmer climes I preferred to be up before sunrise, thermos full of coffee, spare camera batteries in the vehicle and my warmest winter wear.

Close to where I live on the coldest days of the year if there is no wind something magical happens to the prairie. It becomes a scene from a fairytale book. With a low hanging ice fog and a perpetually low sun just peeking above the horizon for most of the days my bak yard becomes a photographers paradise.

Further west in the Canadian rockies which for me is a four hour drive, the national parks provide a different kind of environment to photograph in. Weather and light are everything here. It is easy to become overwhelmed by a mountain environment and simply record everything that you see. Do that and if you are like me you will probably be deleting most of the images from your memory cards when you get home. What seemed stunning in person looks obviously dull on second look.

In the mountain parks I am more at the mercy than back at home. At home I check the local forecast and if it looks good I am out in a flash.

Conversely when I am in the mountains I will take photos no matter what.

Happily the great colours of morning and evening happen around 8:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. during the shortest days of winter.

On the day that this photo was taken I was up at 7:00 a.m. had time to grab breakfast and get my thermos filled and was out on the ice before the sun rose.

By 9:00 a.m. I was driving back home.

The brilliant colours don’t last for very long but with the light very low to the horizon the light is fantastic during most of the day for black and white photography.

Happy shooting,

ps. BTW, this photo was NOT taken at Abraham or Spray Lakes which have become very popular, in fact too popular to my liking.

Why do I feel that way? I read a blog earlier today about a place in the U.S. that over the past years has become famous for its night time photos of the milky way and rock arches.

The place has become over crowded with tour buses now stopping there and tourists indiscriminately relieving themselves everywhere which leaves human feces and urine in the open. Photographers are camping there illegally overnight and vandalism is occurring to the surrounding area.

It has gotten so bad that it has been suggested that the area be closed to the public during certain hours.

Of all the places in the states to take night pictures, so little imagination is used that it is easier to follow the sheep to where everyone else is. That my friends is not what creativity is about.

Simple Landscapes

•February 12, 2017 • Leave a Comment

minimalist, simple, landscape, high key, prairie, winter, snow, Alberta, Dan Jurak, farm, rural,

Less is more? Or is it the other way around?

After having curated tens of thousands of photos in one of the groups on Flickr that I moderate I have noticed a trend in what I like.

The simpler the photo, the better.

About thirty years ago I on occasion would haul around a massive, wooden 8×10 view camera. I never had any of the negatives from the camera enlarged but what I loved, at the time, was the incredible detail that a contact print held.

Imagine if you will, looking into the highest definition television set imaginable. The tiniest detail was ultra crisp and sharp. The more details in the photo the better.

It’s funny how our tastes change because thirty years later I love photos with empty spaces. With colors or tones to lead the eye the result is as pleasing to me as the old contact prints I used to make.

Is one better than the other? The answer is no. Are apples better than oranges? There is no definitive answer. It is not the same as stating that 2+2=4. For that math question there is only one right answer. Art and math are not the same but at the same time if you think hard about a photos composition math is involved. Whether it is following the rule of thirds or seeking balance in an image there is an unspoken math that happens.

If you look around wherever you happen to be the world is full of clutter. In your house. Outside in the city. In the country. There is clutter everywhere. The challenge is to distill all that is around you into the simplest shapes and tones. It takes practice and today I am constantly challenged by it.

Today for me, less is definitely more but for you? Whatever it is that you find pleasing is the direction that you want to take your photography.

Happy shooting,


The journey of discovery…

•February 11, 2017 • 4 Comments

monochrome, black and white, low key, mystery, landscape, road, foggy, prairie, fineart, fine art, discovery, Alberta, Dan Jurak,

One of the joys of photography is that of discovery.

Every time I get out of town there is always an uncertainty about what kind of images that I will find and find is the operative word.

When I rediscovered landscape photography over ten years ago every trip out of town was new and exciting. Every new gravel road travelled had exciting possibilities. Every turn, maybe a great discovery.

Ten years later the same roads that were new and exciting are now known to me like my own back yard. I know that the next corner will have an empty field, or a grain silo or a spattering of poplar trees. The funny thing is that the sense of discovery and excitement is still there. So what gives?

Long ago I figured out that the further I travelled from home did not guarantee that the pictures that I brought home would be better.

You see, landscapes are not just about the trees in front of you or the breathtaking moutains on the horizon. Landscapes are the weather, the land and the light all combined to create something unique from one day to the next.

Sometimes that next great landscape won’t be hollering to you, “Pick me, pick me”. Sometimes, in fact many times you actively have to search and look carefully for that image and with practice it becomes easier and easier until it is second nature.

An example. My wife was still in the hospital yesterday from her fall at work. On the day that she was to be discharged an ECG technician came in to the room to take one last ECG before she was discharged.

As we talked to the technician, he quickly set up the electrodes. It took seconds literally. With the ECG machine going my wife who has been a nurse for almost thirty years marvelled at how clean the read out was on the machine. That is there were no “artifacts” which are a result of an improperly placed lead.

When my wife complimented the technician on how quick he was and clean the reading was he modestly replied that when you do it a million times it becomes second nature.

And that is exactly how the act of discovery works. Do it over and over and over again, culling out the weak images and keeping the better ones and discovery will become second nature to you too.

The ability to quickly recognize when something is right, the light, the composition, the weather will happen almost as if it is automatic.

Situations that you would otherwise drive or walk by will make you stop, do a double take and quickly recognize if this works or not.

There really are no mysteries to landscape photography. You only need pay attention to what you bring home, be ruthlessly honest with yourself and continue to practice, over and over again.

I recently found a photographers works that I liked. They had superb composition, location and processing.  Everything that I saw was amazing. And then I stumbled upon some of his very old images that were still on the net and you know what? They did not closely resemble what he was currently doing. That is an example of how we learn, how we evolve and how we progress. No secrets just be persistent.

Happy shooting,


Beauty is everywhere if you look for it

•February 10, 2017 • Leave a Comment

snow drifts, low key, winter, drifts, cold, Alberta, rural, farm, prairie, Dan Jurak, landscape, monochrome, snow drift, cold, black and white,

Beauty is not only in faraway places. Beauty is not the mountain vista or the oceanscape that is thousands of miles from where you live. The grass is NOT greener on the other side of the fence.

These past ten years since I took up landscape photography after having put down my work camera many years ago have been an eye opening experience.

Many things have changed over the last decade. Digital cameras are common. Not only do many, many more people own high quality digital slrs but almost everyone has a smartphone with a camera capable of taking very decent quality images.

Amateurs have become proficient users of Photoshop, once the bastion of only professional photographers and retouchers. Photos are taken every day, everywhere.

I manage a very large group in Flickr, the popular and one of the original photo sharing websites. Everyday I edit over 600 images before any are accepted to the group and yet the majority of images that I see are taken near the ocean, in the mountains or by a lake.

Those are naturally beautiful places. They are the low hanging fruit of the photography world. What could be more obvious than a serene mountain lake at sunrise with wildflowers in the foreground? Easy huh? Well, not so easy to take  a great photo of that but easy to see and appreciate the beauty. That is very, very low hanging fruit.

Sadly many new photographers have learned that there are only a few types of landscapes worth taking and the result? Almost every single image that I see in my group and on the internet looks painfully… the same.

Yeah, some are better than others. Some are awful and others are magnificent but when you squint your eyes there is a sameness that after seeing hundreds of thousands of images makes them look unimaginative, not creative in the least and most of all, BORING.

Look, I like a pretty mountain photo as much as the next person but what really makes my eye do a double take is when I see something that I have seldom or never seen before. It is the artist and I use that word intentionally that is seeing and creating.

I have grown tired of the lack of imagination in even the most popular of landscape photographers on the internet. They are really good at maintaining a sameness in all of their photographs. They are really good at painting inside the lines and not straying from the safe and known.

If you come across any landscape photographers that have a unique vision, a distinct style and are able to create the unusual I would be ever so glad to hear about them.

In the meantime,

Happy shooting,


Paint by numbers photography or why you shouldn’t play follow the leader

•February 7, 2017 • 10 Comments

Athabasca River, mountains, boulders, rocks, monotone, black and white, low key, Dan Jurak, Jasper, rockies, Travel Alberta,

There is a trend in landscape photography.

I have a couple of daughters in university. Both are taking genetics, biology, etc. and as a result we sometimes talk about what they learn in school.

One of the things that we have talked about is genetic diversity. You see the more diverse the gene pool is of any species the healthier it is. It is by being different that we are better able to survive.

Many years ago in North America, Dutch Elm Disease was introduced to the continent. Hundreds of thousand of elm trees across the the United States and Canada died. The elm trees, American Elms had no resistance to the disease and easily succumbed to it. Here in Edmonton as a result, our city has purposely planted a variety of trees to prevent the same thing occurring here again. Diversity in biology is a good thing.

I recently received an email from a well known photographer offering a very, very expensive course on how you could  process your photos to look just like his. Now this photographer has been around for a few years and for better or worse there are plenty of clones trying their hardest to emulate what he does. The result is thousands upon thousands of landscape photos that look as if they were all taken by the same person at the same place. The skies all have the same overly dramatic look. The locations are all the same, probably because it takes no creativity or imagination to find someplace on your own? I don’t know but it is a sad commentary on how a creative art like photography has for too many become a case of paint by numbers or follow the leader.

Maybe photography isn’t biology but in the arts it is valuable to have as diverse and wide ranging outlook as possible.

Happy shooting,


ps. and YES Abraham Lake does have the best ice bubbles in Alberta Seriously. 🙂