On Friday I arrived in Ellensburg to house sit for my aunt for a week, my first vacation in two years. The normally two hour drive ended up taking just under four hours, and today’s post was going to be about an unplanned sidetrip to Snoqualmie while attempting to avoid part of a hideous traffic jam on I-90.
But on Saturday night at around 11:30 pm, as I was checking my Facebook feed after a strenuous day of reading and dozing, I read a post from meteorologist Scott Sistek that the Aurora Borealis was visible. And here I was away from the city!
I went out into the backyard, which is more like a small field, and looked to the north. All I could see was what looked like a bank of light gray clouds low on the horizon being lit up by the glow of city lights. But the only thing in that direction is mountain foothills, no bright lights, so it was odd enough to investigate further.
I dashed back inside, grabbed my tripod and camera, and headed out back again. As soon as I turned on the camera I could see a dim telltale band of glowing green in the viewfinder that my eyes couldn’t detect on their own. I was ecstatic!
The first photo I took was the one at the top. I was using the outbuilding to block a bright light from the property next door, but I didn’t want it looming in my photos like that. So I moved to the edge of the building to still block the light, but let my camera peek around the corner.
If I had been thinking it through I would have gone back inside and replaced my flip-flops with shoes and retrieved the flashlight from my car so I could go out to the edge of the orchard where I would have had a clear view across open fields. But I wasn’t thinking.
In fact, I was frazzled. I’m a novice at night photography in general, and know nothing about photographing the Northern Lights in specific. I was totally winging it and crossing my fingers.
I started off with a long shutter speed of 20 seconds, shooting wide open, and trusting auto-ISO. The latter was a mistake. After taking my first few shots I should have picked a decent ISO and stuck with it, and just varied the shutter speed. But ecstatic and frazzled, remember?
The glow dimmed and grew brighter off and on, sometimes forming brighter pillars or sending up spikes. I started experimenting with faster shutter speeds, because I seemed to pick up more detail that way. The last photo below was at only 1 second. But as you can see, the price was a lot of noise degradation from too high of an ISO as compensation.
I’d been out there for about three-quarters of an hour when over the span of several minutes everything intensified, growing brighter and more active. I could finally see a lot of color and movement with my naked eye, rather than depending mostly on my camera. I could see the Aurora Borealis.
Then for a dazzling 30 seconds or so I watched a jaw-dropping show I thought I might never get a chance to see in my life. Curtains of yellow and green light sprang up and danced in a sinuous circle as bright spikes of purple shot high into the sky.
In those few moments everything reversed. What I saw with my eyes was far more spectacular than anything I managed to capture with my camera. It was glorious. I was so amazed and overjoyed at what I was witnessing I exclaimed, “Ohmigod! Ohmigod!” out loud over and over again until the dancing display was finished.
The unexpected gift of being in the right place at the right time to view a natural wonder I’d always wanted to see was worth every miserable minute of that four hour drive.