For the last year or so, Robbie and I have had somewhat of an obsession with seeing the Northern Lights. If he isn't on the road and we get word that they might be visible here, we'll likely drop whatever we're doing (sometimes this even means sleeping for the night) to jump in the car and drive away from the city lights to try to catch a glimpse. Perhaps those of you who live in Alaska or Canada or Finland find this slightly silly, since you guys get to see this awesome phenomena on a much more regular basis. But the elusive Aurora Borealis is very rarely strong enough to be seen from down here in northern Illinois. And despite all of the amazing natural wonders I've been lucky enough to see in my lifetime, I have never once seen the Northern Lights, so it's a big one on my list. I told Robbie the other night that it just seems wrong that I've snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef, on the complete opposite side of the world, yet have never even caught a peek at the Aurora. Sigh. (Poor me, I know.)
As those of you who follow me on Twitter may know, we had one of these mini adventures Saturday night, when heard there was a solar storm and hopped in the car around 11 PM to drive northwest, away from the urban-ness in search of our beloved lights. Alas, we were back home a little after 1 AM, having seen nothing out of the ordinary aside from a really creepy abandoned house on a gravel road when we took a wrong turn.
Thankfully, on Sunday we read that there was going to be another opportunity to see them from our location, this time with an even better chance. So Robbie decided that we were going to go buy a cheap remote for our Canon, set up the tripod on our back porch late that night, aim the camera north, and play around with long exposures. Our goal was not to shoot pretty photographs of the night sky, like in the truly amazing shots above, because this is basically impossible from a porch in an urban area drowning in light pollution. All we hoped for was to maybe pick up a tiny glimpse of the Aurora that our naked eyes alone couldn't see. I'll admit that Robbie was much more committed than me, and hung out on the porch for several hours (I made it for about 45 minutes). We didn't catch the Northern Lights (booooo), but it was a good excuse for us to practice shooting with long exposure, which neither of us had really done before.
Because of the excessive amount of ambient light, the photos don't look like much, and most of them are overexposed because we were leaving the shutter open for 20 to 30 seconds in an effort to catch the Aurora. But it was really cool to compare them to the sky we saw with our eyes. It was after midnight, and when we looked up at the sky, we could barely make out any stars, and everything looked quite hazy and very dark. The pictures taken with long exposures, which were able to capture more than the human eye was capable of detecting, showed stars that we couldn't otherwise see, and lightened the sky. We couldn't see the Big Dipper when we looked at the sky, but we were able to see it in the photos. It was actually really fascinating.
I'm going to veer slightly off topic for a minute and say that it's almost shocking how much light pollution exists in the Chicago area (and most other major cities, I'm sure). And I'm not just talking about the urban and suburban areas. Even out in the rural places, you could still see the haze of Chicagoland lights all along the horizon. One of the things I miss the most about living in Colorado and Oregon is looking up and seeing a big sky speckled with bright white stars. Most of the time, I like living in a more populated area with an abundance of culture and food and choices at my fingertips. But when I'm in the mood to star gaze, I sure wish I could click my heels three times and wake up in the middle of nowhere. Just for that night.
Hopefully we'll be able to take a little camping trip sometime this summer and try the long exposure shots in a darker, more remote place. If we do, I'll be sure to post some photos and tips. In the meantime, if you're interested in being a fellow Northern Light storm chaser, this site is great for the most up to date information and real time predictions.
Images, from top: Lake Manitoba in Canada, via National Geographic // Aurora in Finland, via The Telegraph // Lake Superior in Michigan, via National Geographic // Aurora in Quebec, via National Geographic // Sparks Lake in Oregon, 07/16/2012, via Goldpaint Photography // Our shots of the big dipper and night sky, Chicago area, 07/16/2012