Outside Alaska, the northern lights are a rare treat in the United States, but the aurora captured in this image was visible across most of the country. I’m honored the dazzling display so many of us witnessed that night in our “spacious skies” will be featured on a new pane of U.S. Forever postage stamps to illustrate the lyrics of America the Beautiful.
I took this photograph in the North Cascades of Washington state, just after 1 a.m. on Halloween, 2003. It’s rare to have a couple of nights in a year where I can see the northern lights in my home state, but this was the second night in a row that they were not only visible, they put on a spectacular show. That show began with one of the biggest solar storms on record, a tremendous blast of electrically-charged particles that skywatchers talked about for years.
We see the northern lights when charged particles from the sun crash into Earth's magnetic field, energizing gas molecules in our atmosphere. Those molecules shine as they release that energy. If the colors remind you a bit of neon lights, it's perhaps because the basic mechanics are the same. The aurora is relatively common near the poles, but if the solar storm is strong, it can push the light show toward the equator. The night I captured this image, people in Texas and Florida also saw the northern lights. The solar storm was so strong it even affected compass readings in Alaska.
The first night, I took my images from about halfway up Mount Pilchuck, a prominent mountain about 60 miles northeast of Seattle that delivers sweeping views of the North Cascades. I had expected to see just a green glow on the horizon, but was moved by pillars of light that seemed to erupt from the mountaintops. I concentrated on tighter, vertical compositions to accentuate them.
With the forecast indicating that I would have a second chance to photograph them, I set out the next night to produce a wider landscape that showed the aurora over a cluster of peaks. Working again from Mount Pilchuck, I placed Liberty Mountain and Three Fingers near the center of my frame.
That second night of northern lights was every bit as impressive as the first, but they challenged the capabilities of cameras at the time. The aurora is in motion. Pillars appear and vanish. The overall curtain of light shimmers. Meanwhile, the Earth’s rotation has the stars moving in the sky.
To get anything other than a blur, you need to use a relatively fast shutter speed, but there isn’t enough light to work with at the camera’s highest-quality settings. The aurora is too faint.
I boosted the light sensitivity of my Canon 1Ds to ISO 400 — the highest setting I was comfortable with. Digital cameras produce grainier images as the light sensitivity is increased and I knew if I went much above that setting, I would get an image that was more digital noise than aurora. At that setting, it still took an exposure of 20 seconds to capture enough light to show the northern lights in their colorful glory. The 24mm lens provided a wide enough view to keep the stars as pinpoints at that shutter speed.
The northern lights that night were at their best for about an hour, though the image used on the stamp was the second I captured. I think the pillars of light align better with the peaks than they did later in the night. If you look closely, you can also see the Big Dipper on the right-center of the image. It became more vertical with every passing minute.
Since then, I’ve photographed the northern lights many more times with better cameras and in more favorable locations, including the northern reaches of Iceland, but I still hold fond memories of the two nights I was treated to such an extraordinary show in the wilderness I call home.
Fine-art prints of this image are available in several sizes.