Photographing the Northern Lights

Northern Lights over Upper Stillwater LakeBefore moving to Montana I had never seen the Northern Lights. The first time I saw them was because I got a text from a friend at the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office: “Northern Lights over Big Mountain.” That came through a little after midnight. I got up, raced out and started shooting. Mesmerizing. That’s what the Lights are. They sway and pulse and dance across the sky in colors and beats that are wildly beautiful and unpredictable.

Tonight I woke up at 1:39 a.m. and noticed the particular shade of green that indicates that outside the lights of the city, the Northern Lights are putting on a show. In a matter of minutes I had my keys, clothes, camera and tripod and was starting up the Jeep. The question is where to go…

If you have never seen the Northern Lights in Montana go to Glacier National Park. The dock at Apgar is one of the best viewing spots there is. One, it’s Glacier (you can never go wrong there). Two, you’ll have the benefit of the frequently smooth as glass Lake McDonald. Three, there are no annoying city lights or power lines to contend with. Four, there is that famous silhouetted horizon the mountains at the east end of the lake. It really is quite perfect.

Aurora Borealis over Glacier

A view of the Northern Lights over Lake McDonald at 11:56 p.m. on Thursday, April 9, in Glacier National Park. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Last year I took this photo of the lights from Apgar. The picture was a complete surprise and people responded to it in a way I never expected. So tonight I was faced with the question of whether or not to return to Apgar. The location is perfection, but would it be really any different than the last time I photographed there? It’s Saturday night, one of the nights when people can be out photographing the Lights and then sleep in the next day, so I knew I wouldn’t be alone if I went to Glacier. And one of the things I wanted was a shot different from what everyone else would be getting.

Years ago I was at a photography workshop and one of the photographers there was a shooter for National Geographic. He wasn’t a teacher, he was on a personal retreat and he didn’t talk too much. But I noticed the way he deliberately moved away from the crowd. He avoided the obvious shot and would hike much further to get something unique. In one of the few times I was brave enough to talk to him, he mentioned that he hated it when people followed him. He didn’t want to be copied, he wanted to find his own images and wanted other people to find what would speak to them. When I was a young photographer I didn’t really understand this. It made sense to me to follow him, after all, he knew what he was doing. Now that I’m a pro, I understand better. There is something powerful and magical about going you’re own way to find your own view. What you find may not match the perfection of the well known, but it will be your own. I wanted that tonight.

So, two roads: I could go with what I knew would work, or I could take off on an adventure and simply hope for the best. I went with the second option and it was so worth it.

Northern Lights over Upper Stillwater LakeInstead of going to Glacier I drove north of US 93. There is a lake called Upper Stillwater and it’s the name that made me want to seek it out. I wanted the reflection to double the effect of the Lights. I’ve seen photos of the Northern Lights from latitudes in the 50s and 60s. And the farther north a person is, the more the Lights seem to fill the entire sky. One day I hope to travel in those regions and see the Lights the way I have seen them photographed. From Montana, (based solely on my own experiences) the lights seem to pretty well hug the north/east horizon.

Since the lights aren’t going to overwhelm the sky here like they do up north, when I go looking to photograph them I go looking for north facing water. It’s not the easiest thing to find in the pitch black dark of night. But when you do find it, the water becomes a mirror. That’s what I’m looking for, that’s the shot I want.

Northern Lights over Upper Stillwater LakeIt is fascinating to stand alone in the dark surrounded by the sounds of the night under the light of the stars. In the coolness of the predawn hours my overactive imagination goes wild with fears of bears and wolves and mountain lions. But even those fears heighten the experience and make me feel more alive. When the Lights are out the stars create points of stillness that accentuate the speed of the solar winds pushing the lights across the sky. The sky dances and it is lovely.

These photos were taken with a Nikon D600 and a 17-35mm f2.8 lens at ISO 640 and exposed for 25-30 seconds. The location is the bridge over Upper Stillwater. What a spectacular night, what a perfect way to begin Mother’s Day.

Northern Lights over Upper Stillwater Lake

Northern Lights over Upper Stillwater Lake

Northern Lights over Upper Stillwater Lake

f20160508NorthernLights_5215

Northern Lights over Upper Stillwater Lake

Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights

Northern Lights over Sunday Lake, near Stryker, Montana

See what a difference 18 minutes can make…

This is my favorite photo of the sunset last night at City Beach, Whitefish, Montana.
b20160315city_beach_0995But the night didn’t start off looking like this. It started off with some great clouds and good light, but the very tip of the mountain was shaded. This is what it started off as…
b20160315city_beach_0876This first photo of the night isn’t ‘bad.’ But it isn’t anything I would normally post. I am only adding this to show the difference that 18 minutes can make.

Photography is a waiting game. You see the light, you see the clouds, you go. You find your location and you wait. In the wind, and the cold, you sit on some rock and wait and hope. You hope that as the sun continues to drop eventually it is going to strike the top of Big Mountain. And the clouds will light up with color. And you know that if you’ll just wait you will have a chance at getting so incredibly lucky, or you’ll get nothing but colder.

The days that are hardest are the ones when the light doesn’t quite do what you need it to, and you walk away with photos that are just “meh.”
Eighteen minutes. Biting cold. Shivering in the wind. The sound of the water making me feel even colder. Battling doubt as the minutes creep by and wondering, ‘am I wasting my time out here?’ And then at the very end of sunset the last, most colorful light, struck the top of Big Mountain and just like that — Boom! — worth it.
Absolutely and unquestionably worth the wait.
Patience is always a virtue, but that is especially true in photography. In that 18 minutes most of the people who beat me to this location packed up and left. They didn’t see the finale.
I wish I could say that every time I wait and watch I get rewarded, but that isn’t true. A lot of the time, I just get cold. But I always know there is this chance for pure delight. And even when I don’t get it, I don’t regret it. I guess the simple truth is, it’s always worthwhile — photos or no — because it restores my soul.

Here are the in between photos. Enjoy.

b20160315city_beach_0899
b20160315city_beach_0950
b20160315city_beach_0971
b20160315city_beach_0988
b20160315city_beach_0993
b20160315city_beach_1004

The Big Mountain Location Challenge

Big Mountain from downtown Whitefish at dawn.

Big Mountain from downtown Whitefish at dawn.

This post is really going to only apply to people who have some connection to the Flathead Valley. I need help with a project and I’m getting desperate. So I have decided create this Big Mountain Location Challenge. The winner will get a complimentary 16×20 print of either the photo they made possible, or any of my other photographs that they wish.

Here’s the back story:

It’s hard to believe this started at least two years ago. I have a friend who loves my photography. He has consistently purchased aluminum prints to decorate his house and I’m honored. As friendship has grown and changed over the years he’s gone from picking photos that I’ve taken to hang on his wall, to giving me assignments. I’m basically making custom artwork for him. He’s from Montana, so when he told me has this mental image of the Swan range at sunset, he’s not really talking about the view he saw from his living room window growing up, he’s talking about a lifetime of seeing and loving those mountains. And so I get to go out, drive around, scout for locations and then wait until the weather is perfect to go and try to capture his vision. It’s hard enough to be working on my own artistic vision of a scene, but add to that the challenge of taking a modern photograph that somehow captures a lifetime of memories and associations…it’s not easy. But it is worthwhile.

In my personal photography work the only person I am shooting for, and the only person I have to please, is me. If others like what I create, great. If not, oh well. Trying to capture someone’s predetermined mental image is vastly different than shooting for myself. But like Tom Hanks said in A League of Their Own, “It’s the hard that makes it great.”

After many attempts I got the Swan Range photo. The challenge I am currently working on is Big Mountain with the ski lights on. I shot this a bit last year, but none of those were quite what was wanted. This week I went to dinner with this guy and his family and I got the not so subtle hint that the lights on the mountain are on again on Saturdays and Sundays (what we was actually saying is: “Get back to work”). Skiing with the lights on is significant to him because of the memories it provokes of time with his wife and kids and maybe even times from when he was a kid skiing under those lamps. The weight of the nostalgia connected to this mental image of his, is only adding to challenge for me.

I went out for sunrise this morning, because it turns out the lights are on for dawn as well. Yeah, more changes for me. But I am still not finding the ideal location.

wBig_mountain_8631

So, if anyone reading this has a suggestion for the perfect location from which to photograph the ski lights and Big Mountain please message me via Facebook. I will need to scout the location in the day time and then randomly show up there when the light is right. If you have a friend or family with property on the lake, or a vast field that looks across to the mountain, or whatever, I want to see it. If your location creates the photograph that finally gets the approval of my most persnickety friend, then I will give you a 16×20 photograph of either the photo you made possible, or any of my other photographs that you may prefer. Please message me if you are interested in submitting a location.

The first person to submit a location gets it, so if you have more than one idea, mail them in. Two, I am NOT the person who will be deciding this. He is. And honestly, I never have a clue what this guy is going to choose.

Thank you in advance!

wBig_mountain_8722

wBig_mountain_8690

wBig_mountain_8698

Today I am celebrating six years in Montana. Six years at the Daily Inter Lake. I love this place. I love the job. I love my life. And for the past couple of weeks I have been working on a video slideshow and an article for the paper that was published yesterday.

About 24 hours ago I posted my video. Tonight I’m looking at the Facebook stats and honestly I’ve never had anything behave the way this video did. It has reached more than 100,000 people, had 28 thousand views and been shared more than 1000 times. The experience is rather humbling and definitely surreal.

Thank you for your interest in this story. For my blog I am going to focus on photos that didn’t make it into the video. Here is the story that started all this. I hope you enjoy. — Bren

aMontana_Life_Brenda

Photographic Memories
Photos and story by Brenda Ahearn
Layout and design by Seaborn Larson

Tomorrow will be my sixth anniversary as a photographer for the Daily Inter Lake, and I’d like to give readers my personal thank-you note. In my years here I have had many people reach out to me, give me positive feedback and make me feel welcome. I am deeply grateful. But when I think of the people who have made this job such a positive experience, the person I think of first is actually the photographer who had the job before me, Karen Nichols.

Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park at sunrise.

Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park at sunrise.

Karen Nichols is beloved. When I first started working for the Inter Lake, I would go out on assignment and every day, every photo shoot, I would introduce myself and people would say something along the line of: “Oh you’re the new photographer? We LOVE Karen.” They let me know very clearly that I was following in the footsteps of someone great. Karen is a true talent and an amazing person. Every time I heard someone say how much they loved Karen, all I could think was, “Yes. I’m trying my very best.”

Whitefish Lake in Whitefish, Montana.

Whitefish Lake in Whitefish, Montana.

After several months on the job, I got an unexpected phone call from Karen. She invited me out to lunch. I didn’t have many friends at the time, and I remember being really impressed that she would reach out to the new photographer. We went to Gresko’s and as we ate our sandwiches Karen told me she had been watching my work, and that she wanted me to know I was doing a good job. This compliment felt huge. For months all I had heard was how amazing this woman is; to have her tell me I was on the right track was exactly the encouragement I needed.

Flathead National Forest north of Whitefish, Montana.

Flathead National Forest north of Whitefish, Montana.

I told her what I had been hearing, how every person I met seemed to have some story of her, or some compliment of her work. And Karen smiled. She bowed her head a bit and took the compliments I passed on humbly and graciously. I remember thinking that she had true grace. Then she looked back up at me and told me that one day, I would have people who felt that way about me and my work.

A view of Glacier National Park from Swiftcurrent Trail.

A view of Glacier National Park from Swiftcurrent Trail.

That didn’t seem possible at the time, but it became my goal. And now, six years later, I find she was right. I still run into people who love Karen. And they make me smile. But I also run into people who appreciate me. Believe me, when you have bright red hair and a press pass your identity doesn’t remain a secret for long. And that’s OK, because I have had people over and over stop to me to tell me that they like my work.

Dickey Lake north of Whitefish, Montana.

Dickey Lake north of Whitefish, Montana.

I find it sweet when someone sees my name on a form and they get this puzzled look on their faces as they wonder why my name looks so familiar. A couple of times a year I’ll get an email from a firefighter in Ferndale, telling me he’s made one of my photos his new computer background. Once when I was out photographing a car wreck I had a person figure out who I was and start telling me how much they like my photos. I didn’t have a lot of time because I had work to do, but I never forgot that person or the effort they made to let me know my work matters. There are people who call and leave messages. Or write emails. Or send flowers. Once I did a portrait of a World War II veteran. He was so pleased he sent the reporter and me each a box of chocolates.

Sunset in North Glacier near Polebridge, Montana.

Sunset in North Glacier near Polebridge, Montana.

These people do more than offer a pat on the back; they remind me of some important truths:

1. Community journalism is the best. When I was a young photographer I met a famous photographer to the stars. He said something that shaped the direction of my life. He told me that what we must not forget is that photography is about people, places and things. He said as you climb the ladder the people get more famous, the places get more exotic and the things get more expensive, but they are still just people, places and things. He said if he had understood that when he was young, he would have stayed at a smaller newspaper where he could really be a part of the community and use his talent and position to make a difference. I love living and working in the Flathead Valley because this is a place where I feel I can make a difference.

2. A photo in the newspaper is a big deal. I’ve been working for newspapers since 1997. When you are in this business it’s easy to get to a point where a front page photo is just another day in the life. However, it is a very big deal to the person who is in the photograph. Because of my job I have gotten to meet some incredible people and be part of telling amazing stories. It is a daily challenge and a daily responsibility. There are a lot of aspects about this job that are fun, but there are aspects that are important. And doing the job well is important.

3. “Work is a blessing.” My grandmother used to say this. When I applied for this job I was one of more than a hundred applicants. And the other photographer at the time let me know I was not the first choice. But the first choice said no, and so here I am. Over the years I have become the senior photographer for the Inter Lake, and my Grams was right, my work has been a blessing.

It’s a blessing I am grateful for. I love where I get to live and love what I get to do. I meet people who challenge me, inspire me, fill me with respect and push me to live life more fully. That’s the best part of working at a newspaper.

Boats on the dock at Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.

Boats on the dock at Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park.

Last year while on assignment for the Inter Lake’s This Week in the Flathead publication, I was photographing the Northwest Artist Syndicate’s singer/songwriter competition. That was the first time I heard Mike Murray sing “Bury Me in Montana.” The song wrapped around my brain and instantly stole my heart. When I started thinking of how I wanted to share a look back at my years here, I knew it had to be a slide show and it had to have Mike’s song as the sound track. Here is the link to the video: https://www.facebook.com/BrendaAhearnPhotography/videos/1658748397701285/?fref=nf

Double rainbow over Flathead Lake from Lakeside, Montana.

Double rainbow over Flathead Lake from Lakeside, Montana.

Thank you to every person who has let me photograph them, and every person who has written or called or just said “well done” in passing. You mean more to me than you know.

Sunset south of Whitefish, Montana.

Sunset south of Whitefish, Montana.

I spent a lot of years hoping I would find a newspaper that I could settle down at, a place where I could build a life and stick around for 20-plus years. I think I finally found it.

Super moon over Flathead Lake, from Rollins, Montana.

Super moon over Flathead Lake, from Rollins, Montana.

Aerial view of Glacier National Park.

Aerial view of Glacier National Park.

Flathead National Forest north of Whitefish, Montana.

Flathead National Forest north of Whitefish, Montana.

Sunrise at Dickey Lake, north of Whitefish, Montana.

Sunrise at Dickey Lake, north of Whitefish, Montana.

Sunset at Whitefish Lake with a view of Big Mountain.

Sunset at Whitefish Lake with a view of Big Mountain.

Storm over Creston, Montana.

Storm over Creston, Montana.

Sunrise view north of Kalispell, Montana.

Sunrise view north of Kalispell, Montana.

Winter sunset near Polebridge, Montana.

Winter sunset near Polebridge, Montana.