Marines in their blues

For me, few things are as inspiring as seeing United States Marines in their dress blues. They look sharp. And strong. And good. All the qualities that remind me of my father (Sgt. Michael James Ahearn, USMC, Vietnam War Veteran).  I have a deep appreciation for all who have served in the Armed Forces, but I will admit, I have a particular bias is for the Marines.

This week the Daily Inter Lake sent me out to document the festivities on the Fourth. Highlight of the day: seeing the local Flathead Marines looking good and stepping sharply down main street in the annual Fourth of July parade in Kalispell.

Semper Fi Marines! Well done.

northwest montana kalispell parade fourth of july

parade kalipsell

KPD Kalispell police Marines




Other scenes from the day…









Black and white wedding in Glacier National ParkOn of my favorite things with weddings is to go back and pick out photos to re-edit in black and white. When I started out in photography (in 1996) I started on black and white film. Tmax. Tri-X. We used bulk loaders to fill reusable film canisters and chemicals like Dektol and Stop bath and Fixer. One of these days I have to write about my mentor, Tim Webb, who opened my eyes to photography and the amazing world that goes with it. I am always so grateful.

I now shoot everything digitally. Part of this is related to being a newspaper photographer. Newspapers embraced digital early and didn’t look back. Even before the technology was as good as it is now, digital gave the media a new and incredible speed, and journalism loves that. But even though I have no wish to switch back to film, I still love the look of black and white. And so, when I have finished photographing a wedding, I go back through the images and choose favorites (mostly from the portraits) that I believe would be (dare I say) better in black and white. I love color. But monochrome…it will always have a place in my heart.

For Armed Forces Day I was lucky enough to photograph a soldier and his bride in Glacier National Park. To see the color photos from this, you can check out the blog I wrote before this ( I would never want to photograph a wedding on black and white film or with digital in black and white mode. Once you make that choice, the color information is lost. But I’ll happily spend the time with color files to convert them to grayscale and re-tone them. Black and white is elegant and has its own magic. It’s worth the extra time and trouble, and so far, my clients seem to love it. It’s something extra I get to give to them and it connects me to my own photography roots. Win/win.

I’m attaching some comparisons here, black and white vs. color. I have to admit, it’s not entirely a fair comparison, the day of this wedding we had incredibly overcast skies that were hours away from a complete downpour. That made for some wonderful soft light at noon, but it also meant that the colors don’t “pop” the same way they normally do. Still, the side-by-sides show the way black and white really focuses in on the composition of a frame. I love monochrome for this reason.

black and white wedding dress

mother of the bride and bride at Lake McDonald

first kiss in Glacier National Park

Glacier National Park, Lake McDonald wedding on Armed Forces Day

Lake McDonald Lodge wedding day, bride and bouquet

A soldier and his bride and their wedding in Glacier

Montan Veterans Home chapel Army wedding

Montana Veterans Home chapel Army wedding

black and white wedding photos

Glacier Wedding

Glacier National Park wedding

May is a risky month for weddings in Montana. Some days are warm and sunny, some are cold and beautiful, and a lot of days are rainy and dower. There is little in May that can be described as predictable. So it’s touchy scheduling wedding May weddings. The simple truth is, you never know what you are going to get.

Armed Forces Day weddingA few days ago I photographed the wedding of my friend Collin and his bride Miss Liz. We had a perfect day in Glacier National Park with soft light and overcast but dry skies. We didn’t get the dramatic light and bold colors we were all hoping for, but neither did we get doused and that was a win for everyone.

It was the day before that was craziness…

bride and mother

On Friday I was on the phone with both Collin and Liz. I wanted to make sure they didn’t need any last minute details taken care of by me. When I called Miss Liz she was tied in knots about the weather and the predictions for an incoming storm. She didn’t want to cause problems for anyone of the guest, but neither did she want to give up her dream of getting married in Glacier.

Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park wedding

For my part, the answer was pretty obvious, go with Glacier. Even if we get rained on. Even if it isn’t what you dreamed of. Buy umbrellas (they bought a dozen clear umbrellas) and go for Glacier and hope for the best.

Armed Forces Day wedding

And the best is what they got. They had there ceremony on the banks of Lake McDonald, bright flowers at the Lodge added a touch of color, and the overcast skies made taking photos at 1230 in the afternoon not a complete photography nightmare. And, as an added bonus, the couple decided to hold two ceremonies. One at Glacier, and then a second at their wedding reception for the people who couldn’t get to the park. More photo ops for me.  ;)


I so love that one of the reasons they considered not going to Glacier was out of concern for me and my gear. I am also outrageously happy I was able to tell both these wonderful people that I was good to go and we should take the chance on the mountains and the park.

And it worked. The gamble paid off.

ring detail

One moment I will not soon forget was driving home from the reception, looking south and seeing the storm front moving in. The rains kindly waited until this wedding day was complete. It makes a photographer smile…

Photos by Brenda Ahearn Photography wedding dress

Photos by Brenda Ahearn Photography

Photos by Brenda Ahearn Photography

here comes the bride

best man

Lake McDonald wedding

with this ring

Photos by Brenda Ahearn Photography



Photos by Brenda Ahearn Photography

Glacier National Park wedding

Photos by Brenda Ahearn Photography

Photos by Brenda Ahearn Photography

Photos by Brenda Ahearn Photography

Montana Veterans Home chapel

Photos by Brenda Ahearn Photography

Photos by Brenda Ahearn Photography

Photos by Brenda Ahearn Photography

Photos by Brenda Ahearn Photography

Photos by Brenda Ahearn Photography

Photos by Brenda Ahearn Photography

Montana Veterans Home chapel

Photos by Brenda Ahearn Photography

Montana Veterans Home chapel

Photos by Brenda Ahearn Photography

Photos by Brenda Ahearn Photography

Photos by Brenda Ahearn Photography

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


Northern Lights over Upper Stillwater Lake

Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights

Northern Lights over Sunday Lake, near Stryker, Montana

Art and Fear

“When your work is counted, will it be counted as art?…Acceptance and approval are powers held by others.”
— From Art and Fear.

There in a great and terrible power in the negative voice.

Why are criticisms so much easier to believe than compliments? When someone says something kind, I smile, say thank you, and go on my merry way — grateful, but forgetful. But say one negative thing, even without malice, and I find myself coming back to those hurtful words over and over again. I feel like an oyster desperately trying to protect myself form the irritation of a tiny grain of sand. Maybe all this would be easier if I thought at the end of it, I would at least have earned a pearl of wisdom, but it doesn’t seem to work that way. The pain and suffering seem useless, futile.
I have the perfect example for this. Six months ago I posted a video slideshow to my Facebook page (the photos in this post are a few of the shots from that slideshow). I got a huge response to this. I’m not a famous photographer so my numbers might be lackluster in the eyes of some, but to a mostly-anonymous photographer in the middle of nowhere Montana, the numbers created by this video far outmatched anything I’ve created before or since.
If you want to see the video and have a Facebook account, here is the link:
Here is what this video did for me.
More than 1000 likes to my Facebook page in about a month. That was a nice ego boost.
2,536 people reacted to the video.
7,997 people shared it.
197,594 people watched it.
I got hundreds of comments from people. Most consisted of simple things like: “Wow,” “Beautiful,” and “Thank you.” And everyone one of these made me smile, made me grateful.
But a lot of the comments were more personal. I now have a Facebook friend who follows my work from France and comments in French (a language I sadly can’t speak — thank God for google translator). Her comments are so encouraging and because they’re in a foreign language, each one is like a delightful treat.
A woman who lives in Costa Rica offered to let me stay at her place if I ever wanted to come down and photograph that country. Wow.
For the slideshow I matched the photos with the song “Bury Me in Montana” by singer/songwriter Mike Murray. The song is incredible and is on his album Tumbleweed which you can find on iTunes at: (it’s track number 11 the Alternative version). Some people who viewed the video really connected with their grief and I got comments from people about lost loved ones and how this video touched them and was a comfort to them. I am an artist who has lost both of her parents, so these types of comments were dearest to my heart.
Some comments people wrote:
“Absolutely wonderful, Brenda, thank you for this beautiful work of love! Makes me miss Montana all the more! I will share this, too gorgeous not to! Blessings to you!”
“Your work is beautiful. Being a lapsed photographer I do know the hours that went into your presentation. Keep going with your passion you have a real talent.”
“Brenda your photography is insanely good!! What you capture through the lens is gorgeous. If you words don’t make it into some kind of printed compilation it will be a shame. Beautiful work!”
Who wouldn’t want to get comments like these? And there are hundreds of them. So much good. So many kind people. So many expressions of love and gratitude.
And yet…
Of course, it isn’t all perfect or kind. There is one person in particular who couldn’t be kind a wrote a comment that started off with “I’m sorry” (because if you’re going to insult someone you should always start with an apology.) “I’m sorry but…” she basically said that she was sorry but she felt compelled to point out that my photography really isn’t all that good. She went on to link to another photographer’s Facebook page as an example of what a “real” artist can do.
I didn’t respond.
I mean really, what is there to say?
“Thank you.” Nope. Not grateful.
“The photographer you admire sucks.” Nope. I don’t need to go on the attack.
I could acknowledge how much she hurt me, but why give her that kind of power?
So, I said nothing. I ignored the comment and since this was six months ago, I couldn’t get back to it to find it if I had to. After all this time, after thousands of joyful, positive, enthusiastic, great, amazing, heart-warming, inspiring, edifying, uplifting, unique, thoughtful, and gratitude-inducing moments that have come from this video there is still only one comment that I remember clearly, and it’s the negative one. One negative voice, in a sea of compliments, and that is the voice I hold onto.
Why is that?

Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake A sunrise view of Reynolds Mountain over an alpine meadow on Thursday, September 13, in Glacier National Park.

After the deaths of my parents I remember finding a beautiful little poem that I memorized and have remembered now for 15 years. He wrote:
“Our joys as winged dreams do fly,
Why then should sorry last?
Since grief but aggravates thy loss,
Grieve not for what is past.”
Sunrise Over Dickey Lake
A few weeks ago I read a great little book that has been helpful and challenging. It’s called Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Making Art by David Bayles and Ted Orland.
There are so many great quotes in this book, I took pages of notes while reading it. But for the purpose of this blog I am going to end with three. These are the three things I am trying to remember, trying to hold onto and learn instead of getting wrapped around that negative voice.
“Making the work you want to make means finding your nourishment within the work itself.”
“The viewer’s concerns are not your concerns. Their job is whatever it is: to be moved by art, to be entertained by it, to make a killing off it, whatever. Your job is to learn to work on your work.”
“Catering to fears of being misunderstood…you discard your own highest vision in the process.”
Colorful Sunrise
I’m going to hold on to what was worth holding onto from this experience. I am going to hold onto the people who wrote with love and kindness in their hearts and who touched my life and left me feeling alive, and appreciated, and so very grateful. This has been a bit of a challenge, but the work should always be a challenge. My mentor (and best friend) always used to quote Tom Hanks from the movie A League of Their Own.
“It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”
Whatever else my life ends up being, it certainly has offered moments that  were truly great. Every bit of challenge has been worthwhile.

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)


(Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

North Fork Buck

Blue Sky Morning


2010 Looking Back


Trumpeter Swans on Flathead Lake

Spring Thaw comes to Lake McDonald



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.


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.


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!