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

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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.
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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: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/tumbleweed/id1008787372 (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.
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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…
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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)

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(Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

North Fork Buck

Blue Sky Morning

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2010 Looking Back

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Trumpeter Swans on Flathead Lake

Spring Thaw comes to Lake McDonald

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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.

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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

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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.

Chasing someone else’s vision

fb20150215_big_mtn_1393I have a friend. A great friend. A very particular friend. One might even say a persnickety friend.

This friend loves my photography. Sweet, right?

This friend likes to hang my photos on his wall. And I’m honored.

This friend likes to come to me with projects. It will start off simple enough. Something like…  “Ok. Here is what I want a photo of next.” I listen. And as I listen my head usually starts to hurt. There is this thing that he loves, or this view he remembers from childhood, or this place that is important to him and his family. And so I get an “assignment.” He tells me what he wants, and I go out and try to capture it.

It is incredibly difficult trying to capture someone else’s vision. I go. I see what I can see. Find what I can find. But with these assignments, I’m not looking for what interests me. I am looking to capture the elusive whatever that makes this site special to him.

It isn’t easy. Last time we did this it was a view of the Upper Swan Mountains at sunset. A view he grew up with. This assignment took me all over the Valley and lead to some photos I was really happy with. It also lead to a new photo on his wall. Finally. Now it’s a view of Big Mountain with the nighttime ski lights on.

fb20150215_big_mtn_1463I do not doubt there are more attempts at this to come. The odds that I have successfully captured something he’ll approve for a place on his wall in one attempt are virtually nil. No way I’m getting that lucky.

But while I whine about how hard these assignments are, the truth is I love them. He has good tastes for what will make a beautiful photo and anything that drags me out into the world and makes stretch those creative muscles has to be a good thing. Plus, there are usually other views, other images, other photos to capture while I am work on his project. That was definitely true on Sunday night.

So here are the first round of photos of Big Mountain and some of the other shots I found. I’ll update this post later once I have the stamp of approval or once I have a round two of images to share.

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Those are my favorites of Big Mountain. Here are some of the other views from that night.

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What a night… More to come. Cheers!

 

 

— 30 —

 

Another attempt at the perfect Swan Mountain Sunset

Last night as I left the office for the day, I looked up at the sky and just knew the sunset was going to be incredible. I hopped in my jeep and took off toward Bigfork, to the place where I had such wonderful views last time. But the light was fading fast and honestly I didn’t know if I could make it. So half way there I veered north toward Columbia Falls. This is what I caught….sunset and snowI am adding these photos chronologically. So you can see the way the light changes as it disappears.swan mountain rangeThese photos are part of a project I wrote about a few weeks ago. This is my attempt to capture a beloved set of mountains for a highly particular client. To read that entry click here.storm over the swan mountainsAfter a night like this it is impossible to not feel outrageously blessed. Life is good and I am happy and what could possibly be wrong with the world when there is beauty like this to take in? I know, life is never as simple as that, but in those moments standing alone in a snow covered field, watching the light strike the peaks and bounce up into the low hanging clouds above, my life was perfect.Swan Peak with cloudsI didn’t get to show these to my friend yet. He’ll see them today I hope and maybe, just maybe, one of these shots will be the one that finally wins a space on his wall.Swan Mountain sunsetWhether these win his final approval or not, I had an incredible night. Nights like that, sights like these, remind me how good life really is, and how blessed am I.
Love and best wishes to you all, BrenSwan with Clouds
Favorite of the Swan?
storm clouds over the Swan Mountains
Vertical of the Swan
Cloudy Swan Mountains
Last light on the Swan Mountains
Last light on the Swan Mountains