Tree with a view

Here’s something I never expected: to be out photographing auroras Friday night instead of tucked snugly into my bed! I was caught off guard by a sudden impulse warning from the Space Weather Prediction Center, and took off to catch any auroras that developed.

My ace in the hole: friends on patrol for local law enforcement who can let me know if it’s worth saddling up the truck and throwing my gear therein. I got a text that the auroras were “crackin!” and that was all I needed.

Things didn’t pan out at the first place I went to, but I did notice this little tree in the middle of nowhere as I went looking for a suitable foreground object. I figured it would do just fine, and I was right.

You can bet I’ll have a better plan for the next time the auroras spike! I have dozens of places marked in my GPS, it’s just a matter of being ready to bolt there at a moment’s notice.

Love tractor

Sunday night I went out on a limb to stay out late and chase the auroras with some friends. While they went for the wide shots on a hill overlooking our favorite farmstead (which we visit with permission), I decided to brave the dark alone and head toward a pile of old equipment. I knew I wanted another crack at photographing this baby, a nearly hundred-year-old Rumely Oil Pull kerosene-driven tractor!

A curious and somewhat protective owl landed just above me on an old threshing machine as its young screeched in a nearby tree. I used my 6-D-cell “Louisville Slugger” style Maglite to do some “light painting” on the tractor once I was set up in place. I got the tractor, the Northern Lights, and the Big Dipper in the shot, lit to my liking after many attempts. Evenly lighting something in the dark by waving a flashlight at it isn’t as easy as it may sound.

If you’d like to see what such a beast looked like in its heyday, check out this video of a restored 1921 model:

I love this machine and hope to photograph it again under different circumstances…thus the title of this post, also a reference to the name of one of my favorite 80’s Athens bands.

Morning alignment

From an astronomy point of view, this was a pretty cool deal: two planets aligning with the Pleiades star cluster. To top it off, the Northern Lights were at play as well.

This is actually an even better catch than is readily apparent; right before I snapped it, the clouds were covering Venus. Right after, the auroras faded from the northeastern sky. A sliver of moon appeared above the horizon as well, but only at the expense of the Pleiades fading from sight as sunrise approached. All in all, it was a matter of delicate timing.

No, I didn’t really sleep last night. Yes, I did get Northern Lights photos. More on that later.

In case you thought I ran out of Northern Lights photos…I haven’t (with lurking Cougar)

With permission, I was able to roam an amazing old farmstead for the last huge solar blast, shooting time lapses and stills until nearly four in the morning. I didn’t even get to explore every corner of the yard, but I did get an amazing variety of shots…even though I’ve never seen the place in the daylight to scout it out! For instance, the shot above shows a stoic Rumely Oil Pull kerosene-burning tractor…facing south, it appears oblivious to the amazing lightshow taking place behind it.

This rustic garage is home to a few noteworthy artifacts, the most obvious being the 1971-1973 Mercury Cougar peeking around the corner at me. Once again, with the rainbow colored sheets of light shooting across the northern sky, this is a bad time to be stuck on blocks inside the garage.

I’ll continue to roll out Northern Lights photos from time to time, but hopefully I’ll be able to acquire even more in the near future! We’re approaching the peak of the solar maximum, so I expect this to be a very interesting summer. With any luck we’ll have plenty of opportunities for photos like these!

Out for a spin, and the most unique aurora photo I’ve ever taken

I decided to go out on a limb and head out on this breezy night in the hopes of seeing some auroras. I spotted a dull glow in the northern sky and set up to take a quick shot. As you can see from the blurred windmill, the breeze was blowing tonight. The auroras didn’t ever do anything for me other than cast a dull green glow near the horizon, so I started coming home. I did, however, spot something really cool…

Too bad I couldn’t get the Northern Lights in the background of this shot, because that would simply be too darn cool. I could Photoshop it, but that’s not how I operate. In any case, I came home with a unique “Aurora” photo to show you!

Aurora borealis time-lapse video, and a caveat about uploading things to YouTube and other video sites

I’m sorry this isn’t iPhone enabled (silly that they won’t display Flash content) but I’ll have to work on compatibility another time. I uploaded this video to my blog’s Facebook page but they really destroy the video quality so I wanted to post it where it looks decent.

I’m a firm believer in applying enough bandwidth to make the video look decent in detail. I’d love to put it on YouTube or Vimeo, but there are problems with that. As a result, I’m hosting it myself in Flash Video (FLV) format. This will display on pretty much every device out there EXCEPT my beloved Apple devices – iPod, iPhone, iPad… bummer, but at least I maintain ownership of my content.

What’s that, you say? YouTube and Vimeo assume ownership of your content? Not exactly…but what they DO assume is a perpetual license to keep, use, distribute, and make new videos from your content. Once you upload to them, you’re without any rights whatsoever.

Here’s how you sign your rights away by uploading to YouTube, according to their Terms of Service page:

“However, by submitting Content to YouTube, you hereby grant YouTube a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free, sublicenseable and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the Content in connection with the Service and YouTube’s (and its successors’ and affiliates’) business, including without limitation for promoting and redistributing part or all of the Service (and derivative works thereof) in any media formats and through any media channels. You also hereby grant each user of the Service a non-exclusive license to access your Content through the Service, and to use, reproduce, distribute, display and perform such Content as permitted through the functionality of the Service and under these Terms of Service. The above licenses granted by you in video Content you submit to the Service terminate within a commercially reasonable time after you remove or delete your videos from the Service. You understand and agree, however, that YouTube may retain, but not display, distribute, or perform, server copies of your videos that have been removed or deleted. The above licenses granted by you in user comments you submit are perpetual and irrevocable. (YouTube Terms of Service page)

Vimeo’s policies are equally disturbing:

“By submitting a video, you grant Vimeo and its affiliates a limited, worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license and right to copy, transmit, distribute, publicly perform and display (through all media now known or hereafter created), and make derivative works from your video for the purpose of (i) displaying the video within the Vimeo Service; (ii) displaying the video on third party websites and applications through a video embed or Vimeo’s API subject to your video privacy choices; (iii) allowing other users to play, download, and embed on third party websites the video, subject to your video privacy choices; (iii) promoting the Vimeo Service, provided that you have made the video publicly available; and (iv) archiving or preserving the video for disputes, legal proceedings, or investigations.” (Vimeo Terms of Service Page)

So…have you uploaded something containing yourself, your kids, your friends, or anything else personal to you? Congratulations; you just signed away your rights to it. But it gets even worse; check out these two clauses:

“To the extent permitted by applicable law, you agree to defend, indemnify and hold harmless YouTube, its parent corporation, officers, directors, employees and agents, from and against any and all claims, damages, obligations, losses, liabilities, costs or debt, and expenses (including but not limited to attorney’s fees) arising from: (i) your use of and access to the Service; (ii) your violation of any term of these Terms of Service; (iii) your violation of any third party right, including without limitation any copyright, property, or privacy right; or (iv) any claim that your Content caused damage to a third party. This defense and indemnification obligation will survive these Terms of Service and your use of the Service.”


“You will indemnify, defend, and hold harmless Vimeo and its affiliates, directors, officers, employees, and agents, from and against all third party actions that: (i) arise from your activities on the Vimeo Service; (ii) assert a violation by you of any term of this Agreement; or (iii) assert that any content you submitted to Vimeo violates any law or infringes any third party right, including any intellectual property or privacy right.”

“Indemnify” means that if you post a video and someone decides to sue you for some reason – that could be that you used an Enya track without license, you showed someone in the video who did not give you permission to post their likeness on the Internet, or somehow otherwise prompted someone else to legal action – not only do you hold YouTube and Vimeo unaccountable, but you also agree to pay their legal expenses if they get sued for hosting your content. Do you have the money to pay for YouTube’s (ie, Google’s) or Vimeo’s legal team?

In the case of the video above, I take it (as with all my photography) very personally. That’s why I typically put those annoying watermarks on my photos; I got tired of seeing them pop up on people’s website or MySpace pages. I have no desire to give Google, Vimeo, or anyone else a legal license to do whatever they want with it. And, although I’m using the music under license, I don’t want to possibly expose myself to some huge corporation’s legal expenses.

By the way, Facebook has similar language but within different parameters (ie, subject to your Privacy settings). When it comes to Pages, which is how my blog operates there, it appears that Facebook makes no such assertions. Otherwise no other corporation would open up a Page there on Facebook because they’re not willing to relinquish their intellectual property rights either. However, if your personal Facebook account is public, so is your data – photos, posts, whatever – and you give them the rights to use them accordingly.

I have posted stuff to YouTube in the past, but not stuff that’s personally important to me. The exception to that would be my tribute to Sergeant Steve Kenner of the Bismarck PD, a video that I wanted to share with the community. When it comes to things like this though, where I want to reserve all rights of ownership and use, I’ve got to host it myself and suffer some compatibility issues. It doesn’t work the best across all platforms, but it remains mine.

Because it’s me…you know it’s gotta have windmills

I don’t know what my fascination with old windmills is…probably that they’re so photogenic and a good subject, especially when framed against those expansive prairie skies. It stands to reason, then, that I’d be absolutely tickled upon finding one nestled deep within this weekend’s aurora photography setting.

I couldn’t have asked for a better convergence of photo phactors. The light of the full moon, which I feared would work against us, actually performed admirably at lighting the farmstead foreground. Just to make sure things turned out the way I wanted, I also brought my six-D-cell “Louisville Slugger” Mag-Lite flashlight. It ended up coming in handy to dissuade an errant skunk from getting too close as it ambled through the farmyard nearby.

To add to the fun, the auroras really turned it up a notch just as I set up to photograph this old windmill. I took advantage of the whole evening and morning. Trust me…I’ve still got plenty more where this came from. 🙂

Plenty more where this came from

What do you get when you combine a Planetary K-Index (Kp) of 6.5, three photography buddies, and permission to roam an abandoned farmstead at night? Photos like this one.

Things REALLY got hopping, even enough to overcome the light of the full moon directly overhead. I had multiple cameras going to shoot the event, shooting stills and a time-lapse video I hope to work on over the weekend.

It was REALLY cold out tonight – but once I started getting the good shots, I forgot all about the cold. In fact, that excitement kept me going until 4am! Too bad I expect it to wear off before going to work in a couple of hours… *yawn*

You can expect a lot more of these photos in the near future!

Into the wind…the solar wind, that is

Upon returning to the Bizzo following a family funeral in Dickinson, I settled in and decided to check the arsenal of websites I use to attempt my aurora borealis predictions. Things looked promising, and I made a mental note to head out for a look-see after a while. Before long, however, I got a call from a friend who was already out and about: the Northern Lights were blazing!

When my best friend and I arrived on the scene, the colors were pretty faint and uniform. That gave me time to wander around the field in an attempt to find an angle that provided what I was looking for. The windmill didn’t want to cooperate, as its head was facing the wrong direction at first. A small breeze apparently corrected that later.

Things ramped up for a bit, painting a sharper wall of light across the northern sky. Northern Lights can take on many permutations; dancing spikes of light, cascading sheets, and sometimes winding bands of glowing green that snake across the sky. This happened to be the long band variety. After a while, things appeared to wane, and it was getting cold…so I decided to pack up the gear.

Apparently that’s what the sky was waiting for, because as soon as we began to drive away the intensity flared and we started to get some additional colors and spikes. I hadn’t made it far down the road, so I whipped around and bolted over to the previous position to grab a quick few shots. This time some reds began to make an appearance as well as the light began to dance more brightly.

Finally – some spikes of color began to appear amid the horizon’s green and blue aura! They were elusive and short-lived, but they were there. I spent a few more minutes in the cold but otherwise perfect night, and the sky began to settle. Hiking back to the truck for the night, I got the gear stowed and checked the numbers one more time.

The way things were looking, I figured that there was a chance that things would flare up again around 3am as they’re known to do. It was approaching midnight, however, and I wasn’t about to sit out in the cold and find out. The plan was to head home, check on things before bed, and make the call there. In this case I decided to go to bed instead of back out into the night, predicting that the skies were going to settle. It turned out to be the right call; things dropped off after that.

I have a link on my Northern Lights page (link in the upper right column) for each of the many sites I use to “throw in the hopper” and make the call on whether I figure chasing after Northern Lights is worthwhile. It’s a soft science at best. In this case, one particular model was accurate and another was not. In other cases, a different model will make the correct prediction. It really ends up coming down to gut instinct: trying to determine which numbers to trust. Yesterday’s solar wind blast was expected, but it was not expected to cause any auroras. One blip on one set of data is what made me suspicious, and it turned out to be the right call.

Since I’m a husband and Daddy these days, I can’t be bolting out of town every night in the hopes of getting a lucky encounter with the auroras, so I’m trying to see if I can get a better sense of when such a trip is worthwhile. Last night my instincts proved correct.

They’re back! The Northern Lights, that is

Thanks to my network of spies, my cell phone vibrated my pillow tonight and set a great sequence of events in motion. My wife heard the phone, answered the text, woke me up, and I was on my way to catch the auroras before they faded! Naturally I headed out of town as quickly as I could after picking up my best friend.

Taking great photos of the sky ironically requires a good foreground object to put things into the proper perspective. In this case I found one of my favorite old windmills. I love these trademark North Dakota artifacts, but they do come with one caveat:

They don’t always point in the direction you’d prefer. This shot had some great aurora activity in the background, but the head of the windmill isn’t really facing in a photogenic direction. Sure, I could Photoshop it, but that’s not how I roll.

That’s more like it. I had to stumble around in the dark for a bit and try different angles around the area to see which one presented the best angle. Of course, once I moved in a certain direction, the auroras flared up in the other. I’m so accustomed to this taunting by the sky that I’ve actually developed a little bit of patience!

As auroras go, tonight’s weren’t even that dramatic. I’m told there was a lot more “spike” activity before I dragged my tired butt out into position. I don’t care, though…it’s literally been YEARS since I’ve been able to take decent Northern Lights photos due to the solar minimum. I’ve often joked that I single-handedly extinguished the auroras by buying digital cameras with the intent of photographing them! Now it seems that a frustratingly dormant period of solar inactivity is coming to a close, and I’ll be ready to capitalize on it.