Fleeting Spectacle

Waves crash onto rocks surrounding the Michigan City Lighthouse as the Aurora Borealis luminesce in the sky over Lake Michigan in Michigan City, Ind., Monday, April 23, 2012.

There’s something special about photographing fleeting, natural occurrences that are completely out of your control. Lightning, sunsets, interesting cloud formations, they all rank up there with beautiful things that I enjoy capturing with 0’s and 1’s. I suppose I find it liberating that Mother Nature’s fleeting spectacles fly in the face of the rigorous control necessary to create clean, photographic images. Successfully capturing them, as a result, is immensely rewarding.

The Aurora Borealis, aka The Northern Lights, are probably among my favorite natural phenomenon to document. Seeing the sky light up with neon greens to dull magentas and reds is a treat that I’m not sure I’ll ever grow tired of witnessing. Tonight marked the third time I’ve viewed and captured the Auroras here in the Chicago area, with the previous times occurring during a modest showing in 2002, and an all-out spectacular display in 2004 (there’s an image from that memorable night in my editorial section of my photo gallery here on the site).

The Aurora Borealis luminesce in the sky over Lake Michigan in Michigan City, Ind., Monday, April 23, 2012.

Over the past eight years, there have been several solar storms that were forecast to produce visible Auroras here in my neck of the woods, but Mother Nature always seemed to decide to cancel the show with something else. Cloud cover, bright full moons, and inclement weather have put a damper on around six (give or take) treks to capture this beautiful show in the sky. Still, each time an alert is active, I journey to the places I know the sky will be dark, fingers crossed, hoping that I’ll luck out.

Tonight, luck was on my side with nearly ideal conditions. A crescent moon that was just setting in the west along with clear skies combined to allow the strong Auroras to glow just above the northern horizon. I photographed tonight’s show over Lake Michigan from the Michigan City, Ind., lighthouse at nearby Washington Park. I chose the location because I knew the sky would be darkest and unobstructed over the lake, along with the lighthouse giving me a nice foreground element to play with. The Auroras, like lightning and fireworks, always look better with something else in the frame to add a layer or two.

I’d hoped to compose the Michigan City Lighthouse in my frame with the Auroras, but they were in the wrong part of the sky for this composition to work from my location. Additionally, a radical exposure difference between the dark Auroras and the bright lights along the lighthouse catwalk would have made this very difficult. This image of the dark part of the crescent moon lit up with some “Earth shine” was a nice consolation prize. The distant Chicago skyline is also visible at the bottom left of the image.

Unfortunately, the Auroras weren’t in a part of the sky where I could place them with the lighthouse in the same frame. Compounding this issue, bright lights that were added to the lighthouse catwalk created a radical difference in exposure between the foreground and the Auroras (which were all captured with roughly 20 second exposures), so I had to settle for the darker beach area and some rocks along the pier to provide some layering. In previous years, the lighthouse catwalk and pier here were pitch black at night, offering visitors a sketchy, somewhat terrifying opportunity for late night strolls.

The four keepers you see here on the blog were about all I came away with, but they’re certainly better than nothing. If you’re interested on keeping tabs on the Aurora Borealis in your neck of the woods, bookmark the NOAA POES Auroral Activity maps, as well as the Aurora Forecast from the Geophysical Institute from the University of Alaska. I use these two sites each time there’s mention of Auroras or solar storms in the news to decide whether I should head out, and tonight, they were both right.

The Aurora Borealis luminesce in the sky over Lake Michigan in Michigan City, Ind., Monday, April 23, 2012.

Posted in Photography by Guy Rhodes on April 24th, 2012.

5 Responses to “Fleeting Spectacle”

  1. Ari Cebollero says:

    Outstanding work as usual boxtop. I know there is no reason to even explain. However, it’s neat to see your thought process behind the great work.

  2. Melissa says:

    I would love to see them in person! It’s great seeing it through your eyes. Great job.

  3. nancy depaoli says:


  4. Bobbie Czajka says:

    These are beautiful! Great job.

  5. patsi hansen says:

    My first experience seeing them was @ 1980 on my way home from northern Illinois to La Porte, Indiana to see mom and I thought a spaceship was landing. I watched them waver in the sky from the Chicago Skyway to my mother’s front door. Breathtaking. I love your webpage, its a vivid reminder of my experience captured in photography.

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