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Capturing the northern lights requires an extra dose of dedication

Not only did the Aurora Borealis make an appearance on Saturday night, but it returned for what seems to have been an even better show on Sunday night.

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The northern lights are spotted during the early morning hours of Sunday, Sept. 4, 2022, near Grand Rapids.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer
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If you are a social media user in any capacity, there’s a pretty good chance you spotted at least one or two photos shared of the northern lights over Labor Day weekend.

That’s because not only did the Aurora Borealis make an appearance on Saturday night, but it returned for what seems to have been an even better show on Sunday night.

Though the lights are forecast to be seen every few months around the region, rarely are they visible with the naked eye and if they do happen to be strong enough are often impossible to see because of cloud coverage or taking place in the middle of the night.

So when a show like this happens during clear nights it’s a treat to be sure, but the true icing on the cake this time around was the fact that it was over a holiday weekend when many were free to stay awake until all hours of the night enjoying the spectacular skyscape.

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The northern lights are spotted during the early morning hours of Sunday, Sept. 4, 2022, near Grand Rapids.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

My husband, Nathan, and I spent the weekend camping out at my brother’s place in Grand Rapids, about an hour from Bemidji, with some of our other siblings and their families.

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We were sitting around the campfire visiting on Saturday evening when I got a text from my dad saying they had spotted the northern lights. I walked away from the light of the fire to a darker spot in the yard and saw a faint green glow hanging low over the northern horizon.

There were a lot of trees blocking our view, so a few of us jumped in my husband’s truck and drove down the road to find a dark spot with a clearer view of the horizon.

After driving for a few miles we found a place near a small lake where we could see a little better, but the lights were still barely above the horizon.

As a longtime photographer I never leave home without my camera, but what I hadn’t come prepared with was a tripod or remote, two things that are absolutely necessary for the quality long-exposure photography required when it comes to capturing the northern lights.

But, we didn’t let that stop us from trying.

At first, I tried just setting my camera on top of the truck bed and took a 30-second exposure to see if it was indeed the northern lights. And sure enough, there was a consistent green glow stretching across the horizon.

If was going to get any decent shots though, the camera needed to be tilted up toward the sky a bit more. So Nathan dug around in the truck for a second and pulled out a little basket and placed it upside down on the cover of the truck bed.
I set my camera on top and then used my camera battery charger to tilt the end of the lens up a bit so it was sitting at more of a 30-degree angle.

I then used my CameraConnect app to connect to my camera through its built-in wifi so I could use it as a remote, rather than having to hold the button down for minutes at a time and risk moving the camera.

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I took a few exposures and they weren’t too bad, but also not my favorite. Because we were on the side of the road, every time a car went by it added light pollution to my shot and illuminated the foreground in an unnatural way.

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The northern lights are spotted late Saturday night, Sept. 3, 2022, above McKinney Lake in Grand Rapids.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

I was having to take about two-minute exposures and it was proving impossible to make it an entire photo without a car driving by.

After about 30 minutes of this, we were getting annoyed and kind of chilly, and all the photos were turning out the same, so we decided to call it and head back to the warmth of the campfire.

A second try

We got back to the house around 11:15 p.m., ate some snacks and were enjoying the warmth of the fire when I got an alert from the My Aurora app on my phone that I use to track and forecast the northern lights.

It said there was an increased chance of spotting them and the forecast on the radar was much stronger than it had been before when we went out. By this time it was getting close to midnight and we were all pretty tired.

After a quick check on Facebook and seeing several friends post their shots of the sky (which were much better than what we had just seen) Nathan and I were rejuvenated just enough to go try again. But I knew I wanted to find a better spot this time, without the constant flow of traffic.

I opened Google Maps and changed it to satellite mode so I could see what the terrain was like and found what looked like a large open clearing next to the community college about 6 miles away. Everyone else was unenthused at this point, but Nathan and I were determined so we bundled up a bit better, jumped in the truck and set off once again.

We drove through the college campus and ended up on a small dirt road with thick trees towering above us on both sides. But after 200 yards or so, it opened up into a wide-open field with a barn and hay bales on one side and what looked like a cow pasture on the other. But most importantly, it had a perfect view of the northern horizon.

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We turned off the truck and headlights, looked up and were immediately able to spot the shades of green and purple dancing across the sky.

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The northern lights are spotted during the early morning hours of Sunday, Sept. 4, 2022, near Grand Rapids.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

We set up our make-shift camera stand once again and with each exposure became more and more excited about our decision. The adrenaline almost made us forget about the chilly temps and the fact it was nearly 1 a.m.

It turned out to be the best light show Nathan and I had seen in about six years.

At one point we were standing by the bed of the truck in silence, listening to the sound of crickets when Nathan all of a sudden called out, “Look!” and I lifted my head just in time to see a bright light falling through the sky off to our left before exploding into little specs — one of the brightest meteors I’ve ever seen.

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The northern lights are spotted during the early morning hours of Sunday, Sept. 4, 2022, near Grand Rapids.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Soaking up as much of the beauty as we could, we toughed it for another 30 minutes or so before I started dozing off between exposures and we decided to call it a night.

It was well after 1:30 by the time we were back at our camper, but we didn’t mind a bit because it was a Saturday night, we had nothing but chilling to do the next day and were extremely satisfied with our excursion.

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The northern lights are spotted during the early morning hours of Sunday, Sept. 4, 2022, near Grand Rapids.
Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer

Annalise Braught is the editor and a photographer at the Pioneer. She can be reached at (218) 358-1990 or abraught@bemidjipioneer.com.

More from Annalise Braught
BEMIDJI -- With opportunity dwindling to get out and photograph Comet NEOWISE -- as it is apparently the last time it will be visible for 6,800 years -- I went down to Diamond Point Park on Saturday night to see if I could catch a glimpse for myself.

Annalise is the editor and a photographer at the Bemidji Pioneer. She is a Mass Communication graduate from Bemidji State University. Her favorite pastime is exploring the great outdoors and capturing its natural beauty on camera. Contact Annalise at (218) 333-9796, (218) 358-1990 or abraught@bemidjipioneer.com.
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