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Aurora Borealis over Mt. Shasta California

  
 
Tim Hallam
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p.1 #1 · p.1 #1 · Aurora Borealis over Mt. Shasta California


By now you have most certainly heard about and probably have seen many images of the incredible aurora borealis display we experienced Friday night into Saturday morning on May 10th and 11th. Hopefully you were even lucky enough to witness the lights firsthand!

Without going into extensive detail, what I can tell you is that at my approximate 42 degree latitude there is no chance of seeing any sign of aurora until the Kp index (which measures geomagnetic activity) reaches a minimum of 6 on its 0 - 9 scale. This is fairly rare, and the reason why we seldomly see the Northern Lights this far south. Well, the Kp index pegged the charts at 9 on Friday night, May 10th and into Saturday morning May 11th, resulting in the images you're about to see.

On that Friday afternoon with the prospects of a strong aurora display potentially visible after sunset I had to make a decision about where to go. The experience of capturing it over Crater Lake last year was incredible and I considered going there again as this time of year there would be snow covering the rim and surrounding terrain which would pick up the colors in the sky nicely. On the other hand, the thought of capturing such a sight over Mt. Shasta had great appeal as that is where I was born and raised plus I had never experienced such an event there before. Heading south from my home in Southern Oregon would be a gamble rather than heading north in terms of the probability of success but ultimately that was the choice I made.

I met up with Siskiyou County photographer and long-time friend Royce Autry at the base of Castle Lake Road just southwest of Mt. Shasta City. There are few locations in the area that provide a northerly view from an elevated perspective and Castle Lake Road is just one such location. We drove the 7 mile long road ultimately reaching a spot near the campground around 5,000ft where we collected our equipment and began our ascent up the hill just west of the road. The snow was thigh deep but fairly compact this time of year. We were able to stay on top of the snow for the most part but ended up "post-holing" in several sections where the snow was thin over compressed brush. I brought two camera bodies, two tripods, and my full loadout of lenses for a total of about 40lbs of camera gear. Eventually we reached to a spot high enough that we were well above any trees that would have impeded our view.

Reaching our stopping point just shortly after sunset we eagerly set up our tripods and cameras, picking out the best compositions we could find and making sure the tripods were firmly in place on the snow to avoid any accidental movement later in the night. As the light slowly faded to dusk we began taking periodic test shots looking for any sign of unusual color cast in our images brought on by the aurora. After some time we began to notice a faint green glow developing in our images over Mt. Shasta beginning at 9:32 p.m. For us this was the first sign of aurora activity. As the twilight further faded into darkness my first image was made at 9:57 p.m.






4 seconds, f/2, ISO 3200. Sony A7RIV with Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM


The aurora, although present, remained largely unchanged, and by 10:25 p.m. After much deliberation we decided to head down the hill to try another location. The tricky thing about photographing aurora displays is that it can come and go without warning. Generally, and especially at these latitudes, it is quite difficult to see with the naked eye. Taking periodic images with a digital camera and reviewing the photos on screen is the best way to tell what is happening.

After reaching our vehicles we loaded our camera gear and began the 7 mile drive back down the hill to Lake Siskiyou, our next planned location. We ended up behind some particularly slow downhill traffic which was a mild annoyance as we were eager about reaching the next spot. About 4 miles into the drive as we rounded a bend we were presented with a narrow view of Mt. Shasta through the parted trees of the road cut. I could hardly believe my eyes, red and magenta vertical pillars of light clearly visible behind the mountain like nothing I had ever seen before! At this point I can't honestly remember if the slow going traffic pulled over for us or if we passed them but my excitement and attention was now fixated on the sky.

Reaching Lake Siskiyou just a few minutes later we parked and immediately sprung from our vehicles collecting our gear as quickly as possible and began running down the trail towards the lake soon cutting trail and dashing through the forest with our headlamps as it was the quickest path to our shooting spot. As we reached the edge of the forest approximately 50 feet from the lake shore we noticed several sightseers and other photographers scattered around. In an effort to avoid ruining any of their images I turned off my headlamp and continued running with my hands outstretched through the remaining pines that dotted the flat ground between the forest and lake shore narrowly missing several. Upon reaching the water's edge I dropped my bag and quickly deployed my primary tripod and mounted my camera. The following image was made at 11:09 p.m.






4 seconds, f/2.2, ISO 2500 Sony a6700 with Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM


We stayed at this location for the next several hours racking up hundreds of images per camera. Shortly after arriving here another Siskiyou County photographer, Robert Renick, met with us. As he shuffled down the embankment in the dark I remember Royce asking "how's it going Rob!?" to which he replied with some unintelligible jumble of words. We could immediately relate as all of us were in a perpetual state of awe and excitement over what we were seeing and capturing on our cameras.

My last image from this location was captured at 12:54 a.m. During what seemed to be a slight lull in activity. About an hour earlier I had the thought and made a comment that it might be possible to capture the Milky Way rising over Mt. Shasta with the aurora. With that idea still in mind we packed up and headed back to the cars and began the drive north to a location where such a shot might be possible. During the drive we were once again greeted with a display of red vertical pillars. Royce nearly stopped in the road in front of me with his arm out of the window pointing to the sky in excitement.

We reached our final location of the night and quickly made our way down a trail to the open water of a small seasonal reservoir just outside of the town of Weed. We were greeted with placid water and not surprisingly, the entire location to ourselves. I shot my first image there at 2:00 a.m.






6 seconds, f2.2, ISO 5000. Sony A7RIV with Sony 24mm f/1.4 GM


The core of the Milky Way was rising over the trees to the south, its arch reaching high into the night sky perfectly over Mt. Shasta and curving back down in the north giving way to a magnificent display of aurora lights. The entire sky was alive with vibrant colors of red and magenta. We shot a multitude of images from this location as the aurora was ever changing but at 2:57 a.m. I captured a 180 degree panorama composed of 8 images that may very well may be the most unique photograph I ever capture in my photography career, or at least certainly is up to this point!






8 frame panorama, 10 seconds, f/1.8, ISO 3200. Sony A7RIV with Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM


At this point between my two cameras I had racked up somewhere around 2,300 images over the course of the night and I had still had an hour and half drive back home to Oregon. This was unavoidable as I had a an art show just a few hours later in Ashland. During the drive home I was able to see through my windshield several more instances when the aurora flared up again with vertical pillars of light noticeable in the sky. Eventually just south of the Oregon boarder I exited the freeway and took a snapshot of the lights over the car just as the faint glow of dawn began to fade the night away. It was now 4:21 a.m.






6 seconds, f/2, ISO 3200. Sony A7RIV with Sony 14mm f/1.8 GM


I arrived home at 5:00 a.m. With an hour and a half to spare before setting up my art show in Ashland. That time was quickly passed by making a large breakfast and changing out of the snow clothes I had started the night with. I was able to set up my booth at the Lithia Artisans Market with about an hour to spare before the technical 10 a.m. Show opening. With my cargo van now unloaded I manage to take a much needed hour long nap in the back before heading to my booth. Over the course of the day many folks asked if I had photographed the aurora that night and several photographer friends stopped by and we exchanged stories and showed each other photos on our phones as we hadn't yet processed any images from our "real cameras" at that point. The excitement over what we had witnessed and captured that night was palpable.

Depending on who you ask, this was either the most powerful geomagnetic storm and aurora display in 60, 40 or 20 years... Whatever the case, I can tell you with certainty this was the strongest aurora display witnessed at these latitudes in the era of digital imaging. What the modern digital camera can capture at night is simply incredible. I feel very fortunate to have a top quality camera system and some of the very best lenses made for capturing wide-field astrophotography. I'm also eternally grateful I was able to photograph this rare event over my home turf, the very place that inspired me to pick up a camera in the first place many years ago. The fact that this event also corresponded with a favorable moon phase and clear skies is all the more a miracle! I still have many images to go through and at least one timelapse video to put together but the images shared here today are certainly some of my best captures from the incredible night of May 10th 2024.

I'd like to dedicate these images and story to the late Alyn Wallace, an incredible nightscape photographer who took us on many similar adventures through his YouTube channel and provided so many of us with inspiration and knowledge. Thank you Alyn.

Thanks for sticking through my long winded post! If you're interested in reading more stories like this behind my other images you are welcome to join my free monthly (approximately) email newsletter. You can sign up at the bottom of any page on my website at hallamphoto.com

Thanks!

Tim Hallam



May 28, 2024 at 03:14 PM
junglialoh
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p.1 #2 · p.1 #2 · Aurora Borealis over Mt. Shasta California


Nicely catches gorgeous color feast in the night sky


May 28, 2024 at 04:00 PM
The Rat
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p.1 #3 · p.1 #3 · Aurora Borealis over Mt. Shasta California


The second to last one would look fantastic as a wide pano printed like 48"+ wide. Great shots all though!


May 29, 2024 at 08:32 AM
dakel
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p.1 #4 · p.1 #4 · Aurora Borealis over Mt. Shasta California


Great story telling Tim and incredible and beautiful images. I was down in San Diego for my son's graduation so missed it all!


May 29, 2024 at 10:28 AM
keepclicking
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p.1 #5 · p.1 #5 · Aurora Borealis over Mt. Shasta California


Love this set👍🏻 Enjoyed reading all the details.


May 30, 2024 at 11:36 PM
Jim Dockery
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p.1 #6 · p.1 #6 · Aurora Borealis over Mt. Shasta California


Thanks for the story, wonderful photos, and inspiration. I can't believe I missed it. The pano with the MW is incredible - one of the best and most unique astro shots I've seen.


May 31, 2024 at 09:46 AM
 


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DavidJW02
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p.1 #7 · p.1 #7 · Aurora Borealis over Mt. Shasta California


All the pictures are stunning. #2 is my favorite. I also enjoyed the written descriptions about each photo telling the story of your photo journey that night.


May 31, 2024 at 08:39 PM
DanielJStein
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p.1 #8 · p.1 #8 · Aurora Borealis over Mt. Shasta California


Oh holy moly


Jun 05, 2024 at 04:41 AM
robmac
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p.1 #9 · p.1 #9 · Aurora Borealis over Mt. Shasta California


These are so good, that panorama *chef's kiss*


Jun 15, 2024 at 09:20 PM
Magoo624
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p.1 #10 · p.1 #10 · Aurora Borealis over Mt. Shasta California


Beautiful shot with the galaxy in it!


Jun 27, 2024 at 04:39 PM
Mark Metternich
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p.1 #11 · p.1 #11 · Aurora Borealis over Mt. Shasta California


Amazing set of images! Absolutely breathtaking! Especially the one with the galaxy in it. A big fat, congratulations!

I have one question (because I was caretaking for my dad, I was not able to get out) I think for you and the group... but is the saturation of color this high to the human eye? I'm not saying they are overdone. Nor that they need to be this way or that way... Please do not get me wrong here! I have not seen the Aurora in any substantial way... But (as an admittedly skewed professional who sees FAR, FAR too many images every day of my life, for over 20 years now) when it comes to crazy colors in nature, I have definitely come into a place in my life where when I'm witnessing and capturing the absurdly saturated scene, I try (TRY anyway) to slightly under do it. Every year that goes by I am trying harder to use more constraint.

I don't mean to compare myself with anyone either!

But I have seen countless hundreds of Aurora shots over the last couple months that make me wonder if people are pushing their saturation slider way up. In light of the ones I have seen online, I don't think an overly muted approach would be the way to go either.

I'm just curious, and wondering if even slightly more restrain in rendering would benefit the presentations? Im not saying it would, I'm just curious what you and others might think? In comparison to other I have seen, yours are more restrained and natural looking.



Jul 10, 2024 at 05:06 AM







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