I’m convinced that the fundamental purpose of photography is to allow us to capture a view that couldn’t be seen otherwise. There are lots of reasons for taking a picture; we might want to capture a scene or an image of a friend to look at later or to share with someone else, we might want to use photographic technologies to reveal a scene in a way we can’t see it with our eyes, or we might want to create an image that expresses our unique way of seeing the world.
I took the photo above on a recent trip with my wife to Badlands National Park in South Dakota. Besides providing a brief get-away I wanted to spend some time doing night sky and Milky Way photography and The Badlands provided a wonderfully dark sky.
Because of the moon phase and position of the Milky Way we generally went out shortly after the moon set in the early morning around 1:00 AM. This was the our last night in the park and I had two locations in mind but as soon as we got out of town we noticed a glow in the sky to the north. At first I wrote it off as a glow from the moon just over the horizon.
Eventually it dawned on me that I might be seeing northern lights. By eye I couldn’t see any color but I did notice the shimmering nature of the light. I quickly turned the camera around and took a 30 second exposure just to see and lo and behold the preview on the LCD revealed the green and magenta colors of the aurora.
The night sky as it looked to the naked eye
I quickly packed up the camera and tripod and we moved to a location that offered some interesting foreground structure. Once I was set up I did an exposure for the sky and a separate exposure for the foreground using an LED flashlight to “paint” with light. During that exposure a car dove by and added to my light painting.
That brings me back to the fundamental purpose of photography. I have fond memories from the trip and especially our excitement at seeing the northern lights, so this photo is a memento. I also enjoy sharing my images on this blog, on Facebook and occasionally in an art gallery and this image will soon be realized as a large print ready to be shared.
This is also a good example of using photographic techniques to bring out the unseen. I couldn’t see the colors with my naked eye but they were definitely there. When I painted the beam from the flashlight over the mounds I only saw a moving spot of light, but the camera captured a broader band of light and then combined that with the reddish glow from a car’s headlights. The photo also shows more stars than I could see including the glow of the Andromeda Galaxy to the right of the Milky Way.
Lastly this photo is an expression of how I like to see and remember the experience. I chose the location and composition to show something of the park along with the sky and added light with a flashlight because I like that look. The colors in the sky were rich but I want to see them a little richer.
There’s no right or wrong answer to the question of how to best express the colors in the sky. You might feel it’s best to simply show the scene the way it looks in person, but I find that boring. Besides, we’ve already seen that, I want to show something we haven’t seen. The camera defaults to a certain set of colors but they’re not any more correct than any other rendering of the colors. In the end it’s a personal artistic decision to decide how the colors should be represented. We can all choose the color of our invisible ink.
There are lots of photos of the northern lights and lots of photos of The Badlands but this reveals my own unique way of experiencing that early morning as we explored the park and enjoyed the night sky.