Electric Air Above My Head

by George Murphy on January 3, 2017

Bringing in the New Year from 37,000 feet –
Somewhere over Northeastern Canada (Virgin Atlantic Flight VS20)

b170101a-031_lr_fin-srgb_1024res_wmJournal Entry – January 1, 2017:  As I write this it is one hour into the new year and I am traveling over 600 mph beneath glorious waves of Aurora Borealis. We are 37000 feet above Northeastern Canada – just east of the mighty Hudson Bay. The time is local.

This is how my wife, Allison, and I have come to enter 2017, witness to one of the most beautiful phenomenon in nature.  This is in fact, my very first time seeing the auroras. Now beneath a star studded sky, arcing across the frozen northern latitudes of Quebec on our journey from San Francisco back to London, we have been gifted a “chariot of the gods” style view, to experience a magnificent succession of them out of our airplane window.

Soft wisps of light slowly shifting in gentle arcing patterns – more pale and subtle than in the bold images I’d seen burned into photographs, including the ones I now take from my window seat on the plane.  Complex and varied:  a feathered glow across the sky crystalizing into sharp bands of energy;  elsewhere, dim luminous arcs that look as if painted by an artist’s brush, growing in intensity and coalescing into beaded necklaces;  then, gaseous, slow motion eruptions that quietly transform into the more familiar striations and ribbons of light seen in so many images by other photographers.

b170101a-083-20b-fin-srgb_1024res_wmI have to block my window from bright cabin reflections using a blanket, to enjoy the full effect.  As my eyes adjusted I can see the fainter glows that are all around us, and watch in fascination as waves of luminosity wash past us overhead, angling in at high speed from the side. I am full of wonder.

As I make photographs, I am blown away by the true colors and extent of the aurora revealed in these longer exposures that see beyond what my own eyes are able to perceive. For some of these, I get some help from Allison to block the cabin light, as I concentrate on holding the camera steady for the long exposures needed to capture the spectacle unfolding outside. Fortunately, most of the other passengers are asleep, so this odd behavior goes unnoticed!

When I’d first looked out my window into the night, I was merely hoping for a glimpse of stars. What I first saw was confusing – for a very brief moment it seemed I was seeing the dark mass of a large cloud system silhouetted by…what? Moonlight? But there was no moon tonight, its slim crescent having set shortly after we took off from California earlier in the evening.  Then I suddenly understood what I was actually seeing– the Aurora Borealis!  Finally, with my own eyes!  I couldn’t believe it.

What a wondrous way to bring in 2017!

–End Journal Excerpt–
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A Moment Nearly Missed
This New Years gift might have gone unnoticed had I not been curious for a peek into the night.  This was, however, not as simple as pulling up the window shade.  Our plane was one of the new jets in the Virgin Atlantic fleet, outfitted with the new adjustable electronic window shades that are replacing the traditional pull-downs. It’s very cool technology that can dim the window glass to nearly full opacity, blocking out full sunlight to keep the cabin in darkness. There is a tendency, however, to turn this feature on automatically when the cabin is dimmed for sleep.

Fortunately I still had local control that allowed me to override the setting and clear the view from my window – I have found this is not always the case! Still, it took about 5-to-10 minutes for the window to finally clear. How lucky it did!

b170101a-046-20b-fin_srgb_1024res_wmA Little Aurora Background
As I looked out my window at the aurora, they seemed to surround us.  I felt immersed as they stretched away, seemingly below us, as well as raining down from above to wash past us. The illusion turns out to be one of scale and speed. These aurora were actually around 60 or more miles above the Earth, the result of charged particles from the sun being funneled in toward the northern latitudes by the Earth’s magnetic field. There they collided with oxygen atoms in the atmosphere causing them to light up (much like electricity lights up the gasses in a neon sign), creating the eerie green glow so dominant in the photographs. Aurora can manifest themselves anywhere from around 50 to 250 miles above the earth and can produce a range of different colors.  That sense of them being below us came from the fact that these displays were actually stretching away so far they were reaching beyond the horizon!  Pretty amazing!

b170101a-043-fin-srgb_1024res_wmTechnical Notes
These images were shot using a Sony a7R ii mirrorless camera with a Sony FE 24-70mm ƒ2.8 GM series lens, mostly at a wide focal length of 24mm, except for the one close-up shot at a 40mm focal length. As evidenced by the “graininess” of the images, these were shot at a very high ISO of 6,400 in an attempt to capture this dim subject from my unstable aerial vantage point. While I did employ some noise reduction in development, I found that when I applied too much suppression it reduced a lot of the perceived detail in the images, so opted to keep more noise than I might normally feel good about.  I may yet explore some more refined development methods to extract a higher quality image from the raw files, but for now, I kind of like the gritty, documentary feel the images have taken on because of this.

Exposures varied from 0.8 seconds to 1 second at apertures between ƒ2.8 and ƒ4.  The camera was hand-held, but steadied against my arm and the plane window. Even so air turbulence made this a challenge to hold steady. Stabilization was helped a bit by the A7R’s built in image stabilization.

Focus was achieved manually, taking advantage of the a7R’s electronic viewfinder and magnified focusing feature that allowed me to zoom in to a small portion of the image to see if I was truly focused.

Lastly, the ability to shoot in silent mode on the a7R ii using the optional electronic shutter – instead of the mechanical one – allowed me to make photographs without disturbing anyone. Great feature on the Sony.









Images and text copyright © George Murphy 2017. All rights reserved. Use by permission only.



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