Our Northwest

Northern lights caught over Washington’s Cascades

Tuesday, May 30, 2017by  Jon Osterberg

northern lights shimmer over Mt. Stuart in Washington's Cascade MountainsA celestial show dazzled Northwest residents overnight Saturday as solar flares sparked northern lights seen from across Washington and Oregon.

Also called the aurora borealis, Saturday's display resulted from a strong solar flare hitting Earth's magnetic field, charging oxygen and nitrogen particles high in the atmosphere. That triggered green curtains of light that pulsated and streaked above the horizon. Some photos showed gorgeous violet hues as well.

Our chances of seeing northern lights will diminish for the next several years, since the phenomenon is tied to the sun's 11-year solar-storm cycle that peaked in 2013.

Stars shine over the Cascades as seen from near Cle Elum, WASaturday night was serendipitous for me. The day before my daughter Kristin and I had hosted her friend, renowned photographer Karen Wang, at our cabin near Cle Elum for lessons on how to shoot stars and nighttime silhouettes, something we'd scheduled months earlier.

Saturday after dinner I mounted my camera on a tripod outside and pointed it toward Mt. Stuart and the northern horizon, then went indoors to watch a movie as we waited for the sky to darken.

At 11:30 I peeked outside to find what seemed to be a haze settled in the valley, likely ruining prospects for photos of stars against a black sky. Dang. I finished watching the movie, then returned to my camera around 12:15.

Northern lights create a green pulsating curtain over Mt. StuartHoly cow! I realized that wasn't haze. It was the northern lights, now much brighter, dancing behind and above the mountains. I hollered at everyone to hustle outside and started shooting 30-second time exposures.

What are the chances that on a rare night like this, I'd have my camera all set up and ready to shoot? How fortunate. We took photos for more than an hour, marveling as the greenish glow shimmered and stretched side to side, up and down.

Gradually the show faded so I went to bed, but Kristin stayed up and continued shooting skyward, including this shot of the Milky Way above our cabin (bottom photo).

I'm just a rookie at celestial photography, but if you own a single-lens reflex camera and want to shoot the night sky, here's how I captured my images with a Canon 7D.

  • The Milky Way glows above a cabin near Cle Elum, WAUse a wide-angle lens. I shot with an 18mm f3.5, Kristin used a 24mm f2.8.

  • Use a sturdy tripod on solid ground – though imperceptible to you, a porch or deck will shake.

  • Set your ISO to a high speed. Test your results at 6400, 3200, and 2000.

  • Set your shutter for a time exposure of 30 seconds.

  • Set your lens for manual focus, not auto, and focus to infinity.

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