EVERYONE WANTS a piece of Ronn Murray. At least they did this past winter when the photographer, known for his artful skyscapes of the northern lights, enjoyed a record number of visitors on his “Aurora Photography Adventure Tours.” Besides smack-you-in-the-face talent and techie chops (the man uses 10 apps to forecast the lights), Ronn has the added advantage of right place, right time. The place: Fairbanks, Alaska, among the best vantage points for aurora gazing on earth. The time: winter 2012/13 and 2013/14, touted as peak years of solar activity for the next decade plus.
In light of his popularity, I was lucky to get a spot on one of his tours last month. While the aurora’s undulating neon swath kept us occupied most of the night, we met up for bowl-sized lattes at McCafferty’s the next day to discuss his passion.
BH: In layman’s terms, can you briefly explain the phenomenon that is the aurora?
RM: To put it very simply, it’s electrons coming from the sun, bombarding our atmosphere and igniting the gases in our atmosphere, the same way a neon light works. So it’s just an electrical current of sorts exciting gases, making the gases glow.
“Exciting them” — good choice of words. They’ve been your main focus as a photographer for five years now. Some might say, ‘don’t you get bored of shooting the same thing all the time?’ What is your response to that?
That’s a very good question and it’s kind of loaded but…The thing is, there are those rare — you get them once a season maybe – rare, amazing shows where the sky, the entire sky just fills with aurora and I’ve seen it actually pulsate like a heartbeat. So it’s kind of like a drug for me you know, you get that ultimate high and then you’re always chasing, trying to get that again.
Yes, I can feel that even having been here a few days…
Just the little bit you got?
Yeah! I wanted to stay out longer last night and my group was ready to pack it in. I was like, no no no, I still need to get that shot or the lights could come back or things could change.
If I were not on tours, I would probably be out all night. I used to be out all night. But you know, that’s why I get to see those shows because I’m out there when those shows happen.
Absolutely, you’re not going to get the shot if you’re not there. And also, the number of foregrounds is infinite so they’re going to look different depending on the scenery.
That is very true. I have several locations. As of late, I have a few photos in my portfolio that came as a result of me having a shot in my head for years before the conditions worked out. One of those was a shot in Denali National Park in which I’m overlooking the Nenana River and I have the Alaska Range in the scene and you have beautiful aurora over the Nenana River Valley there.
I had tried for four years, unsuccessfully, every year, sometimes multiple times a year to get that shot and I finally got that shot. So that’s why I’m always chasing. There are always shots in my head that I’m waiting for the conditions to work out just right.
So a first-time visitor shouldn’t feel bad if they don’t get the perfect shot right away.
Right! There are definitely folks who understand that it’s a natural event. The fact that we get to see them so often in Fairbanks is amazing because it’s actually a rare phenomenon. So to have the conditions line up both with the space weather and the earth weather that allow us to see the aurora is amazing. But there are folks who really come up here and think, you drive out to a spot, you turn on a switch, the lights come on and then you go home, check that off your list and it’s done. But as you know in your time here, it doesn’t work like that.
It doesn’t work like that, and I feel extremely fortunate that we were able to see them three out of the four nights we went out. I know they were not at their peak but…
They’re still good. And you’re getting some amazing color. We have some rare conditions lining up that create those reds, which are one of the most rare colors to see.
Oh really? Yes, there was that red band across the top. Although I didn’t see it much with the naked eye and then I’d look at my camera and say, oh! There’s red in there.
Do you want to know why?
Your eye has a shutter speed of about a tenth of a second, which is not enough to accumulate the photons rich enough to see those reds. The camera however, left open for several seconds, accumulates those red photons enough so that they’re quite visible. Plus the camera peaks to the red colors. Our eyes don’t, they peak to the green, then drop off at the red.
Ah, that makes sense! Okay, besides the Denali Park shot, can you think of another favorite?
The Denali is up there amongst my two top favorites. But there’s one I have that I like a little bit better. And I call it “Aurora Rainforest.”
This happened January 22nd, 2012. There was a group of photographers that went out together. We knew we were getting a good CME [coronal mass ejection], or the solar activity that causes the aurora. So we were out all night at this spot along the Steese Highway and it was 52 below zero. And like I said, you can’t see the reds with your eye, so we had no idea that it was as good as it was. We started taking photos and we looked at the back of our cameras and I remember the whole group just jumping for joy, hooting and hollering and everyone was ecstatic because there were beautiful rich, deep reds. And it was funny because it looked like holes in the aurora.
So despite the minus 52 temperatures, I don’t like to sit in the vehicle. I like to get out and hike around and add some sort of landscape element into the photo. In fact I treat my aurora photography as landscape photography because pictures of the sky aren’t that great. So I went out, hiked about a mile and a half up this river and got some of these photos and that one is kind of the pinnacle of my aurora photography so far.
One of the major challenges of shooting the lights is dealing with extreme temperatures. How do you cope? You have the snow machine mask…
Lots and lots and lots of layers. That night I know I had two pairs of smart wool socks and then my Baffin boots which are rated to 60 below zero. I probably had four or five layers on my legs and six or seven layers up top, a fur hat and then the snow machine mask which dissipates your breath away from your camera.
The only thing that was really ever exposed were my eyes. And if you leave skin exposed at those temperatures, it gets frostbit so you have to cover everything. The other thing, believe it or not, is I found a spot where there was a log across the river. So I hunkered down next to that log and buried myself with snow and the snow will insulate you, so you can actually stay warmer by covering yourself with it!
What do you want people to take away from your tours?
I just want them to experience the aurora. The folks that go out with me, especially if we see the aurora but even if we don’t, they’re going out with somebody who is passionate about the aurora and wants to see it themselves so they have better chances, you know what I mean?
I’m not the guy that’s waiting for two o’clock so I can go home. I’m the guy that’s like, ‘it’s two o’clock and the lights are out, we’re not going anywhere guys, let’s stay and watch this!’ Yeah I just want them to have a taste of what I get to experience. It’s magical. I’m not a spiritual person but the aurora is a spiritual experience. You feel how tiny you are.
So this is a hard one but, your best aurora experience? Aside from the photos you were able to produce.
[Silence as he chooses carefully.]
The best night I ever had under the aurora was the night I said ‘I do’ to my wife.
Awww! That’s the right answer.
[He erupts in laughter.]
Were there many guests?
It was a small wedding. It’s hard to have a lot of guests because when you’re planning your wedding around the aurora, you don’t pick a date. And we had a friend marry us so that complicated things further. In Alaska you can have a friend marry you and they can be licensed for one day only, so the court forces you to pick a date for them to be an officiant.
So we just went back to the courthouse every day for ten days until we finally got the right conditions. The group that was there was all on alert via Facebook and Twitter and they were all local people obviously. And so those who could attend did. And we had mostly other aurora photographers so we had fantastic wedding photos.
It sounds ideal for you guys. How have the aurora enriched your life?
I couldn’t even begin to answer that. [laughing] Umm, I met my wife because of it, I found a way to build a career around it…It’s just given me something to do in the darkest, most miserable time of the winter so that I’m kind of oblivious to all of that stuff.
That’s a really good point. So seeing the northern lights is on a lot of people’s bucket lists but you get to see them all the time. Do you find that you take them for granted these days or do you always have a sense of how fortunate you are?
Yes I do take them for granted unfortunately, and that was brought to light by a recent event. I took a brother and sister up to Chena Hot Springs. He was handicapped and as we were getting out of the van, he almost fell. So we all helped him out of the van and his sister explained to us that he was handicapped because he was terminally ill. He was in the last few weeks of his life and his dying wish was to come to Fairbanks, Alaska and mush dogs and see the northern lights. And he didn’t see them that night. He did get to go dog mushing a couple days later. But we kept his phone number and stayed in contact with the two of them.
I was on another tour up near Murphy Dome and we were watching the conditions and it looked like it was going to be great. The clouds were coming in and out but if we got clear skies, we knew we were going to see aurora. So we called them up — they had a rental car — we said, ‘meet us at the top of Murphy Dome.’ I took my group out to their cabin and I excused myself for a little while and went up to the top of Murphy Dome and met the brother and sister. For ten minutes, the clouds blew out and we got a beautiful display. We got some nice portraits of him in front of the aurora and he was ecstatic. Then after ten minutes, the clouds came back but he got his wish.
So that experience made me say, I need to appreciate this a little bit more. It was kind of a kick in the butt to me to get back out there and realize how fortunate I am that I do get to see them so often.
- [Note: Becky’s trip was courtesy of the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau. Ronn does group and private photography tours. To chase aurora with him in the 2013/14 season, head to his website: http://www.ronnmurrayphoto.com/]
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