Aurora borealis reflected in a thermal pool, Yellowstone NP, WY, USA

Aurora borealis reflected in a thermal pool, Yellowstone NP, Wyoming. 20mm, 10 seconds at f/1.8, ISO 6400. I would typically use a little longer shutter speed for night photos like this, but the aurora was moving and changing quite quickly, so a longer exposure would have caused the pillars to blur and smear together.

Claudia and I are back in Yellowstone. We had such a great time here last year we had to return.

And we’re glad we did. We’ve experienced many memorable moments so far, but the clear highlight was seeing and photographing the aurora borealis (aka Northern Lights) early Sunday morning.

We surely wouldn’t have done this if it weren’t for our friends David Kingham and Jennifer Renwick. Jennifer and David are both wonderful photographers, and know Yellowstone inside out. Before Claudia and I arrived in Yellowstone they saw and photographed an aurora one night. It wasn’t the most intense aurora, but it was something.

So they kept their eyes on aurora forecasts, and told us it looked like Saturday and Sunday nights the Kp-index was predicted to be about 6, which is pretty high. I hadn’t been thinking about auroras because, well, I live in California, which is usually just too far south for such things. But Yellowstone is far enough north for auroras to be visible occasionally under the right conditions. It’s definitely something I’ll pay attention to on future visits.

I had seen auroras a couple of times in the Canadian Rockies when I was 19. Then Claudia and I viewed one in Death Valley, of all places, in the late ’80s. But neither of us had seen one since. So we were definitely interested in finding one in Yellowstone.

Claudia and I spent the first part of Saturday evening in the Upper Geyser Basin, and watched the half-full moon illuminate Grand Geyser. We would have to wait for the moon to set for the best aurora viewing, plus the aurora forecasts showed the highest potential Kp-index just before first light, so we decided to go back to camp and sleep for a few hours.

I set my alarm for 3:00 a.m. From a spot near our campsite I looked off to the north, but couldn’t really tell anything. So we got in the car and drove to a spot with a better view. I thought I could see a faint glow to the north. And what was that? It looked like a pillar of light.

I got out my camera and tripod and took a test shot. There was definitely some color there, and a distinct light pillar. Cool!

We continued to a thermal area that had a good view looking north. I worked my way out along the boardwalk and found a pool that I thought would make a good foreground. And off to the north I could see some distinct light pillars.

I set up my camera, took a test shot, and… wow! With my naked eye I could see those pillars, and a general glow in the northern sky, but no color. However, while the rods in my retinas couldn’t pick up the color in the dim light, my camera sure could. And what an array of colors! Red, pink, green, yellow, purple – it was quite a kaleidoscope.

Claudia was still in the car at that point, so I got on the two-way radio and told her, “You’ve gotta see this!” Meanwhile I refined my composition and kept shooting. The light pillars were shifting, so I had to keep shifting with them, aiming toward the most vivid displays, and moving my camera position periodically to better align the pond in the foreground with the most interesting part of the sky.

Claudia joined me, and I kept photographing for about an hour, until the sky started to lighten in the east. By then the aurora had faded a bit anyway. In fact my best photos turned out to be some of the earliest ones, when the light pillars were more numerous and distinct.

Later we learned that Jennifer and David had stayed out most of the night, and had seen and photographed those light pillars as well. David posted a wonderful image from that night on Vero.

We all tried again Sunday night, but the aurora wasn’t as vivid, plus it was partially obscured by clouds and smoke. None of us got much sleep for a couple of nights, and I think we’re all still recovering. But we were happy and grateful to have seen such an incredible light show Sunday morning.

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: Yellowstone’s Dynamic Landscape; Yellowstone at Night; Blue Mist

Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to Yosemite, Yosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.