Pink over Pawnee


Aurora over Pawnee Buttes. The Pawnee Buttes stand below the magenta light of an aurora in far northern Colorado.
Nikon Z8 with Nikkor Z 14-24mm f/2.8 S at 17mm, 15 sec, f/2.8, ISO 500.

Last weekend I was rather dismayed when I saw a picture of saguaros silhouetted against a magenta aurora sky; after 29 years of living in an auroraless Arizona, I had some serious image envy. Not only that, but I hadn’t made any effort to go look for the aurora in Colorado, where it would have been a lot easier to find.

Astrophotography is not my thing; I very seldom take night sky photographs. By “very seldom” I mean that the last time was in April 2018. And on that occasion I didn’t even stay up late: I was at the View Hotel in Monument Valley, set my tripod up on the hotel balcony, fired up the built-in intervalometer on my D850, and went to sleep.

So when I heard that the solar storm had gotten the proverbial second (solar!) wind and there was some promise of a repeat performance, I talked my lovely bride Susan into a 2.5 hour drive to Pawnee Buttes, which is about ten miles shy of Nebraska. (NE to NE, if you will.) Of course, that means I actually talked her into a 5 hour drive because we had to get home again. It was nearly 9:00 PM when we arrived and we stayed until about 10:30. In the end, we got home about 1:30 AM before a work day. Grim.

Pawnee Buttes had been on my list of places to photograph in Colorado, but I wasn’t planning for my first visit to start at twilight. Fortunately we easily found a serviceable spot near the trailhead parking lot and I got to work. There was almost certainly somewhere better, but with darkness falling in an unfamiliar place, I just went for it.

The first thing to say is that I couldn’t see any magenta at all with my eyes. Zero. So, this was not a spectacular visual experience in any way whatsoever. I could see some faint magenta as I reviewed the images on the back of the camera and I imagined a touch of green above that (which was clearly a delusion).

The second thing is that the raw file is very dark and shows virtually no color. As you boost the exposure, the magenta starts to appear, but it takes a lot of coaxing to look nice.

One of the reasons that I wanted that big water tank in the foreground (which is easier to see when viewed larger) is because I had hopes of picking up the reflection of the aurora on the surface of the water. With a less feeble (or green!) aurora this would have been pretty neat, but with this one it is so faint it is barely noticeable.

In retrospect, I think I needed to expose the image another stop (maybe even two) so that the magenta would be better separated from black. I guess that’s a lesson for the next time I am playing with weak auroras. But otherwise my first astrophotography session with the Z8 went well. There was another photographer there, and he suggested using the starlight mode on the Z8. It worked quite well, although I am not 100% sure that I needed it. I did not have any trouble (manually) focusing on the stars when zoomed in, which is a nice benefit of a live display.

I would also say that the 14-24mm worked very well rendering the stars with little coma even wide open at f/2.8. (I figured I should mention that because coma is the first thing people talk about when it comes to the astrophotographic worthiness of a lens.) I am certain that the 20mm f/1.8 would be even better for this sort of thing, but it has not bubbled up the acquisition priority list.

Muddled Palette. The yellow glow of distant lights and a faint magenta aurora mix below a starry sky west of Briggsdale, Colorado.
Nikon Z8 with Nikkor Z 14-24mm f/2.8 S at 20mm, 15 sec, f/2.8, ISO 500.

After we left, we took a slightly inefficient path home, driving west then south (rather than diagonally on I-76) so that we could watch the sky out the right side window. The hoped-for explosion of color didn’t happen, but I did stop and take the image above which is essentially distant lights on the left and a hint of magenta on the right.

In the end, it was fun and I got to take some images that are very different from my usual subjects. I still need to go to Pawnee Buttes, though, and photograph them properly.

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6 responses to “Pink over Pawnee”

  1. I think your aurora pic came out really good. Even if the Aurora was weak, with the windmill and unique color, you made a great image.

    • Thank you, Erik! I’m pretty happy with it. I do owe a debt to the other photographer who was there because he set up to include the windmill and I initially set up to exclude it. It’s a lot better with it than without it.

  2. I hear you, Jim,
    About those vibrant fuschias……only my camera saw them. I’m envious of my camera!

    • Yeah, the usual thing people say is that your eye picks things up better than your camera, but that is not true in this case.

    • Yes, indeed! Feel free to reach out any time you want to take some pictures around Denver!