Freezing the fleeting Northern Lights

Dennis Anderson’s auroral epiphany arrived when he was 14. It was the night of April 1, 1975, and as he looked north from his home in Livingston, Mont., the sky exploded.

“You had lots of rays and curtains and arcs and bands and lots of motion. It was almost a religious experience to be in the middle of that, to see the whole sky on fire, dancing,” says Anderson, now 51 and living in Homer, Alaska.

Primed by that sense of wonder, Anderson now worships at the auroral altar night after long, frigid night, all though the Alaskan winter – with 10 or 12 cameras.

Anderson is one of a handful of photographers who make a living by catching the fleeting northern lights on film. And only on film, because he trusts only film to produce the high-resolution images he seeks. In a digital world, Anderson is strictly analog.

“No batteries, no electronics,” he says.

His prize camera is a hand-built giant he calls “Franken-Cam.” Each frame of film is about 2 1 / 2inches by 3 1 / 2inches, much bigger than the film used in conventional cameras. Its images have a resolution of 40 megapixels, about twice as many as the best digital camera.

He found the oversize lens he needed at an auction in Switzerland, a hunk of finely rounded surveyor’s glass rumored to have flown reconnaissance on French fighter jets and Israeli drones. At $1,500, he says, it was “a bargain.”

Anderson’s cameras don’t have shutters, because he needs to manually control the long exposures he requires. Instead, he prepares to shoot by removing the lens cap and then holding the black-painted bottom of a coffee can in front of the aperture . . . and waits. When a sky dance commences, he pulls back this “black hat,” and magic streams onto film.

“I’m lens-capping like your great-great-grandfather did 100 years ago,” he says.

This is extreme aurora photography.

When his calling calls, Anderson packs the van and motors north, hour after hour, seeking some spot that he’s previously seen and sketched and imagined as a pristine frame for a sky show.

He’ll find it again, that copse with an opening aimed at the sawtoothed profile of Denali; or that one small lake backdropped by the spiky Wrangell Mountains; or that cabin up on stilts, unbroken snow sloping up to it, pines standing like silent sentinels.

“The main thing is to put the time in,” he says. “Maybe it doesn’t happen tonight or tomorrow. Maybe you get lucky and it happens next week. Sometimes you run out of time and you have to come back next year.”

Triggered by a restless sun, auroras can appear year-round. But by May, the Alaskan days are long, the nights short. So Anderson works through the winter. Sometimes he’s away from his wife and home for two or three weeks at a time.

“I’m basically camping, in survival mode,” he says. “I do have a place to sleep. I don’t necessarily have a heat source. If I’m out where the temperature is 30, 40, 50 below or more, I might want to stay closer to my vehicle and keep it running. If I shut it off for a few days, it might not want to start up again.”

He scrapes away snow to pitch a tent. He saws branches, gathers kindling. He boils water on the van’s engine, throws in an egg, makes some soup. He settles his tripods into hard patches. He carefully loads the film; some of it now costs $35 per exposure. He frames the shot, just so. Then he hunkers; then he waits.

And sometimes, once in a while, when the sun is properly fitful and the clouds obligingly scarce, nature performs: undulating sheets of yellow, skybursts of green, ribbons of red, cosmic curtains waving in the stellar breeze.

The sun comes up, the auroral lights go down, and Anderson ticks the shot off his “hit list.”

Twice, and only twice, tendrils of blue have descended from the heavens. Anderson’s Franken-Cam captured this rarest of auroral hues.

“It was absolutely vivid, just the bluest of blues,” he says. “I’ve spent thousands of hours doing this. You think you’ve seen it all, then suddenly you see something new.”