Northern Michigan Outdoors: Mountain Bike Beneath the Northern Lights

Northern Michigan Outdoors: When our favorite Upper Peninsula correspondent, Aaron Peterson, sent us an image of a mountain biker beneath a fantastic aurora borealis, we were stunned by … well, lots of things. The straight up beauty, the skill, the concept. We had to know more.

So how’d you happen to be out shooting a mountain biker at night in October?

I had some night-biking concepts I’d been wanting to shoot, stuff with long exposures and star trails. Do some hourlong exposures then have the rider come through with a headlamp and hit him with a strobe. That sort of thing. And my riding friend was leaving town in a few days and it was a clear night, so we pulled the trigger on it.

Why this place?

From here we could shoot north, putting the North Star at the center of the image to get circular trails. I’d scouted a couple of places north of Marquette with the rider, Kristian Saile. We’d chosen this place, the Wetmore Bog, near Hogback Mountain. It’s part of the Huron Mountains. My friend is a really good sport and a good rider—you don’t want to take a novice out riding along 50-foot cliffs at night.

But a photo of star trails isn’t what you got.

No. The first couple of tests were blown out—the sky all washed out—because during the long exposure, the camera was collecting light from the low aurora that was just beginning at the horizon, but that our eyes couldn’t detect. We sat there scratching our heads trying to figure what we could do. I thought maybe it was light pollution, but we were shooting north and there aren’t any cities that direction.4

So when did you realize what was coming?

We started to suspect it was an aurora, and then probably a little before eight it became visible to us, but we weren’t sure how long it would last or how strong it would get. So we really had to scramble, figure out what we would do. We had to go to a new area because of where things were happening in the sky, set up a new shot, put out strobes and sensors. And the aurora kept building and building.

What was the trickiest thing about the shot itself?

An aurora is a moving thing, the light wavers, pulsates. You need an exposure long enough to gather the relatively dim light, but fast enough to stop the wave action of the aurora. Too long and it washes out. Too short and it’s dark. The best shots came in at five to 10 seconds.

Did you ever stop to just stare at it, just take in the wonder of the aurora?

That’s the kind of funny thing, or who knows, maybe sad thing. When I’m working I’m working. It’s all I do. I don’t remember looking up once. But I think a lot of journalists can relate to that. And it all happened fast, I mean, the peak was only from about 9:30 to 10. I suppose I could have just stopped and looked up. But working at night there’s so many things. Danger of where you step. Where to put the strobes. Whether the rider will hit the mark you’ve picked for focus. That headlamp leaves a streak through the picture—you want to get that a certain way. And there’s trial and error. I kept 30 images, I don’t know how many I killed.

Did you ever get the star trails shot?

Nope. After the peak we stayed out shooting, and the last shot was about 12:30, but no, we never got the shot we came out to get.

See the full-page photo of Aaron's aurora in the 2012 February issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan's Magazine. Plus find winter sojourns, date night destinations (just in time for Valentine's Day!), and more!

Article Comments

  • Anonymous

    If I ever had the chance to see the northern lights like that, I wouldn’t think, “hey, let’s go out and ride my bike at night” lol, not a fan of staged photography although anything with the northern lights is nice

  • Anonymous

    this guy has a real good understanding of photoshop

  • Anonymous

    Wow, what is with the negativity? No photoshop necessary, this was for real. There was a spectacular Northern Lights display seen across much of the country that Oct nite, do some research.
    Here is link to Aaron’s gallery from that spectacular display of Northern Lights:
    http://aaronpeterson.photoshelter.com/gallery/Northern-Lights-Night-Biking/G0000ZL_GFU00r4I/

  • Anonymous

    Hey Northern Michigan, thanks for reading!

    I sort of felt like I should respond to the comments, especially regarding the use of post processing software like Adobe PhotoShop.

    Of course I have a real good understanding of PhotoShop. I’m a professional, and post processing software is a very important part of a modern photography workflow (though Adobe Lightroom has all but replaced it in my workflow).

    With that said, I also have an all too clear idea of the razor thin margin of profit and loss in modern editorial photography. If you spend a lot of your time tweaking things in PhotoShop, you are in most cases losing money. That time is much more profitable spent acquiring new skills, marketing existing images or creating new images. If the images need serious digital help, they aren’t worth the trouble, and they get deleted. At least in my workflow.

    This display of Northern Lights was nature at its best. Incredibly colorful and bright–the best Aurora I’ve seen. A few post processing tweaks to adjust contrast and noise reduction were about all they needed to be out the door and into print.

    There is magic outdoors in Northern Michigan, and I’d rather be out there using my skills to capture it, than inside on a computer trying to conjure it.

    Thanks for reading! Now get outside! Yes, even on a bike at night!

    Aaron Peterson, aka, “this guy” :-)

  • maplegarden

    Great work Aaron. Too bad you couldn’t just stop and look up, but a lot of us are glad that you didn’t. Not allowing yourself to be distracted is the true mark of a professional

  • maplegarden

    It is really good to see that you have done such a good job that someone can’t believe that it is real.

  • Anonymous

    One thing is for sure, nothing like the northern lights to drive hits, clicks, buzz. Jealous people just like to throw out PS comments to effectively antagonize, with probably little actual knowledge on the subject. To the photog, appreciate your explanation, but if you dropped your ego down a notch and just let your work determine where you fall in relation to professional skill level, your PS explanation would be much more appreciated. But thanks for reminding northern michigan you are a professional photog and sharing your amazing understanding of modern editorial photography. Surprised you didn’t post your resume as well.

  • Anonymous

    Oooohhh I luv the aurora! Michigan has great northern lights! See great photos all the time on National Geographic’s page- and many times it’s Michigan northern lights! Go Blue!

  • Anonymous

    “you don’t want to take a novice out riding along 50-foot cliffs at night.”

    Right on. A pro wouldn’t ride 50 ft cliffs at night. This is just a plain weird article. Looks like spectacular northern lights tho