This story originally appeared in Quetico Superior Wilderness News
At the edge of Minnesota and Canada, along the shores of the big lake, Travis Novitsky finds endless inspiration in the light, the land, and the water. A photographer and citizen of the Grand Portage Anishinabe Nation, he talks with Quetico Superior Wilderness News.
“For me, Minnesota’s boreal forest is home. It is where I grew up and where I feel the most connected and comfortable. I feel a sense of peace here that I have never felt anywhere else. The beauty here is unique and the variety in the environment is staggering. Northeast Minnesota is packed with lakes, rivers, canyons, mountains (not like out West, but we do have the highest – and lowest! – elevations in Minnesota) and a fantastic network of forest roads. For a nature photographer, it is a very good place to be and I never feel like there is a shortage of photographic subjects. The beauty here may not be on the same jaw-dropping grand scale that it is in places such as the west/southwest, but it is no less impressive. The beauty of the boreal forest is more intimate. And once you get to know it, it grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go.”
QSWN: What interests you about the night sky?
“My interest in the night sky goes back to at least elementary school. As a kid in the 80’s I remember being fascinated with the stars and beautiful moonlit nights. I loved riding my bike under the light of the full moon on a summer night and camping under the shockingly bright stars during the new moon phase. As I grew older and acquired my first SLR film camera then my first digital SLR camera, I started to gain more of an interest in the northern lights. I made my first images of the Aurora Borealis in 2001. From that moment on, I was hooked on trying to improve my technique and compositions each time I would head out to try and photograph the aurora. Before long I started to become known as a night sky photographer and all of a sudden people were asking me “when do you sleep?” To this day, my favorite thing to do as a photographer is spend a night basking in the glow of the stars or gazing in awe at a sky filled with dancing auroras. Nighttime is a magic time and the quality of light after dark is sublime. And it just so happens that Northeast Minnesota is home to some of the darkest skies in the country! Some of my most unforgettable moments are sitting on the shores of a boreal forest lake on a calm night with no wind, watching the northern lights dance overhead while the haunting calls of loons echo across the water.”
QSWN: You live in Grand Portage and the Lake Superior region is prominent in your work – what concerns you regarding these places?
“I try to stay in the moment as much as possible, a practice I’ve adhered to as often as I can throughout my life. As such, I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about what might be or what could happen. I feel this approach helps me not only in my interpretation of the world through my photographs but also in my enjoyment of each and every moment spent outdoors and the sense of fulfillment I get from being immersed in that moment. That being said, I am fully aware there are many challenges facing these places that I love and call my home. It is my hope that perhaps my images will help people to realize that the places that I (and others) love so much are places that need protecting for the generations yet to come.”
QSWN: Where can we see more of your work?
“I have prints of my night sky images on display through the summer of 2019 at the Cook County Higher Education building in Grand Marais, MN. I also have a collection of images that are part of the permanent exhibit space in the Grand Portage National Monument Heritage Center.”
Agate follow-up question: Could you share some tips for novice photographers who want to capture images of the night sky?
“The main thing is to use a good tripod if one is available. Or, setting the camera on a stationary object such as a deck railing or the roof of a car will work. Also, a bean bag can be helpful for composing and recording a shot if you don’t have a tripod. A bean bag will hold the camera still and you can position the camera on the bag any way you want, therefore allowing for a bit more freedom in your composition. Also, be sure to NOT have filters covering the front of your lens. Years ago the first time I shot the aurora I couldn’t figure out why the images weren’t turning out the way I was hoping… well, it was because I had a polarizer filter attached to the front of the lens! Generally, you want to shoot the aurora with your lens as wide open as possible. On most camera lenses this will likely be either an aperture of f/4 or f/3.5. Some lenses have an aperture of f/2.8, which will let even more light in.
“When shooting the Milky Way my typical exposure is 30 seconds with an aperture of f/2.8 and an ISO of 6400. With the northern lights I usually shoot the with my camera in Manual mode, and when I start shooting I start off with the ISO set between 800 and 1600 and an exposure time of 20 to 30 seconds. Depending on the intensity of the lights, I can either increase the ISO or decrease the shutter speed, depending on the look that I am going for.
“Also, most of the time your camera’s autofocus will not be able to focus on the lights, as usually they are too faint for the camera to focus on. A strong flashlight is a must in some situations. If there are other lights in the scene (such as the moon or city lights) you can use those lights to focus your camera on. Otherwise, if you have a foreground element (such as a tree or building), you can use a strong flashlight to shine light onto the foreground element so your camera can “see” it, then use your autofocus to focus on the foreground element. Once you’ve obtained focus, turn your autofocus OFF, otherwise when you go to press the shutter button the camera will try to focus again. Even better, some cameras will allow you to take the autofocus feature off the shutter button and assign it to a custom button. If you set your camera up this way you won’t have to worry about switching your autofocus off before pressing the shutter button.”
See more at www.travisnovitsky.com
All photographs © Travis Novitsky