On clear nights, Darlene and Theresa Tanner skimp on sleep to capture spectacular light shows over Central Alberta.
Brilliant curtains of green and yellow light shimmer in their photographs of the night sky. Occasionally there are streaks of dramatic purple, or brilliant pinks and oranges.
With northern lights, “it’s never the same show. Every night it’s something different,” said Theresa, who lives in Alix with her spouse Darlene.
After checking meteorological conditions on satellite weather maps on apps and websites, the Tanners will slip coats over their pajamas and put on rubber boots. The couple will drive out in the dark to optimal viewing locations, equipped with cameras, tripods and bear spray — just in case.
Their photos of the aurora borealis over Ponoka, Bashaw, Alix, and other rural locations rival the most spectacular shots of northern lights taken anywhere in the world.
Pictures by #teamtanner are regularly featured on TV’s The Weather Network. Their photos have also been purchased as art, and have been shared and liked on Facebook sites across this country and beyond.
Darlene recalled once speaking to a Kansas storm chaser who asked her “Hey, do you take those picture of the northern lights? Wow! I see your stuff on Twitter all the time!”
Northern Lights are caused when gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere collide with charged particles from the sun. Different gas particles cause the colour variations. The more common yellowish-green colour is produced by oxygen molecules 60 miles above the earth. Rare all-red auroras are produced by oxygen at heights of 200 miles. Nitrogen produces the blue or purplish-red auroras.
That’s the scientific explanation. But there’s something emotionally stirring, even spiritual, about watching the aurora borealis, said Darlene, 46.
“It feel magical. It’s like nothing else in the world matters when you’re standing out there, watching Northern Lights dance, it’s so peaceful.”
The couple, who have day jobs, have been regularly photographing Northern Lights, as well as thunderstorms and other weather phenomena for the past four years. They constantly get amazed reactions from Central Albertans who see their pictures and can’t believe such dramatic lights show appear in this area.
“More people need to look up at the sky,” responded 35-year-old Theresa — especially in the dark countryside. Light pollution tends to erase the full affect of the aurora borealis, Milky Way and meteor showers.
The Tanners usually drive within a 150-km radius from their house. “If it’s cloudy, we go where the clear skies are,” said Darlene.
They operate two digital single-lens reflex cameras on tripods and use time-lapse photography — keeping the shutter open from a few seconds to 20 sec. or so. During a full moon, the camera’s ISO (light sensitivity) must be lowered, “or your picture will turn out white,” said Darlene, who recommends experimenting to discover what works.
While their pictures are edited to heighten contrast, Theresa said she doesn’t fiddle with the colours — the Northern Lights actually look that intense in real life.
So far, the photographers haven’t crossed paths with a bear on their night forays, but the Tanners have occasionally seen coyotes. One time they heard something rustling in the bushes, turned on their head lamps, and spotted a porcupine.
Their most hair-raising experiences — literally — have been with electrical storms.
This summer, The Weather Network is equipping the couple with a Go-pro camera to make some storm-chasing videos.
Theresa’s mother already worries about them getting killed by a tornadoes or lightning strike. And the photographers admit they have gotten awfully close to violent storms — such as a giant thundercell near Bashaw, emitting hail and multiple lighting bolts. (The resulting picture went viral online, getting nearly 10,000 ‘likes.’)
But the Tanners feel they take necessary precautions — constantly checking storm-tracking sites and staying in front of gales, so the wind can’t turn back on them.
They also intend to start using remote devices this summer, so they can take pictures without leaving their vehicles.
“A few times, I felt my hair stand up this last year — and that’s not good,” said Darlene.
The Lac La Biche native works as a grocery store meat cutter. Theresa, of Camrose, does shift work on the help desk for the provincial government.
When their workdays are over, and they head out with their cameras, Theresa usually navigates and Darlene drives.
Big groups of storm chasers showing up prompts the Tanners to turn in the opposite direction.
Theresa explained vehicle line ups make it harder to retreat if a twister changes direction and sweeps towards them.
“That’s how you get killed,” said Darlene.
But the other reason for avoiding crowds is “we don’t want the same pictures as them, anyway…” Darlene added, with a chuckle.
More information about #teamtanner can be found on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@treetanner and @dartanner).