Ice Crystals, Diamond Dust & Light Pillars: A Night I’ll Never Forget - Your Breath in Me
  • Thank you to everyone who has featured my Light Pillars photo story, including: The Washington Post, Business Insider, The Weather Network, PhotoNews Canada, HyperBlaze, fubiz, CBC News, CBC Radio, imgur, The London Review, MSN, Metro Belgium, and PhotoNews Hong Kong. If you're so inclined, you can follow me on Instagram.

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    Over the last year, there’s been a number of weather stories about amazing light pillars caused by ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere. Most of the recorded displays have been captured in the extreme northern areas of the world.

    As an avid photographer in southern Canada who is particularly intrigued by the northern lights, I’ve sat at my desk drooling over some of the light pillar photos I’ve seen. Many of the pictures look like something I’d expect to see on Star Trek, X-Files, or another alien movie. I’ve even had people ask me if the existing light pillar images on the web are photoshopped. To think that this could actually be a real phenomenon, has made me want to see them that much more.

    So, what are light pillars?

    According to The Weather Network meteorologist Erin Wenckstern, "Light pillars are an atmospheric phenomena created when tiny ice crystals reflect either natural (sun or moon) or artificial light (such as streetlights). This type of ice crystal is flat and hexagonal in shape, and when they are suspended in the air, together they act like a gigantic mirror, reflecting the light source upwards or downwards.”

    Wikipedia goes on to say, “In very cold weather, the ice crystals can be suspended near the ground, in which case they are referred to as diamond dust.”

    New Year’s Eve 

    On a very cold New Year’s Eve (2017), I received a notification from Sara and Milan, friends of mine from London, Ontario (where I also reside).

    “Ray, do you see the sky right now, the lights?”

    I fervently looked out my window and saw nothing. I also looked at The Weather Network’s forecast for London which said, “Ice Crystals.” I was thinking to myself, “You’ve got to be kidding me right now!”

    Sara and Milan proceed to send me a cell phone picture of light pillars in their neighborhood. I could only stare in amazement, unable to drive to their location in time. The pillars were gone in under an hour.

    Since then, I have been eagerly awaiting the next arrival of this marvelous weather event. Throughout this abnormally cold winter, I’ve seen light pillars a couple of times in the daytime, typically around a sunset. But up until the time of this article, I’d never actually seen them at night.

    Copyright Ray Majoran // @raymajoran

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    There’s also been some other spectacular winter weather in London, Ontario, but again, with it being so cold, I had been longing to see these mysterious light pillars.

    Copyright Ray Majoran // @raymajoran

    (View Larger Image)


    January 13, 2018

    I received a text message at 9:48pm from my good friend Mike Lee, who was driving from St. Thomas to London.

    “My phone does not come anywhere close to doing it justice, but the sky is incredible tonight!”, Mike noted. “Very reflective icy snow is turning every light into a pillar... Crazy.” 

    I looked at his photo, jumped off the couch, and shouted to my wife Carolyn (while holding out my phone), “Oh my gosh. The sky is on fire right now. I have to go!”

    “Will you be back before midnight?”, she asked.

    “I’m not sure. I’ll keep you posted!”, I replied.

    Immediately, I grabbed my gear, ran out the door, and looked outside. I saw nothing that Mike saw.

    I wrote him back. “Where are you seeing this?”

    “Everywhere,” he replied.

    He went on to explain that his entire drive from St. Thomas to London was littered with light pillars. Strangely, in the west end of London, there was no such event. 

    I went on to The Weather Network and Weather Underground apps to check the forecast and radar loop. There were snowsqualls coming off of Lake Huron, but they were dying out before they reached London. The forecast said the same thing as the one from New Year’s Eve: Ice crystals.

    Weather Underground / The Weather Network

    I pulled out of my driveway in the west end of London, and decided to drive south towards Highway 401. When I was almost to the highway, I saw faint light pillars to the north of the city. Had I made the wrong decision by going to the south end of the city? If I had, it was too late.

    As I was driving on the 401 in the west end of the city, I couldn’t see any light pillars. Then it happened! As I hit the east end of London (near Highbury Ave.), the sky became littered with light pillars. It was honestly the strangest thing I’d ever seen. There were stars above me, yet there were little crystals of ice falling like manna from heaven. They didn’t stick to the car or the road; they were just suspended in the air floating like pixie dust.

    I pulled off the highway, set up my tripod, and for the next two hours had my mind blown by these things called light pillars.

    Copyright Ray Majoran // @raymajoran

    How to photograph light pillars

    Unlike my documentation on photographing the northern lights, you don’t need to worry about getting your camera to the highest aperture / ISO setting. Because the lights are virtually stationary, you can shoot anywhere between f/4 and f/10 at 100-200 ISO. My shutter speeds varied anywhere from 6 to 30 seconds.

    The color of each pillar is a reflection of the specific light it is being reflected off of. So, if it’s yellow, it’s likely an incandescent bulb, while if the pillar is blue, it’s probably an LED or fluorescent bulb.

    Obviously, the conditions have to be perfect for ice crystals to form. Remember, this is NOT snow – this is a rare phenomenon of very light crystals of ice that hover in the atmosphere. The University of Manchester has a great article on the specific conditions required to form ice crystals. If you’re interested in learning more, be sure to check it out.

    Below are a few of my photos along with a GPS map of the short route that I took. Enjoy!

    If you’re interested, you can follow my photos on Instagram (@raymajoran), or subscribe to Morning Reflections, an email I send out every morning with a photo and a passage.

    Copyright Ray Majoran // @raymajoran

    Nikon D850, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G, ISO 125, f/4, 6s (View Larger Image)

    Copyright Ray Majoran // @raymajoran

    Nikon D850, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G, ISO 100, f/7.1, 30s (View Larger Image)

    Copyright Ray Majoran // @raymajoran

    Nikon D850, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G, ISO 100, f/7.1, 8s (View Larger Image)

    Copyright Ray Majoran // @raymajoran

    Nikon D850, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G, ISO 100, f/7.1, 8s (View Larger Image)

    Copyright Ray Majoran // @raymajoran

    Nikon D850, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G, ISO 100, f/9, 20s (View Larger Image)

    Copyright Ray Majoran // @raymajoran

    Nikon D850, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G, ISO 100, f/7.1, 8s (View Larger Image)

    Copyright Ray Majoran // @raymajoran

    Nikon D850, Nikkor 70-200 2.8G, ISO 100, f/7.1, 15s (View Larger Image)

    Copyright Ray Majoran // @raymajoran

    Nikon D850, Nikkor 70-200 2.8G, ISO 100, f/7.1, 15s, 2-stitch panorama (View Larger Image)

    Copyright Ray Majoran // @raymajoran

    Nikon D850, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G, ISO 100, f/9, 15s (View Larger Image)

    Copyright Ray Majoran // @raymajoran

    Nikon D850, Nikkor 70-200 2.8G, ISO 100, f/7.1, 15s (View Larger Image)

    Copyright Ray Majoran // @raymajoran

    Nikon D850, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G, ISO 100, f/8, 15s (View Larger Image)

    Copyright Ray Majoran // @raymajoran

    Nikon D850, Nikkor 24-70 2.8G, ISO 100, f/9, 15s (View Larger Image)

    Copyright Ray Majoran // @raymajoran

    My camera's GPS map of the short route in east London.

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