The Real Aurora Borealis

The Real Aurora Borealis

Viewing photos of the Aurora Borealis can be quite exciting with all of its colours. If you think about it, it’s hard to believe those vibrant curtains of light flow and dance right in front of you. Or do they?

The Real Aurora Borealis

For many of us—myself included—what you see in these photos is not what you see in real life. Our eyes are often not sensitive enough to see the colours of the Northern Lights so many of us just see white in the sky. On overcast days, you can easily mistaken these for clouds.

The Aurora Borealis at Cassidy Point.

The Aurora Borealis at Cassidy Point.

To understand why this happens, we need to understand how our eyes work.

Our eyes are comprised of two photoreceptor cells: the rod and cone. The rod is responsible for sending low light information to our brains, and do not detect colour. The cone is responsible for detecting colour and higher light levels in the scene. If what you’re looking at isn’t very bright, the cone photoreceptor cell doesn’t get activated, leaving you with information from only the rod photoreceptor cells. This would explain why I only saw colour in certain situations—when the Aurora Borealis was really bright. The photos below will show you what I typically saw with my eyes, compared to what my camera captured with a long exposure.

The Aurora Borealis edited in Adobe Lightroom.

The Aurora Borealis edited in Adobe Lightroom.

Compare the above photo with the one below, which is more like what I saw with my own eyes. Mind you the long exposure of the camera makes it look a little more sensational than it really was as well since the camera picks up the movement of the lights, whereas the eye can only see the lights in one place at a time.

The Aurora Borealis closer to what I saw with my own eyes.

The Aurora Borealis closer to what I saw with my own eyes.

Here’s one more example:

The Aurora Borealis edited with Adobe Lightroom.

The Aurora Borealis edited with Adobe Lightroom.

The colours above look great, but here’s what I really saw with my own eyes:

The Aurora Borealis as seen with my eyes.

The Aurora Borealis as seen with my eyes.

The more vibrant the Aurora Borealis, the better chance you will have of actually seeing colour in the night sky.

I only found out about this shortly before my trip to Yellowknife, so I wasn’t completely dumbfounded during my first sighting of the Aurora Borealis. Through most evenings though, I was able to discern a hint of green, yellow, purple, blue, and even red.

The vibrant colours of the Aurora Borealis

The vibrant colours of the Aurora Borealis.

Each evening always started with trying to spot a white cloud-like object that would move in the sky. If I thought it may be the Northern Lights, I would take a picture of it to confirm. If the photo on the back of my camera showed any colour, then I knew the magic had started. If objects in the sky turned out white on my camera screen, then I knew that they were simply clouds.

A test photo to see if the Aurora Borealis was showing.

A test photo to see if the Aurora Borealis was showing reveals nothing but white clouds.

What you see, however, all depends on the sensitivity of your eyes. I spoke with some people who said they could see all of the colours with their bare eyes; I’m quite jealous of their eye sensitivity. It would be quite spectacular to be able to see colours like this with your eyes.

What About Photoshop?

No doubt many of the photos you see on the internet have been edited in one way or another, with photos of the Aurora Borealis being no exception to this.

I mention this because the colours that we see in these photos are largely dependent on how the photographer chooses to edit their photos. With a simple click of the mouse button in Adobe Photoshop, or a slide of the slider in Adobe Lightroom, they can change that bright green you see in the photo to a neon green or a more muted one. Moreover, changing the white balance of the scene can change every colour of the Northern Lights in one fell swoop.

Here's a standard edit of The Aurora Borealis. The blue hue to the sky is created from the sunlight coming in from the horizon.

Here’s a standard edit of The Aurora Borealis. The blue hue to the sky is created from the sunlight coming in from the horizon.

Compare the above photo with the ones below, where all I’ve done was change the white balance in Adobe Lightroom.

The Aurora Borealis with just a slight change in the white balance changes the overall look and feel of the image.

The Aurora Borealis with just a slight change in the white balance changes the overall look and feel of the image.

The colours can change even more—it all depends on how the photographer feels like editing their photographs of the Aurora Borealis.

The sky has a deeper purple hue to it, with slightly different hues of the Aurora Borealis.

The sky has a deeper purple hue to it, with slightly different hues of the Aurora Borealis.

What does the Aurora Borealis really look like then?

There isn’t just one prescribed set of numbers used by the masses for editing Aurora Borealis photos. When editing my photos, I adopted to using a set of numbers that closely reflected what I remember seeing, even if it was very faint most of the time. These numbers were found to be fairly consistent with how some other photographers edited their Aurora Borealis photos. Hopefully this means we’re representing this wonderful phenomenon more truthfully. I’ve seen many photos where the Aurora Borealis had been over-saturated to the point where I knew that couldn’t be real. I’ve also seen photos that included colours that I’ve never seen before in the night sky. I wonder if that is just because I’ve just never been lucky enough to see them, or if that was just some creative editing by the photographer.

An over-the-top edit of the Aurora Borealis. This is way too saturated to be truthful to reality, in my opinion.

An over-the-top edit of the Aurora Borealis. This is way too saturated to be truthful to reality, in my opinion.

So, what do you think of these Aurora Borealis photos now? Are you surprised by any of this or did you already know these facts about the Aurora Borealis? Let me know what you think about these brilliant display of colours that we all love to see so much, by commenting below.

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