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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.

Toronto Sunrise

Even though I’ve been going out on several Toronto sunrise shoots these past few months, they never bore me. Each one is different and unique in their own way. Even if the skies are clear with no clouds to reflect the sunshine, seeing that first light come up above the horizon is reason enough to wake up at 5am and drive to the lake.

Nikon D800, 1/80 sec., f/22, ISO 100, 70mm

Nikon D800, 1/80 sec., f/22, ISO 100, 70mm

The morning I took this Toronto sunrise, I thought nothing of it. It wasn’t the most dramatic of sunrises as the sun just came up with no spectacular showing of colours. There were no clouds to reflect the lights, and the water was surprisingly calm with no swans or ducks. I took a few random shots anyway hoping to get some sort of memory from the day. I’m glad I caught the birds in the sky as that adds a little more to the picture.

A few days later, I came back to this photo only to realize that it was a rather nice looking sunrise picture with the right amount of sun spikes, perfectly positioned behind the trees, emitting that warm sunrise glow. After tweaking some colours and cleaning the image up, I have to say it’s one photo that I’m really happy with.

The takeaway here is that even if you think you didn’t come out with something good on a shoot, don’t discount all of your photos just yet. Wait a few days and let your photos “marinate,” as I mentioned in this previous post. When you see your photos after a few days later, you’ll see them in a new light, so-to-speak, and will appreciate it differently.

 

Composition dilemma

When post-processing a photo, deciding on the proper composition is key in creating the feel of an image. You can evoke different feelings for the viewer based on where the horizon is placed within an image, or where the subject is placed within the frame.

Nikon D800, 1/800 sec., f/8.0, ISO 100, 70mm

Nikon D800, 1/800 sec., f/8.0, ISO 100, 70mm

This photo is pretty interesting as I could have gone a number of different ways in terms of placing the horizon and placement of the subject.

I decided to place the horizon on the top third of the image because it then allows us to get more intimate with the water by seeing more details of the water. Further, the water in the foreground acts as a guide for our eyes to move towards the paddler. Had I placed the horizon on the bottom third of this picture, like in the image below, I wouldn’t have achieved the same effect.

Placing the paddler directly in the centre of the frame can also change the mood as well. I have her centred which balances things throughout the entire photo. If I placed her one-third from the left edge of the frame, we would get more negative space on the right, allowing our eyes to head directly to the subject.

Nikon D800, 1/800 sec., f/8.0, ISO 100, 70mm

Nikon D800, 1/800 sec., f/8.0, ISO 100, 70mm

Can you feel the difference between the two images above? With the horizon in the bottom third of the photo, we get an open view of the sky, making the entire landscape look more grand and spacious.

There’s not really a right or wrong way about this; it’s just a matter of what you’re trying to achieve in the photo.

The takeaway here is to always be conscious about the cropping of your photo. You may not think about it, but what you include or take away when cropping a photo will make a big difference in how people interpret the image.

A little perspective can fool you

Nikon D800, 1/640 f/4.5, ISO 800, 70mm

Nikon D800, 1/640 f/4.5, ISO 800, 70mm

Here’s a great photo that always makes me laugh a little every time I see it. The photo was taken at The National Art Centre, Tokyo. It’s an architectural marvel and photographer’s delight to be inside, especially during sunset, like above.

During one of my trips to Japan, I came here with a friend of mine—the one standing in the middle of this photo with a camera up to her face. The great thing about this photo is that because of where I was standing with my camera, the two people who happen to be in the frame look like they are totally different heights. The security guard on the left looks like he is quite a bit taller than my friend in the middle. Now I know my friend isn’t that short!

As it turns out, although the security guard was only a few feet in front of my friend, because I was so low to the ground, this particular angle makes it look almost as if my friend and the guard were standing along the same line—or the same distance away from my camera. This perspective trickery makes the subject standing further away from my camera appear to be much smaller than the subject who is only a few feet closer to the camera.

My camera was sitting right on the hardwood floor here, and I was taking random photos as people passed by. That was a great moment as there were so many different people walking by my camera. I did manage to get many photos here, and I will be sure to do some more show and tells  in the future.

The takeaway here is to remember to play with the perspective of your camera as you can easily fool the audience by making your subject matter appear much smaller or larger than they really are.

Look where nobody else is looking

“Now, if you look to your left, you’ll see…”

If you looked at this photo, you may automatically think that people turned their heads as soon as they realized I pulled out my full-sized dSLR to take everybody’s photo—but that’s far from the truth.

As it turns out, the guide inside the Jasper SkyTram—who is not shown here—was pointing to something to the right, mentioning some interesting facts about the area. As soon as he pointed us to that side, everybody’s heads turned that way simultaneously. It was actually quite funny. I had my camera out, taking photos of various locations within Jasper National Park, and couldn’t resist taking this photo with everybody’s heads turned to their sides.

Nikon D800, 1/320 sec., f/4.0, ISO 100, 24mm

Nikon D800, 1/320 sec., f/4.0, ISO 100, 24mm

Taking a photo within a gondola/SkyTram isn’t something that we would all instinctively think to do, but that’s the beauty of it all. When you are confronted with something different, go ahead and take advantage of it. While everyone was busy looking outside of the SkyTram, I realized the potential of a fun photo within it.

The takeaway to this post is, when you’re done looking at the same thing everybody else is busy looking at, be sure to look elsewhere to find other—and possibly even more interesting—views for more great photo opportunities.