The Real Aurora Borealis
Viewing photos of the Aurora Borealis online can be quite exciting: the beautiful greens, reds, purples, and more dancing in the night sky is something we all dream of seeing one day. If you think about it, it’s hard to believe those vibrant curtains of light actually flow and dance right in front of you. Or do they?
For many of us—myself included—what you see in these photos is unfortunately not what you see in real life. Our eyes are often not sensitive enough to see the colours of the Northern Lights so we just see faint colours (bordering on white) moving in the night sky. On overcast days, you can easily mistaken these for clouds.
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 strong.
The photos below will show you what I typically see with my eyes, compared to what my camera captures with a long exposure.
Compare the above photo with the one below, which is more like what I see with my own eyes. The colours are barely visible below. Furthermore, the long exposure of the camera makes it look a little more sensational than it really is as well since the camera picks up the movement of the light, whereas the eye can only see the lights in one place at a time.
Here’s one more example:
The colours above look great, but here’s what I really see with my own 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.
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, then I knew they were simply clouds.
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 own eyes.
While some of us may not be able to see the colours very well, we are still able to discern the movement of the Northern Lights in the night sky. This in itself is a magical experience since it’s really nothing like what you would ever see anywhere else. Whether it’s a slow moving aurora, or the lights dancing from left to right, the movement is unique and unquestionably something that only the northern lights will create.
I believe this alone is worth the effort to see the lights whenever possible.
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.
Compare the above photo with the ones below, where all I’ve done was change the white balance in Adobe Lightroom.
The colours can change even more—it all depends on how the photographer feels like editing their photographs 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.
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.