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You’d be hard pressed finding someone who doesn’t have “see the who doesn’t have “see the northern lights”on their bucket list. I know it featured on mine for years, even though I’d never given much thought to how I would accomplish it.
Because all of these people have, at some point, seen a photo of green lights dancing over a pristine winter landscape, they all have a preconception of what they are going to see. For those people, me included (despite all the cautions I received to the contrary), it’s expected that they will walk outside after dark and the sky will simply light up above them. The reality isn’t quite so straightforward.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s still one of the most awe-inspiring sights you’ll ever see. It’s just good to know what to expect so you don’t feel disappointed.
The first thing to know is that the aurora doesn’t usually appear in brilliant colours all at once. Instead, it often gradually makes its presence known as a rainbow-like arc across the northern sky. Rather than being the unmistakable green colour, though, it is can be an off-white colour, almost like a cloud.
However, it won’t behave like a cloud, which you would expect to continue moving across the sky with a reasonably constant speed. At this point, it’s often possible to see the telltale oscillating movement within the arc itself — which was one of the ways I managed to convince my otherwise incredulous mother that I hadn’t gotten her out of bed at 1am to watch clouds move across the sky.
The oscillations of the aurora are best described by traditional Sami drawings of the phenomenon. To me, it almost looked like a slinky being pushed together and then pulled apart on a massive, massive scale.
If the lights do form like this, there are a few ways you can prove to yourself that you’re actually watching the northern lights. You can:
It’s well worth sticking around if the northern lights appear in this form, because they alternate between strong and weak phases, often in a very short period of time. That “white cloud” can very quickly turn into a full-fledged green and pink light show…or it could be the strongest the aurora gets all night.
It’s also good to remember that conditions can drastically affect the visibility of the aurora — if it’s full moon or if you’re around a lot of light pollution from city lights, the aurora will appear a lot duller than it actually is. Also, if you are seeing the aurora at a lower altitude — for instance, in the lower 48 US states or in Tasmania — it is likely to be much less obvious in the sky.
All aurora photographers — myself included — are guilty of taking photos that don’t quite reflect reality. Aside from being able to make the sky appear green when the naked eye can only see white, long exposure photos mean a lot more movement is captured in one shot than you would see otherwise.
Essentially, this takes several moments in time and combines them into one photo, making an image that is more spectacular because it was more than you ever could have seen at one time. It also creates shapes and formations that you may not be able to spot at the time, especially because there is often so much movement going on in the sky that it’s hard to concentrate on just one section.
I took this photo in a series as the lights welled up in the sky, turning from the aforementioned arch in the sky into a writhing mass of green. As I stood there in awe of the most spectacular aurora I’d seen so far, I definitely did not have time to pick out any particular shapes in the sky, yet now I can very clearly see what looks like a man with a hood on and his arms out flying across the sky.
This photo was taken during a solar storm that I witnessed from a hilltop in Kätkävaara, Finland. Again, I didn’t stop and point as I would to a interestingly-shaped cloud, thinking, “wow, doesn’t that look like a smiley face?” On that night, the entire sky, from northern to southern horizon, was alight, and I had no idea which way to look. I probably would have spend most of the night with my mouth hanging open if the temperature hadn’t been hovering around -20ºC.
So is it a bad thing that the lights won’t look like the photos you’ve seen? Not at all — that’s part of the joy of it. You never know what you’re going to see or what shape or colour it might take.
It’s just important to know that the images your eye can see are very different to what your camera can capture. Each are spectacular in their own way, and while there may not be as much going on — or as much colour — in the sky as you see in one image, it’s always much, much better because you are there witnessing it for yourself.