WHAT IS THE AURORA REALLY LIKE?
I’m a member of a few Aurora related groups where people share their best photos and tips to spot the wonder that is the Aurora Borealis (North) or Aurora Australis (South). I am no expert on the lights but I have witnessed quite a wonderful display and I know a little about them worth sharing. Most of all, I have taken video of what the lights look like to the eye, to dispel a few myths. So let’s get started…
Aurora is different in the Northern Hemisphere than it is to the Southern Hemisphere… False.
The two do look different sometimes, but the main variable is the viewing angle. Often viewers from locations such as Australia’s Tasmania are looking South to see and photograph aurora, whilst those in the North can see it overhead. It’s simply due to populations and where those populations are viewing the lights from, relative to the Earth’s magnetic poles. So you could say Tassie is usually seeing the show from the back row of the theater, whereas those in places such as Iceland, Finland and Norway might be looking straight up at the stage from the front row. There are numerous arctic bases and research stations on islands and on Antarctica itself that see the lights overhead frequently.
Aurora varies in strength and colour… True.
Aurora strength is predicted by observing the sun’s behavior, as Aurora is caused by *in depth science here* stuff from the sun hitting our atmosphere. There are a hectapascal of different charts and ways to measure different aspects of the phenomenon. (It should be noted here that hectapascal is not an actual word that has any relevance.) The most common measurement is KP. A KP of 1 – 3 is fairly normal. A 3 can be seen at the very tippy toes of our inhabited planet such as Northern Finland, Norway, Iceland and such. The stronger it gets, the further away from the magnetic poles it can be seen, and the more fabulous it generally is.
Most commonly aurora is seen as green, but it is often pink and purple hues to boot. Colours outside of that range are somewhat dubious but perhaps possible? To put it in a dumb way that I can understand, the colours represent the chemical makeup of all the nice stuff the sun has shot over to the Earth. Often when you first see it as it kicks off for the night, it may not even seem all that colourful at all. But when it’s ready to party be ready for it to start dancing! Kind of like me really!
I saw Aurora and it did some stuff and there was dubstep and it was bad ass… Probably False.
First of all, dub step is terrible. Just playing dub step will probably cause the aurora to disappear… false. The main reason I wanted to write this post was to show people what Aurora really looks like. Most Aurora videos are actually timelapsed. Why? It means each individual frame of the video can last a longer time, which means more light comes into the camera, fancier colours, and a far more active display in the video. Instead of seeing one minute of Aurora, you see one night of Aurora dancing away in one minute of time. Poor Aurora, always having to try and live up to impossible standards!
The same is true of most photographs, they are long exposures often taken over 15 – 30 seconds, possibly even longer.
So without further ado, here is 13 or so minutes of pure aurora joy. It doesn’t seem like much is happening a lot of the time, but suddenly you’ll notice it spikes rapidly in intensity as shards of light come from the sky. It really is ridiculously pretty to witness in person on a good night. The display you are watching is about a KP 4.5 – 5.5 (it fluctuates rapidly) for comparison’s sake. If you cannot see the building in the foreground (albeit it is dark which is part of the point) then your monitor brightness needs to come up a little until you can make it out. Then you’re about set to what it really looks like in person. Put your favorite music on and mellow for a little while.
So photographers are colour saturating all their Aurora pictures and being all photoshoppy and bad… Well, yes and no.
First of all the world around us is open to interpretation and a camera is just one tool with which to capture that wonder. Some aurora photographs are absolutely photoshopped out of the wazoo whatever that means, and some are not. Here are 3 of my photographs of the Aurora taken from Iceland, and I am actually going to post the unedited picture, and then the final edit.
The main editing on all three photographs has largely been tweaking the overall exposure, and bringing in some detail from the foreground. Iceland if you haven’t been there is as windy as a vegan eating lentils. So unless your tripod is sturdy and weighed down, it’s easy to have vibration added to the scene due to the wind. I have not edited any of these photographs for public exhibit or usage so they were all quick less than five minute jobs. This photograph was while the activity was steady but not being too flamboyant.
I used a hand torch to ‘paint’ the details of the building in over about two seconds of the thirty second exposure. This helped add the building’s colour to the scene. As you can see there is a lot of activity in this photograph with lots of waves and shards of light coming down.
As you can see I wanted to bring out the road in this photograph so it would take you on a journey through the barren landscape with the beautiful aurora’s overhead. Typically a bright moon is inconvenient for viewing aurora as it is adding extra light to the scene which will wash out some of the aurora display. However in this instance it’s a nice graphical element and the aurora is strong enough to be seen anyhow.
This was my last photograph of the night. Almost 4AM in the freezing cold and time to get back to our room! It was very hard to tear ourselves away I can tell you that.
So how close to these pictures is it?
Well hopefully you’ve checked out the video. Certainly when you are viewing the Aurora you can get an experience not too dissimilar to the photographs above. There are some moments where the action escalates very suddenly. My wife Lee and I were both in awe as at one point the show reached a climax, as pink and green shards were spiraling down towards us, rapidly swirling in the sky directly above. It was something too amazing to have captured in video or photo!
Many aurora displays are not like this one. Some are much more powerful (and therefore rarer), and many are a lot tamer but still worth viewing. We spent 17 days and nights in Iceland during its cold, hard winter. We saw the aurora on our second last day. We were so incredibly lucky that we were able to witness it. Most of the difficulty was simply in Iceland being ravaged by blizzards which was causing total cloud cover. Yes, you need clear skies, or at least bits of skies, to see anything.
Meanwhile the day after we left a group of other Aussie photographers arrived, obviously stealing all our ideas and taking great inspiration from our adventures and talents (I kid!). They witnessed the Aurora numerous times. There really is a lot of luck involved and being prepared to be up at odd hours looking to take the opportunity!
If you’d like some tips for aurora hunting in Iceland or anything Iceland in general get in touch!