The color of auroras – magical or… not?

If not before, latest after the solar storm on March 17, 2015, the internet has been flooded with aurora photos. The subject of aurora colors has been discussed but I think not nearly enough. That’s why I decided to write this post. Let’s start off with some photos from that solar storm. I tried to recreate a version which reflects what my eyes saw. You can click on each of them to look at them without distractions:





So, now you know 🙂 Well, does this make the experience of seeing auroras less magic? Heck, no!!

Expectations, it is all about expectations. It can make or break your first aurora experience. Whenever I’m about to go out with clients, I firmly tell them not to expect anything like seen in photos but rather pale colors in the skies – IF we see auroras dancing. Some colors are so weak that we only see them as grey without the camera. A few people had a hard time to let go of the colorful photos they have seen beforehand. As a result they have been truly disillusioned when watching auroras for a while and thinking: That’s it? Really? What a pity..

Luckily most people enjoy the experience, the movements in the sky and show all kind of reactions: standing silently, shouting, shaking their head, hugging each other, dancing, singing, crying, you name it. And none of them were thinking about the colors in the photos..

As to the question why the two are different, I wrote in my aurora guide: “There is one big difference between a camera and our eyes. If we look at the sky for five seconds, the human eye sees every moment once. We may remember them in our brain, but our eye can see only one moment a time and erases the one before. If the camera ‘looks’ for five seconds at the sky, it adds all moments together and creates one image from all those single moments. Therefore the colors are mostly stronger in the image opposed to how we see them. Trying to photograph auroras in its natural, pale colors and strength would most of the time result in a black landscape because there just isn’t enough light.”

There are many aurora chasers out there, who go out night after night – just like me – to get another glimpse at the lights. I bet most of us (if not all) enjoy the dance of the lights as such. Looking up in the sky, it is nothing short of a miracle what we see. Of course, I wanna capture ‘that’ photo, sure. And yes, I love to see the colors in the photo. But if it would be only about that, I’d definetely prefer my warm bed and good-night sleep instead of spending hours in the cold, dark night, again and again.

One thing about post-processing those digital files. I feel the need to mention that some photos are overprocessed, pushing colors over the top. In my opinion that is completely unnecessary and actually looks really ugly. The aurora itself is wonderful and what our cameras are able to show us is simply stunning, so why overkill it. I took my corona photo and pushed the colors to the extreme. Perhaps you like it but I can’t even look at it for two seconds.. 😉

Copyright: Thomas Kast

Suddenly my photo looks kind of pale, right?

In the end it’s up to everyone’s expectations, preferences, etc. Enjoy the photos and know what to expect if you plan to see auroras.

I’d be VERY curious to hear what your thoughts are on this, so feel free to comment 🙂

11 responses to “The color of auroras – magical or… not?

  1. Right on, it’s the photographer’s freedom to process and interpret. It’s up to the viewer to appreciate the image or not.

    I think your angle and your results are great!

  2. Great post Thomas!

    I totally agree with what you write here! I always try to process my pictures so they look the most like what I saw when I was out capturing them, but also knowing that the camera always sees more than our eyes does. 😉

    • Thanks for commenting, Gaute. Love your photos and the processing. As you know I also keep the colors the camera saw, mostly. Why to hide something so beautiful 🙂

  3. I personally think that photography, like any art form, is incapable of representing anything “de facto” (who would even be able to say what that might be?). The interesting, best part is that it doesn’t have to because art can “represent” so much more! Thus I accept manipulation to capture the magic of the moment (for it is no fraud), and I think that the amount of it on your photos is perfect. Problem might occur, like you said, with expectations – but it is not artists responsibility how his work are interpreted.

    • Art is art, and up to anyone’s interpretation. Would be pretty sad if everyone would have exactly the same photos, kinda boring. Manipulation can be really great but some are clearly manipulating and try to ‘sell’ it as being not manipulated. That I really don’t like. Good point with the artist not being responsible, made my day. Thanks for your comment, kreetta 🙂

  4. Loved this post, I agree your spot-on describing what the eye sees compared to the camera, I live on the North Coast of Ireland, and have travelled extensively to view the Lights ( Aurora Addict I am ) but the higher the latitude you travel, the more colour you can actually see with your eyes, but the camera always intensifies it more, on the 17th March when I realised we had a chance of seeing the Aurora from Ireland, I headed to the best spot at the coast with 3 family members that hadn’t seen the Aurora before, at about 11pm when the Aurora exploded across the sky, I was shouting with excitement, I could see curtains, tall beams, ribbons a corona, admittedly the colours were somewhat muted, but I was estatic, but the rest of my family were like, OHHH is that it, I was really annoyed with them lol 🙂

    • Thanks for the kind words, Trisha. Ah, the 17th of March was really something. Sure, the colors were there. Too bad your family was not so estatic but really, it’s their loss. Glad you enjoyed it! I think 11pm your time was 1am here and around 1.05am the skies went nuts here. Had a hard time keeping myself from doing somersaults on the snow 🙂

  5. I love all your photos, I would like all my friends here in the South, to see what we are missing from the northern hemisphere. One cannot even imagine what it is like to actually be there in person to see heavens wonderous scenes dancing all over the sky. Thank you for allowing me to enjoy every one of them, To think of your previous comment of the 17 March 15, which was my 80th birthday I would have loved to have witnessed that scene.

    • Thanks very much for your comment, Joy. And happy belated birthday!! You would have enjoyed seeing this for sure. At least I can bring you some little bit via my photos. Have a wonderful week!

  6. Pingback: Visiting Lapland – Part 1 (of 3) | Embrace Life. Be Inspired.

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