Why Do the Northern Lights Look So Different in Person?

DENALI, ALASKA- All I've heard for the length of the summer is that the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights as they are more commonly known, would not be visible until late August. You can imagine my surprise then, when Dan was gazing out the back window of the van, neck craned, gazing at the stars, and pointed out the Northern Lights off in the distance. I thought he was joking. We were on our way back from a trip into the park, where he had the chance to see Denali, a bull moose, and grizzly bears. Seeing the Northern Lights--for the first time all year--would really be the icing on top of his visit, wouldn't it?

 My photo of the Northern Lights

My photo of the Northern Lights

 

It took some jostling and more than a little squinting to follow his pointed finger off in the distance and see the shimmering white lights that just had to be the Aurora. Arriving back at Creekside, we piled out into the parking lot, staring off into the distance and gawking at the wavy, shiny bands making their way across the horizon. After months of waiting, there they were. Seeing the Aurora in person is a stunning experience and one that I had been waiting months for, but I couldn't help but think how much different they looked in person. I was accustomed to seeing professional photos, like the one at the left. What I saw in the sky was nothing like a professional photo.

 

 Is it even real?

Is it even real?

 

 You can spot the Aurora two places in the world, at extremely high latitudes, where it is known as the Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, or at extremely low latitudes, where it is know as the Aurora Australis, or Southern Lights. It's caused by a scientific phenomenon that is above my pay grade to even attempt to describe here, but in effect it causes the night sky to light up with shimmering bands of light. The most common color is green, often manifesting itself as a faint white, though blue and red have also been seen in extreme circumstances. 

 

In order to understand why a professional photograph of the Northern Lights doesn't resemble what you see in person, there is a basic photographic principle you must first grasp: shutter speed. Shutter speed dictates how long the lens will open after you press the shutter-release button, which takes lets light in to the camera. A long shutter speed allows a lot of light into the photo; a short shutter speed allows very little light into the photo. Since they are only visible at night when there is very little natural light, it’s impossible to take a photo of the Northern Lights without a very long shutter speed, oftentimes in excess of 25 seconds. This is called a long-exposure shot. 

 

Long exposure shots very rarely reflect the reality of what you see. Standing in the middle of a dark parking lot and watching the Northern Lights might afford you the chance to see a faint glimmer dance across the sky, but a long exposure shot will collect 25 seconds worth of light for your photo, far more than you see in the blink of an eye. The result is that the photos you see of the Northern Lights are not necessarily what the individual taking the photo sees with the naked eye. For example, the long-exposure shot I took below clearly shows the Northern Lights, however faint. These were not visible if you were looking at the same spot in the sky where the photo was taken.

 Hazy Aurora

Hazy Aurora

 

This is both good and bad. It’s good because there is really no other way to capture a photo at night, and it means that we can produce pictures of the Aurora. It’s bad because people are disappointed when reality fails to live up to their expectations. This is not to say that there aren’t brilliant displays of the Northern Lights all over Alaska and beyond—there are, and I have been lucky enough to witness a few of them—but that on the whole, photographs don’t necessarily reflect the reality of what others see. Personally, I'd rather take a photograph of the lights that might not reflect reality, but will give you an inkling of what this natural phenomena looks like in real life. It's sure better than nothing.