Last night, happened to be browsing Facebook and came across a post where someone mentioned they saw Northern lights in Tampere. The picture posted had nice streak of green light inspite of having street lights right there! I figured there must be some really serious solar flares for one to be able to see this far south and that strong. Checked this website “http://www.aurora-service.eu/aurora-forecast/ ” and sure enough Aurora Borealis is expected to be seen all the way into Estonia!! Grabbed the camera and a jacket, went out and didn’t quite see them. I saw a glow in the North but my camera didn’t see anything so I wasn’t sure (it will become clearer why looking in the camera makes it clear very soon I promise). Not knowing what to expect but full of hope, we drove 10 mins out of town to get out of street lights, found a secluded spot near a forest and parked. Made sure there is a open patch to the North and we saw a lot of glow in the sky. My camera still wouldn’t catch anything.
So we waited maybe 10 minutes when we started seeing a patch of wispy cloud starting at the horizon and coming up, dancing, moving fast. Within a couple of minutes, the whole sky on the North side had dancing clouds around. I had hard time getting my camera set in the dark to start taking a few pictures (it’s very very dark and I have just a GH5 camera with 12-35mm I f/2.8 lens only. Lost my other GH4 and multiple lenses last year in the train). I was watching the dance most of the time with half hearted attempt at taking pictures but managed a few. We saw the big dipper with the Northern lights and that was quite cool too! it even showed up in one of the pictures!.
The first time I saw Aurora Borealis was Dec 2015 when we travelled to North Finland beyond the arctic circle to a town called Levi. We were lucky enough on one of the days and witnessed some of the spectacular displays almost the whole night. We also happened to be in a glass igloo that very night and it was one of the most memorable nights of my life. I will write a bit more about the experience below. But coming back to the lights… The first time I saw the Northern lights, it came as a shock to me. The night was glowing and with lot of snow around, it was very bright. But, while my camera is showing all the beautiful greens, blues with occasional purple and pink, my eyes only saw mostly bright grey wisps of clouds. Still very mesmerizing and couldn’t take my eyes off but not what I expected. Didn’t see any bright colors at all. Occasionally saw a little pink or purple but mostly that was it. My son reported seeing blue and purple but not our old eyes.
Here are two images of what we saw last night.. One on the left is approximation of what my eyes saw last night (photoshopped to reduce saturation) and the one below is what the camera captured. During our last visit, after the initial shock of not seeing all those spectacular colors, I started thinking why.. Why we don’t see the colors. It’s quite simple really but we don’t remember it. Because we always see pictures of Aurora Borealis as these spectacular color displays and automatically expect it. Human eyes have cones and rods (simplistic way of looking at it). Rods are the ones that are mainly responsible for our night time seeing (low light vision) and have very little color vision. Cones is what we use when there is plenty of light and can see the beautiful colors. Since these displays can be seen only at night, we are limited by our rods in the eyes. Fortunately cameras are not limited so they can display the actual colors of the Northern lights. Sometimes when they are really strong, you can see faint colors depending on your eyes. Some people report seeing quite a lot of colors in them while others like me don’t. Are they still spectacular even if you don’t see them in all those bright colors? Absolutely!! It’s not just the colors… The wisps of smoke/cloud dancing and changing pattern, disappearing and appearing again… it is most definitely mesmerizing and an experience every time.
Colors of Aurora Borealis depends on the altitude, what the solar flares are coming in contact with etc. Greens and yellows are when they come in contact with oxygen. Purple and blues with Nitrogen etc. Here’s a good article by space.com explaining more about these lights. https://www.space.com/15139-northern-lights-auroras-earth-facts-sdcmp.html
Watching the Northern Lights itself is an amazing experience. But there are some places which intensify that experience. We went to one of those places in 2015 in Levi, Finland. We stayed at a glass igloo for one night (they are super expensive). All the walls and roof are made of glass (very special glass from what I hear). They do have curtains you can close for privacy if needed. But just lying down and watching the whole sky lit up with Northern lights (while staying warm in the room instead of freezing cold outside – it was -22C that night) quite something, an experience in its own. Here’s a picture of what camera captured from inside the glass igloo. But of course you cannot just experience it from inside. I spent more time dressing up in layers, go out to watch and run back inside with frozen fingers and toes to warm up and still watch and do it all over again.. Didn’t let anyone sleep much either. It’s just one of those things you have to experience to know what it feels like. Almost impossible to describe the feeling!!