Aurora: or, what the photographs cannot tell you

This evening, my husband’s email subscription alert warned us that solar activity levels were at ‘amber’, meaning a possible chance of seeing the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. Ever since moving to Scotland, we’d had hopes of seeing them, but the closest we had previously got was a faint smudge on the horizon back when we lived in Crail, on the south side of a gently but significantly undulating outcrop of land, which obscured most of the northern horizon. “It’s just a cloud,” I said at the time, stamping my feet for warmth.

Well, this evening we saw a very, very big cloud. Before going out, a news search for Aurora sightings had led me to this timely article. In it, the author complained that – contrary to expectations built by aurora photography – the sight which greeted her eyes in Tromsø, Norway was fairly drab and colourless.

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Standing on the top of the Hill of Row in Perthshire, Scotland, I also found that the reality was quite different from the photographs. I attempted to take a few of my own, resulting in a few grainy images which, yes, captured far more colours than the rods of my night-time eyes were able to. (For a genuinely fracking stunning photograph of the aurora, I refer you all to the work of my extremely talented brother). Then, realising the futility of struggling with an uncooperative camera in the dark when the bloody Aurora was there on the other side of the lens, I stepped back, and let my eyes adjust to the dark.

At about that moment, the great cloud arcing over the northern horizon started to move. In Scottish Gaelic, the Aurora is known as fir-chlis, or the ‘merry dancers’. It seemed to me that the famous curtain of light suddenly shredded, revealing just those dancers, their feet – the brightest, lowest spots of the Aurora – just mincing across the dark hills behind them. The movement was, well, exactly as the Gaelic would have it – merry, a fiddled waltz at an informal ceilidh.

The reason why photographs of the Aurora look so different from the reality is not only because the camera can capture colours that the human eye, in the midst of darkness, cannot see: it is also because they are taken over the course of several seconds, freezing in a single image the light as it moves across multiple points in the sky. This can result in wonderfully shapely images, but they also – ironically – make it seem as if the Aurora is still. What I saw, for maybe sixty remarkable seconds, was a dance that no high ISO or long exposure could ever capture.

I always thought that if it came, my delight in the Aurora would be in taking a stunning, boast-worthy shot which would enable me to look deeper into its colours and movements than my poor eyes ever could. In the end, my sole memento (this time…) is a noisy, poor photo, but I am oddly glad of it. For I can look at it and just see the tips of the toes of the merry dancers, and shut my eyes to see them move again.

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