Aurora hunting – what to expect in Scotland? Regular guests will know that I post a lot of photographs of the Aurora, taken here at Treshnish. It is really important, as a potential Aurora Hunter, to remember that the human eye will not see what the camera picks up. One’s expectations need to be managed in order not to take away from the ‘being out under the stars experience’ you can enjoy while out hunting the aurora.
Aurora hunting – what to expect
At our latitude we cannot expect to see – with the naked eye – the incredible displays you can see in places like Iceland and Norway. We are just not far enough north. Very, very occasionally we can see the Aurora Borealis as brightly with the naked eye, as the camera catches it. I think it is all to do with rods and cones in our eyes, but I explain that our eyes need to adjust to the dark.
When you first go outside under a truly dark sky you see nothing. Our eyes adjust – it takes 20 minutes. We then begin to see shapes and silhouettes and stars. What we see (with the naked eye) appears in the time it takes us to blink. But we use exposure times of perhaps 20 or 30 seconds in order to catch the aurora on camera. We cannot extend the ‘shutter speed’ of our eyes. So don’t expect to see wild colours with the naked eye, but with the right conditions and the correct camera settings who knows?! It is all down to chance!
Adjust your expectations
A ‘good’ display to the naked eye might be to see shafts of light within the brightness, but in monochrome – not colour. But there again you might only see a glow. Digital cameras have done a lot to encourage people to go Aurora hunting, but if you don’t have a camera and hope to see the same colours and movement with your naked eye you will be disappointed.
What could I see?
Personally I love the whole experience of being outside, most often on my own, listening to the sounds, wondering what I will see. Letting my eyes become accustomed to the darkness, seeing the stars, perhaps the Milky Way – and then I will set my camera up! And as a photographer my interest is in seeing the imagery my camera can collect that I cannot see. Also, I really enjoy not being part of a group or a tour – but being able to walk outside in the dark on my own. I fully appreciate how lucky we are on Mull to be able to do this!
I took this photograph in the field below the farmhouse. One of those nights. No one else around. Just me and some rather startled sheep. It was very still, and I walked with a red torch light so not to affect my night vision. What could I actually see? I could see the curtains of light and make out some green, but not to the full extent that the photograph shows.
It’s all down to chance
I have been on short aurora hunting trips to Iceland and Norway. Both times I had a lovely holiday, but I did not see the aurora. We had pre-booked aurora tours which went ahead despite the weather! Under cloudy skies, with no realistic chance of seeing the Aurora.. On both occasions I came home to Treshnish and caught the aurora on camera the night I got home. I may not have had the amazing green swirling curtains of light waving across my sky, but I had a wonderful time outside in the field, listening to the sea, and the owls in the wood – coaxing the faint colours of the aurora and the stars onto camera.
Visible on camera
This is an example of an Aurora Borealis, which was only visible on camera. My experience by naked eye was that I could see the stars, and the lightness in the sky looking north, but I could not see the colours. The magic for me of taking photographs on a night like this, is to see what the camera can capture, that I am not seeing.
A rare, colourful sky
On rare occasions we can see the colours as well as the dancing light. In the photograph below, the brightness came on very suddenly, and disturbed the Greylag geese in the field down below, who started alarm calling – gave me quite a fright! Most keen aurora hunters can remember the dates and where they were as this doesn’t happen often in Scotland! This night in March 2015 was one of those nights.