Photographing The Northern Lights – in The UK

Introduction 

Throughout 2013 – 2015, I spent a hell of a lot of time, actually around nine months altogether, in two old, beaten up camper vans, (with lack of heating I might add) chasing the clear night skies around the UK; this presented me with the opportunity to photograph the Northern Lights across Scotland, to include the north eastern tip at John O’ Groats, and all the way down south as far as Dorset in England, with a number of counties in between.

Aurora Borealis and Milky Way over Dorset – England

For the last couple of years my photography business has seen me spend way too much time out of the UK, it’s been that full on and intense, it’s almost liked I’ve blinked, and boom! Night photography has completely exploded within the UK, it’s everywhere. It’s growth in popularity was easy to predict a number of years back, it’s so bloody addictive, and with its increase in popularity, a wider nationwide realisation that we are actually able to see the Northern Lights frequently in the United Kingdom has emerged! Scotland being the ultimate jewel in the crown for dark skies, locations, and more intense displays, though Northern Ireland, England, and Wales still get a good slice of the action.

Aurora Borealis over Dorset poppies – England

There is now a huge nationwide interest in seeing and hunting the Aurora on home turf, not just amongst photographers, but people in general wishing to view the Northern Lights within the UK.  There are plenty of websites, apps and social media hubs to aid the great Aurora chase, this piece of writing just aims at collating some of that array of information, combined with my own experience, and channelling it into one place to aid beginner photographers and potential Aurora hunters alike!

Admittedly, I’m a few years too late with this written piece (it was actually started quite some time back, but never finished),  however, a random flare (some people refer to these as rays) dropping into the end of a 36 image multi-row panorama at Dunstanburgh Castle (Northumberland, England) at the break of dawn at 4 am the other night (April 2019) spurred me on to complete this article, plus it’s a smaller part of a larger, previously shelved and now rekindled project (more on that via my newsletter).

Northern Lights and twilight on the horizon at Dunstanburgh Castle – England

Anyway, 36 image multi-rows blah blah blah, enough technical stuff and me drivelling on, I’m going to try and keep this simple throughout the core of the writing, and simply explain about viewing and photographing the Northern Lights within Scotland, Wales, England, and Northern Ireland. I will tell you what to look for based on my experience of photographing them in the UK and beyond, provide pointers towards some good social media links and groups, include a little bit of technical info on camera technique, and point you toward some apps and websites that will help you predict possible Auroral displays; then, if you are still reading, I will give a brief insight to the technical aspect of reading space weather and jargon to help you understand the Aurora forecasting information available.  Naturally there is a Northern Lights source index and further external sources at the end, for the those who really want to delve in further.

How to see the Northern Lights in the UK

Northern Lights over Loch Torridon – Scotland

Dark Skies

It’s been written a thousand times, but here it is again, number one, you really do need a dark location, the darker, undoubtedly, the better, away from as much light pollution as possible, and in the UK, preferably as far north as possible (optimises viewing); it goes without saying, preferably without cloud, and with a good view of the horizon north east, north, and north west.

Coastal regions with the aforementioned geographical orientation are ideal.

A: Coastal areas tend to have no, or less landmass in front of them, thus giving a clear, more expansive view of the horizon (naturally this depends where you are situated as there are often towns further up the coast).

B: Unobstructed coastal views often look out to an abys of dark night sky with no light pollution (although there may be rigs and ships in some areas) giving a full view of any potential display on the horizon.

Dawn coastal Aurora – England

Get elevated, if you can get yourself up high, naturally you see far further over the horizon, and for the more southerly latitudes of the UK, this could be the difference between seeing them (or at least catching a glow on camera), and not seeing them when they are active.

Northern Lights over the Cairngorms – Scotland

Hunting the Aurora

“Recognising the Northern Lights on the horizon?”

Prior to some of my photography workshops, photographers’ questions are often “how do you look for them”, “do they really look like that (referencing Aurora photography)”  “can you really see the colours” etc. 

When it comes to shooting the Aurora on location with my groups, as faint Aurora starts to appear, albeit overhead as faint white light, or as a glow on the horizon, I often get, “I wouldn’t have noticed that”, “wow, I would never have known, looks like white cloud”. 

Photography Group – Scotland

Naturally, during my workshops further north such as Iceland, the Aurora has been that intense it’s immediately apparent as to what it is, and the “can you see the colours” question is answered within minutes, but in the UK, things are a little more tricky, and it’s not often we can see such dramatic Auroras, in fact, sometimes, many people don’t even know they are viewing the Northern Lights.

Workshop Group under Aurora – Iceland
Aurora becoming active – Scotland

Is that the Aurora on the Horizon?

When the Northern Lights appear in the UK, they often start as what appears to be a white light on the horizon, often forming an arc as it intensifies, sometimes a double banded arc (by which time it is very easy to see with the naked eye).  If the Aurora display is strong enough in the UK, it can look like a shimmering white cloud, or huge white car headlight beams projecting into the sky from the horizon (for the sake of this article, I’ve called them flares), occasionally,  it can arc overhead and shimmer across the sky above you in the far north during strong displays (technically Solar Wind, called Geomagnetic Storms and often Solar Storms; see Reading Space Weather).

When only a green glow is captured on camera, it will only look like a pale white glow to the naked eye, but during a geomagnetic storm/strong Auroral display, the Aurora can usually be seen in the UK as mix of white and pale green to the eye, occasionally, during strong activity, it is also possible to see colours within the Aurora in the UK; colour intensified by the camera depending on white balance used.   Some photographers like to adjust their white balance (measured in Kelvin), translating as the temperature in post-production so it is quite high, i.e 5000K plus, some also boost the colours and saturation to make the Aurora look more intense, below shows a rough image similar to the naked eye (this was a strong storm (G2), along with how the image looks via camera with adjusted white balances. 

Camera Technique

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What to look for

At higher latitudes, it’s not uncommon for the Aurora to appear randomly as a shimmering cloud- type entity, or as a wavy, or spiralling, single line, in any given direction in the sky. Without warning, flares can also appear first, with a glow to follow without any glowing arc pre-Aurora activity (UK scientists have started recording the Aurora activity in phases, growth, expansion, recovery, though I’ll provide reference to this in further reading); myself and one of my workshop teams have also witnessed this in Scotland, with glowing arcs to the front of the car as we are driving (north) after shimmering activity almost to the east as a single entity (appearing almost thin cloud like, but moving way to fast). 

We were actually en-route to the Aberdeenshire Coast though Aurora activity became so intense, we had to pull over and settle for a field, a Steve Aurora also appeared to the west that night in Aberdeenshire.

Pulling over ASAP for the Lights – Scotland
Aberdeenshire Workshop Group – Scotland
Aurora and light pollution over Whitehaven Cumbria – England 

Spotting the Northern Lights can be an issue if you don’t know what you are looking for, and displays that are less than intense, ie within the UK, can be harder to spot, especially inland where light pollution hinders the horizon; often you will have to fire off the camera to see if there is activity through/over the light pollution to pick out the glow of the Aurora, unless the display is really intense and the Aurora powers over the light pollution.

Often, if you let your eyes adjust to the night sky in the dark areas of Northern Scotland, you will notice the sky to the north is brighter, almost as if lit by a high power light source far away, if you fire your camera, it will not pick up any greens, sometimes it won’t pick up anything from it at all, though often it may render a slightly pink hue, this means that there is activity at a way higher latitude, and you are witnessing a very faint fall out, meaning the edge of the Auroral Oval (See Auroral Oval) is some distance away to the north, but the camera picks up a fraction of the light emitted by the distant Aurora; some UK Aurora chasers and scientists are now calling this a diffuse Aurora.

Either way, it’s always worth staying put on your Aurora stake-out in this case, even if the Aurora forecast is not favourable, if the Interplanetary Magnetic Field reverses, you will more than likely see a display (IMF explained in Reading Space Weather).  

Faint pink Aurora hue at Neist Point – Scotland

Can you really see the Aurora in the UK?

“Does the camera just make it look like that?”

I recently read a piece in a very prestigious magazine, where a UK astronomer stated you cannot see the Northern Lights with the naked eye in the United Kingdom!  It was stated that all images of them you see are the result of the camera, and image manipulation in post-production.

I was shocked, as this is absolutely false, even my two teenage lads will clearly lay testament to this, having seen them with the naked eye on the Isle of Skye a few years back, both almost missing them as I frantically called them, trying to wake them whilst they were sleeping on the back seat of the motor, shouting from where I was set up with the camera, facing the iconic Old Man of Storr; both of them waking, in panic, almost falling out of the motor and trampling each other in a sleepy, frenzied urgency.  The lights then preceded to give a few flares and a shimmer across the horizon reflected in Loch Leathan. 

Northern Lights over Old Mann Storr & Loch Leathan

Absolute result …. a special moment I’ll never forget, nor them as they live in a light polluted city in central England, not exactly a night sky Mecca!

YOU CAN see the Northern Lights from the United Kingdom, in the far north, with a strong Geomagnetic Storm, you may even see colours.

A time lapse frame from the same spot Loch Leathan taken the previous year

Unfortunately, my boys didn’t venture out with me the next night, both myself, and two local photographers stood patiently, freezing, watching a large glowing double arc of the Aurora at Mealt Falls/Kilt Rock for hours (there had been a forth photographer, but he decided he was throwing the towel in, content with a huge green glow, he missed the real action), sometime just after midnight, frozen to the bone, we got our just rewards. 

Believe me, you could see this dance and flare across the horizon with the naked eye.

Northern Lights over Kilt Rock & Mealt Falls, Skye – Scotland  

The Auroral Oval

 

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Northern Lights at dawn Bamburg Lighthouse – North England

How strong can you see the Aurora in the UK?

Glow

It’s fairly easy to pick up the light from active Aurora, a green glow on the northern horizon (often with a really outer red glow, intensified beyond realism if you choose to ramp up the White Balance; (explained in “Camera Technique”).  After standing in the loch for 5 hours hoping the lights came to life, they never intensified on the night of the image below

Slight glow of the Northern Lights over Loch Clair – Scotland

Arc

Most of the time when I have seen a good display of the Aurora in the UK, having arrived on location early, its stars a as a glow, and then proceeds to an arc with a distinct separation between the Aurora and the horizon; sometimes, it will double arc.

Northern Lights over Duncansby Head – Scotland   

Often as the Aurora increases in strength through the night, it can form a double arc.

Northern Lights forming a double arc over Kilt Rock – Scotland   

Flare (Rays)

Then there is catching them flare on the horizon (which translates to Auroral Corona overhead at the latitude they fall over), depending on the strength of the storm, you may only see an occasional flare or two whilst photographing the glow of the Northern Lights.  When you cannot see the horizon clearly from your location, these can look like huge head light beams projecting into the sky.

Aurora flare over Orkney – Scotland   
Northern Lights fares over the Grampian Mountains – Scotland   

Dancing and Shimmering 

Really strong displays can lead to almost overhead activity, dancing and shimmering, to the naked eye, you may also see colour with both intense flare, and shimmering/dancing, it was possible to see green, and faint red/blue in the image below with the naked eye.

Northern Lights over Duncansby Head – Scotland   

Basic Aurora Forecasting 

 

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Northern Lights – North Scotland   
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2019-06-16T11:39:42+00:00