Aurora Borealis or the Northern Lights are a stunning subject that piqued the general public and photographers’ interest, especially over the last few years. Chasing Aurora may even become a bit of an addiction for some. People will often ask me if my images are accurate, if the photos were edited a great deal, or if they could see exactly that with their eyes. I’ve pulled some examples to show you aurora before and after editing to illustrate the differences. Before I get to the examples, I will touch on what human eyes see versus what cameras can capture.

Cameras allow us to capture the night sky in a way that our eyes are not capable of seeing. Aurora borealis is just one example of something we can see (most of the time), but the scene our eyes pick up is not the result that the camera records. Human eyes have two types of receptor cells; rods and cones. Cones are responsible for colour vision and function best when there is a lot of light. Rods are what we end up using at night, and they respond to low-light situations. It takes 20-30 minutes for eyes to adapt to darkness maximally, so if you want to get the best out of the show, go lights off!

Here’s what a relatively “bright” show might roughly look like to my eyes:

Bright aurora borealis edited to show what the human eye might see in the dark

Each person may be able to detect and see the aurora differently. While visiting Andrew Lake in September 2020, some fishermen came to see the aurora as I was getting set up to shoot. I could see a dim band on the horizon, but they could not pick it up at all, even after showing them what was there on my camera LCD screen. The guys went to bed before the show picked up. It takes some patience and persistence to catch the aurora, especially at latitudes lower than 60 degrees N.

I love night photography because it is a challenge, and it is a combination of science, technical aspects, and creativity. You are the artist with control over the final result. Everyone’s editing process can vary, as can a person’s tastes. Remember that it is your photo you are editing, and you should be happy with the final result.

The photo selections below are from various nights, locations, and storm strengths. Except for the last image, all the locations are around 51 Degrees North. The before photos are straight out of camera (SOOC), and the after have the edits applied as I like them. I generally do most of my editing for aurora in Adobe Lightroom.

Apr 16, 2015, G2 Storm

Aurora with yellow band before photo editing Aurora borealis after editing

Camera Settings: ISO800 24mm f2.8 10s | 8% Moon

Apr 16, 2015, G2 Storm

Aurora Borealis in Alberta with red streak Aurora Borealis with red streak after editing in Ligthroom

Camera Settings: ISO1000 24mm f2.8 10s | 8% Moon

Dec 15, 2015, G2 Storm

Aurora Borealis in moonlit sky Alberta Northern lights in moonlit sky Alberta

Camera Settings: ISO200 18mm f2.8 25s | 73% Moon

May 7, 2015, G3 Storm

Northern Lights over Mount Rundle before editing Northern lights over Mount Rundle after editing

Camera Settings: ISO3200 19mm f2.8 25s | New Moon

May 27, 2017 G3

Aurora over peyto lake during twilight before editing in lightroom and photoshop Aurora borealis over Peyto Lake during twilight

Camera Settings: ISO3200 14mm f2.8 6s | Nautical Twilight

Sept 15, 2017 KP5

STEVE, Picket Fence and Milky Way before editing STEVE, Picket Fence and Milky Way

Camera Settings: ISO6400 f2.8 14mm 25s

Sept 10, 2020 KP1

Silhouette of person standing on a dock with fishing boat, aurora borealis and moon reflecting in water Silhouette of person standing on a dock with fishing boat, aurora borealis and moon reflecting in water

Camera Settings:  ISO3200 f2.8 18mm 10s | 49% Moon | 60 Degrees N

Are you interested in shooting the aurora in some amazing locations and learning even more about night photography? I have two Northern Light workshops coming up. One is at the very Northern edge of Alberta, at Andrew Lake and the other is in Finland!