The blog of photographer Kim Ayres

Curse you, white balance! Or how the Aurora Borealis got away...

Late last night/early this morning, I saw an entry on Facebook by another local-ish photographer with a picture of the Aurora Borealis - the Northern Lights - taken about an hour before.

It's not often it can be seen this far south, and on those rare occasions when it has I've missed it.

The Northern Lights are one of those "bucket list" things for me - to experience them, and to take a decent photo of them. I grabbed my camera and tripod, leapt into the car and took the road north out of Castle Douglas.

However, before I'd even reached Crossmichael (3 miles up the road), I hit fog, and this caused me to pause. The fog might clear a bit further up, or it might be covering the whole of Loch Ken, in which case I'd have to drive several miles before there was any chance of coming out of it. And at this point, I couldn't even be sure there would be any sign of the Northern Lights anyway. I needed to reach slightly higher ground to see if it was pursuing.

I turned round, took the turn off east towards Laurieston until I rose out of the fog and found a place I could pull over and look north.

It was brighter up there, but I couldn't be sure. I knew it was foggy in that direction, so it might just be the lights of Crossmichael bouncing through it.

This is more or less what it looked like to me:
(Click on the images for larger versions)

There's definitely a glow over there - is it just street lights and fog?

We humans have 2 parts in our eyes for detecting light - rods and cones. The rods are more sensitive to low light than the cones, but it's the cones that give us colour vision. This is why at night, away from artificial lighting, the world appears to be more or less black and white.

I set up the camera for a long exposure shot (about 20 seconds), which meant it was able to capture more light than my eyes, and this is what I ended up with:

Orange and yellow? It has to be street lights...

Great swathes of orange on the horizon is very common in night time photos, and is usually caused by town lights, which contain sodium, so that must have been it.

Or was it? There seemed to be way too much light for the tiny village of Crossmichael. And were there faint spears of light pushing up?

Ah, it was probably being caused by New Galloway, several miles further up. The fog must be distorting it all.

I hummed and hahhed for a while longer. I could head north up past New Galloway and see if there was anything, or I could carry on east and head into the hills above Laurieston.

But if it was just the street lights then I could be out for another couple of hours, in the cold (it was 2 degrees C), and it was already 1.20am. Of course it was just the street lights.

I went home, disappointed, and didn't bother looking at the photos.

While I was eaing lunch today, it suddenly occurred to me that both Crossmichael and New Galloway were fitted with Dark-Skies-Friendly white LED lights a couple of years ago, precisely to reduce the orange glow light pollution in the area. They couldn't have been causing the light.

With a sinking feeling, I checked the white balance settings in the back of my camera. Instead of being on auto, it was set to sunshine because of an outdoor shoot I'd done the day before.

I quickly pulled the RAW file of one of the photos into Photoshop and corrected the white balance. Lo and behold, the glow turned to the unmistakable colour scheme of greens and purples.

You mean it was right there before my eyes and I didn't realise?

The Northern Lights had been about and had I been a little bit more thorough about checking my camera settings, I would have discovered it would have been worth heading up into the hills to pursue them.

I've been kicking myself ever since.


Hindsfeet said...

.."right there in front of us and we didn't even see"'s the human condition........we can be so far-sighted we miss what's right in front of us....I'm trying not to miss something right in front of me at the own Northern Lights......time to cut the white balance off....(I think I'm starting to dig the metaphor in your craft, Kim....maybe I need to tune in a little closer...)

"are we all lost stars trying to light up the dark..." <--song from a line in a song in my new favorite movie, Begin Again... <--there's the trailer.....most brilliant movie I've seen in ages.....I think you'd dig it, Kim....brilliant sound track too.......

...well, I loved your Northern Lights......I always love the View here.....

Liz ~*

Pat said...

I feel for you. I was warned they had got down as far as Somerset and could do so again but I've had such a tiresome boiler of a week I had to sleep.
The photos you took are well worth the taking. Chins up.

neena maiya (guyana gyal) said...

I like what Hindsfeet's said about the metaphor in your craft.

I've been fascinated by light and dark since I was a child, they way they play with, against, each other, and what they mean to us.

Gosh, I hope you get another chance to photograph those lights.

Kim Ayres said...

Liz - I hope you manage to find what's right in front of you :) And I'll keep an eye out for the movie

Pat - I did wonder about all the boiler problems you've been having. Is the repair man particularly good looking, and are you sabotaging the boiler to get him to come back? ;)

Guyana-Gyal - I don't often write in metaphor. On the rare occasion I have, no one has understood the post. However, I do often write about challenge and things going wrong, and that's a pretty universal experience :)

neena maiya (guyana gyal) said...

Point me to your metaphoric posts please? I'm curious.

Kim Ayres said...

Guyana-Gyal - here's a link to a post I wrote about 5 years ago, called "Metaphorical"

And then, because I ended up with several confused comments on it, here's a link to the following post, "Clarity? Or further confusion?"


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