'The Northern Lights are a myth': Does the camera lie?

The Northern Lights are elusive, but  when you come to see the real thing it can be pretty underwhelming, says Sarah Barrell

I feel rather mean spirited about what I'm about to say, but it needs to be said nonetheless: the Northern Lights are a myth. I don't mean they are mythologised by the peoples of the north, which they are, producing colourful creationist stories that have long fuelled campfire sessions; I mean, they don't exist. Or at least they rarely exist in the way travellers imagine and, more pertinently, to the gloriously colourful extent splashed across holiday brochures.

One might argue that most travellers are used to viewing tour operators' postcard-perfect images with a big pinch of propagandist salt. But it's not just the brochures that pile on the pictorial superlatives. It's the photographs themselves. In the case of the Northern Lights, the camera really does lie – no filter, no Photoshop.

I'm just back from Lapland, where I saw what's termed a "faint display" from the aurora. In several trips to the boreal north this has only ever been my experience: a white-green ghostly sky that, while undeniably beautiful, bore no resemblance to the vivid green pyrotechnics captured on my camera's lens. Standing next to me on a frozen Finnish lake, eyeballing the lights through a viewfinder, my eight-year-old daughter didn't believe she was seeing the same thing that wobbled faintly in the heavens above her. But it was. Same sky, different eye.

The colours in aurora photos are real but exaggerated by camera exposures: the shutter opens; light accumulates on the electronic sensor, rendering pale and faint subjects bold and vivid.

All tour operators to the frozen north will tell you that bookings for aurora hunting have boomed in recent years, and I'd wager that increase is directly proportional to the proliferation of digital cameras. More people are taking and sharing photos, and the "myth" perpetuates.

Of course, I was lucky to see anything at all. On most trips the lights remain hidden thanks to cloud cover or a poor performance from the sun, whose electrically charged particles aren't bombarding our magnetic poles with quite the violence needed to excite the colourful gases that create the aurora. The Northern Lights are elusive, which should make them all the more magical. But now, when you come to see the real thing, it can be pretty underwhelming.

One tour operator told me he wanted to invent aurora glasses that do what the camera does, to guarantee a satisfying viewing experience. And yet, if we didn't have this supercharged virtual version to compare to, the real thing would be magical enough. Especially when embroidered by ancient associated folktales. In Sami Finland, these usually involve an Arctic fox with an artistic bent, which touches the mountains with its fur, throwing sparks or snow into the sky. My daughter, at least, was more mesmerised by these myths than the light show on the camera lens.

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