Crooked River Aurora

in #photofeed5 years ago (edited)


This is a shot of the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights over the Crooked River this past week. The Crooked River sits at 54 degrees North in Northern British Columbia. It is a long exposure on a particularly dark night and I was happy to capture my first high altitude blue/purple fringed aurora. The blue/purple fringe on the top comes from the interaction of the solar wind with hydrogen and helium in the ionosphere. Below that is the band of red or blood aurora that forms around 250 – 500 km from high energy state excited oxygen atoms emitting light at 630 nm. The bottom layer is the more typically seen green aurora that forms between 100 – 250 km by excited oxygen atoms emitting light at 557.7 nano-metres.

At the lower edge of the curtain (below 100km), the density of molecules doesn't permit oxygen to emit light. It is however possible to see a low altitude fringe of blue or red below the green oxygen layer that comes from Nitrogen atoms either in its ionised or excited states respectively. This is not present in this photo and is typically only seen at very high latitudes when standing under a powerful overhead aurora.

I would like to talk a little about white balance when shooting auroras as there is a lot of confusion out there. Looking at the science of light the true colour of the aurora is best represented using a 'daylight' setting of white balance (which is typically around 5200K). I like to keep my shots as close to scientifically representative as possible and have used a white balance of 5150K for the shot above. The challenge is that most people expect the primary part of the aurora to be green, not a dirty yellow like in the shot above. After all I did say that the green band is emitting green light at 557.7 nano meters; so why can't you just adjust your white balance for that! I have done that for the shot below which has a white balance of 4000K.


This might seem more natural to people with a greener aurora and a blacker sky. But it's not accurately representing what was happening. The green band actually does have a yellowish tinge as we are looking at the auroral oval on the horizon from a long way away. This happens for two main reasons. Firstly the shallow angle of observation on the horizon causes green and red bands to overlap and when you mix those primary colors your generate yellow. Secondly there is significant atmospheric distortion as you look towards the horizon which shifts the colour balance towards the red end of the spectrum. Both of these are in contrast to the vivid green you see with overhead auroras which should be represented as green in photos.

Adjusting the white balance down to a lower K value to achieve a green aurora and compensate for these colour shifts would be similar in concept to taking an orange photo of the sunset on the horizon and adjusting the shot to a much colder white balance to make the light from the sun white again. Not only would this not represent what was happening in reality, it would also distort all the other colors in the shot which were not subject to the same shifts. Importantly in the case of this aurora shot you have lost your red band which has now become purple. The red band should be much closer in appearance to its 630 nm wavelength than the green band is to 557.7 nm. This is because it is higher on the horizon and passes though less atmosphere before we see it (so less particulate pollution and water vapour). There is also no overlap in the center red section with the bright green lower altitude band.

There is a trend at the moment on social media to use very low white balance numbers between 2500-3000K when shooting auroras. This gives you a bit of a science fiction look with a nice black sky. It fits with peoples view of the sky when looking with their own eyes, as it tends to remove all the natural warm airglow that the camera picks up (which comes from chemiluminescence and is not aurora related , you can read about it here). As an example I have posted below the same shot again with a white balance of 3000K to demonstrate this. To achieve this however you have now completely lost the red band from the photos.


In short there is no "right or wrong" answer to how you should represent the aurora. After all photography is an art form. Personally as I have an engineering background I like my shots to be closest to the what was actually recorded on the sensor from a scientific phenomena perspective. The challenge is that this is not how we see the aurora to our naked eyes. We see using both the cones and rods in our eyes when looking at the night sky. Our rods operate in B&W and are much more sensitive, so we tend to see most of the night sky and the red and purple beams of the aurora in black and white. We also don't perceive there to be any colour in the natural airglow, the sky looks black to us at night. If the aurora is strong enough, we then start to see the very bright pulsing bands of green using our cones. The density of the atmosphere is higher in the lower altitudes and the aurora is physically closer to us, both create increased intensity of light. So we end up looking at a black and white background with pulses of vivid green that your brain latches onto.

I have done one final edit of the photo to try and represent what it was like to actually stand there and witness it. Don't let this shot put you off aurora chasing, overhead auroras are much more spectacular to the naked eye than ones on the distant horizon and you can see vivid pulsing colors all across the sky (such as seen in my post here where the storm was strong enough to cast a shadow). From a photographic perspective however you typically won't catch the colored fringe in the ionosphere from an overhead aurora due to the sheer intensity of the green light which washes out all the other colors (with the exception of the colors related to the low altitude Nitrogen fringe I talked about at the beginning of the article). It's the faint high altitude colour fringes captured on the camera which make this particular shot special for me. There is some irony that the best auroras to witness in person (high intensity overhead auroras) don't necessarily make the best photos as the unearthly green glow over everything removes all contrast in your photos and drowns out any of the more subtle colours of the aurora.


Hopefully you found all of that helpful; let me know which one you prefer! If you like learning about auroras I also have a detailed post on the aurora related phenomena called 'steve' here. I also have a post up of a rare blood aurora here .

Robert Downie
Love Life, Love Photography

All images in this post were taken by and remain the Copyright of Robert Downie -


Wow, it’s beautiful!!!

Amazing. Did you catch my 1991 southern lights?

Just checked them out ; Upvoted this comment as the post was already too old! Very cool to capture on film .

Beautiful, did you take that pic?

Yes I only post my own pics.

Great pic

An aurora borealis is like the first ray of spring sun that hits you in the face after months of long winter.
An aurora borealis is like a dream.
And you rub your eyes.
And you rub them again.
Because an aurora borealis is hard to believe.
An aurora borealis is like a green serpent, snaking, zigzagging in the air.
An aurora borealis is like the spirals that I drew so many times.
It is a green spiral. And green is my new fashion color.
An aurora borealis moves. And it shines. And it waves.
Almost blinking.

aurora is damn beautiful. Hopefully I can visit it once in my lifetime!

Always love a good aurora shot. Great capture of the pinks. Resteemed!

Thanks mate! You must see a lot of them up in Alaska !

I liked the first photo, it's amazing. Thank you.

Wow super beautiful photos.
Great shot .

Thank you for sharing these beautiful photos and insight into how you captured them! I just recently got my first DSLR so I'm still learning. Also, I had no idea you could see the Auroras so far south; I thought you'd have to go all the way up to Alaska. I would love to see it someday.
I really like the second to last photo with the vibrant green and blue. However, I am all about capturing/maintaining a realistic view (in photography and life! haha) so I enjoy and appreciate the last photo as well. It's simple, yet still spectacular.

Thanks for your detailed comment ! Glad you enjoyed the information. Yes you can see Auroras at lots of different latitudes , you just need a more intense solar storm to see it so its less frequent. We might have a good show once a month at 54 North where as in Iceland or Yellowknife you might get a good show once a week.

Regardless of the white balance settings, loved the photos! Auroras are just stunning. Been in Iceland a couple of years ago, trying to see them, but didn´t had the luck... always an excuse to come back! Only discovered your work now, but will be following you. Cheers!

Thanks. Pity you missed out but its always a random event and you only get a 2 weeks notice of a probable event then 45min notice of what is really going to happen.

Yep... nature! :)

These images are jaw dropping. Thanks for the great teach I'm saving this article @intrepidphotos

Hola, Que hermosas tomas. Me gustan las fotos. Gracias por compartirlas

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@intrepidphotos ah Ok! Excuse me... I'm learning to drive on this platform. I thought it was to support us.

Those first three photos just get cooler and cooler!

That's why trump thinks the world is cooling.

Because of his white balance?

Hmm. So many ways to respond to that. All quite offensive to at least one subgroup !

I understand you like your pictures to represent reality as close as possible. Still, I feel all three images, with their different white balances, turned our really lovely!

Thanks. They all have different aspects to them.

Such a beautiful sight to view. I can't imagine what they look like in person!

They are beautiful. You should try and see them at least once in your life if you can.

I hope one day I can!

I don't have to tell you as you already know - but these photos are off the hook!

lol ! Thanks. There were no strange noises in the night when I took them ! But I did have bear spray and a knife on my belt while I was standing out there.

Great post, thank you. Your technical explanation will help one day when I get the chance to tick this off my bucket list!

Hope you get the chance ! It is worth seeing at lease once in your life with your own eyes.

I like how you not only provided pretty pics but explained the aurora as well. And extra pics! :D I quite like the purpley bluey ones but I'm a bit biased towards my favourite colours.


Thanks. Everyone has a different opinion on aurora colours !

Next level dude, well done!

Wow I love auroras. We move in Canada in 2013 and we done everything to see one of this at least one time in our life. And it was such beautiful!
But yours are fantastic! Wich lens do you use?

Thanks. Which part of Canada?

We are in Québec, i follow a website to check auroras! But now we have a Daughter of 2 years old. It's more difficult to wait midnight!✨🌌

Greetings to Steve next time you see him 😉

Ha ! For sure I will !

amazing natural around us, good works and nice try, keep in on man

These are absolutely stunning! Good work!

@therealwolf 's created platform smartsteem scammed my post this morning (mothersday) that was supposed to be for an Abused Childrens Charity. Dude literally stole from abused children that don't have mothers ... on mothersday.

Please keep your spam to yourself.


Thank @fireawaymarmot for this great gif!

excellent photo, enter my blog I am new, follow me

This comment is nothing more than spam. Looking at your comment history you regularly post the exact same comment. Don't you realize that this will never drive traffic to your blog and only make people less likely to view your work?


Thank @fireawaymarmot for this great gif!

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Whether edited or not that is a stunning photo! You have captured a magical moment.

beautiful, one day I wish to see this beauty in person

i love them all, the first one is my favorite, looks absolutely mesmerizing and powerful, love your input also, very helpful. many people don't know about the power of white balance, once i found out about it i never took pictures the same as before, it is a true gift to know and explore the possibilities of this tool.
again, great shots, i hope one day i will be able to see this wonder and take shots of it myself

Thanks. Yes people tend to think it just warms or cools a photo. Which it does off course however it does that by shifting down or up the wavelengths of light captured. In the case of auroras it is such a dramatic shift as you don't have the broad spectrum of light you normally see in the day (or almost any other white light source), but some very narrow bands of specific colors. I hope you get the chance to see it one day ; its quite a special thing to witness. Are you based in Quebec? I would love to spend some time over there.

Woow, excellent photo ;)

This is 100% on my bucket list 😍
To go and see the northern lights

It is a worthy goal; they are amazing.

It's so perfect, I'd like to contemplate it some time, how does it feel to be surrounded by that perfection? It's so unreal, it's captivating.

It is beautiful to experience.

Wow that is simply stunning! Really well done! Congratulations and thanks for sharing...

What a great picture good capture. Very beautiful photography and location.

Very interesting and useful information, especially impressed by such a detailed presentation and experiments with color temperature. Thank you!

So beautiful, amazing.

Simply a work of art, products of nature

My biggest dream - to watch this someday by myself too.. the nature has a lot of mysteries to surprise you with, but aurora borealis seems by far the best thing ever :)
I love the quality of your pictures. It helps me feel more closer to that feeling, thank you! :D

Thanks. Hope you get to see it someday . Appreciate your kind words.

Love this photo

whoa una belleza de fotos muchas felicidades, me encantan.

Really nice picture and explanation! Next week we are flying to BC to travel around for one month and find out if it would be a nice place to live ;) So cool the Northern Lights are also visible in Canada. We have seen them many times this winter in Norway, does it happen a lot?

Which part of BC are you traveling to? It happens as often as it does in Norway (as its a global phenomenon) but it depends on the location you are as to how frequently you can see it with your eyes. Obviously most of the people in Canada are living at much lower latitudes than in Norway, however this is compensated somewhat but Canada's proximity to the North Magnetic pole which is shifted South from the physical pole and lies somewhere slightly west of Baffin island. BC is quite west of the magnetic pole so the oval starts to swing up and you need to be in the North of BC or the Yukon. If you travel east you can be at lower latitudes. Yellowknife has the best of both worlds and is a very reliable place to see an aurora in late autumn or winter. They have some resorts up there with the clear domes similar to what you see in Scandinavia.

Nice, did not know that! We will drive a RV, so we were sort of free to roam, but our main focus was going to be fernie, Revelstoke etc, the resorts. Cheers

Nice. If you get to Northern BC let me know and I can give you a few tips.

wao, an extraordinary, majestic landscape. really that nature offers us many wonders. thanks for sharing. Greetings from Venezuela

Santo dios!
Que interesante toda esta información, cuando se combina la fotografía con otra especialidad es como hacer de tus dotes parte de la historia y compartirla al mundo. La Aurora es un lugar que espera de mi presencial es mi sue;o y ahí estaré... tus foto me hicieron conectar con que es una realidad para mi ir a ese lugar, ya sucedió solo iré por la evidencia.. Gracias por ta buen articulo del tema @intrepidphotos

woooowww the beauty of your potos is indescribable and the Aurora Borealis are one of the most amazing natural phenomenon that exists.

Congratulations @intrepidphotos!

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Awesome! I love aurora photos.. that's one thing that is on my photography bucket list :) very jealous you got these beautiful shots!

Thanks mate; hope you get the chance one day.

Thanks mate, I hope so too :)

light reflection is very beautiful and amazing, this is amazing because I beru see this scene.

it's amazing this blue aurora river. So delicious if we look at it, its the scene.

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