There may be no more surreal sight in the night sky than the aurora borealis and aurora australis. Better known as the northern and southern lights, respectively, these atmospheric phenomena can put on a spectacular display of shifting and shimmering colors. While digital cameras have made these light shows easier to photograph, there are still some tricks involved in capturing great aurora photos. There is no substitute for seeing these lights in person, but here are 10 great images of these otherworldly phenomena.
10. North to Alaska
Snow is always a great prop in any aurora borealis photo. This well-known photo — it’s one of the images Wikipedia uses on its aurora borealis page — shows the northern lights over Bear Lake, Alaska.
9. Siberian Winter
The higher latitudes where auroras are most common are less populated than other regions, leading to dark skies and optimal viewing conditions (unless you’re in the season of the midnight sun, of course). That’s especially true in Russia’s Siberia region, as seen above in an image taken in late 2016.
8. View From Space
The International Space Station captured this photo of the aurora australis over the southern Indian Ocean. NASA has posted many stunning images of auroras on the NASA.gov site.
7. South Dakota Lights
Both the aurora borealis and aurora australis are caused when charged solar particles hit the earth’s atmosphere, exciting atoms. As the electrons in these atoms change their orbits, they release a particle of light. Although the auroras are most common in the high latitude regions of the Earth, occasionally a solar flare or coronal mass ejection will push the auroras further from the poles. In the U.S. the northern lights can sometimes be seen as far south as Virginia. Photographer Christian Begeman captured this incredible photo in South Dakota.
6. Canadian Lights
The northern lights can be seen throughout Canada. This shot was taken in Waugh, Alberta.
5. Purple Haze
The aurora borealis and australis most often appear in green tones, but there are clearly purple lights in the above photo taken in Estonia. Here’s the explanation from NASA.gov: “The most commonly observed color of aurora is green, caused by photons (light) emitted by excited oxygen atoms at wavelengths centered at 0.558 micrometers, or millionths of a meter. Visible light is reflected from healthy (green) plant leaves at approximately the same wavelength. Red auroras are generated by light emitted at a longer wavelength (0.630 micrometers), and other colors such as blue and purple are also sometimes observed.”
4. Lighting up the South Pole
The Earth’s magnetic field is centered on the magnetic poles at the North and South Pole. Here, the aurora australis can be seen over the geographic South Pole.
The sky glows over a cottage in Lapland, Finland.
2. Where’s My Camera?
Alex Leier of Saskatchewan, Canada, says he was out looking at Christmas lights when he spotted this spectacular aurora. He rushed home to find a camera and managed to capture this shot when he returned. Predicting when and where auroras will occur, and their intensity, is still an imprecise science. But here’s a link to a noaa.gov site that offers insight on where conditions are ripe for auroras.
1. Land of Fire and Ice
The northern lights provide a great backdrop for Iceland’s famous Kirkjufell mountain and nearby waterfalls.