NorCal Photographer Explains What It Was Like to Witness the Northern Lights With the Naked Eye

Seeing the Northern Lights in Northern California was a rare and mesmerizing experience. The photos circulating online are certainly magical, but they are distinctively different from what they looked like with the naked eye.

On his Facebook page, well-known NorCal photographer Randy Robbins provided a thorough comparison of how the Northern Lights appear in person versus how cameras record them. He shared three photos attempting to show the experience.

Robbins explained that the first photo (below), a raw unedited image straight from the camera, shows everything the camera’s sensor detected during a 1.4-second exposure. This image contains more color and detail than what the human eye typically perceives, primarily due to the camera’s sensitivity to various light spectrums.

Randy Robbins’ RAW image

In his second photo (below), Robbins attempts to simulate what he personally observed during the Northern Lights display. To do this, he desaturates the image significantly. This adjustment reflects the human eye’s limited ability to distinguish certain colors in low-light conditions, particularly after it has adjusted to the darkness. The faint reds and greens he could see were less vivid and more blended in his perception, a common human limitation in dim lighting.

Robbins’ “best guess” at what he saw with the naked eye

The third photo (below) involves more refined edits to enhance details, adjust exposure, and correct lens effects to prepare the image for printing. This version shows how photographers often need to manipulate images to either bring them closer to what one might see in person or to enhance certain elements for artistic purposes.

Robbins’ final edit

Robbins also sheds light on the complex processes involved in smartphone photography, where the device automatically applies numerous adjustments like exposure enhancement and noise reduction. He emphasizes that both manual and automatic photo edits aim to interpret and enhance the raw image data effectively.

Through Robbins’ explanation, it becomes clear that capturing the Northern Lights—or any such ephemeral natural phenomenon—requires both technical skill and creative judgment, whether using a sophisticated camera or a smartphone.

If you missed the experience over the weekend, hopefully Robbins helped explain what is was like to see it in person. Read his full post:

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