A missed opportunity

Every now and again an image appears in my mind’s eye which never got converted into pixels. It is often a perfect line of a dozen black-necked grebes bobbing up and down in choppy waters close to the edge of the Etang de Vaccares, in the Camargue. I spotted them from the car as I passed by last May, pulled over, identified them and drove on, impatient to get somewhere else. How I wish I had spent just a few minutes photographing these fabulous birds.

On Tuesday last week I finished my final postcard selling circuit and was feeling, well, a little elated. During the day I had received an “Aurorawatch” amber text alert, signifying that the Northern Lights might be visible that night. As darkness fell a cloudless sky revealed itself. No moon was visible and conditions seemed perfect; I was unusually confident about seeing the aurora. About eight o’clock I went outside and looked northwards. There was an distinctive white-ish glow right across the northern horizon and – yes – some faint “pillars” or searchlight beams apparently extending upwards from it. I called Jane, then grabbed my mobile phone to call a few friends who I thought might be interested. By about 8.30 pm the glow was still there but the “pillars” had disappeared.

Our house faces due south/north and there is virtually no light pollution; it is perfect for seeing the aurora. Many nights since moving here I have looked northwards in the hope of seeing something but with no success. Occasionally I have woken in the morning to hear reports that the aurora had been visible the previous evening while I had been watching some garbage on television. But over the years I have at least become very familiar with the northern night sky. I know there is a faint glow to the north-east on a clear night which may emanate from Machynlleth, and another to the north-west. So I was certain that the glow we were seeing was out of the ordinary.

About 11 pm I was in our north-facing bathroom and had a last quick peek out of the window. The glow was still there, but there was now a dark gap between it and the horizon. I grabbed a coat and rushed outside again. This time there was no possible confusion – the dark gap was the normal night sky and the glow was the aurora which had moved southwards. Faint pillars moved across the sky. This was the real thing!

But did I get my camera out? No, I did not. In comparison with the aurora images that are widely available the display was so faint that I doubted it would even register on the sensor. I was happy to enjoy seeing it. I just didn’t appreciate how much more prominent and more colourful the aurora always is in photographs than in real life. Images I saw on television and on the internet the next day showed me what an opportunity I had missed. One photographer from northern England had been able to see nothing with the naked eye but went out to a dark place, pointed the camera northwards and pressed the shutter. Hey presto……. an aurora.

So now there is another image in my mental gallery of untaken photographs. I suppose most people have a gallery like this. Do you?

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5 thoughts on “A missed opportunity

  1. Yes I have a mental gallery, annoyingly, it tends to come to mind when I should be sleeping.

    Interesting to read that the Aurora shows up better on camera, likewise, interesting to hear about “Aurorawatch text alert”, like the sound of that! Is it free? :o)

  2. aurorawatch.lancs.ac.uk/

    In my experience its not totally reliable; I’ve heard of auroras being seen without an alert being sent and vice versa. But it was spot on last week. Yes, its free.

    There may be other such services.

    Thanks for the response!


  3. I used to get the alerts but they now don’t work with my mail service apparently, but still, I’ve never seen them! There were spectacular visions of the Aurora not so long ago on the coast very close by but I was oblivious to them happening – though after what you’ve said perhaps they weren’t as spectacular as the photos made them out to be!

  4. Hello Andrea,

    It seemed very odd to me that the camera would record colours and formations which were hardly visible to the naked eye. Since writing this piece I read an article which explained why this is the case but I now cannot find it! But it is something to do with the structure of the eye and the way it sees in the dark. Rather than the camera in some way exaggerating this natural phenomena, it is the eye that diminishes it.

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