The joy of seeing the Aurora Borealis


On Friday evening I was sat on a train from London after a work trip and my mobile phone started vibrating and the Aurora Watch UK App was showing a Red Alert warning for geomagnetic activity. The activity was looking off the scale 600 + (nT) for the United Kingdom and it would mean the Aurora Borealis aka - "The Northern Lights" could potentially be seen anywhere.

My heart rate went up several notches and my mind was racing with the possibilities. My body though was fatigued - I was tired. On every other occasion I have seen a Red Alert and tried to photograph the Aurora I have pretty much failed. Only on one occasion have I seen the Northern Lights faintly in Pwll Du and it was not at all worth photographing as the weather had been cloudy and freezing.

However on this occasion the UK was experiencing a period of amazingly hot weather and clear blue skies.

As the train sped towards Wales I sent a message to my friend Paul Joy. I am on my way home what do you think about trying for the Aurora tonight I sent?

Fortuitously I had been able to get on an early train so it meant I was going to be home at a reasonable hour before it got dark around 9pm. This however was going to sting me in my wallet. As moments after pinging Paul with a message the Great Western Railway ticket collector scanned my ticket and delivered to me some bad news. I had a supersaver ticket and should not have got on the 6.19 pm train at Paddington. Woops- despite me claiming ignorance, I had to pay up an additional £40 to cover me breaking the rules - supersaver tickets only cover trains after 7pm in the evening.

As things were going to turn out this would be the most worthwhile £40 I have spent in a long time.

I spent the remainder of the train ride researching up about the Aurora Borealis. Our Sun had a massive sun spot and the solar activity was very intense resulting in a solar flare , aka a Coronal Mass Ejection and described as an X class flare meaning it was huge. This would cause an extreme geomagnetic storm to hit the Earth on Friday evening.An event known as a big G5 Storm. It would be the largest for over 20 years. This all sounded very exciting.

After the train journey at 9pm, I was walking through the door to my house after my wife picked me up from the station in Pontypool. Since contacting Paul I had a change of heart and felt really tired and lethargic and had told my friend I was going to stay in, as I was too tired and may get up the following day for a sunrise instead. But, there was this voice in my head constantly nagging me with doubts - what if its really good and I miss out?

 Then Paul sent me a message - he was going to try his luck up the Keepers and maybe the Pontypool Folly later? It took me less than 30 minutes before I cracked and was speed dialling Paul back and requesting him to pick me up as I was frantically gathering all my camera kit together and most importantly finding some camera batteries that were charged!

By 10.30 pm I was in Pauls car en-route to the Keepers Pond that is located up the Blorenge Mountain on the border of Torfaen and Monmouthshire. We expected it to be busy but were shocked to find it resembling something like Alton Towers. Hundreds of cars were parked up all along the roadside and anywhere that resembled a car park was rammed full. Incredibly as we pulled up near the Keepers a car pulled out so "Lady luck" was with us. There was people everywhere. Music was blaring out, people were laughing and dogs were barking. What also caught our attention was a huge mountain fire above Crickhowell.

We made our way to the Keepers Pond traversing a very dark mountain road. My night sight ( even with my one eye) has always been very good but the car headlights and Pauls headlamp which I am sure was the brightest light for 100miles as every time I turned to check he was ok I was blinded and would stumble for a few steps in blinded confusion :)

Then we stood on at the edge of the pond and said our hellos to another friendly photographer and stared up expectantly to the heavens. With the naked eye when the Northern Lights are showing well you can see them faintly in the UK. What I could see was like a mist that moved across the sky and it could quite easily be mistaken as some cloud. The sensors on cameras are far more sensitive than our own and can detect the colours of the Northern Lights fare better than our human eyes.

The Keepers Pond.

The Northern Lights reveal themselves

The solar flare causes charged particles ejected by the sun to hit atomic particles of gases in Earths atmosphere. This results in them emitting different colours. Nitrogen emits glowing purple, blue and pink colours whilst Oxygen emits a glowing green colour. The red colour is often associated with very powerful storms.

Looking up into the Northern skies above the Sugarloaf Mountain, I trained my camera and took some pictures. I was amazed to see a glowing green band stretching across the heavens above.  At last the Northern Lights were showing themselves.

Pink, Blue, and Green colours dance before us.

The moon was settings in the sky - bottom right and was surrounded by the Aurora

As time steadily moved on the view of the Aurora got better and better .Pinks , Purple and Blue joined the green lights and they all danced before us in the sky - in all directions of the compass, not just North we were surrounded by a kaleidoscope of the "Light Fantastic".

I was so glad I had changed my mind. It was an amazing experience but for me personally it was just too busy with people. Headlights from cars and people moving about were a constant distraction and in my opinion distracted me form the marvel it all should be.

I asked ( begged) Paul - my companion and driver for the evening to go to Pontypool Folly where it would be much quieter and  if our luck held - we would be able to see it from there. My other friend named Paul Coombes a few weeks ago had previously got a picture of the Folly with the Aurora when it last showed quite well in Gwent.

Mr Joy agreed and we returned to his car and travelled to the Folly that lies on the hill up above Pontypool Park. I love the Folly with a passion and I have taken many photographs of this iconic landmark previously - but not during the most powerful solar storm to hit the UK in ages.

Paul parked up at the end of the country lane near the Folly and I excitedly jumped out of the car - I was now running on pure adrenalin - any lethargy I had previously experienced had vaporised.

I took a test photograph and was amazed that even looking Southwards towards that stone sentinel it was showing Purple all around it. We were the only people up there. The only sounds were that of distant sheep bleating. It was so tranquil and it felt great.

I could not contain my excitement and found myself bounding off into the darkness jogging down the track that leads to the Folly with Paul trailing behind me with his ultra bright head torch clearing the darkness before me.

The following pictures will need very little description as they speak for themselves. The sight to behold was absolutely awesome and was truly unforgettable.

The track that leads to the Folly and the old tree.

Paul Joy captured in his element

The Light Fantastic

It was now 2 am and I was staring up at the sky in awe and amazement. The Northern Lights were dancing all around us.

At one point I was trying to set up the camera for a close in shot of the tower looking up when too my right I saw a streak of light which resulted in a fireball before burning out. It was a meteorite falling from into the atmosphere from space - a shooting star. I was so lucky to have had the camera setup on a timer and I captured the event in a single frame.

Shooting star captured as I looked up

It was a wonderful experience and it was great to share it with my good friend Paul. It was a real joy to see the Aurora Borealis  together. Paul and I have spent a huge amount of time in each others company over the years and this experience I think will take some beating.

The Folly , the Aurora and a photographer

Purple was everywhere

Later, after we had to leave - batteries were now very low and memory cards full of incredible images, we walked back along the path. I really struggled to step away from it all. I trailed behind Paul and had to take a few more pictures.

The Folly and the Northern Lights

Looking form the Folly towards Mamhilad and Little Mill

The view walking back to the car

I have taken many pictures of this lonely tree but never during a solar storm.

Paul dropped me off at my house and I just had to scan the skies and even from my doorstep the Aurora Borealis was visible - the skies were purple! I went to bed a very happy man - I chucked to myself if I had not got on that early train I would most probably have not gone to see the Aurora, as I would have returned late in the evening and too tired to bother.That extra £40 I had to pay was worth every single penny.

Camera kit used for the Aurora -

Nikon Z6 (first model) Full frame  Mirrorless. ( Nikons first mirrorless and my favourite all round camera for landscapes - although my new Olympus OM-1 is extremely good and exceeds it now in many areas).

Nikon Z 24-70 mm lens F4 (A wonderfully sharp lens that I would highly recommend).

XQD memory cards.

Manfrotto Travel Tripod (Essential for night photography).

Camera Settings -

  1. Aperture F4
  2. Shutter speed 2.5 to 3 seconds
  3. ISO - 3000-4000
  4. White Balance - 3500K
  5. Manual Focus (set your camera up to focus to infinity)
  6. Shoot in Raw file format

Post Processing -

  1. Adobe Photoshop
  2. Luminar Neo
  3. Topaz DeNoise.

Overall made minor changes to exposure and contrast. Tools such as Dehaze in camera raw, contrast and sharpness adjustments in Photoshop and Luminar.

Topaz used to clean up the noise from images.


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