If you're an adventurous traveler, chances are the Northern Lights have a spot on your bucket list. With pops of dazzling pink, green and purple shrieking across the night sky, this natural phenomenon looks almost looks almost too colorful.
...and that's because it is.
When you see them in real life, the Northern Lights aren't actually very colorful at all. They often appear milky white in color, "almost like a cloud," as one seasoned traveler puts it. If you're lucky, you might see faint glows of green, light purple or pink, and only in rare cases do viewers report bright, multicolored light shows. No matter what you see outside, the real Northern Lights are not like what you see in photos.
Astrophotographer Mike Taylor made a graphic to show the difference between what our eyes see during the Northern Lights and what a camera shows us afterward:
The discrepancy occurs because the specific cells that our eyes use to detect light at night also happen to be terrible at detecting color, according to Dr. Andrea Thau, vice president of the American Optometric Association. For that reason, auroras often appear only in shades of gray.
Taylor has been shooting the Northern Lights in central Maine consistently for two years. He says he often sees them as mostly white, with faint hints of red and pink. Only in photos do other tones emerge.
"Sometimes you can differentiate colors, but for the most part it's just a little green on the horizon with white spikes shooting into the sky," he says. "At higher latitudes, in Iceland or Norway, they see lots of green."
Indeed, higher latitudes are considered the best places to catch the lights: Places like Norway and Russia are said to sit on a "Northern Lights Belt" that stretches across the northern part of the hemisphere. You can catch the show in Canada, Sweden and Alaska, too.