“New phone cameras make the aurora accessible but the photos are not like reality” | Polarjournal
This photo by Dominik Plüss of the St. Chrischona Chuch in Bettingen outside Basel was part of a compilation of Swiss northern light photos last week. Photo: Dominik Plüss
This photo by Dominik Plüss of the St. Chrischona Church in Bettingen outside Basel was part of a compilation of Swiss northern light photos last week. Photo: Dominik Plüss

The news photographer Dominik Plüss captured the northern lights above a church in Basel, Switzerland. A special experience but one that would not have been possible without new phone camera technology, he told Polar Journal.

Last week, on a hill near Basel, Switzerland, the news photographer Dominik Plüss noticed a strange light in the sky. It was about 22.45 at night, and he had just gotten out of a restaurant after dinner with some friends.

The light was white and foggy, and unlike anything he had ever seen. At first, he and his dinner party assumed that it must be from a fire across the border in Germany, but soon others joined them in the parking lot. They knew the origins of the strange light.

The light, it turned out, was a phenomenon rarely seen outside the Arctic and almost never as far south as the Swiss Alps: the aurora borealis. 

“It was a special moment; outside of my usual box. In combination with the church in the foreground, I experienced this moment, as if God was trying to tell something to mankind, or  was just showing up like ‘I’m here, you are not alone, do not be afraid’,” Dominik Plüss told Polar Journal.

But while the experience felt almost divine to Dominik Plüss, it was one that would not have been possible without recent advancements in human technology. Because it was only when he brought out his phone to capture the moment that he saw the full spectrum of colors on display above Basel.

“It turns out that with your human eyes, it doesn’t appear as colorful as it does through an iPhone,” he said.

The two church photos in their original vertical appearance, as taken by Dominik Plüss' phone. Photo: Dominik Plüss
Two photos of the in their original vertical appearance, as taken by Dominik Plüss’ phone. Photo: Dominik Plüss

Capturing several moments

Since 1997, Dominik Plüss has worked full time as a news photographer for news agencies and newspapers around Basel. As a consequence, he always carries his camera around everywhere, ready to shoot if something newsworthy should happen.

But when the northern lights appeared in the sky above him, he did not run to his car to get his professional equipment. His phone, an iPhone 15 Pro released last year, was sufficient.

“With the iPhone, the photos are already processed in a way that looks very good on the screen. If I took the same photo with my professional cameras, I would have to do a lot of work to arrive at the same result. I would have had to take out my tripod, and to find a setting that would be a sweet spot between color, accuracy, and noise,” he said.

His wife, too, tried to capture the lights but her older model of the iPhone did not capture the light in the same way. The reason, Dominik Plüss believes, is that newer phones incorporate AI which allows them to stitch several photos together to make one patchwork that incorporates the best aspects of each.

In his photos of the northern lights, the church in the foreground needed a short exposure time to be sharp in his shaky hands and to avoid a noisy and grainy appearance. The aurora, on the other hand, needed a longer exposure to capture the array of colors not visible to the human eye. His phone, in the blink of an eye, took care of that.

“You have to remember that it’s not just capturing one moment like classic photography; it’s capturing several moments. It’s pretty amazing but also a little scary that it’s that good,” he said. 

Dominik Plüss also captured the nothern light with different foregrounds. Photos: Dominik Plüss
Dominik Plüss and his phone also captured the nothern light with different foregrounds. Photos: Dominik Plüss

Different from how it looked

When he got home that Friday night, as is his usual procedure, Dominik uploaded his photos to a database of the local newspaper Basler Zeitung. The next morning, one of his photos had been included in a compilation of northern lights photos from around Switzerland.

It turned out that because of a large solar storm, the aurora had been visible around most of Europe as far south as northern Italy, and in many other unusual places around the globe. This fact was widely reported with a wealth of colorful photos and timelapse videos to boot.

But, as Dominik Plüss noted, this news story might not only have spread this far because of a once-in-a-generation solar storm, but also because of an advancement in camera technology.

“The new technology made the northern light accessible to people; to share their experience and what they saw. But it also showed the sky in a way that was quite different from reality,” he said.

With a professional camera on the right settings, the nothern light looked even more spectacular last week. This photo is from Miesbach, Upper Bavaria, and was taken with a Canon EOS 6D camera. Photo: Patrick Mautry
With a professional camera on the right settings, the nothern light looked even more spectacular last week. This photo is from Miesbach, Upper Bavaria in Germany, and was taken with a Canon EOS 6D camera. Photo: Patrick Mautry

Interpreting data from reality

As a news photographer, Dominik Plüss is used to editing his photos. But he always tries to show the world the way that he saw it; the way he felt when he took the photos.

“I am used to not overdoing the editing. It should match reality, and that’s probably my news photography heart that is still guiding me. For these northern light photos, I honestly think they are overdone. I now saw that it’s sometimes even hard to see that the sky was different at all,” he said.

But this difference between what is captured by cameras and what is captured by our eyes begs a more philosophical question: can one even be said to be more real than the other? Does the camera not do the same thing as the eyes; capture data from the world and interpret it in its own colorful way?

“Certainly. Every person sees the world in their own way. Even my left and my right eye sees colors in shades that are slightly different. In the same way, the camera’s lens captures waves and contrasts in a different way, and it is now able to process these data better than a few years ago,” he said.

Whatever Dominik Plüss and his phone saw on that hill in Basel, and whoever should get the credit for seeing it, the moment will remain memorable for Dominik Plüss and his family.

“Later, my son joined me on the hill too. He could have chosen many places to go and see the northern lights but he came to exactly the same place as us. Suddenly, he was there and we both asked: ‘what are you doing here?’ That was really a special moment too,” he said.

Ole Ellekrog, Polar Journal AG

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