I'm currently on a cruise in Norway and we've been apparently lucky enough to see the Northern Lights. But to my naked eye the Lights were nothing more than a faint cloud and only with a 15 second exposure on a camera could I get something approximating the photos I previously saw online:

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Now I'm wondering if the Lights are actually worth seeing during their strongest period in the winter. Can the naked eye capture the beautiful green tones visible in the photos?

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    You can definitely see more than this or than a faint cloud. Movement and clearly demarcated shapes, curtains or ribbons across the whole sky for example (I have seen those). But it still won't look like the photographs. Hopefully someone who lives in the right area and has seen them regularly will be able to provide more details. – Relaxed Sep 28 '17 at 23:10
  • Note that there is no reason for the lights to be stronger later in the year, now is the time activity is the strongest. The only reason to travel in the depth of winter is that you have more darkness to actually see them. On the other hand, there is a multi-year cycle and 2018 is not a particularly good time, the next maximum should be around 2025. – Relaxed Sep 28 '17 at 23:12
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    The intensity, colors and action of the Northern Lights varies, I have seen very minimal displays and very intense displays. There are no guarantees. But yes an intense display is well worth seeing. – user13044 Sep 29 '17 at 1:29
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    If you see an intense display, you will certainly not confuse it for a cloud. It may pass from horizon to horizon straight overhead, flashing green and perhaps other colours. The very faintest and quietest forms may look like a cloud, except that you will see the stars shining through them. – gerrit Sep 29 '17 at 10:19

In The Northern Lights: Photos vs. Reality:

Aside from being able to make the sky appear green when the naked eye can only see white, long exposure photos mean a lot more movement is captured in one shot than you would see otherwise.

It’s just important to know that the images your eye can see are very different to what your camera can capture.

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  • That article goes a long way to explaining why footage of the aurora is always sped-up / timelapse. It's like some kind of immutable law of cinematography... – AakashM Sep 29 '17 at 7:58

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