What Are These Mysterious Lights Over Seattle Night Skyline?

December 7th, 2010

You probably noticed that I put my Christmas header photo up on the blog today. I like this header image partly because of the incredible story that goes with it of how PFRE blog readers solved the mystery of what these lights are.

I shot this near the middle of Lake Union in Dec 2006 aboard the Shubumi, a motor yacht, co-owned by a good friend and agent our office. Every year Fred takes all the agents in the office on a cruise one evening in Dec with the Christmas ship which is a big boating Christmas tradition in Seattle. Shooting on a rocking boat in the dark was a challenge. This shot is one of about 20 frames it took me to get this single least fuzzy shot. I shot it hand-held standing as close to the center of the boat as I could get to minimize port to starboard and fore and aft motion.

In 2007 when I first used this header, Aaron Leitz pointed out that he had a similar shot that he’d taken during the 2005 Christmas season from Gasworks park (just a ways North of where I took my photo) on a tripod with a telephoto lens. The exact same series of lights with the same spacing and color appear in his shots. The enlargement on the top the right shows the lights above the Columbia Tower that I took during Christmas 2006 and the one on the lower right is Aaron’s shot from 2005.

Aaron suggested that since neither of us covered up our viewfinder when we took these shots perhaps the lights were reflections coming in the viewfinder. We’ve discussed several theories on why the same light pattern was present in the same Seattle skyline view taken under different circumstances during Christmas a year apart. Last year at this time I did a post showing this same comparison photo and asked for reader help solving this mystery.

Here’s what last years PFRE readers turned up:

  • David Davis pointed out that, “That is what is referred to as a “light echo.” A light echo is a phenomenon observed in astronomy. Analogous to an echo of sound, a light echo is produced when a sudden flash or burst of light is reflected off a source and arrives at the viewer some time after the initial flash. Due to their geometries, light echoes can produce the illusion of superluminal (greater than the speed of light) speeds. One can observe this phenom at night when viewing the flashing lights of radio towers, cell towers, etc. Especially occurring when the moisture in the atmosphere is at or near dew point, light echoes have been the source of many UFO sightings over the years.”
  • Mallory gave an example of the same kind of pattern where lights appeared in the sky in one of his photos here
  • Andrew Hurst gave us another example of a light echo here in a time-lapse video.

So there you have it through the miracle of crowd-sourcing. These lights are undoubtedly light echos from one of the beacon lights on one of the the high-rise buildings in Seattle.

Oh well, I still like the theory that we may be looking at Rudolph and Santa phenomena since Aaron’s shot suggests that this is very slow moving air traffic. Eight reindeer, two on each side with green lights (the 4 green lights on their harnesses) with one red light in front (Rudolph) don’t confuse me with science!

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3 Responses to “What Are These Mysterious Lights Over Seattle Night Skyline?”

  • You are seeing an internal reflection … internal to the camera-lens system. Called ghosts, they are always there but are usually unseen unless you are photographing in a low-light situation with one or more relatively bright light sources. A common source is light reflected off the sensor (or more correctly the glass covering the sensor) that “tries” to come out through the front of the lens and is reflected back by a filter.
    Try photographing a full moon at night with your lens wide open.
    This can be minimized by using small apertures and/or an expensive filter.
    This was not a problem pre-digital since film doesn’t reflect light as well as the digital sensor’s glass cover.

  • I’ve put up an example that folks in Seattle may recognize.
    In this case, I made the reflection disappear by reducing the exposure to the point that it did not register.

  • Yep, that’s Santa and his reindeer!


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