What Are These Mysterious Lights in the Sky over Seattle?

December 24th, 2018

shubumiLightsNote: This post has become a PFRE Christmas tradition. It has some good basic photography advice. Aaron Leitz and I both learned from this exercise!

I put my Christmas header photo up on the blog recently. This header image has an interesting historical story that goes with it. PFRE blog readers have been trying to explain the pattern of five lights (one red and four green) that are in the top center above the two tallest high rise buildings in downtown Seattle (click on the image to the right to see a larger image). I have posted this article almost every year since 2009. After many years of discussion, Aaron Leitz finally solved the mystery in 2014.

I shot this photo near the middle of Lake Union (just north of downtown Seattle) in December of 2006 aboard the Shubumi, a motor yacht co-owned by a good friend and agent in the John L. Scott Issaquah office, where my wife and I worked for over 20 years. Every year, Fred takes all the agents in the office on a cruise for one evening in December to follow the Christmas ship to different locations on Lake Washington singing Christmas carols. A big flotilla of boats follows the Christmas ship around and is a big boating tradition in Seattle. Shooting on a rocking boat in the dark was a challenge. This shot is the best of about 20 frames I took trying to get a shot that wasn’t blurred. I shot it hand-held standing as close to the center of the boat to minimize port to starboard and fore and aft motion.

In 2007, when I first used this header, Seattle architectural photographer Aaron Leitz pointed out that he had a very similar shot taken during the 2005 Christmas season from Gasworks Park (about 1/2 mile 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, even though Aaron was using a very different shutter speed.

We 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 but nothing really jumped out as a compelling explanation until the 2009 discussion.

The post I did in 2009 got several comments which I thought at the time explained the mystery:

  • 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 phenomenon 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. Notice that Mallory’s photo in Kansas City looks very much like the lights in the shots that Aaron and I took.
  • Andrew Hurst gave us another example of a light echo in a time-lapse video (no longer online).

leitz-20051226_0062-modThen in 2014, Aaron studied his version of this shot from 2005 and realized the following (click on Aarons’ photo to the right to follow Aaron’s explanation below):

…The light patterns in the sky are a perfect mirror image of the city lights that are below and to the right of the lights in the sky!
I was using a shitty UV filter on the lens. This really suggests that the lights are reflections caused by a UV filter. I’m sure I had a cheap UV filter on my lens. Looks like Cary and Ken in the comments may be right… don’t mess with cheap UV filters!

This is a pretty compelling explanation! I was using a cheap UV filter too. So the moral of this story is: When you shoot a shot like this or one you care about, remove your protective UV filter!

I still like my original theory that the lights are Rudolph and Santa with eight reindeer, one 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 all this science! This is Santa, not just a reflection!

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