I first noticed the Aurora in 2012 when looking at some photos taken by a local photographer. I remember wondering what it was I looking at – the Northern lights in the South? Surely not! Since then I’ve taken hundreds of photos of the Aurora around Tasmania.
First off, it's important to look to the South if you want to have any success with photographing the Aurora. It's known as the Southern Lights for a reason – the clearest view South you can find is your best place to start.
When people ask me about photographing the Aurora, I'll often tell them to try and obtain a basic knowledge of how Auroras occur and when they are likely to occur first, as this is the best way to increase your chances of success. The Aurora Australis, or Southern Lights, happen when the sun releases a massive burst of solar wind and magnetic fields into space. These solar winds carry particles which interact with the earth’s magnetic field, colliding to produce energy releases in the form of Auroras.
I look at websites like spaceweather.com as well as the Facebook Page Aurora Australis Tasmania ahead of a photography trip. Being on the front foot and not waiting for others to notify you often means can get photographs you may otherwise have missed. A basic knowledge of your local weather patterns and moon phases is handy too.
Conditions-wise, you should be looking for clear skies and cloudless nights as the Aurora rarely shows her beauty behind clouds. But don’t let a little cloud deter you, they often provide an interesting feature in a photo, complimenting the Aurora.
I see many images with a stunning Aurora sky that would have been the most spectacular photograph with an interesting foreground or landscape. So when setting up your shot, try to choose a landscape scene that would be interesting enough without the Aurora - you'll then be amazed at how good it looks with the Aurora in there too! It's not always easy, but it is worth scouting during the day to find a place you can go to directly when the Aurora is on, rather than driving around in the dark when you can’t see a thing.
There's a few things you'll need to have in your camera bag for a successful trip.
- DSLR Camera – it doesn't have to be the best on the market, but it does need to be able to take long exposure photographs.
- A tripod – again, not a necessity to have the most expensive, but generally the more you spend, the most stable they will be in windy conditions. I started off with a cheap light tripod, which was fine, but soon outgrew it.
- Memory cards. The more space, the more images you can bring home.
- Batteries – Obviously your camera will not work without one, and I highly recommend at least 2 or 3. Batteries go flat rather quickly in the cold and taking multiple long exposures will drain that energy. Trust me, it's not a pleasurable experience to be out photographing an Aurora that's dazzling away and you run out of battery.
- A remote shutter release cable or wireless remote – It helps to reduce vibration through the camera from pressing the shutter button. I often use mine on continuous shooting mode, so I can sit back and enjoy the Aurora whilst my camera and remote are doing all the work! You can also use the self timer mode (2 sec) so once you press the shutter button the camera waits 2 seconds to capture the exposure.
- Warm clothes – if you are warm and comfortable you will be happy, and so will your images. If you become cold and miserable, your images will suffer. Believe me it is not a fun experience sitting there freezing when a couple of coats, thermals, beanie and gloves are sitting at home doing nothing.
- Head Torch or Torch – It is dark at night, so bring one along to see where you are walking in the dark, as well as illuminate foregrounds (light paint) and to see your camera dials if they need adjusting.
- Remember to have your gear ready at all times with your batteries charged. Nothing is more annoying than a great Aurora display and you are at home charging batteries and missing it.
I suggest you select manual mode, which allows you to adjust aperture and your desired shutter speed. Use your tripod for stability and your remote cable release to operate the shutter or self timer. Shoot in RAW, and if you can, use a wide angle lens. The advantage of a wide angle is it allows you to fit more of the Aurora and landscape into your image.
With photographing the night sky, you want to let in as much light as you can. For this reason, the widest possible aperture is best (the lowest f-stop number). Typically this will be f2.8 to f4, depending on which lens you choose or own. There are prime lenses that stop down to f1.4!
When setting your ISO, you'll need to make a call depending on what levels of noise your camera can handle. The higher level the better for more light. As a rule it’s generally around 1600-3200. Any moonlight will lower the ISO as there is natural light to begin with. Adjust it when you're in the field for the best results.
As the Aurora is moving constantly, the faster the shutter speed you choose the more detail you will capture. I like to start at around 10-15 seconds, although depending on which lens you use, you may need 15 to 30 seconds. This will still capture the Aurora, although loss of detail and trailing stars may affect the image quality.
To ensure everything is sharp, set both the camera body and lens to manual. Then, set your lens to infinity (most lenses have the infinity symbol on the focus ring). If the moon is out you can check focus using the moon, or a bright object in the distance. It's even easier if your camera has live view - zoom in 10x on a bright star, then adjust focus manually until the star is sharp.
White balance is often the forgotten setting. It's a personal preference, as the Aurora is not always visible to the naked eye – so set it to your tastes. My preferred choice is Kelvin 3850. It's what I believe gives the closest colour balance to the Auroras greens and reds. A lower value seems too cold and higher tends to be too warm.
Finally, always tell someone where you're going. It's dark, and accidents can happen. Shoot with a friend or two, not only for the company. Safety in numbers.
Remember you won’t see the Aurora sitting on the couch at home, so get out there amongst it! The most important thing is to enjoy being out on dark, cold nights. I have memories of so many great nights as I was prepared and enjoyed myself. An Aurora sighting will leave you speechless and wanting to see another and another!