How to Photograph the Southern Aurora
Most people don’t realise you can see the Aurora from the southern parts of Australia and when they do and see a photo, they are instantly blown away. Chasing it is an addition for some, a passion that is part anticipation, preparation, heartbreak and elation.
- A Camera that allows you to change ISO, Aperture and Shutter Speed.
- Small flashlight
- Good comfy shoes
If it’s winter I’d recommend
- gloves, coats, beanie and anything else that will keep you warm
How to know if conditions are good for an Aurora?
The Aurora Service – Australia has a great website run by volunteers that includes up to date measures of solar activity, the solar wind and Earth’s magnetic field.
There’s a lot of gauges and measure on the site but for those new to Aurora watching, keep an eye on the Kp Scale. From where I live on Phillip Island, Victoria, when the scale reaches Kp of 5+, I’m out the door with my camera on the hunt.
Another way to keep up with Aurora activity is to follow one of the Aurora hunters pages:
When the Aurora predictions are looking good, both of these Facebook pages light up with posts and comments. They also have great tips, techniques and location maps for catching the Aurora at her best.
Can I see it with my eye?
Usually, no unless the Kp is very very high. The colour and light from the Aurora is usually too dim to the human eye in the night sky. Just like it’s difficult for us to see the colour of objects at night, our eyes have difficulty seeing the colour in the sky from a Southern Aurora. What is usually seen is a white cloud or mist like band on the Southern horizon with occasional white flares above it.
Here’s a great video that shows the difference between the human eye and what is captured on a long exposure with a camera
If I know the conditions are right, where do I look?
Look for a place with a dark sky or minimal light pollution to the South. The Aurora is visible only in the Southern sky. Try to ensure there are no city lights or other light pollution between yourself and the South sky.
How do I take a picture of the Aurora?
For good Aurora shots the best time is during a period when the moon is not in the night sky and there are no clouds. I can’t tell you the number of times the Kp activity meter was going off the scale but it was raining, cloudy or a full moon washed out all colour in the sky.
If the conditions are right and it’s visible on camera try the following:
- Before heading out, focus your camera on a very distant object (we call this infinity focus) then put your lens into Manual Focus mode – usually a switch on the side of the lens. I often put a piece of masking tape across my lens to lock the focus to this infinity mode so I won’t accidentally move it out of focus later..
- Put your camera on a tripod.
- Switch it to Manual mode.
- Ensure you are shooting in RAW mode.
- Choose ISO3200, 20-25 seconds as Shutter Speed and put the Aperture as low as it will go.
- Now select a 2 sec delay. This will ensure there is no camera shake from you pressing the shutter button.
If there’s Aurora activity, you’ll see a neon green and or red band on the horizon of your image. You may also get a very faint red or pink glow. This is also Aurora activity but at low levels.
This is a shot straight off the back of my Fuji XT-1. You can see I was using ISO3200, F/2.5 and a 20 second exposure. This is the classic Southern Aurora shot – the green band on the horizon and the pink or red airglow above it.
Happy Aurora Hunting and be prepared to become addicted to running off in the middle of the night with a camera and tripod in your hand!
I’d love to see your shots!