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The Idiot’s guide to Photographing the Aurora Australis

Introduction

I’m not suggesting for a moment that anyone can go out at night and take an aurora photograph good enough to grace the pages of National Geographic – that probably needs to be left to professional photographers with very expensive kit. But I am suggesting that just about anyone with a bit of nous and a Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR) camera can quite easily take very satisfying pictures of the Aurora Australis.

Can I see an Aurora?

If there isn’t an aurora present you won’t be able to photograph it – to state the obvious. A local astronomer has recorded over 70 auroras during the last 3 years, which means that there is one about every 2 weeks. I would be more cautious and suggest at least one photographable aurora a month is more realistic for mortal souls. That said, like buses, aurora can turn up in clusters over several nights.

So how do you know if there is likely to be an aurora? Well, according to Wikipedia aurorae are produced……

when the magnetosphere is sufficiently disturbed by the solar wind that the trajectories of charged particles in both solar wind and magnetospheric plasma, mainly in the form of electrons and protons, precipitate them into the upper atmosphere (thermosphere/exosphere), where their energy is lost. The resulting ionization and excitation of atmospheric constituents emits light of varying colour and complexity.

And there are clever people who monitor all this and assess the likelihood or otherwise of an aurora appearing. These assessments can be found on various websites. For our purposes the best of these is probably …

http://www.aurora-service.net/aurora-forecast/ 

Which gives a 3-day forecast, an example is shown below.

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The higher the Kp number (don’t ask, it’s incomprehensible to normal people) the more likely you are to be able to see an aurora, but it’s not unusual to see one at Kp 3 or 4. Noted expert, Stephen Voss, summarises the Kp index as "a measure of global geomagnetic activity, in essence, how much the Earth’s magnetic field is being “rattled”."

The times given are always in UTC (coordinated universal time), which is pretty much interchangeable with GMT.  So for Possums' End, disregarding jokes about New Zealand being 25 years behind everyone else, you need to add about 12 hours.   So in the table above the first KP5 prediction would have occurred between midnight and 3 am on the 29th of May in NZ.

If you are really lazy you can simply follow the Facebook page  

Aurora Australis ALERTS (NZ) https://www.facebook.com/groups/auroranzalert/

which is strictly monitored and only posts when people can see an aurora.   

Its sister page Aurora Australis (public group) https://www.facebook.com/groups/NZaurora/

contains lots of useful information and resources about seeing and photographing aurora.

Can I see it with the naked eye?

So let’s assume that it’s Kp 5 or 6 and there should be an aurora raging overhead. Can you see it? Not necessarily with the naked eye. In 15, somewhat inattentive years, I have only seen one rip snorting, stonking, mind blowing aurora from Otago. On that occasion the whole sky lit up with shimmering curtains of red and green. The rest of the time I have just been able to detect the slightest eerie white/grey glow by naked eye. However, this is where the DSLR camera makes all the difference. It cumulatively processes the light, building up light intensity dependant on how long your lens is open (exposure) to the sky, allowing for impressive colourful images to form.

But we also have to consider the following:

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How do I set up my DSLR camera?

 So let’s keep it simple - because that’s all I can understand. I use a Canon EOS series camera (quite a cheap one actually), but most modern DSLR cameras have similar controls, so the following should generally apply.

Camera Settings

And all other settings are pretty much at default.

Focusing

This can be tricky, especially if you are using a kitset lens. If your lens has a manual/auto switch on it, switch it to manual. Some lenses have an infinity focus mark on them (an 8 on its side), which is a good place to start, although it’s best treated with a bit of caution. Many DSLRs now have a live view mode and the ability to magnify the image. If this is the case for you then go to live view mode and point you camera at a distant bright object such as the moon or from Possums’ End the lights of Port Chalmers. Magnify the bright object using the + button and then carefully turn the focus ring on the lens until the image is as sharp as you can get it. Be careful not to move the focus ring again or you will have to repeat the process. You should probably check that your images are in focus regularly as your shoot. This is best done by viewing a picture you have just taken and using the + magnifying facility check to see that the stars are sharp. It sounds a bit complicated but is quite easy once you get the hang of it. There is nothing worse than taking lots of pictures of an aurora only to find, when viewing them on a big screen, that they are all slightly out of focus.

Post Processing

This is the bit that my cynical teen daughter calls cheating. She may have a point. Clearly some photographers spend hours manipulating their images using software such as Photoshop and Lightroom. Their end results seem to have little to do with what appeared before their camera. That said, some basic manipulation is definitely worthwhile, it’s knowing where to draw the line.

I don’t use any fancy software, just what came with my camera. I have also been pleased with the results obtained from simply using the slider controls on Apple’s Photos program. Simply changing the exposure and colour sliders can make a huge difference. But it’s very much down to the individual’s personal taste.

The following photographs were all taken from Possums’ End in 2016. One of the intriguing and compelling aspects of aurora photography is that aurora are never the same!

 IMG 2162

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IMG 3175 

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1 September 2 of 6 

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Shaun the Idiot

Possums’ End

May 2016

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