How to Photograph Aurora Australis (The Southern Lights)
capture the perfect photograph of the Auroras!
Seeing the Aurora Australis is so rare on a New Zealand working holiday or backpacking trip that if and when you are lucky enough to spot that green and pink hue on the horizon, you want to be ready! Because New Zealand has some of the darkest and clearest skies in the world – so much so that the Mackenzie District in the South Island has been labelled as an International Dark Sky Reserve – more and more of us want to share the intense view of the stars and aurora with our social media peers! However, when it comes to pulling out your camera and taking a photo of the amazing moment you are witnessing, it’s more common to look down at the photos that just look shit – simply put.
To get rid of this frustration once and for all, we asked someone who photographs both the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) and the Southern Lights to give us his photography tips. Eric Katich, a snow groomer for ski fields in New Zealand and Sweden, hops between the remote mountains of the Northern and Southern Hemisphere every year giving him the unique opportunity to spot both auroras and, better yet, get some amazing snaps.
What is it like to see the Southern Lights in New Zealand?
In the shadow of the Northern Lights’ fame and glory, the Southern Lights are too often forgot about. That’s because less people are taking photos of them. But Eric insists they are just as beautiful.
“They are pretty spectacular!” Eric says. “Its almost like the sun is rising from a different direction. The beams are the best part. Its like watching a dancing curtain in the sky.”
So, the unique part of being in Eric’s snow groomer boots, is that he has seen both auroras. How do they compare?
“I get this question a lot. The Southern Lights are like looking at a big wall or curtain of auroras. You are more or less looking at the tops of the auroras, and you’re not standing under the “Aurora Oval”. The Northern Lights, however, are much different. In the far north you are standing underneath them and really get to see the intense details, colours, and watching them dance and wave across the sky.”
HOW TO FIND AURORA AUSTRALIS
First things first, you need to find an aurora as the subject of your photo. It’s not easy. With a combination of location, time and conditions, as well as a bit of luck, you may see them. “I have seen the Aurora Australis in Queenstown from Coronet Peak Road,” says Eric. Getting up high on a mountain or a hill increases you chances of getting a great view of the aurora. Additionally, “having a view of the southern horizon is the key”.
There also needs to be some strong solar activity to see the Southern Lights. Eric suggests, “looking at aurora forecast websites helps, as there needs to be a certain level of activity in order to see them.” Some aurora websites to check are: Spaceweather, Aurora Australis on Facebook, Spaceweatherlive and Service Aurora.
Although the Southern Lights can be seen all year round, winter (March to September) and around midnight is the best time to capture the lights. That’s why Eric’s job as a snow groomer during the night gives him the best opportunity to see the lights. Even when he is out there almost every night during winter, he sees the Southern Lights once every month or two.
On top of all of this, you need dark clear skies. Although darker is better, the Southern Lights are still seen even in proximity to the artificial lights of towns and cities, such as Invercargill, Dunedin and, as Eric has proved, Queenstown. These towns are in the southern regions of the South Island. That’s because Southern Light hunters should, “Go south. The more south the better!” as Eric puts.
For details on the perfect conditions to see the Aurora Australis in New Zealand, visit The Best Times and Locations to See the Southern Lights in New Zealand.
What camera and equipment to use to capture the auroras
It’s pretty common knowledge among those who want to photograph the night sky that they will get the best results using a DSLR camera. Sure, you might capture a hint of the aurora on your phone or point-and-shoot camera, but no one is liking that on Instagram. (Remember the frustrating shitty shot we were talking about earlier)?
So when it comes to the body of your camera, Eric says: “Of course, having a DSLR helps. I prefer a full frame DSLR just for better picture quality, but an average DSLR (crop sensor) with a fast lens will work just fine!”
That leads us onto lenses. While professional photographers crack out the wide angle lenses or prime lenses, for the rest of us there is no need to blow all your money for such a rare occasion on lenses. “All you’ll need a good fast lens. Anything with an aperture of 2.8 or faster is ideal.”
Because you’ll be taking photos with a relatively slow shutter speed (more on that in the Camera Settings section), a tripod is mandatory. Without one, your photo will be as blurry as last night’s backpacker bar crawl. For complete stillness, try setting a timer to take the photo rather than using your finger to press the shutter release button.
Finally, if you are out auroa hunting for a while, you may want an extra battery. “I carry an extra battery or two. Longer exposure photography and cold weather tends to drain your batteries really quick,” says Eric.
So, that all important question for people starting out in photography, what’s in Eric’s camera bag? “I have a Nikon D610, and use a Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 lens. I also carry with me a tripod, different size lenses, and an extra battery or two.”
Camera settings for capturing Aurora Australis
You might find that the camera setting for your particular camera or for the conditions you are in is a bit of a trial and error learning experience.
“I had my first real attempt of shooting the auroras in January 2014 in Sweden,” says Eric. “I was working and I caught them out of corner of my eye. So I raced as fast as I could to an open area, set up my tripod, and just started taking photos. At this point my heart was racing just because I was so excited to see them for the first time. The photos turned out Ok. I really didn’t know how to get the camera settings to capture them, and I was pretty much guessing at that point.”
So once you are set up with your camera on your tripod, set your camera to manual focus, as the auto focus feature usually finds in hard to focus on far away objects at night. To focus, use the live view and play with the focus until it looks right. If you have found the perfect focus, another trick is to tape the focus ring in place so it stays in focus.
The tricky thing with the aurora is that it is moving! How can you let enough light in without the aurora looking blurry? You’ll need a balance of a fast enough shutter speed to capture the moving aurora while getting as much light to the sensor as possible with a large aperture. Eric uses an F number of 2.8 in his images, but plays around with the shutter speed depending how the aurora is behaving. If there is just a hue in the horizon, his images are set to an exposure time (shutter speed) of 10-13 seconds. For movement, which is more characteristic of the Northern Lights, the speed is set to 3-8 seconds.
For the ISO settings, this depends how capable your DSLR at performing with high ISOs without the noise interfering. Running the ISO settings at 1600 or 3200 is usually ideal for the auroras but if you want to capture some stars in there too, you should have a higher ISO of 6400. That’s if your camera can cope without adding noise.
Now, go get those auroras!
More about the night’s sky in New Zealand
If your interested in capturing Aurora Australis or images in the dark, you might be interested in these articles.
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