How to take great photos of the Aurora Australis
Taichi Nakamura's passion for the Aurora Australis and the beauty of the Southern Island's night skies led to a move to Dunedin to be able to make the most of any opportunities to capture them on camera.
These beautiful shots are the result of plenty of patience and experience. If you'd like to have a go at getting similar results, here's how to start...
These photos show unique characteristics to the bigger events of Aurora Australis that we have in the south, namely the aurora’s outbreak showing multiple vertical lines of beams and a huge red proton arc.
It contains more red in the higher atmosphere, compared to more purple and green which is seen in Aurora Borealis in the northern hemisphere.
The other photos also show the Magellanic Clouds and Milky Way, which we see quite clearly when the sky is clear, and a friendly wild seal that came around to check what I was doing, and posed as if it wanted a photo with the aurora.
The biggest thing is to be prepared.
Not just in terms of having your camera gear packed and batteries charged ready to go anytime, but learning to predict when the aurora may happen so you can get to the right location before it starts to appear.
This can be done through various web resources that have become increasingly accurate over the past couple of years. Here are a few to try: Spaceweather, Aurora Australis on Facebook, Spaceweatherlive and Service Aurora.
Here you can see the vertically rising proton arc, Milky Way and galactic core. A 30-second exposure taken on a Canon 6D at f/3.2 and ISO6400.
Location hunting day and night, and finding ones suitable and appealing for capturing auroras is important.
This is fun for me as I like exploring, walking and driving, and being in great locations in the South Island is absolutely amazing.
This has been something I had been doing for general landscape photography for a while, but the difference and crucial point for aurora photos is that the location must have clear view to the south sky.
Knowing local weather conditions and geographical trends helps. Being able to read the wind and clouds is important as there will be less chance of seeing auroras if there is no clear view.
Pay attention to the time of moonrise/moonset, sunrise/sunset too, as any other light source will influence the image.
Being fit and resting when there is less chance of auroras is also important, as staying out at night taking photos for hours uses a lot of energy.
As you can imagine, I have had lots of failed attempts in the past, not seeing auroras after waiting for hours in the cold and sometimes in the rain.
But through those failed attempts I benefitted and learnt when it is more likely for auroras to occur, when and where the cloud could be clear and when I could skip going out at all and rest instead.
A wild seal strikes a pose with a dazzling backdrop showing the proton arc, magellanic clouds and reflection of Achernar, the ninth brightest star. A 10-second expsoure taken on a Canon 6D at f/2.8 and ISO6400.
For photos of auroras your camera settings need to be slightly different compared to casual daylight photography.
It usually works best with the camera in manual mode so you can take control and get things in the right balance. But any modern DSLR, mirrorless, point and shoot type of camera could do the job as long as you can set it with a longer exposure and wider aperture.
MY RECOMMENDED SETTINGS
1. Slower shutter speed - 8 to 30 seconds.
Shorter is good when the aurora is bright or to capture the structure and take more shots and movements. Longer is better if the aim is to fill the sky with colours or to show the Milky Way.
2. Wider aperture (smaller f-stop)
Use 1 or 2 stops larger than the smallest available. I often use f/3.2.
Smaller f-stops can get more light to the sensor, but because of how the lens works the smallest is usually not sharp even if it is perfectly focussed. For that reason I prefer to have it slightly larger.
3. Higher ISO - 1600 to 6400.
In general, a higher ISO will capture more light and therefore more details of the stars. It also allows a faster shutter speed but will also introduce more noise.
My favourite ISO is 3200. For the Milky Way, it is 6400. But this will depend on the camera and how much noise shows up.
4. White balance
Try tungsten, which I sometimes still use for film, or adjust the colour temperature (kelvin) settings manually to suit the conditions.
GOOD THINGS TO HAVE
1. A camera that's capable of manual settings and good at low light photography.
2. Lenses that are wide angle, bright, and sharp with less distortion. Each lens will provide different characteristics to the image. In the end, your favourite lens will be the best choice.
3. A sturdy tripod. I use a carbon fibre tripod to reduce the weight as I usually carry a few with me, but the heavier it is, the more stable it is.
One good thing I do is to wrap the legs with hockey stick tape to deal with frost.
4. Remote shutter release - so you don’t blur the camera when pressing the shutter.
5. Extra batteries and memory cards.
6. Dew Heaters for your lens, to battle against condensation.
7. A torch - red LED if possible.
8. Warm clothes, drinks and snacks.
The most important thing with this type of photography is to go out there and try it. Enjoy the experience and be safe.
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