How To // Photograph the Aurora Australis in NZ


Recently I have had a flood of questions on how exactly to photograph the Aurora or Southern Lights.

Well good news – it’s relatively simple to learn! It just comes down to knowing the basics of your camera and braving the cold to go out and shoot.

How do I know when I can see the Aurora?

I use a website that gives predictions as to when you a likely to get a show. It will need to be dark and somewhere with limited light pollution. You also need clear skies and to be facing South! As far South as you can get and that is why Invercargill is a great spot to be!

Can I see it without a camera?

Sometimes. To the human eye it will just look like a white patch in the sky. When it’s really strong it is possible to see red and green faintly moving across the sky. I have only even seen naked eye colour once.

Website Alerts: http://cdn.softservenews.com/southern_lights.html

Facebook Alerts: https://www.facebook.com/groups/NZaurora/

The basics:

1. For the best results you want to have a DSLR camera. You need to shoot in manual mode and be able to manually focus your lens. (Not as hard as it sounds!)

2. You NEED a tripod. Without one your images will be blurry and out of focus.

3. A remote shutter release will be a life saver. This allows you to click your shutter button without touching your camera. Even the simple act of pressing the shutter with your finger will cause movement in your shot and it will be blurry.

Alternatively, you can set a 2 second timer on your camera. That way your camera counts 2 seconds after the shutter is pushed before taking the photo.

4. Shoot images in RAW: This allows you so much more room in post to edit and gives you a higher dynamic range to work with. JPEG is fine if you have no plans on doing any post editing.

5. Warm clothing: Chances are you will be out in the cold for a few hours – nothing brings the buzz down harder than being cold and uncomfortable.

6. Headlamp: It’s going to be dark, you need to see where you are going! Also, headlamps can be dimmed down much more than a phone light if you need to adjust settings on your camera. If you are in an area with other photographer’s, you don’t want your light affecting their shot.

7. Keep yourself safe: Try to go out with a friend. Tell someone where you are going if going alone.

Camera Settings:

The Aurora can be photographed on almost any lens. The preferred choice is something that is wide angle, so you can fit as much into the frame as possible. The lower the aperture (f-stop) the better – this refers to how much light your lens is letting in. A lens that goes down to 2.8 will be better than a lens that only goes down to 4.

So, you are out there, in the dark with your camera on a tripod. What next?

Switch your camera to manual mode. (M)

Aperture as low as it can go (1.4, 2.8, 4) what ever you lens goes down to.

Shutter speed 20 seconds. (20”)

ISO anywhere from 800 – 1600 is ideal but go higher if needed. The higher the ISO the more grain you will get in your image.

Change your lens to manual focus. I like to focus just under infinity (8) to start.

Every aurora is different, so I like to use these settings as a baseline and adjust from there.

It all depends on how you want your image to look as well. The longer the shutter speed, the more light being let into your camera but the more blurred the aurora will look. If you want more detail I suggest using a 2 – 15 second shutter speed but then pushing the ISO a little higher.

Here is how I progressed from my very first attempt!

Attempt 1: Waipapa Point – 28th September 2016

A rookie with extremely limited knowledge of what I was trying to do. I borrowed a camera and went on my first Aurora hunt.

Camera: Canon 5D Mark II

Lens: 24mm – 105mm

Focal Length: 24mm

Aperture: f4

ISO: 2000

Shutter Speed: 30”

RAW Image


Edited Image


Why did I hold my headlamp? No idea, I think I just saw people doing that on Insta and thought it looked cool. It didn’t, it just created more light pollution in this case! See all the little red dots in the RAW image? That is dust. I had to sit and remove it all in post afterwards. Lesson 1 – always clean your gear before going out to shoot!

Attempt 2: Oreti Beach – 28th March 2017

I love the beach because it is always empty and close to where I live. I took my Mum out with me and asked her to stand in frame and do a cool pose. Then this happened. You had one job Arnie… what even is this? Backwards camel?! Best laugh I have had in a long time. Lesson 2 – Use the people around you to add interest to your image.

Camera: Canon 5D Mark II

Lens: 24mm – 105mm

Focal Length: 24mm

Aperture: f4

ISO: 12000

Shutter Speed: 25”

RAW Image


Edited Image


Attempt 3: Oreti Beach – 4th April 2017

This was a perfect night, no cloud, no moon and a bunch of friends to go and shoot with! I made the most of it and got Amy and Aaron to jump in for a shot just as the beams started dancing behind them.

Lesson 3 – Wait for the aurora to really get dancing before putting people in front to pose.

Camera: Canon 5D Mark II

Lens: 24mm – 105mm

Focal Length: 28mm

Aperture: f4

ISO: 5000

Shutter Speed: 13”

RAW Image


Edited Image


Attempt 4: Oreti Beach – 28th May 2017

I pre planned what I wanted to photograph this time. I asked Mum and AJ to come out with some deck chairs, wine, beer and popcorn to watch the lights show. I knew from previous attempts I wanted to have the colours reflected in the water around them. Now this time instead of focusing on infinity I focused on my subjects who were about 2.5m in front of me. That is how I managed to get them so sharp with the aurora blurred in the background. See how in the middle of the image there is a few round circles? I forgot to take off my UV filter I had on to protect my lens. Lesson 4 – Don’t put any kind of filter over your lens when aurora shooting.

In post I changed my colour temperature, giving the image a more tungsten look.

Camera: Canon 5D Mark II

Lens: 24mm – 105mm

Focal Length: 24mm

Aperture: f4

ISO: 5000

Shutter Speed: 15”

RAW Image


Edited Image


As you can see from just 4 attempts I went from grainy and unimpressive images to clear shots with added human interest. Keep an eye on the dials and go out and practice when the readings look good!

#howto #beach #oretibeach #southlandphotographer #invercargillphotographer #aurora

 

 

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