Shooting the Northern Lights is a must-do for many photographers but did you know that the Souther Hemisphere has a light show of its own? The Aurora Australis is a spectacle that can only be seen from Australia, Chile, Argentina, New Zealand and Antarctica meaning that while it's more difficult to see than the Aurora Borealis, it's no less spectacular. Below, adventure photographer Levi Harrell gives his best tips for shooting these elusive lights.
Shooting the aurora can be a once in a lifetime event for many photographers. When the opportunity presents itself, you want to make sure you have the necessary skills and tools!
Firstly you will need the appropriate safety equipment. Auroras are most active in winter so layers of warm clothes are an absolute must. Warm boots, hat, and gloves are also essential, preferably a pair of gloves that don’t inhibit your ability to operate a camera or remote. Next, you will need a head torch to illuminate your way to and from your shooting location. Make sure you keep extra batteries with you, as the cold will reduce the lifespan of your batteries.
Photo by Levi Harrell
Now that you have all the essential gear to keep you warm and safe on a cold winters night, let's talk about the planning aspect of shooting an aurora storm. Aurora’s intensities are measured on the KP index. The KP index measures the global geomagnetic activity from the poles and will give you an indication as to how strong of an aurora you may have that night simply by looking up the forecast online.
In New Zealand, the most accurate way to get KP information is by checking out aurora-service.net, which will give you the three-day forecast for your local area. Be sure to also scout out locations with the help of Google Maps and Google Earth. This will help you search the location at large and check for any features that may help or hinder your photoshoot such as tree density, hills with a good vantage point, power lines, etc.
Photo by Levi Harrell
Also when planning an aurora shoot you want to consider your location in relation to the strength of the aurora. Travelling further south while in New Zealand greatly strengthens your chances of seeing the southern lights on a more frequent basis and of a higher intensity.
Places like Stewart Island, for example, have a much higher chance of seeing beautiful light shows as they are so far south and have little competing light versus a place like Queenstown or Dunedin that have a significant amount of light pollution from street lights and buildings. These more northerly cities will as well see visible auroras less frequently and of lower intensity.
I would also recommend visiting the location you would like to shoot during the day to consider your framing and your foreground objects. You need something compelling to draw your eye and lead it into the shot. I love shooting the aurora with a water feature such as a lake or the ocean to create a reflection of colour.
Another important tip to framing the southern lights is to try and create size references within the landscape. Shooting with an aurora over a mountain or against a beach will create a much more dramatic scene then a tight shot with no reference of size.
Photo by Levi Harrell
When you are setting up your camera for an aurora shoot there are certain things you will most certainly need. A sturdy tripod, a camera with the option to manually focus, and the ability to change the shutter speed will be imperative to capture a great photo.
Start by setting your lens to the infinite focusing distance. You can do this in the daylight by picking an object on the horizon to focus on then leaving your camera focused there until your night under the stars.
A good starting place for your camera settings would be shutter speed at 18 seconds, ISO at 4000, and your aperture at the lowest possible, preferably at f2.8 to f2 to let in as much light at possible. If your camera lens doesn't go down to f2.8, set it at the lowest possible aperture.
Every aurora storm you shoot will be different so be sure to play with your settings to achieve the best possible image!
Photo by Levi Harrell
Levi Harrell is a photographer and writer specializing in adventure and astrophotography. Currently, Levi lives in Boulder, Colorado and spends most of his time chasing good light around the world. You can find his work in print or online.
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