How I Captured my First Aurora Australis - Digital Photography School
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How I Captured my First Aurora Australis

A Guest post by Loic Le Guilly

Your D800 is in the mail

On Sunday 15th of July 2012 I went to a friend’s house to borrow his camera. I had a photo shoot the next day and I had nothing decent to shoot with. My newly ordered Nikon D800 was in the mail… apparently. And I had sold my trusted D3X a few days before. D’oh!

Tonight is the night

I had warned my friend. “Tonight could be a good night for an aurora… are you cool with me picking up the camera this evening ?”. “Sure no problem” he said. After a good chat about the merits of Canon vs Nikon (he is a Canon guy), I say thanks and start to leave. As I step outside I look towards the southern Tasmanian sky and sure enough, the aurora is happening. A greenish glow is dancing gently over the horizon. “Are you sure you don’t want to grab some shots… I don’t mind waiting”. He hesitates a bit, I insist and soon enough we setup tripod and camera on his deck, watching in awe what turns out to be the most active aurora in recent years.

Borealis and australis

An aurora happens when charged particles are carried by solar winds and hit the earth’s atmosphere. The particles transfer their energy to the molecules of oxygen and nitrogen. When these excited molecules return to their stable state they release light (mostly green and red). This is what we see when we see an aurora. When it hits the north pole it is called aurora borealis, when it hits the south pole it is called aurora australis. If the aurora australis is strong, it can be seen not only at the south pole but also at lower latitudes such as Tasmania and New Zealand.

How to photograph an aurora

My friend started shooting and the results on the camera screen were pretty exciting. The camera sensor and a long exposure reveal a lot more light and colour that can be seen by the naked eye. He kindly offered me to shoot a few frames. I decided to go for it with a 30 second exposure at 3200 iso, 16mm rectilinear lens wide open at f2.8. This can be too bright for really active auroras but I wanted to capture as much of the Milky Way as possible. The first shot I took is the one you see below (straight out of the camera). When I checked the image on the camera the green of the aurora looked very bright but I knew it wasn’t completely overexposed. But the upper red glow was recorded very nicely. Some low drifting clouds added a nice movement to the shot.

_about_aurora-australis-Tasmania-1825-preprocess.jpg

Post processing in Lightroom

_about_basic.png

I was very excited by the shot I got but I knew I could improve it in Lightroom (I had shot in raw format as I always do). This is a what I did :

  • crop and straighten
  • white balance – In my experience long exposures introduce a yellow tinge to night photographs. I took the white balance from daylight (5500K) to 3750K.
  • exposure – I reduced the overall exposure by half a stop. I also applied another -1 stop to the green part of the aurora (with the adjustment brush).
  • contrast – Long exposures at night tend to give flat images. I increased the overall contrast of the image (blacks to 19, contrast to 74, curve to medium contrast). I also pushed the local contrast (clarity to 100). That setting alone revealed the “curtain” of the aurora really well. Finally I increased the contrast further to the top third of the image to darken the sky.

And this is the final result.

_about_aurora-australis-Tasmania-1825.jpg

And here is another image made from 2 shots stitched together in PTGUI. This one was 20 seconds at 3200 iso.

_about_aurora-australis-Tasmania-1828-Panorama-master.jpg

Not bad for a first night with an aurora.

How to know when an aurora might be coming ?

Personally I use the Facebook group Aurora Australis Tasmania. Its members are very knowledgeable and helpful. There is another Facebook group which is less Tasmania specific, Aurora Australis.

Final tips for photographing an aurora australis

  • a clear night
  • a spot looking south and ideally away from city lights (to avoid light pollution and flare)
  • a tripod + camera + wide angle lens (ideally f2.8 or faster)
  • use a remote trigger with mirror lock to reduce camera shake (if no remote than use timer on camera)
  • ideally shoot in raw format for better quality
  • noise reduction off (if shooting raw) to save time
  • manual focus to infinity (test on a clear night before hand to avoid disappointment)
  • iso 1600 to 3200 (or more if your camera can handle)
  • exposure 10 to 30 seconds (longer exposures will start to show stars as trails rather than dots)
  • these settings will depend on the brightness of the aurora so experiment, adjust and shoot lots of images !

Photographing an aurora is a truly exciting experience. I have read that 2013 should be a good year for auroras so keep an eye out and be ready !

About the author

_images_115_1541_Loic_crop.jpg

Loic Le Guilly is a photographer and web designer based in Hobart, Tasmania.

When not creating websites or shooting commercialy, he loves to wander in the bush to capture the natural beauty of Tasmania.

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  • http://www.photostorys.com Evan Skuthorpe

    Great shots Loic. Where abouts in Tasmania were these shot?

  • http://www.phogropathy.com John

    Awesome shot! And some great tips – I’d love to attempt this err well the northern lights for me as I’m up here in New England – but I’m just barely too far south to really have a chance at it without traveling.

    A lot of the tips you mention in this post are great for those interested in simply photographing the night sky let alone this crazy natural phenomenon. I used very similar settings to capture this photograph of two kayaks under the night sky – http://www.phogropathy.com/kayaking-under-the-stars/

    I didn’t push the ISO quite as high as you did – only to 1250, but everything else was pretty much dead on to what you used for the aurora.

    Anyways, I’m rambling on a bit here, congrats on the first shots – they’re definitely something to be proud of and will always be motivation to go out and shoot again! :)

  • http://twitter.com/samuelleung83 Samuel Leung

    Awesome post and a fellow Hobartian who for some reason I have previously not heard of.

  • Gary

    Beautiful shots and some great advice. The work in lightroom made for dramatic changes.
    Just for many reading this, turn around and look north.

  • Lewis

    Some friends and I were flying to NZ that night and the pilot told us the aurora could be seen, unfortunately we were on the wrong side of the plane and the passengers on the right side instantly glued their faces to the windows and left them their for the remainder of the flight : /

  • http://www.hobartphotographertasmania.com.au/about/ Loic Le Guilly

    Hi everyone

    Thanks for the nice comments. The shots were taken from Blackmans Bay, just south of Hobart.

    I have had request for prints so if anyone is interested here is some info :
    http://www.hobartphotographertasmania.com.au/prints/

    Thanks again

    Loic

  • https://www.facebook.com/sudheendrasphotography sreenivasa sudheendra

    Nice shotss

  • http://TravelingCanucks.com Cam @ Traveling Canucks

    Beauty! Thanks for the helpful tips

  • nima

    perfect job.. you did it

  • http://DonnaWilsonsWorld.com Donna Wilson

    Absolutely gorgeous & breathtaking!!!

  • http://www.judeconningphotography.com Judith Conning

    Wonderful images and thanks for thr great tips on post production. I was fortunate to see the Northern Lights in Whitehorse, Canada this year and just haven’t been able to tweek the images to my satisfaction. Hoping to return next February for 10 days and looking for some fellow Aurora Hunters to come with me.

  • http://www.weddingphotographerindevon.co.uk Paul

    Wow, just amazing………….. saw another great shot of this in the NPS magazine just recently!

Some older comments

  • Paul

    August 16, 2012 08:21 pm

    Wow, just amazing.............. saw another great shot of this in the NPS magazine just recently!

  • Judith Conning

    July 28, 2012 07:21 pm

    Wonderful images and thanks for thr great tips on post production. I was fortunate to see the Northern Lights in Whitehorse, Canada this year and just haven't been able to tweek the images to my satisfaction. Hoping to return next February for 10 days and looking for some fellow Aurora Hunters to come with me.

  • Donna Wilson

    July 27, 2012 06:53 am

    Absolutely gorgeous & breathtaking!!!

  • nima

    July 27, 2012 06:06 am

    perfect job.. you did it

  • Cam @ Traveling Canucks

    July 27, 2012 01:58 am

    Beauty! Thanks for the helpful tips

  • sreenivasa sudheendra

    July 26, 2012 07:58 pm

    Nice shotss

  • Loic Le Guilly

    July 26, 2012 01:51 pm

    Hi everyone

    Thanks for the nice comments. The shots were taken from Blackmans Bay, just south of Hobart.

    I have had request for prints so if anyone is interested here is some info :
    www.hobartphotographertasmania.com.au/prints/

    Thanks again

    Loic

  • Lewis

    July 26, 2012 11:49 am

    Some friends and I were flying to NZ that night and the pilot told us the aurora could be seen, unfortunately we were on the wrong side of the plane and the passengers on the right side instantly glued their faces to the windows and left them their for the remainder of the flight : /

  • Gary

    July 26, 2012 09:44 am

    Beautiful shots and some great advice. The work in lightroom made for dramatic changes.
    Just for many reading this, turn around and look north.

  • Samuel Leung

    July 26, 2012 09:05 am

    Awesome post and a fellow Hobartian who for some reason I have previously not heard of.

  • John

    July 26, 2012 08:18 am

    Awesome shot! And some great tips - I'd love to attempt this err well the northern lights for me as I'm up here in New England - but I'm just barely too far south to really have a chance at it without traveling.

    A lot of the tips you mention in this post are great for those interested in simply photographing the night sky let alone this crazy natural phenomenon. I used very similar settings to capture this photograph of two kayaks under the night sky - http://www.phogropathy.com/kayaking-under-the-stars/

    I didn't push the ISO quite as high as you did - only to 1250, but everything else was pretty much dead on to what you used for the aurora.

    Anyways, I'm rambling on a bit here, congrats on the first shots - they're definitely something to be proud of and will always be motivation to go out and shoot again! :)

  • Evan Skuthorpe

    July 26, 2012 06:53 am

    Great shots Loic. Where abouts in Tasmania were these shot?

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