Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Aurora Chasing for Dummies

Whenever I post an Aurora Australis photo on social media I'm usually asked the same questions each time, so I thought I'd do a blog post which I can then re- post in response.

31/8/19- Winton, Southland
f/2.8, 8sec, ISO 1250

Keep in mind that I am far from an expert though, I probably know a little more than you (if you're not already a chaser) but not nearly as much as the many talented aurora experts & astrophotogs out there. I continue to learn with each new aurora.

And this is not a full and comprehensive list of 'how to' either (although now that I've proof read it, it comes pretty close!), just a few basics that might help you tick off one of your bucket list items or, like me, you get bitten by the bug and turn into a fully fledged aurora chaser! 

 The turning point, my very first aurora after 3 years of waiting to view one
 & the cloud nearly put paid to it too- 28/3/17 Taieri Mouth Otago
f/2.8, 15sec, ISO4000

Where can I see an Aurora?

On the southern horizon. The further south you are the better, the Southern Lights are usually, but not always, seen from the bottom half of the South Island. Christchurch, Mackenzie Country, Otago, Central Otago, Queenstown Lakes, Southland & Stewart Island are all top viewing areas for an aurora.  It is possible to see a strong aurora from further north; I've seen photos taken in Wellington, Taranaki & Hawkes Bay but it is rare. 

High on a plateau with reflections- Poolburn Dam, Central Otago
It also helps aurora chasing when I have my home with me, I can often step out the door & start shooting.
f/2.8, 15sec, ISO6400

You'll need to have an unobstructed clear view to the south free of clouds and away from city lights or any other light pollution if at all possible.  A high vantage point such as a hill or mountain is of benefit but not totally necessary if you have that clear view south. A body of water in front of the aurora is a bonus & great for reflections. To find south either use a compass app on your phone or look for the Southern Cross, it points directly south. 

Surrounded by mountain ranges with Cromwell town lights directly below it was still possible
to see this aurora- 5/8/19 Lowburn, Lake Dunstan, Central Otago
f/5.6, 13sec, ISO1000

When does an Aurora happen?

An aurora can happen at anytime of the year through night & day but the months between March and September tend to be the best in the Southern Hemisphere due to the long clear nights of winter. An aurora is caused by solar activity on the sun and this activity is what is monitored and interpreted by the experts who usually have a few days advanced notice of an aurora happening. 

As blue twilight departs stage right the following darkness reveals a beautiful aurora
It can be very frustrating watching the gauges go off during daylight hours,
this aurora had been playing for a a number of hours through the afternoon -
-1/9/19, Riverton Rocks, Southland
f/2.8, 6sec, ISO1600

There are several internet sites & Facebook pages you can follow to get notifications of expected auroras. Sometimes there is very little warning, other times the predictions are several days out. The sites I follow are listed at the end of this blog.

The big one. Can I see it with the naked eye?

I'd like to say there's a 50/50 chance although it does depend on how strong the aurora is. Also as you get used to viewing an aurora you'll be able to pick up more & more of even the most subtle auroras. I'd describe the Lights as looking like a bright white shimmering curtain spread across the sky above the horizon with beams rolling across the curtain shooting far above into the heavens.

BUT & it's a big but, many times you will not see a thing, it will be a total disappointment. Unfortunately due to social media & the increasingly regular news stories that an aurora is about to happen, many people (often with kids & dogs in tow) rush off to the nearest vantage point to watch this amazing spectacle they've seen on their screens; great swathes of crimson, lime green, fiery reds & oranges and blasts of purple. It never looks like that to the naked eye.

This is what can be seen with the naked eye when there is a strong aurora. 

The camera sensor sees a lot more colour which is enhanced when processing the RAW file.

The Big One- 28/5/17, Oreti Plains, Southland
f/2.8, 8sec, ISO2000

Other times you won't see a thing until you check your shot on the back of your camera screen. This might be what you see; a very dark night and a few bright stars (those are stars not dust spots)

And this is what is revealed by the camera, a very subtle aurora. There's a little bit of euphoria when this appears on your screen after you've look out into inky blackness thinking there can't be any action out there tonight. 

My latest aurora (complete with shooting star)- 7/4/21, Lake Ruataniwha, Mackenzie Country
f/2.8, 13 sec, ISO8000

Shorter more defined beams, known as the 'picket fence' can be seen higher up or to the side of the aurora. Or they roll over the aurora curtain as the light dances from side to side.

Picket fence- 28/8/19, Winton, Southland
f/2.8, 8 sec, ISO2500

Off to the far side there is often another strong tall beam, it looks like a spotlight shining into the heavens. This beam is known as STEVE (Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancement)

STEVE- 22/4/17, Isla Bank, Southland
 f/2.8, 20 sec, ISO1250
Sometimes you get a 'bonus', STEVE and an Elon Musk (destroyer of the night sky) SpaceX Starlink trail.

STEVE & Starlink Trail- Night Sky Cottages, Twizel, Mackenzie Country- 20/3/21
f/2.8, 4 sec, ISO8000

Can I see the colour?

Yes, but again, nothing like you see in photos or on social media. You may see a tinge of pale green & and pink in some of the stronger auroras similar to the photo below, this colouring is unusual though, usually it's shimmering white with maybe a hint of colour. Younger eyes do pick up more colour though. The camera sensor is much more sensitive than our eyes and with a slow shutter speed & large aperture (small number) the lens lets in a lot more light & colour. Sometimes there's also a bit of artistic license taken by photographers in some of their photo processing.

The Big One- 28/5/17, lost somewhere on the Oreti Plains, Southland
f/2.8, 6sec, ISO4000

What camera settings should I use?

How long is a piece of string? Not quite but nearly. Camera settings depend on some key factors; how strong the aurora is and how dark the sky is. Every aurora is different and just when you think you've nailed it, the next one will have you fumbling in the dark again. But generally there are a few things you do need to follow, then adjustments can be made as you progress.

A tripod is a must, you will be taking slow shutter-speed photos, any movement will destroy your once-in-a-lifetime photo. If you don't have a tripod you might be able to make do with a fence post, the top of the car or a nearby rock at a push. But you've been warned, it must be super steady & obviously pointing in the right direction. 

From the back fence of Night Sky Cottages- 20/3/21, Twizel, Mackenzie Country
f/2.8, 13sec, ISO10000

Remote Trigger- to remove any camera shake when the shutter is depressed. If you have one this is good but you can also use the delayed timer on your camera, I have both but tend to use my delayed timer at 2sec just because it's sometimes quicker & easier to setup (I'm always in a rush). The delayed timer allows you to press the shutter & move your hand away before the photo is taken. 

Camera- the best camera is the one you have with you; phone, point & shoot, dSLR or anything in between can capture an aurora. 

A fast wide angle lens is great for capturing the full width of the aurora. The wider the better, mine is a f/2.8, 11mm lens. Fast relates to how big the aperture (the f number) is on the lens. The aperture lets light onto the camera sensor, the bigger the aperture (the smaller number, just to confuse you) the more light is let in and the faster the shutter speed can be. Faster shutter speeds 'freeze' the aurora action & make any movement & the aurora beams more defined rather than smoothed out over a longer shutter speed. An aperture of f/1.4 is the ultimate but you'll pay big money for that lens. But really, just work with what you have. 

Fishing Crib, Poolburn Dam, Central Otago- 21/2/21
f/2.8, 20sec, ISO10000

Focus is really important and often the hardest thing to achieve. Remember it's pitch black out there and your auto focus ain't going to work. If you have an infinity focus setting use this, it's the small figure eight symbol on it's side. 

Otherwise there are a couple of other options; during daylight auto focus on a far away tree or building, then move your lens carefully onto manual focus & don't touch it again, it's set ready to take an aurora shot. Tape it in that position if you have too (this only works if you have a separate lens). 

During darkness you can use your camera's back viewing screen and zoom in on a bright star, manually focus on this and then don't touch the focus again. But do keep checking your photos out through the course of the evening, it's quite common to knock the focus and there's nothing worse than getting home & finding the majority of your photos are out of focus. 

In my hurry to capture the aurora going crazy behind the cottages (read stumbling through a tangled garden to get to a high point) I bumped my focus & didn't recheck it until after the activity had died down.  My 'million dollar shot' was ruined. Click the photo to enlarge to check it out.

Night Sky Cottages, Twizel, Mackenzie Country- 20/3/21
f/2.8, 4 sec, ISO6400

Below is how sharp the above photo should have been. And here you can also see the difference in settings, the moon that highlighted the cottage in the above photo had just about disappeared behind the mountains & the brightness of the aurora has died down so the settings on the photo below have increased to let more light in.

Night Sky Cottages, Twizel, Mackenzie Country- 20/3/21
f/2.8, 8 sec, ISO10000

For better quality & more detail, shoot your photo files in RAW if possible. Even a combination of Jpegs & RAW is good if you're not sure how to process RAW files. At least you'll have something to work on as you get better skilled at processing photo files.

The Big One- 28/5/17, Oreti Plains, Southland
f/2.8, 13sec, ISO1600

Now the actual settings;

Switch your camera to manual. Sorry but auto won't cut the mustard this time. This is all about the exposure triangle, one of the most important things you can learn about photography. Aperture- Shutter Speed- ISO. The art is in balancing all three to get the right exposure of the shot.

The following settings will depend on the brightness of the aurora & whether there's a moon or not (or any other light) and are an average only. You'll need to experiment & adjust to suit the night.

ISO 6400 -12800
You can go higher but this can introduce more 'noise', that grainy effect you see on low light photos.)

Shutter Speed- 10-30 seconds
The darker the night the longer the shutter speed. The longer the shutter speed the more smoothed out the scene will be. And you'll also have the beginning of star trails.

Aperture- as already mentioned the wider (small number) the better. My lens is f/2.8. You want to let in as much light as possible, it's pretty dark out there even when there's pesky moonlight illuminating the scene.

And that's it, click away! Oh more thing, make sure you have a full battery &/or a spare. Night photography draws a lot of battery, you don't want to run out right in the middle of a great show. 

Oreti Plains, Southland- 22/4/17
f/2.8, 6sec, ISO1000


If you've shot in Jpegs you're good to go.

If you've shot in RAW you'll need to process the files. RAW files are like the negatives of film cameras. They need work done to them to bring out the scene you have captured (in other words they need to be developed). This is an art in itself and can take quite a bit of learning with lots of trial & error especially with night shots. And just when you think you have it covered the next aurora will be completely different & you'll have to start all over again. I use Lightroom 99% of the time, Photoshop occasionally and there are also other photo processing programmes out there that specialize in astrophotography.

Round Bush, Lake Ohau, Mackenzie Country- 13/3/21
And even when you haven't quite got that clear view looking south
 give it a go. You may surprise yourself.
f/2.8, 10sec, ISO16000

Before we move on to the aurora sites to follow, there's one last item...

Aurora etiquette 

You'd think that it's a big wide world out there and there would be plenty of places to view an aurora from and have the place to yourself. And sometimes you can find those places but more often than not & especially once you start following the aurora pages you'll learn that there are certain locations where it is very popular to watch and photograph the aurora from. 

There is really only one tip but it's the most important etiquette tip of all. Do not make light.

The Big One- 28/5/17, SH6, Winton, Southland
Headlights of an approaching vehicle & taillights illuminated the roadside vegetation. 
f/2.8, 68sec, ISO4000

Please don't go driving into the location with your lights blazing. You will most certainly get the glare from others already there. Have your camera set up & clothing/jackets/drink bottle etc orgainised as much as possible before you leave so you're not shining torches or need your inside car light on as you fumble about locating your gear.

The Big One- 28/5/17, Winton, Southland
Headlights left on as the car occupants checked out the action which was clearly visible
 to traffic on the highway (luckily the shot wasn't too bad, the light illuminating the foreground) 

f/2.8, 5sec, ISO5000

Turn your park lights on if you need to see & drive very carefully as there will be photographers already standing with their tripods shooting the aurora. Turn you car's inside light off before you open the door so you don't flood the area with light. Any artificial light will ruin their shots especially if they are doing a timelapse of the aurora which can run from a few minutes to a few hours. 

Bright lights also destroy your night vision and those around you too (night vision can take 15-20 minutes to regain, longer if you have older eyes). You risk missing out on actually seeing that aurora with the naked eye while waiting for your night vision to return.

The Big One- 28/5/17, Winton, Southland
f/2.8, 4sec, ISO3200

Leave your cellphone in the car. It's light, including the flash, is the biggest destroyer of all.

Turn your camera's back display screen down as low as you can or off, believe me it's really bright when you are out there on a dark night, even when you might have the place to yourself. It'll not only ruin other's photos it'll blind you to what activity is going on around you. Like the possum that tootled past brushing my tripod one night.

Disable your camera's flash, turn it off before you get to your location. It has no purpose at all in aurora photography.

Wear a head torch (on very low beam or on red is better), face away from the aurora to use it and use it sparingly. Photographers are usually very friendly but don't go bowling up to them with your head torch shining brightly into their eyes and camera asking for tips.

I'm sure you've now got the message- Do Not Make Light

ETA- here's what can happen when you flood the scene with vehicle headlights, this happened to me a couple of days after I wrote this blog at the Tekapo River in Mackenzie Country.

Riverbed rocks highlighted by the headlights

What it should have looked like- Tekapo River- 17/04/21
f/2.8, 13sec, ISO16000

One final tip, look for items that shouldn't be in the scene, like powerlines (click to enlarge).

And also make sure you check your back screen display once you have captured a couple of shots,
check for items that shouldn't be in the shot, things like powerlines! (see above photo)
And especially if you have a wide angle lens which covers a large area.
22/4/17, Winton, Southland, f/2.8, 10sec, ISO1000

Sites to follow

And now for those sites to follow. This is not a comprehensive list by any means but the ones I follow and find very handy. You may need to do a bit of homework to understand some of what they are reporting (I can't hand it all to you on a plate) but at least you'll have something to work on. 


Aurora Australis- New Zealand CURRENT ALERTS

This site is not for chit-chat, don't go asking questions on it. It's purely for people to post photos or screen shots of an aurora as it is happening live. This is the page that will send you a notification that an aurora is happening right now (if you have your notifications set to on).

Aurora Australis

This is the sister site to the Current Alert site, it is for posting photos, asking questions or anything else to do with the aurora and is great for seeing what people are doing & where they have been. 

New Zealand Aurora Australis Group

Another site with some great information, check out the 'Guides' tab for how to info & where to view locations for different areas.

Shellie Evans Photography

Like & follow my photography page, I'll post a message whenever I know an aurora is imminent. I can't guarantee it but I'll do my best. Sometimes there is very little notice & I'm too busy 'Out There' doing my own aurora chasing. 


Aurora Australis Forecast

Learn about solar wind speed & Kp numbers, the higher the Kp number the stronger the aurora. The Kp number measures the strength of the aurora. It runs from 0 (very weak) to 9, which indicates a major geomagnetic storm with strong auroras. Anything above Kp5 is classed as a geomagnetic storm. And remember to convert the time to NZ, it's shown in UTC (Universal Time) 

Aurora Australis Forecast #2

This is also a great website to check out, once you navigate around all the advertising.

And finally

Here is the link to the blog I wrote about The Big One, the aurora I've mentioned several times through this blog- An Absolutely Amazing Aurora

The Big One- a quick grab somewhere on the road to Riverton, Southland
Two photos stitched together, Invercargill city light glow on the left.
Even with an 11mm lens it's sometimes still not wide enough to capture a full aurora
28/5/17- f/2.8, 6sec, ISO4000

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Waikawa & Cathedral Caves- Catlins


Our next camp on our whistle-stop tour through the Catlins was at the NZMCA Park at Waikawa just a few kilometres from Curio Bay. 

Curio Bay & the Petrified Forest

I have tried several times over the years to catch a good sunrise from Curio Bay and just as I've done in the past, I was out the gate early and up at the lookout platform well before sun up. The cloud cover didn't look promising but you never can tell what it'll do and Murphy's Law suggests that if you don't drag your butt out of bed, it'll be the most magnificent sunrise you'd have seen in weeks. 

So there I was in pre-dawn gloom patiently waiting as the cloud slowly thickened up overhead and when I finally saw a golden glow appear on the horizon I sighed in disappointment, one more Catlins sunrise covered in cloud. Although once I processed the photos they didn't look too bad. And it was my only chance, the next two days were grey & overcast.

I drove over to the Curio Bay/Porpoise Bay Headland lookout afterwards & took a few more photos as the sun rose steadily behind the cloud cover. I didn't spend too much time there though as I wanted to see if there were any Hoiho/Yellow-eyed Penguins heading out to sea for the day. I've had several fantastic encounters with Hoiho in both bays but, although I heard them calling, none made an appearance this morning.

On the way back to camp, I stopped near the middle of Porpoise Bay to check for any Hector Dolphins in the wave line. All I found this time were several Red-billed gulls doing their morning ablutions in the stream. 

So with no luck on the bird & mammal front I hunted out some inanimate subjects; the jetty at Waikawa Wharf...

...and the old boat shed.

I made one more stop on the main road as I was heading home. To take a photo looking across the Waikawa River to the NZMCA Camp. This end of the river is very popular for whitebaiting, the old caravan on the slope below the park is a fisherman's hut.  

The NZMCA Park hasn't changed too much since our first visit 7-8 years ago; the front section has been graveled to cater for the ever increasing membership and parking sites are marked out on the perimeter fence (both of these my top two per hates about our parks!). I couldn't get over how much the planted native bush had grown, you could very nearly get lost in there. And the best thing? Technology had finally come to the park courtesy of a nearby cell tower. We had no problem getting internet reception this visit. 

We headed back to Curio Bay late one afternoon picking up Fish 'n Chips from the iconic Blue Cod Caravan in the village. Unfortunately it was frozen blue cod, not fresh as I was hoping, but tasty nonetheless.  

While we waited for our order I took more photos of St Mary's Anglican Church which is opposite the caravan. I do already have photos of this church but you never know the weather could be better in this shot so I always take the opportunity of adding to my pile of church photos.

It was a lovely summer's afternoon with a lot of visitors & swimmers making the most of the waves in Porpoise Bay.

On the other side of the headland we sat on the edge of the cliff above Curio Bay & ate our fish and chips as the waves surged in and out over the rocky platform far below.

It's quite mesmerising watching the waves come & go; crashing over the rocks and spreading out in a large white frothy fans, straightening out the long tangles of bull kelp and then dragging it all back over the edge shortly afterwards. Only for it to be repeated again on the next surge.

Access to the headland between the bays is through the Curio Bay Campground, where many of the sites are tucked into clearings between thick rows of large flax. There are a handful of small sites right...

...on the edge of a small cliff overlooking Curio Bay. It's a fab site with fantastic views but I wonder how many wake in the middle of the night wondering where the heck they are and then when they remember, wondering how safe they are as they hear waves crashing in on high tide just below their vans. 

We drove to the other end of Curio Bay, to where I had come for the sunrise shot, to check if there might be any Hoiho coming home with dinner for their chicks. 

Again, we'd seen several penguins crossing the Petrified Forest platform on one of our previous visits and while we could see the guano on several of the rocky ledges, no penguins made an appearance this time, either arriving home or chicks checking for their parents return. It was going to be no Yellow-eyed Penguins for me on this visit, I hope it was just the timing and not another worrying sign of their steady decline.

From Waikawa we also did a 30km trip up the coast to visit the Cathedral Caves again. We were going to pass the caves the next day as we moved further north, but it was easier leaving the 5th-wheeler parked up at the Park than tow it into the Caves carpark. 

The carpark is at the end of a 2km narrow single lane gravel track through native bush where it's just about impossible to pass if you meet a vehicle coming in the opposite direction. Having said that we were surprised to see a 5th-wheeler in the car park when we got back from the walk. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

The Cathedral Caves are open two hours before low tide & one hour after so plan well in advance if  you are wanting to visit. You can check their website for opening hours & tide times (keep in mind that internet & cell phone reception is very patchy in the Catlins). The gate is firmly shut outside open hours. 

There's a 1km walk downhill to the beach through lovely native bush...

...and then along the beach to the caves, so a reasonable fitness is required (especially for the slog back up hill afterwards). Although check this photo out! One of our neighbours at the camp made it to the caves with the help of her Zimmer frame and a very patient husband who helped push it through the sand once they were on the beach. 

Cathedral Caves are located in cliffs at the northern end of Waipati Beach, a beautiful long golden sand beach. The two sea-formed caves, whose entrances are 40 metres apart are joined at the rear and measure about 200metres in length in total. They are up to 30 metres in height.

Over tens of thousands of years, crashing waves have gouged out the cliffs of 160 million year old sandstone. Near vertical fractures in the sandstone provided weak points for the waves to slowly dismantle the sandstone faces. Over time the overhanging rocks collapsed creating the caves we see today.

On this visit we were able to get around the point of the cliffs in between the waves and onto the next beach. This was the first time this area had been accessible for a few weeks due to the rough sea conditions according to the lady looking after the carpark & ticket hut. It was obviously going by the kelp attached to the bottom of the cliffs how much time the rock wall spent under water.

Knowing that we had walked around the point as the tide was still dropping, we walked right to the far end of the beach and back.

It was a bit disconcerting to see people still rounding the point and heading off up the beach when we were jumping waves to get back to the caves on our way back. 

We spent a bit of time checking out the few rock pools, some stranded on small platforms a few meters up off the ground. This hermit crab had a very old and unusual shell that looked have had a tough life with the gaps between the ridges worn down to leave spikes. I wonder how many habitants it had had over the years. We placed this one back in his crystal clear pool, hidden under a ledge, as there were a few people  also checking out the pools and we'd disturbed him enough. 

And then it was time to head back along the beach followed by the slow haul back up the path to the carpark. 

We had one more stop for the day, back down the main road a little way and up a side road to one of the many fabulous waterfalls in the Catlins; McLean Falls. The road in is gravel with a downhill section and sharp corner towards the end above the large carpark. 

It was pleasing to see that this section was being widened and the sharp corner cut off to allow bigger vehicles to easily drive in. You can tow your caravans & 5th-wheelers in there now without worrying about getting back out. We found out from the stop/go guy that quite a number of tour buses had been having issues climbing back up the hill around the sharp corner.

One thing I remember vividly of the falls on our first visit to the Catlins- which was also one of first areas we visited when we came to the South Island (and not long after we hit the road fulltime)- was the luxuriant & intense green ferns & mosses that carpeted the forest floor and draped off every available branch overhead as we walked to the falls.    

I can confirm that nothing has changed. The walk & the falls were just as I remembered them, none of the gloss had diminished even though I've now seen & photographed many, many more waterfalls & bush walks.

McLean Falls, Catlins

And with not many tourists visiting I had to be quick to capture this shot with some people in it to give the falls some perspective. You can also see why photographers enjoy slow shutter speeds when shooting water.