Saturday 27 May 2017

A Magnificent Sight- The Southern Lights


STOP PRESS- Please note this blog is about the aurora that I captured back in April, I was lucky enough to see the magnificent aurora that hit our skies two days ago on Sunday night (28/5). The photos from the latest aurora will blow you away! I'm working on that blog at the moment so check back soon.

From Queenstown we followed the family back to Winton to spend some time with them and it's where we've been, parked up in their driveway, ever since. Two days after arriving all the bells, whistles and alerts went off on my Aurora Australis Facebook page to say that due to the impressive solar activity happening around the sun, a massive aurora was about to hit our skies. Perfect timing! And in fact it turned out to be the best night of activity since the St Patrick's Day Aurora in 2015, over two years ago.

By 9pm on the night it was due, the Facebook page was being flooded with alerts and quick screen grabs from the back of cameras as members let others know that Lady Aurora, the Southern Lights, had arrived. I drove off into a pitch black moonless night following my compass needle as I crisscrossed the countryside looking for a clear view directly south with no light pollution. It didn't take me long to realise I should have done a recce trip during daylight hours as I turned left, right, left and right again as I reached the end of roads. 

I've also come to the conclusion that chasing an aurora all over the countryside in the middle of the freezing cold and very dark night is the easy part! Processing the photos is ten times harder. It's a bit like being a magician, everyone keeps their techniques to themselves once they've mastered the process. It's been bloody hard to work out the right processing to apply to my RAW files to get my photos looking even slightly like some I've seen on the Aurora Facebook page.

There are specialist programmes that help and obviously if you're obsessed chasers (as some are) then you'd have these programmes. I don't, so I did the best I could with the little bit of information I had gathered together from the internet. In the end I could spend no more time trying to fine tune the photos- I mean, I know I have heaps of time but these took way too much of it to get looking anything like what I've seen. Enjoy them anyway!

Once I'd weaved my way past numerous hedgerows, shelterbelts and lights from farm houses, a spectacular sight opened up before me; pale coloured pinkish light beams danced across the sky with a faint green glow at the base. 

I turned off the sealed road and onto a narrow gravel road and pulled up. I quickly set up my tripod and camera, luckily I had preset my settings as much as possible before I left because even with a head lamp, it's very hard to see things in the total darkness. I then clicked away using different shutter speeds ranging from 5 to 25 seconds, which also meant I was able to watch the magical spectacle playing in front of me while I waited for the shutter to close.

The lights danced across the sky, bouncing back and forth and reaching high up into the heavens and while I couldn't see the outline of the clouds (like here in the photos) with my naked eye, I could see that there was something blocking the show low on the horizon. Unfortunately in the deep south the clouds spoilt a clear view, further north in the MacKenzie and around Dunedin, they had a clear sky. 

Also, as you can see in some of the photos above, a few cars interrupted the darkness as they drove towards me.

These two photos (above and below) have been processed a little too heavily, the beams are more red than they should be, 'correctly' processed they would be a cerise colour. 

The light beams stopped playing after a time although the green glow shone bright and clear. I thought I'd carry on and see if I could find another dark place. I headed back towards Winton and turned west again finding the one and only bridge for miles to cross to the other side of the Oreti River. I hadn't allowed for the fog that lay thick over the river and was now tumbling out and over the farmland and nearby roads. I had to drive for quite a distance before I had another clear view south.

And that's when I spotted a huge beam pointing towards the heavens. 'Bloody spot light' I thought, as I turned onto another dark gravel road, with the beam shining bright, dead ahead of me.    

I soon found out (by checking the aurora Facebook feed on my phone) that it was no spotlight, that it was a rare and very visible proton arc. Proton arcs are caused not by electrons but by more massive protons that bombard the Earth's atmosphere following an energetic event on the sun.

The arc is a beam of light separate from the usual dancing lights of the aurora and as you can see in the photo below it was quite a bit west of the actual aurora, one of the reasons I thought it was a spotlight. It was also so black 'Out There', a spotlight made some sense. And while you're looking, how awesome is that night sky with millions of tiny stars twinkling away.

I waited for a short while to see if the aurora beams started playing again. The fog soon caught up with me so I headed north up the sealed road and away from the approaching fog. I had a vague idea of where I was and knew that eventually I'll meet up with the Ohai road and be able to head back into Winton from the north end of town. Once I cleared the wisps of fog I stopped again to check the lights, taking a few shots and waiting patiently for the beams to re-appear.

I had no idea I'd parked beside a paddock full of munching, mooing, burping, farting, peeing and plopping cows! Have you any idea how often they pee and poo, it was continuous and this was 11pm at night, don't they sleep? I also wondered how they manage to find clean grass to eat around with so much poop on the ground. 

I was there for about 10 minutes and the noises never stopped. It's really weird when you can't see the cows but can hear them breathing and snorting right beside you (it's as black as the ace of spades out there, hard to believe when you look at these photos). Some of them must have come up to the fence to check me out. If you look closely at the photo below you can see cow shapes in the paddock.

With no beams and the fog approaching again, I headed towards Winton, back over the Oreti River and then down a back road along the rear of the town. And that's when I saw the beams dancing across the sky again. Beams like these are known as the 'Picket Fence'. I turned up another quiet road just out of town and quickly found a reasonably clear view across the paddocks. It wasn't until the next day that I saw where I'd parked, across from the settlement ponds at the waste treatment station! No wonder there were no houses nearby!

Unfortunately it's not as clear a view as I thought. I forgot that my wide angle lens takes in far too much area, not only ahead of me but above me too! There is no excuse for having powerlines in a shot, I should have checked above me with my torch. But I was just too keen to get some shots before the beams stopped dancing again. 

But still, I'm happy, it was an awesome experience and I finally manage to capture the Lady of the Lights playing and watch the spectacle too. And all in much more detail than my first viewing at Tairei Mouth back in March. It's just a pity she hasn't made another appearance or two during the last 5 weeks while we've been here in Winton.

And to continue with the theme of bad processing, here's a very short movie of the lights 'playing'. These were consecutive photos that I made into a short (blink and you'll miss it) clip so you can see how the beams dance across the sky. And remember I did say bad.

Just an update also on the email subscription glitch - I'm still having issues, but at least some of you are now receiving the email notification (welcome back to those that thought I'd gone on holiday.....wait.....I am on holiday, one long holiday!) But I'm aware that a few are still not receiving them, so I've added a new bit of programming to the feed 'string' for this blog and I'll see where that goes once I post the blog. Bear with me.


  1. Beautiful, magnificent photos Shellie, I had goosebumps reading it. I love your cow description :)
    I haven't received an email yet?

    1. Thanks again Carol, this blog is a little deflated now that I've experienced the best of the best! Cows have a lot to answer for ;)

  2. Replies
    1. Bet you loved the next blog photos even more! :) Thanks for commenting.

  3. A brilliant blog and a even better photos, a real treat for us both luv Mr & Mrs Brown.

    1. This one seems a little flat now that I've seen the best of the best! Hope you enjoyed the next one just as much.

  4. Brilliant Shellie, you really do live life in the RAW, and your prose is just as colourfull.
    Top marks for commitment persistence and darn good entertainment......once again!
    Cheers J&C

    1. Hey there Jimu, hope you enjoyed the next sighting just as much. Thanks for stopping by with your quirky humour! Take care.


Thank you for taking the time to leave a message, I love reading them! All comments are personally moderated by me and I will post and answer them as soon as possible, Shellie