Sunday, 4 June 2017

Absolutely Amazing Aurora

Real-time 

How exciting is this! A week ago today and two nights before we left Southland, the most amazing mind-blowing aurora lit up the southern skies. And I was lucky enough to have a front row seat....well nearly front row, Winton is probably about 3 rows back.

And what was that I said about not being bitten by the aurora chasing bug? This was too good an opportunity to miss; this was what I've been waiting three years to see.

The Aurora Facebook page members had been on high alert all afternoon as the Kp number soared and the Solar Wind Gauge needles went beserk. 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. It mostly sits at around a benign Kp1 to Kp3 but on Sunday afternoon, May 28th, the Kp was a very strong Kp7 to 8.

Of course nothing could be seen during daylight hours, so all fingers were crossed as we waited in anticipation, hoping it would carry on into the evening. With a clear cloudless sky and an early setting moon due, the scene was set for the perfect night to view the Southern Lights.

I kept one eye on the Aurora Alert page and the other out the door as the sun headed for the horizon. When I couldn't wait any longer, around 6pm, I gathered up my gear and headed out into the fading twilight. Winton unfortunately is very flat and quite featureless but I drove around to the sports field I'd checked out earlier in the afternoon, I knew it had a clear view to the south. I could have cried when I saw that a neighbour had set fire to a huge pile of shelterbelt trimmings and thick grey smoke was wafting across my south view. So much for doing a recce trip.

I carried on down a backroad until a gap opened up between shelterbelts. I set up the tripod and camera in the light of the 'blue hour' and watched as an unusual shaped cloudy white formation came into view, reaching out across the paddock towards me. Darn. Fog I thought, as I took a shot.

I checked the Live View on the back of my camera and to my astonishment a pale green 'starfish' came to life. Oh my giddy-aunt! This was indeed an aurora! If I have one big tip for photographers new to capturing the lights, never, ever assume what you're seeing isn't an aurora until after you've taken a shot or two.

The green waves rolled across the horizon and the 'pinwheel' looked like it was spinning on it's axis, a bit like those fairground rides with the seats on the end of each arm. I watched in awe not quite believing what I was seeing and wishing I had someone to share this spectacular sight with. Instead, all I got was a dozy possum wandering past. He stopped to glance in my direction and bolted off into the undergrowth when I said hello.


The reason it's taken so long to bring you this post is because once again it's been a long and slow task processing the photos. This wasn't helped by having a couple of hundred shots to check and finding that most of them were extraordinary! It was like watching the aurora all over again in slow-mo. Thanks to a few more processing tips offered by a member of the Aurora Facebook page I also managed the processing a little better than last time. 

These first few shots were taken in the blue hour hence the sky is a lot....well, bluer. But remember the camera sensor sees the intense colours that the naked eye doesn't. I've included a couple of 'naked eye' shots further down to keep things in perspective. I just know that there will be people out there who'll be extremely disappointed when they set their sights on seeing an aurora that looks like the many beautiful photos on the internet and in the media. 

Anyway, enough of the talk, here are a few of my favourite captures (with short explanations as I move around the Winton area). Sit back and enjoy, and watch for the shooting stars.

As the waves settled and 'arms' dispersed, an intense lime green rose above the horizon...


And then sparkling beams broke through and shot up into the heavens...


Here's a 'naked eye' view of the photo above. There was just a hint of green and a tinge of pink, but the swirls and movement, and the beams were very clear to the eye. 


Fog (real fog) started moving across the paddock from the nearby river so I headed away, looking for another clear view. I'd only moved a short distance when the sky lit up again. I quickly stopped and took more photos...


This time a curtain of cerise tinged beams reached from one side of the aurora to the other; far too wide for my wide angle lens (11mm) to capture. One of the downsides of being so close to the bottom of the South Island. To the left...


And the right. The fog also caught up with me.


I waited for the beams to quieten down a little before heading off again, along dark back country roads towards Riverton. I could see the aurora out the front window as I drove and when the beams stepped it up another notch, there was nothing for it but to pull onto the verge and shoot some more. 


Here's another 'naked eye' view of the aurora playing in front of me, the colour was now quite visible.


And here is a poor panoramic of the aurora- two photos stitched together. Have you ever tried to take consecutive photos, on a tripod, keeping the camera on the same plain when it's pitch black and you can see very little through the viewfinder? I really need to do some practice. I am in awe of astrophotogs, theirs is a tough row to hoe.  The orange light on the horizon is the glow from Invercargill city.


I decided that if I went any further, I'd likely miss more of the aurora and then not have time to find an ideal place on the coast near Riverton so I reluctantly turned around and headed back towards the main road and Winton. The aurora sparked off again as I neared Winton, I could actually see the beams dancing in my rear-vision mirror. I pulled over into a large lay-by on the main road. In my excitement I left the side lights on. This photo captured my tail lights and the beam of cars approaching.


The aurora once again stepped up another notch, bouncing across the sky in all it's splendour and in full view of approaching traffic from the north. I couldn't help but wonder if any of the cars actually saw what was happening in front of them. I wanted to shout out 'Stop. Look, look at this magnificent sight!'


Unfortunately vehicle headlights kept disrupting my shots so it was time to move again.


I ended up at a familiar spot, parked beside the Winton settlement ponds again, where I'd watched the last aurora 6 weeks ago. Here's another pano after the beams had settled a little.  Isn't that green just delicious. You can also see that blasted fog creeping in from the right again.


It wasn't long before the sky lit up. This aurora just keeps on giving. And I failed to see that there's a security light on a building behind me and across the road, it's lighting up the foreground. You don't actually see this in real life, it's quite dark but of course the slow shutter speed (4secs here) lets in all the light.


This time the beams rolled back and forward across the sky for a very long time. It was a truly amazing spectacle and once again I wished someone was there to share it with me. As the beams sparked and jumped into the heavens, I even shouted out to the nearby cows, 'WOW, did you see that?!"


Though, word had obviously got around that there was an 'once in a life-time' aurora happening because vehicles kept pulling up behind me AND NOT TURNING THEIR LIGHTS OFF! They'd stay for a few minutes and then head off again. Some didn't even bother to get out of the car! 


Now this one is a very bad pano but I mucked about with it too much to spend anymore time on it- the colours are a little too bright but at least you can see why this aurora was such a thrill to see.


And just when I thought I'd see it all, the curtain of beams dissolved and were replaced by several single bright beams shooting into the sky.


Some grew in size others died down. More cars arrived...and went.


I stayed on for awhile until the beams died down, and then it was time to head for home. For over three and a half hours I had an utterly amazing, magical and spectacular experience, viewing (and chasing) the beautiful Aurora Australis, the Southern Lights. May 28th, 2017 will be a night to remember for a very long time. It was also one of the best aurora nights many long term chasers had viewed as well. 

It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience (and a definite highlight) and I'm so happy it happened just before we left Winton. I think Him upstairs heard me bemoaning the fact that I hadn't seen a good aurora in six weeks- 'Let's put here out of her misery, one last fling and make it a good one', He said to Lady Aurora. I think I'm now well and truly hooked. 


And for those that want to capture an aurora, here's a few tips-



And just a note to let you know that I'll be off the grid for a few days so any comments or queries might not be answered straight away. 


12 comments:

  1. Excellent work Shelley, regards Les

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  2. I've seen it too, but didn't stay out as long. Reading and seeing your post is an absolutely pleasure and brings back the memories. Thank you!

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    1. Many thanks, glad you enjoyed the blog and reliving the awesome experience.

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  3. Fantastic.... can totally relate to the feeling of euphoria witnessing it.

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    1. Thanks and I'm glad someone else can relate to how exciting it was watching it light up the sky.

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  4. Just WoW!!! Thank you for sharing Shellie.

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    1. Thanks Carol, pleased you got to enjoy the aurora too.

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  5. That is absolutely fabulous. The inclusion of the naked eye shots is great. Enjoy your travels.

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    1. Many thanks, pleased you enjoyed the blog and the 'naked eye' view too. Keeps it more realistic.

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  6. Amazing shots..you were so lucky. I know folk turning up with headlights blaring is a pain but the effect of lighting the foreground looks good. Well done :)

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    1. Thanks Tim, it was a once in a lifetime experience and I'm so glad I saw it. Yes, I was rather pleased with those headlight shots too, it was lucky that I managed to get just as many without the lights though. On the next aurora photo shoot (yeah right) I'd like to do some light painting of suitable foreground subjects....like cows? :)

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Thanks for taking the time to comment, it's much appreciated.