Friday 30 April 2021

Perfect Purakaunui- Catlins


The DOC camp at Purakaunui Bay is our next stop as we travel north through the Catlins.

Along the way, we stop at the Florence Hill Lookout for morning tea. The lookout overlooks the coastline which includes beautiful Tautuku Bay, where the native bush reaches right down to the edge of the dunes. This is one of the most well known & iconic views you'll see as you travel the Catlins. You can access the beach from a narrow track through the bush at the bottom of the hill, we've done this on one of our previous Catlins trips.

Our destination, Purakaunui Bay, is famous for being one of the locations for the film The Chronicles of Narnia; the Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe. The towering bluffs along the north side of the bay were used in the film.

Although we've visited the bay before we've not stayed at the DOC camp (it's a basic camp with long-drop facilities). The camping area is large with several areas to park in, although the ground is quite lumpy and can be very boggy even in the middle of summer. There are a few gravel areas beside the road where you can park if you don't want to venture onto the grass. 

There's also a couple of grass patches where smaller vans or tents can camp closer to the beach. You do have to drive along the sand to access these areas though.

Once you turn off the Purakaunui Falls Road, there's 6kms of gravel road to travel to reach Purakaunui Bay, the last kilometre is very narrow & one way so proceed cautiously. We find that if you travel these roads late morning or early afternoon you'll usually miss the campers coming out that have stayed overnight or the day trippers heading home in the late afternoon. 

I say 6kms of gravel but that doesn't include the 8kms or so on the Purakaunui Falls Road once you leave the main highway at the Catlins River Estuary. This is the better road to take if you're coming from either direction, the others are also gravel, hilly & winding.

We stayed in early February and there weren't too many campers about. Unlike the January day when I visited several years ago when every available space was taken up by tents & motorhomes. 

The Purakaunui River past the camp & out to sea 

We arrived early afternoon and managed to park in one of the better spots, overlooking the beach and beside a small creek that joins the river, so no one could crowd us out.  

The road ends at the top of a hill just past the camp & overlooking the beach. I don't think many campers realise that the area at the top is also part of the camp and you can park up there too. 

A short vehicle track leads to a couple of reasonably flat areas that overlook the bay in one direction... 

...and the lower camp in the other.

I had seen a few vehicles drive through the camp and up the hill, and then return to park up. They probably thought they weren't allowed to stay up the top as there are no signs there but when I saw a DOC worker camped there, I checked the info board out to see that the area was included in the camp boundaries. 

I was actually a bit peeved off with the DOC guy to be honest as he had set up his tent in the one clear area I had sussed out the day before, for a sunrise shot. I felt a bit creepy tiptoeing around his tent the next morning trying not to make the grass crackle as I tried to shoot the sunrise. 

So I wandered further up the hill and when I returned he was up and had his billy on. I had a chat with him while he made his breakfast. He was on a week long job in the Catlins and while there was a nearby DOC house he could stay in, he preferred to camp here. And you can see why, what a view to wake up to.

Other campers had made their way to the beach to watch the sunrise, one person meditating, another doing yoga while others just stood in awe and watched the bay fill with beautiful colour & light.  

Many more had no idea what they were missing; by far the best part of the day!

The love bird couple in this tent probably thought all their Christmases had come at once when they secured the perfect spot right on the edge overlooking the beach. 


They went out for the day as we did too and when we returned later in the afternoon, a huge squall had blown through and obliterated their gazebo with all the piping buckled & bent and no sign of the top. There was broken china, upended chairs, clothes & shoes scattered far & wide. 

We offered them cups & plates to use but they made do with the remnants. I guess they won't do that again in a hurry, luckily their tent stayed in one piece although a few of the guy wires had come loose.  

The Purakaunui River flows out alongside the camp and across the beach to the sea. The tannin stained water provided the perfect place for the Red-billed Gulls to partake in their daily ablutions. 

It was fun to sit and watch them as they called to & squabbled amongst each other as they lined up to take the next available space when one departed. One gull in particular spent ages having a bath, getting annoyed at another one when it sat too close in front of him and finally leaving with a hop, skip & jump. 

Of course a visit to the Purakaunui Bay is not complete without a visit to the Purakaunui Falls, another top tourist attraction in the Catlins. We've been before, actually twice, but I enjoy visiting places more than once, you never know the different conditions you can find from visit to visit. And especially waterfalls as the flow can change dramatically. 

On this day there was a mediocre flow but with a slow shutter speed & my tripod (which I don't usually cart with me on walks, preferring to shoot on the run) I managed some half decent shots. And a bonus was that there were very few tourists crowding out the platform jostling for a clear spot & I didn't have to contend with people down on the rocks in front having in-depth discussions or their picnic lunch! One day I'll catch the falls in full flood. Now that would be a sight.

On the day of the squall we drove around to Jacks Bay to check for sealions. There hadn't been any haul ashore at Purakaunui while we'd been there, or none that I could see.

Jacks Bay cliffs are similar to Purakauni Bay

We'd seen a few at Jacks Bay before but not on this day, the beach was bare. So we took a right at the end of the road on the way out and headed to the outlet on the south side of the Catlins River Estuary. Again there was nothing about other than a couple of people gathering shellfish.

We turned around and headed for home looking for a lunch spot along the estuary & out of the wind. We pulled into a small clearing & when I scanned the sand dunes with the binoculars I saw what I thought was a sealion. I rugged up- it had turned cold- and trudged through the dunes in the gale force wind with stinging sand whipping my bare legs. 

As I got close this big old fella with his rheumy eyes & gummy mouth lifted his head to look at me.

I'm sure he was thinking "Where the heck did you come from?" as he looked from side to side & rose up onto his hind flippers. He did a couple of shuffles and then thought better of it and collapsed back into a heap on the sand & closed his eyes. I headed off back to the ute, now fighting the wind and sand head on while trying to keep my camera out of harms way, tucked into my jacket. You can see the sand flying past the front of the sealion in the photos. 

Back at the camp there was excitement down on the beach. Not only had two sealions hauled out onto the beach while we were out but one of them, a large male had chased a couple & their two children across the beach at a very fast pace and they had been quite terrified by the encounter. Those are his 'running' track marks below. In the background is another camper being very careful how close she got to him- the dark patch at the end of the tracks- to take photos.

He obviously wasn't too worried, he was soon fast asleep oblivious to the terror he'd inflicted, that's him bottom right.  I walked to the far end of the beach to check out the other large male dozing in a lump of seaweed (below left & top right).

And then in the rocks at the top of the bay where I located a female sealion, she's barely visible & hiding as best she can from marauding males. Males are relentless in their pursuit at this time of the year, they chase females trying to round them up into harems. Except on the mainland there aren't that many females so they can be the target of many males. 

Females are a third of the size of a fully grown male, they are also a creamy beige or grey colour whereas males are brown and have rough hair manes (hence the sealion name). Can you see her? Click the photo to enlarge. 

Perhaps this was why the first male wasn't happy to share his beach with humans, he was hunting for his female. I quietly backed off and left her to her hiding spot. 

Wednesday 14 April 2021

Aurora Chasing for Beginners

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), 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. Do not use any red light, they are great if you're an astronomer but no good at all if you are an astrophotographer. You could use a small torch and use your hand as a shade cupped around it.

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 (NZ)

This is the site for checking in on what is happening each night, 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. Look for Les' daily report on predictions for the coming night. You're also likely to get notifications of solar storms & alerts as they happen, as long as contributors are not out there capturing their own photos. 

Shellie Evans Photography

Like & follow my photography page, I'll post a message when I think there's a decent aurora due. 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. 


Glendale App Aurora Alerts New Zealand

This is a great app to check out and my go to for alerts & real time graphs & gauges. after the Aurora Australis NZ Facebook page, once you navigate around all the advertising.

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 often shown in UTC (Universal Time) 


This one has a great KP-index indicator.

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

Auroras since writing the blog;

Spectacular Aurora- 4/11/21, Lake Ruataniwha, Twizel
f/2.8, 5sec, ISO8000

Spectacular Aurora- 4/11/21, Lake Ohau, Mackenzie Country
f/2.8, 15sec, ISO12800

Spectacular Aurora- 4/11/21, Lake Ohau, Mackenzie Country
f/2.8, 10sec, ISO12800

An impressive STEVE beam (Strong Thermal Emissions Velocity Enhancement) Looking west
Spectacular Aurora- 4/11/21, Lake Ruataniwha, Twizel

f/2.8, 6sec, ISO12800

An impressive STEVE beam (Strong Thermal Emissions Velocity Enhancement) Looking East
Spectacular Aurora- 4/11/21, Lake Ruataniwha, Twizel

f/2.8, 6sec, ISO12800

Poolburn Dam, Central Otago 27/02/22
f/2.8, 8sec, ISO16000

Lake Ruataniwha, Twizel 14/03/22
f/2.8, 8sec, ISO16000

Just before dawn blue hour & fog over Kellands Pond, Twizel, 14/03/22
f/2.8, 15sec, ISO12800

And the ultimate & a trip of a lifetime for an aurora chaser;
My blog post here- Flight to the Lights- April 1/2, 2022
More photos from the flight here-  Southern Lights Photo Album

Flight to the Lights, Southern Ocean 1/2 April 2022
f/2.8, 2.5sec, ISO10000