The Southern Lights (otherwise known as the Aurora Australis) are a phenomenon that have been around since the dawn of time. They occur when the sun releases a massive burst of solar wind and charged particles which interact with the Earth's atmosphere to create a stunning display of coloured light in the night sky. The release of energy from the sun is known as a CME (coronal mass ejection). Auroras occur at high latitudes close to the poles, so the closer you are to either pole, the greater the chance of seeing a strong display, but when a very large geomagnetic storm (generally KP7 or higher) occurs they can even be seen closer to the Equator.
As the technology of digital cameras (and smartphones) and their sensitivity to shooting at night has improved, it's easier than ever before to capture the colours of the aurora. Unless it's a very strong display, you're unlikely to be able to see the colours with the naked eye, but the beams dancing across the sky can be easily visible as moving light, indicating the presence of an aurora.
In the northern hemisphere, the Aurora is known as Aurora Borealis, and it's often much easier to see strong displays due to the fact there are significantly more countries that sit at latitudes close to the Arctic Circle (i.e countries like Norway, Greenland, Iceland and Canada). But even here in New Zealand, we see some incredible displays, and I know that's why you're here... you want to know exactly how you can improve your chances of seeing this amazing natural light display!
The sun works on an 11 year cycle with periods of high activity peaking during each solar maximum, with the peak (or solar maximum) of the current cycle predicted to be between mid 2024 and mid 2025. Generally the 2 or so years either side of the peak will also generate good displays, although from time to time a large display can occur even during lower periods of activity.
So if you are reading this info anytime from 2023 - 2027, the chances are pretty good for you!
Certain times of year also coincide with stronger displays of aurora, particularly either side of the spring and autumn equinox (mid March and mid September). While there's always a chance of an aurora at any time of year, this seems to be when some of the larger displays tend to occur. In 2023, there was a significant Aurora Australis display on both 28 February and 24 April (so one month either side of the equinox).
The single biggest factor in capturing an aurora can be down to LUCK in timing because if the strongest display occurs during the day, it can easily fade by the time it gets dark. Or a strong display might occur during the strongest phase of the moon which washes out the display, or during a period of cloud where you can't even see the sky! So it's important to realise that a lot of different factors need to align before you even have a good chance of seeing it.
As someone who has chased the aurora around the South Island of New Zealand for the better part of 7 years before finally capturing a strong display, I can attest to all of these things hampering my success. In timing my chase, I've been one day too late arriving on a trip, one day too early leaving, spent hours driving around the South Island trying to find clear skies, you name it, it's happened. But in 2023, my luck finally changed and I've been able to see several significant displays this year, and as we head into the current solar maximum, there will be even better to come.
You can significantly increase your chances of success capturing an aurora by using the best apps and information so you are on the spot and ready to shoot when a display occurs. Often people get very fixated on the KP index number, but this is only one factor and it isn't even as important as understanding the more technical information. I use a number of different aurora apps on my phone, and they are all useful, but the one you REALLY need to use and understand is The Glendale App.
The Glendale App is not actually an app but looks and works like one if you download it on your phone (there's also a desktop version). All the other apps work in a slightly delayed timeframe, whereas the Glendale App gives real-time alerts that allow you to respond quickly. I cannot recommend this information enough. The information you need to pay most attention to is the Substorm graph- whenever this number is dropping to a large negative number this is a sign aurora activity is building. It's the most important figure in the app. The phases are Growth - the substorm is charging up, Expansion - when the energy is being released so this is when the aurora will be at its strongest, and Recovery - when it is fading. Here's an example from a period of significant activity taken from an Aurora Australis NZ Facebook update.
Combine this with the IMF at Earth graph. When you see numbers in the Now or Next that are highlighted in red and purple, that's a very good indication you should be out shooting the aurora, although you might still have a chance to see colour in the sky with yellow or orange, red/purple indicate the strongest activity.
In addition, getting real-time notifications via the Telegram app by subscribing to the Aurora Alerts UK channel will allow you to see when a display hits a RED or MAJOR alert indicating a very high level of activity is present, meaning you should have your butt outside by this point in position to shoot. Generally you'll see a lot of YELLOW alerts and can ignore these, but when the aurora is building quickly you'll get a fairly quick progression through ORANGE to RED to MAJOR. A major alert is going to give you the very best colour and height of the aurora visible in the sky.
The Aurora Forecast app was the main one I used before finding out about SpaceWeather and The Glendale App. It's quick and easy to understand and you can refresh and watch the dials and plug in the location where you are, or where you are interested in. Here's an example from the 24th April (the night I shot the big aurora). It's far more important to worry about what the dials say than looking at the KP Index. In this example all the dials are showing good numbers in the direction they need to be.
It's worth having this app as you'll get notifications of flares from the sun - these usually indicate an incoming solar storm, and it will often give you a day or so heads up that there could be some decent aurora activity on the way. There are various types of flares, and they work on a similar scale to the Richter scale for earthquakes, with each letter representing a ten-fold increase in energy output. So an X is 10 times an M and 100 times a C. If you see an X-class notification pop up then you know something big is on the way.
There are also lots of useful pages on the app around solar and auroral activity if you want to understand more about how activity comes about.
This group is run by Les Ladbrook based out of Invercargill, he has a wealth of experience in understanding and providing very useful daily reports and insights into predicted activity. It's also the place to see in real-time if others are having success while out shooting to give you an idea of whether anything is actually happening.
Often people will shoot images taken from the back of their camera to give you an idea of just how good the activity is. On a night where you already have some idea that the activity is good (from using the apps) it pays to keep an eye on what's happening in this group. It's also the best real-time indicator of whether anyone in your region or in NZ as a whole is having any luck.
My last tip here is to be responsive - things can change awfully quickly and the aurora will often take even the most seasoned aurora hunters by surprise when activity builds unexpectedly. So you do need to keep on top of the latest info rather than just relying on using one app or the Facebook daily updates as being gospel.
That's why having the notifications for Telegram and Space Weather turned on are super useful!
Clouds are not your friend
Of course cloudy skies can ruin any attempt to capture the aurora even during a night with incredible displays so luck still has to be on your side in this case!
The closer you get to the bottom of the South Island, the stronger the display will be. But it's actually just as important to also find a location that has a reasonably clear view facing south (or is at a high elevation) with little or no light pollution to ensure you have a good composition to capture.
Locations along the south coast such as Waipapa Point, and the beaches near Invercargill and Bluff all provide good opportunities.
The beach at Kaka Point or near Nugget Point lighthouse, Hoopers Inlet (Dunedin), Moke Lake (Queenstown), Meiklejohn's Jetty, Butchers Dam and the Queenstown waterfront or Coronet Peak are all good options facing south.
Canterbury / Mackenzie
Lake Ruataniwha is one of the best places in the Mackenzie as it faces due south and is a large body of water to be able to get reflections of the aurora, which further enhances the display.
The view from Mt John in Tekapo (678m elevation) gives you a high vantage point, and Lilybank Road on the eastern side of the Lake Tekapo will allow you to capture the aurorua with the lake in the scene enhancing the foreground.
Aoraki Mt Cook
If you are lucky enough to be staying up in a hut high above the valley floor, this is a prime location to capture the aurora, but even finding a location looking back down the Tasman valley towards Lake Pukaki will give you a good show.
If you are in Christchurch, the Port Hills or Lake Ellesmere provide good viewing opportunities, however due to the number of people who are likely to have the same idea and be out chasing the aurora, you're likely to have to compete for space and be prepared for people to have their lights on coming and going which can impact your ability to take a good shot.
The height of the mountains in Fiordland and how close you are to them can impact on finding good locations but I have seen plenty of good shots from Te Anau (along the lake edge or at Lake Henry in town) and further into Fiordland on the northern end of Lake Gunn also.
The West Coast is far more challenging because the height and proximity of the Southern Alps tends to block some of the viewing, however if you go further north you might be able to see a good display from one of the lakes like Lake Kaniere or a coastal location like Punakaiki.
The jetty at Lake Rotoiti in the Nelson Lakes area has a good view facing south and I've seen some great shots from there.
The South Coast of Wellington provides uninterrupted views to the south (and more importantly the lights of the city are all behind you) and the rocky coastline provides an interesting foreground to the scene. Finding a location as far away as possible from any street lights and houses will help with making sure you have the darkest skies possible.
I was lucky enough to be in the Central Plateau on 24 March (basically autumn equinox) when there was a strong display in the middle of the night. I'd already been out shooting astro and was planning a star trail shoot but this had to be delayed when we discovered there was a pretty good aurora visible. After finding a composition that included Mt Ruapehu, we spent about an hour shooting it till around 3am.
Further north in the North Island
I've seen people manage to capture displays as far north as the West Coast beaches in Auckland, so the key for any location in the North Island is to shoot during a strong display with either an uninterrupted or elevated view south and with little light pollution to interfere with the shot.
So now that you are out in the field in a good location with a strong display occurring, how do you actually manage to capture the display effectively? The aurora differs to shooting the Milky Way in that the colours and beams are moving and changing so you don't want to shoot too long otherwise you'll miss this movement. Here are some starter settings to try:
A VERY bright show like the top shot in this post you'd need to shoot with a much lower ISO (in this case 1,000) whereas when the aurora isn't as bright you may need to shoot up to ISO 4,000 - 6,400.
If you have two camera bodies (or you don't mind setting up your camera and leaving it in one position) you could set yourself up to shoot a timelapse (which beautifully shows the movement of the aurora over time). I inadvertently captured enough footage for a very quick timelapse during the Ruapheu display above just by shooting enough still shots over the course of twenty minutes (140 odd images) around 2.30-3am.
If you only have a phone don't worry! The latest smart phones are pretty good at capturing the aurora, while they can't compete with a camera for quality of image, they'll still capture the essence of the moment you're seeing enabling you to snap a photo with the colours in the sky. Try and find a night mode setting that will allow you to shoot for several seconds and then hold your phone still for the duration - it's a good idea to prop it against something to keep as still as possible.
If you are lucky enough to witness an amazing Aurora Australis display in New Zealand, you also need to stop for a moment and take it in!
Many people try and fail to capture a display just due to the fact the aurora can be fickle in its timing, so if you capture a large display you can count yourself very fortunate! Don't forget to pause for a moment and just appreciate that you are in the minority of people who have managed this feat - remember I said it took me countless attempts over seven years to actually shoot something I was willing to post online and call a success!
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