Aurora Australis – Southern Aurora and How To Capture It

It isn’t often that in the suburbs of Melbourne we get to see very much of the Southern Aurora, unlike our friends in Tasmania and south island New Zealand.

When solar activity is sufficient to create activity in the middle latitudes where we live then it certainly does stir up a degree of excitement. Only once have I seen a really strong aurora from the suburbs of Melbourne and that was when was just about 8 years old in 1957 or thereabouts.

I vividly remember going to the beach with my parents just a few doors down from where we lived in Black Rock to see the amazing sky show. A full curtain of waving red to pink light in the south-western sky certainly was a sight to see. No digital cameras in those days and film wasn’t an option either and it was black and white anyway.

Such as it was, the experience left a lifelong impression upon me.

Driven by the childhood experience, I was excited to have a wonderful trip to Norway and Iceland in 2014 where we managed to capture the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). Being in the Arctic circle in the Lofted Islands was an ideal place to see the lights. To get that close in the Southern Hemisphere we would need to head for Mawson or Davis Antarctic bases to see images like this.

Aurora Borealis - Lofoten Islands, Norway

Aurora Borealis – Lofoten Islands, Norway

With rarity comes desire so whenever there are sightings in Tasmania or here on the mainland it is a photographer’s dream to capture even a glimpse of Aurora activity. Last night was just one of those occasions. With predictions from Space Weather Live www.SpaceWeatherLive.com I was prompted to have a casual look at the sky to the south from our balcony.

With a pale dim shadow in the sky, the only way to confirm that what I could see was actually aurora activity was to photograph it and inspect the image for a showing of green colour. Here is what I saw.

Looking south over the rooftops

Looking south over the rooftops

That meant action, and the race was on to prepare the gear, grab a coat and hat and head for the nearest clear view of the horizon. By the time I managed to set up at Rickett’s Point, the nearest location, half an hour had elapsed and just about all evidence of the green glow had dissipated. In typical aurora fashion, where you need to expect the unexpected, two bright shafts of light appeared in the south-southwest. Luckily I had already sorted out focus and exposure and managed to capture this image before everything faded.

View SSW at Rickett's Point, Beaumaris just before midnight.

View SSW at Rickett’s Point, Beaumaris just before midnight.

With prior sightings in Norway, Iceland and New Zealand, this is the first time in nearly 58 years that I have managed to see the southern lights from my home town. Nothing as spectacular as what I saw in the northern hemisphere, however, a sighting that means so much in nostalgia terms that it is every bit as special.

If you would like to attempt shooting the Aurora here’s a few tips.

They are unpredictable as to whether you will see them or not as clear skies and no moonlight are really needed to have a chance. Solar activity has to occur and the blast of plasma from the sun has to strike the earth at a time when there is darkness in order for you to see the effect. Sometimes its directed more to the north pole so we miss out altogether. The best way of knowing if there’s a chance is to subscribe for email alerts from Space Weather Live in the link above.

You will need a decent SLR camera that can handle higher ISO settings, a tripod and preferably a cable release. Set the camera to manual focus and focus on infinity using a distant object. Auto focus usually won’t work in the low light. Set the camera to manual mode with a shutter speed of 15 seconds and an ISO of 1200 with the aperture at around f2.8 to f4.

If your image is too bright then lower the ISO setting. If it is too dark then expose for longer, say 30 seconds. Do not exceed 30 seconds otherwise the stars will streak as they move during the exposure.

To the naked eye you may only see a pale grey-greenish hue but your camera will detect all the light and colour present that the rods and cones of our eyes are unable to see.

You will be amazed at your skycapes even if there is no aurora.

Happy shooting.

Birds of the Shetland Islands

On a recent visit to the Shetland Islands chasing landscapes I discovered a whole new area of photography that I hadn’t really explored to any great degree previously – bird photography.

Being in the company of an expert in bird and wildlife photography (Hugh Harrop of Shetland Wildlife Tours) meant that some of the skills required were quickly learnt and suddenly a whole new wave of enthusiasm took hold.

Our first encounter occurred within an hour or so of arriving on the island when we were introduced to the fascinating Atlantic Puffin colony located at Sumburgh Head.

Sumburgh Head - Shetland Islands

Sumburgh Head – Shetland Islands

The grassy cliffs dotted with their pretty summer wildflowers made a perfect breeding haven for these fascinating little birds. Spending most of the year in flocks at sea, they make their way to the various islands in the area where they scratch away small burrows in the soft soil high above the water line.

Tiny burrows dot the cliffs

Tiny burrows dot the cliffs

Nesting pairs can be seen gathering grass to line their nests as they busily go about their task while others come and go with their funny way of landing._GNE0904_GNE1045

_GNE0782With small wings compared to their body size and webbed feet not unlike that of a duck, their landing approach looks quite clumsy as they come down at a steep angle feet first and often finish with a belly flop.
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Feeding mainly on small fish and sand eels they are able to hold several fish in their beak as they return to feed their young.

_GNE2572Following on from our wonderful time with the Puffins our next bird experience was a visit to the cliffs of the Isle of Noss, another island in the Shetland Group and about an hour offshore.

The sheer rocky cliffs are home to nesting colonies of several species however the Northern Gannets seemed to be the dominant species with Skuas, Black Guillemots and the odd Atlantic Puffin making up the numbers.

Cliffs of the Isle of Noss

Cliffs of the Isle of Noss

Small part of the huge Gannet colony

Small part of the huge Gannet colony

We managed to approach within almost touching distance of the sheer cliff face as the nesting birds watched us with curiosity and a degree of attitude as if to question our presence. Undisturbed, they went about their routine of preening feathers, squabbling over territory and tending their young as the sky was filled with others circling above.

With their noise and constant bombardment of droppings from above it was an experience to remember for years to come. The following images are just a small sample of the hundreds that we managed to take as we practiced our shooting skills, learning to track and pan a moving subject from a moving boat while attempting to maintain one’s balance.

With landing rights challenged, spectators at rear wait for the outcome.

With landing rights challenged, spectators at rear wait for the outcome.

Northern Gannets with chicks

Northern Gannets with chicks

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Greenery gathered for the nest

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Gannet launching from high above the water

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Skua on the wing

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Soaring and plunging deep for fish, all a part of their daily life.

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I hope you have enjoyed viewing these images of birds of the Shetlands. There’s much more to come from our visit as I post over the coming weeks, so keep following. Greg