Our hemisphere’s ethereal dance show deserves an equal audience. If you’re like me, the Southern Lights have held intrigue. The first evening I received word of an aurora, I bundled up two weary souls at midnight and drove to the countryside. We took many images, punctuated by suitable ‘ooohs’ and ‘ahhhs’ until it dawned on us we were photographing a dimly-lit carrot farm in Tasmania’s north-west. To sidestep a pseudo aurora, we’ve talked to the experts and prepared a go-to guide so you have the best chance to see the real thing. Because when you do, it’s a dance you’ll never forget.
What are these vivid lights?
Seen pretty pictures but have no idea scientifically what’s colliding with what? That’s okay – we’re not all physics’ masters. In brief, the Northern and Southern Lights have the same origin. Auroras occur when fully charged particles burst from the sun, creating a solar wind. This solar wind is drawn to the North and South poles, producing nature’s finest light show. Electrons in the upper atmosphere hit different atoms to produce different colours – greenish yellow from oxygen and blue from nitrogen.
Don’t expect to see a dancing rainbow with the naked eye, though. You’ll need a camera for that. According to Margaret Sonnemann, founder of the Aurora Australis Tasmania Facebook group (70,500 + followers) and the Aurora Chaser’s Handbook, you’re unlikely to see any colour. “Our eyes are not designed to pick up colour at night. I saw my first aurora about 20 years ago and although I’ve seen bright colours, it’s very rare.”
When to see them
The Southern Lights can be seen year round from Tasmania. Generally, winter is the best time to witness nature’s lightshow as night falls earlier. However, no one knows precisely when a light show may turn on: it’s all up to the sun. Space weather maps and predictions are helpful, but ultimately the recent solar activity decides when the next aurora will occur. The Aurora Australis Tasmania Facebook page is a great way to keep up with real-time sightings.
Where to go
In Tasmania after dark, when there are whispers of a possible aurora, don’t be surprised if you’re not alone in an unlit parking lot or on a remote beach. Your best chance of witnessing an aurora is to be as far south as possible. That’s why Tassie turf is a prime possie. “What many people don’t realise is that you can see an aurora from anywhere in Tasmania. You just have to find an unobstructed view of the south,” explains Sonnemanne. “We’ve even had great photos from Hobart’s CBD, but ideally you should head away from light pollution.”
Let’s assume you’re in Hobart. Find a location with a broad horizon, away from artificial light. The moon can also dim your aurora experience, so if possible keep an eye on the moon’s phase. A great way to ensure you’re looking in the correct direction is to look for the Southern Cross constellation. If you’re not familiar with Tassie, a good starting point is to head up to Mount Nelson (where I saw my first Southern Lights). It’s an easy 10-minute drive from the city, and usually attracts a small crowd of helpful onlookers. kunanyi/Mount Wellington is also popular.
South Arm Peninsula (about 40 kilometres south-east of Hobart) is popular with avid aurora hunters for its still bays, ideal for reflections. Other favourite spots include Hope Beach, Rosny Hill, Howden, Dodges Ferry, Seven Mile Beach, Tinderbox and even Cockle Creek (120 kilometres from Hobart) on Tasmania’s far southern tip. One can’t drive any further south in Australia, so naturally it’s a prime position for this southern marvel.
How to capture
This is the bit where those of us who stick to auto on our cameras need to get brave. First task, set your camera to manual. If you’re serious about capturing a decent aurora image, you’ll also need a tripod, an SLR camera and a remote so that there’s no movement affecting your Southern Lights showstopper.
The lens needs to be as wide as possible and the same goes for aperture. This allows maximum light into the camera: lowest f-stop, around f/2.8 to f/4, is a good guide. Opt for your camera’s highest ISO (800 to 3200) and a shutter speed of anywhere from five to 15 seconds. Lastly, set your focus to infinity and you’re set to capture the dance.
Who’s in the know?
Hobart photographer Loic Le Guilly has a website dedicated to the Aurora Australis with tips and resources for photographing the night sky in Tasmania. He, like many, has been captivated by the lights. His work even involves 360 degree captures of auroras.
“I captured my first aurora in 2012, almost by chance, and I’ve been in love ever since. There’s something exciting and magical about going out at night trying to capture the elusive aurora. But even when the lights don’t show up, the night sky in Tassie is one of the best in the world and the Milky Way always puts on a great show.”
Along with Le Guilly’s helpful site, Margaret Sonnemann’s Aurora Australis Tasmania Facebook page is your go-to for the latest news on aurora activity and the best vantage points. “We only know about three days in advance if an aurora might happen,” says Sonnemann, “but that’s just an educated guess. We never truly know. One of the best I’ve seen was from Franklin, yet it was raining in Hobart. That’s what makes social media so helpful, to know what is being seen in live time. It’s exciting because we are able to inform the science. From Tasmania we are seeing phenomena they don’t even have names for – rays, beams and arcs rarely captured before.”
So off you go, into the night and see if you too can experience the Southern Lights. Sonnemanne says everyone is affected differently – some cry, some shout with joy or dance a special dance.
The question is, what will you do beneath the Southern Lights?