A Guide To: Finding And Photographing The Aurora Australis
Seeing the aurora is a bucket list item for many people, but it turns out you may not need to travel as far as you'd think to see it!
I live in Perth, Western Australia, and not many people here realized until recently that it is possible to see, and photograph aurora so far from the magnetic south pole. I have been fortunate to photograph the southern lights near home on seven occasions over the past three years.
During four of those seven events, I was able to see the aurora with my eyes, and not just through the camera! Although it isn't as bright and colourful as what my camera can capture, each time it was an incredible scene to witness.
It is worth noting that the sun has an 11-year cycle of activity. Currently, in 2023, we are approaching a solar maximum, which means aurora events are the most frequent and strong that they have been in years!
I understand that comprehending how the aurora works can be confusing for beginners. In this guide I aim not to overcomplicate things, and to share only the necessary information for you to see your first display of the southern lights!
Frequently Asked Questions:
Every time there is a strong display of aurora, I notice a flood of newly interested people asking the same thing in the comments section of my Facebook and Instagram posts, so I decided what better way to start a guide than by answering all of those questions!
- Can I see the aurora with my eyes?
Yes! It is absolutely possible to see the aurora Australis with the naked eye. However, because we are at a middle latitude, the event has to be particularly strong to be visible, especially with any sort of colour. You will require a camera to really capture the colours well. Below, there is an image that I have Photoshopped to represent what I could actually see on one occasion, versus what the camera captured (unedited file).
- Will there be an aurora visible tonight/When will the aurora Australis show next?
This question commonly arises after people discover there was a display the night before. Just because there was aurora last night, it doesn't mean there will be tonight! But it also doesn't rule out any possibility, it will just depend on the current space weather conditions. No one knows exactly when the next show will be, but by the end of this guide you should have a good enough idea of this on your own without needing to ask the question!
- What is the best time to look for the aurora?
The events that cause aurora to occur are irregular and there is no specific time of night that gives a better chance than others. In fact, there have been many occasions in the past 12 months that I can recall, where the aurora would have been very strong during daytime hours when it isn't visible, but unfortunately the right conditions did not hold out until after dark. On other occasions it lasted and as soon as the sun had set aurora was visible, and then others again where I had to wait until the early hours of the morning to witness the activity.
- Where is a good place to see the aurora near my location?
When searching for somewhere to see the aurora you need a clear view to the south with no obstructions such as clouds or tall trees, and you need to be away from light pollution. Light pollution and moonlight will diminish the visibility of the aurora, making it less prominent compared to a dark sky. The further south you are the better, however, having a cloud-free sky is more crucial than being a few hundred kilometres further south. Some popular viewing locations near my home in Perth are listed further in the guide.
- Can I capture the aurora with my phone?
Yes you can photograph your aurora with a phone! I recommend putting it on a tripod, or if that isn't possible, balancing the phone on something and set a timer delay to eliminate the chance of motion blur. You will need to use your phones manual camera settings to set your exposure time as long as you can (between 3 & 20 seconds) and ISO as high a number that you can.
How to find and photograph the Aurora Australis
Understanding the numbers:
Applications and websites used to assess the likelihood of auroras display data such as solar wind speed, the solar wind's magnetic orientation (Bz), density, the strength of the magnetic field (Bt), and the Kp-index.
You do not need to completely understand what all these values mean. Just know that higher numbers, except for the Bz, indicate better conditions for an aurora display.
The Bz is the most important factor in an aurora occurrence. The more negative (e.g., -20) and the longer the negative reading persists, the higher the likelihood of a good aurora display. If the Bz is positive (e.g., +5) and hasn't been negative recently, there is no chance of an aurora. It is also worth noting that the Kp-index is a 3 hour average of activity, and does not necessarily reflect what is happening right now.
- To give you an idea of what to look for, some numbers that I recorded during a recent display (visible to the naked eye and very bright on camera) via the Aurora Alerts app were:
Solar Wind: 480kph
Bz: -20 (this was fluctuating but consistently negative around -20 for at least 3 hours)
- I highly recommend checking the resources section further down the page and joining your local Aurora related Facebook group, as if there a solar storm expected, there will be a lot of chatter in the group providing the information you need! If you are new to searching for the Aurora and don't understand how things work, this is the best place to start.
- Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) directed towards Earth are likely to cause auroral activity. Once launched from the sun, these CMEs generally take 1-4 days to reach us. This is how we know "something is coming" but can't say exactly when.
- We generally get a 30 minute warning if Aurora activity is about to pick up. This is because we get data from the DSCOVR satellite relating to geomagnetic storms & it takes between 15 - 60 minutes for the impact to affect our atmosphere after passing the satellite.
- Just keep in mind that when a solar storm (which causes aurora) is coming, it is very hard to predict exactly when it will occur. Forecasts can be often be out by 24-48hrs. Keep checking the groups/apps/websites from the resources section below for updates. Displays can be as short as 10-30 minutes and also last for hours. It varies between each occurrence.
Aurora Australis only occurs on the southern horizon!
To view and photograph the Aurora Australis you need a clear view to the South. If any visible glow is observed facing any other direction, it's unlikely to be the Aurora; and is probably either light pollution from a distant town, or afterglow from the sunset. It is best to navigate to your viewing area before dark, and be ready early, if aurora is expected. Especially if you plan on photographing it!
- Unless there is strong activity, you will need to get well away from the city lights. Even if activity is intense enough to see it in the city, the viewing is much better with a dark sky!
- Moonlight will also brighten the sky. It can obscure, or completely eliminate viewing the aurora, depending on the strength.
- Search for a cloudless sky.
- The further south you are the better, but that is not as important as avoiding light pollution and cloud cover.
I have included a link to a light pollution map in the resources below to help you find a dark area for viewing the southern lights.
In summary, the key to getting a good view of Aurora Australis is; 1: Get away from light pollution, and 2: Find a clear, preferably elevated, view facing south.
Here is a list of popular viewing areas closest to Perth, Western Australia:
- Mount Dale: 1hr from the Perth CBD (56km). Please note that it is a rough and corrugated gravel road to the top of Mount Dale after leaving the Brookton Highway. There is also a lot of kangaroos in the are so take care to avoid a collision.
- Herron Point: 1hr from the Perth CBD (99km).
- Lake Clifton: 1hr 15 min from the Perth CBD (118km).
- Lake Leschenaultia: 1hr from the Perth CBD (50km).
Travel times are approximate.
- To capture aurora on camera, you need to keep your camera/device steady by using a tripod or support and using a timer delay.
- Use manual mode to set a long shutter speed (10 - 20 seconds is ideal), use a high ISO (as high as possible on mobile phones, and between 2000-6400 is recommended for cameras), and have as wide an aperture as your lens or device allows (e.g. f/4 - 1.8).
- Manually focus your camera on a bright star or bright distant object (e.g. a streetlight ).
- Shoot in a RAW file format for the best results when editing.
The settings and process used is very similar to general astrophotography, with the exception that you usually want to use a slightly faster shutter speed. I have a complete educational bundle on astrophotography which includes a full PDF guide and 4 video tutorials, covering my full process. This is now discounted to half price!
- A full-frame DSLR/Mirrorless camera will capture a superior image in comparison to APS-C and MFT cameras, and most modern cameras are likely to perform better than smartphones.
- If using an interchangeable lens camera I highly recommend a wide angle lens with a focal length between 14-24mm (full frame equivalent) and wide aperture capability. Whilst it is possible to capture the aurora with lenses with an aperture of around f/4, to achieve a bright exposure you will need to use a much higher ISO, which will degrade the image quality by introducing grain.
This is why I recommend a lens with a wide aperture opening such as f/2.8 or wider. My personal choice is a 14mm f/1.8 lens.
- When using a smartphone it is best to use the default magnification (e.g. 1x zoom).
- A tripod is essential for getting good results when photographing the aurora. Because you will be using slow shutter speeds, if you handhold the camera then you will have a lot of motion blur. You can balance your camera/phone on a ledge or similar, but will be restricted in how you frame up the image. Read more about tripod selection for photography here.
When editing your Aurora images it is best to keep things simple and try not to over-do the process! The colours are usually vivid enough straight out of camera and increasing saturation can make the photograph look fake really quickly. I will generally just apply some simple lens corrections in Adobe Lightroom and then brighten or darken the aurora based on my exposure settings and the aurora intensity. Below is an example of an image straight out of camera, and then processed using Lightroom.
Straight out of camera (unedited) on the left, and then final image on the right.
Below is a list of mobile applications, websites, and Facebook groups that I recommend joining to help with capturing the Aurora Australis.
- Aurora Alerts & My Aurora: These are the easiest two to understand and use, but I do not recommend paying for the alerts as you can get heads up information elsewhere for free!
- Glendale App: This is both a website and mobile application. I find the information on this to be the most accurate and up to date. It is a little harder for beginners to understand the information on here, but once you have done a few hours of research and reading, you won't need to rely on other people/Facebook groups any more. It also includes free alerts & notifications.
- Windy.com: This is my preferred mobile weather app for planning any photography outings. It has satellite imaging and cloud forecasting which will help you find clear skies in the even of an aurora display.
- Australian Space Weather Forecasting Centre (BOM) You can subscribe here for free email alerts as opposed to paying the apps. The Bz is also updated more frequently than on the apps so you can decide if the activity is likely to continue or fade.
- Auroral Oval 30 Minute Forecast (NOAA) This is also included in the two apps mentioned above.
- Windy.com The web version of the mobile weather app for planning any photography outings. It has satellite imaging and cloud forecasting which will help you find clear skies in the even of an aurora display.
When joining any Facebook groups be sure to look out for any pinned posts, read through previous posts, look in the files sections for answers to FAQ, or use the search function to type your questions and see who else has already asked/answered. It is important to keep the clutter in Facebook groups to a minimum so that the posts advising new users of likely activity/forecasts aren't drowned out.
Even though I'm based in Western Australia, I have joined groups based in the eastern states and New Zealand. This is because it gets dark sooner in those places, I will be able to see peoples images from any Aurora over there and have a better idea of what to expect after the sun goes down in Perth.
Thanks for reading!
I hope you have enjoyed reading and learning from this guide to finding and photographing the Aurora Australis!