10 Hours. 500 Kilometers. 3 Photographers. We seek the Aurora Australis.
I’m exhausted. But I feel fantastic! Last night I got a long awaited chance to revisit the passion for photography when I received a text message from close friend Stefan Haworth suggesting I call him as soon as possible. When word of a potentially epic solar storm was exchanged, I dropped my plans for invoicing and paperwork that night and immediately drove to meet Stefan at home. En Route to get fuel and make our way south, my other good friend Trey Ratcliff called and asked if he could join us on this mission – we were glad to bring him along, although cautioning him that it could be a very late night!
Needless to say, that turned out to be the case. We started our journey in central Queenstown at 9.52pm, and didn’t retune until just before sunrise the next morning. I don’t have much more to say about these photos other than to detail my goals for each one, what I got right, what I got wrong, and what I’ve learned for next time. Enjoy.
Stefan and I initially headed to the top of Queenstown Hill, not far from where Trey is staying currently… This test exposure told us everything we needed to know, and we decided a tank of fuel was well worth the potential results that this sky could bring:
This result is straight out of the camera, with zero post processing. Our immediate concern was the looming cloud cover that could potentially block the view to the south. Pictured here is Kelvin Heights with Cecil Peak in the background.
Looking due south towards Kingston, the aurora was in full swing – we picked up Trey and began driving in that direction.
We needed to get further away from the light pollution of Queenstown, so we followed the highway along the lake and through the Devils Staircase until we reached one of the many lookout points along the way. Initial exposures looked pretty awesome, and this is my pick of the bunch from this stop:
The mistake I made here was not shooting wide enough. Given another chance, I would have zoomed right out to 16mm and applied a crop in post only if needed. I think Trey got an awesome result here that does the scene a little more justice than this photo does. Fortunately, there was more than one angle to explore, and I’m reasonably happy with the colors of this result from a little later as a single beam from the aurora lept out from behind the mountain rage and into the Milky Way:
Even in this photo, I could have exposed the scene a little better… But I was limited by the aperture of my Sigma 10-20mm lens only going as wide as f/3.5, forcing me to increase my ISO accordingly, adding noise to deal with in post. Adding long exposure noise reduction to the mix was something we all chose to avoid, but I regret not doing this – as even at this size you can see how a 30 second exposure at ISO 5000 bumps the noise up to an almost unbearable level.
A final shot from this first location, this is a portrait orientation as my first selected image. For this I once again could have shot a little wider – but feel that the visible stars in the frame add a lot of character to the image:
Overall, I feel that both Stefan and Trey got the better photos here. But this was my first time shooting in these conditions, and I was somewhat limited by my equipment and lack of preparation. A learning experience for sure – and I aimed to improve my results at the next two stops…
We left Kingston behind and ventured further south. Trey took the opportunity to upload teaser images to Facebook, Twitter and Google+… Naturally the community went a little nuts. Even the phone pictures of the back of his camera showed awesome potential – it was great to see him genuinely excited about the adventure! I’d have felt bad if we ended up on a wild goose chase in the middle of Southland, but fortunately Mother Nature kept up the display, and we made a quick stop on the highway to venture into a farmers field – seeking a silhouette of the landscape against the sky:
This time I was happy with what I saw on the back of the camera. I deliberately framed the shot to give a sense of scale and aimed to have the eye led in by the trees in the foreground. Equally important however, was the choice of white balance for the photo – it makes a massive difference when shooting the night sky!
By this stage, the magenta color had backed off and the aurora had subsided a little, but there was still plenty of color to be found and some excellent details in the bands of light dancing on the horizon. As we left this location, it was half past one in the morning and we decided to make a run for the coast given that we were basically half way there.
Between the field and the coast, we made several stops where scenes grabbed us – but I didn’t feel the results had enough impact to publish. I might revisit them someday, but for now I’ll share my final photo of the evening…
This time I really feel like it all came together! We reached the coast and immediately used what little 3G coverage we had to map out a route to a decent vantage point. Trey needed to be back in Queenstown by 8 AM to get the kids to school, and while that seemed like a very reasonable timeframe when we began this mission, the more we shot the more we found ourselves getting closer to the point of no return.
With a clear view of the entire horizon, we could see the aurora stretching from one side to the other. From our vantage point to the east of Invercargill, there was no significant land mass between us and Antarctica. The view was breathtaking, and the sound of surf crashing on the beach relaxing. We were running out of usable time and light, so I ventured to the edge of the nearest cliff and set up for my last photo that aimed to bring together all the elements in the frame:
The aurora, the cloud formations, the Milky Way and the lights of Bluff in the distance. For some reason this photo really works for me, although I’m not sure why… We would have kept shooting until the sun rose, alas, by the time I took this photo it was 4.36 AM. Time to go. We packed up our gear and navigated our way back to Invercargill before following the highway to Queenstown. Stefan drove, we talked, Trey dozed in the back. Unlike us, he had to actually do something today – whereas Stefan and I both aimed to get to bed as soon as possible.
Interestingly enough, despite walking in my front door at 8.30 AM, once I had a few hours sleep I was able to get some work done and have a reasonably productive day. And here I am, almost exactly 24 hours after this crazy mission began, well overdue for a good nights rest.
Trey, Stefan and I had a fantastic time on this adventure! For me, it successfully re-ignighted my passion for spontaneous photography missions that challenge my creativity and keep expanding my skill set. A lot of what I wrote in my previous post was fueled by frustration and irritation towards the photography community, so its nice to have something inspiring and positive to share with the world for a change.
I’ve got a lot of plans to work on over the next few months… Some of which will impact this blog and the purpose of it, but thats a story for another day!