Breaker Bay Aurora Australis

Over the weekend of the 22nd/23rd April 2017 there was heightened Aurora activity and Wellington was treated to two nights of Aurora Australis displays. I was working Saturday night so couldn’t get out and had to make do with watching the excited reports appearing in the Wellington Aurora Hunters and Aurora Australis Facebook groups. On Sunday night I was able to get out and found my way to the Wellington south coast to find that apparently half of the population of Wellington had also thought the same. Turns out that the chance of seeing the Aurora had been mentioned online and on the evening news and this information quickly spread via social media leading to unusual crowds. After nearly getting stuck in gridlock at the Red Rocks Reserve carpark I drove east along the coast road and eventually found a quiet spot above Breaker Bay to take some photos.

Even above Breaker Bay I wasn’t alone with three University Students joining me to sit and watch the horizon. Ferries entering and leaving Wellington Harbour and aircraft flying in to Wellington Airport ruined any real chance of seeing the Aurora by eye and it didn’t help that I’d arrived and started shooting as the display was peaking but the camera captured some good images. I got enough photos for a short timelapse movie and I finally figured out how to use Lightroom to put the video together (using the tutorial here).

Canon 5D Mark IV, Samyang 14mm @ f2.8, ISO 3200 / 25 seconds (first 12 frames) & ISO 6400 / 13 seconds (the rest)

New Years wandering

I had been planning a quiet New Years Eve as I had a concrete pad to construct the next day but then it started looking like the aurora could show so plans changed. For months I’ve been meaning to walk the Rimutaka Trig track (now named Te Ara Tirohanga: “The view that improves as you climb the ascending pathway”) in the evening to see if the views would be good for star gazing but I’ve never quite been organised enough. I made a snap decision and got ready to finally give it a go. The stunning weather also helped with it being warm and calm with clear skies, hopefully this would be the case at the trig as well.

The road was mostly clear, everyone either on holiday, out partying or at home. I reached the carpark at the base of the track just after 9pm and was soon walking uphill. Its a short but relentless slope to the trig and I was taking frequent stops to rest and check out the view (improving as suggested). After about 20 minutes I reached the top to good if not great views, the Wairarapa side was very hazy.

Taking in the view at dusk

Taking in the view at dusk

Looking towards Lake Wairarapa

Looking towards Lake Wairarapa

As dusk settled into night the weather also changed and misty cloud started forming. I persisted for a while but the view was quickly disappearing and photographic opportunities were becoming few and far between. I entertained myself with shots of cars travelling SH2 and lighting up the road leaving trails through the mist but it was getting colder and there was no longer any chance of aurora being captured so I was soon enough packing up and walking downhill to the car. I stopped a couple of times for photos and got a few nice shots of stars through the low canopy of trees near the bottom of the track, first having to wipe away the condensation building on the lens.

Traffic along SH2 as the mist rolls in

Traffic along SH2 as the mist rolls in

Misty trig

Misty trig

Stars through the trees

Stars through the trees

Looking at the time when I was back in the car I realised I might be able to make it to Petone in time to see the New Years fireworks over Wellington. I managed to get to the beach in time but the fireworks in Wellington were far to far away to be photographed so I took a few photos of fireworks on the beach before returning to the car.

Rocket launch!

Rocket launch!

Messy fireworks

Messy fireworks

Looking at my phone I could see on Facebook that the aurora was showing for some down south so I took a chance and drove to Red Rocks on the south coast. I was lucky enough to capture a faint aurora but the rising moon (big and yellow above the horizon) was wiping out the colour. Thankfully there were plenty of meteors (likely part of the Quadrantids Meteor Shower) to also spot and I was lucky enough to catch a large one in camera. To the eye it flashed across the sky leaving a brief smoking trail waving behind it.

Contemplating the milky way

Contemplating the milky way

Meteor, milky way and aurora australis

Meteor, milky way and aurora australis

All up it was a good end to 2015 and a great start to 2016. Happy New Year everyone!

The sky moves at night

Last weekend the signs were looking promising for a show of the Aurora Australis so I was able to get out for a spot of stargazing. Arriving at the Red Rocks Reserve I was quickly out onto the beach and then as usual I walked up the hill to get an elevated viewpoint. It was a less than clear view to the south with clouds scudding across the sky. There was also a distinct lack of aurora. I took a few photos of what stars were visible and then moved around the hill looking for a different angle.

A few stars and a lot of cloud

A few stars and a lot of cloud

I decided to try a timelapse, something I’ve been meaning to have a go at for a while. It was fairly simple, I close a viewpoint and started taking photos with the assistance of a remote timer set to continuously take photos. Over nearly an hour and half the camera was taking photos with the shutter open for 15 seconds a time. Two hundred and sixty three shots later I was done. There were a couple of moments where I was previewing shots and that led to jumps in the resultant video so I won’t be doing that again. This particular aurora was only visible to the eye as a pale glow between the clouds but still came out quite well in the photos. So here it is, 11 seconds of video and the probable start of another obsession.

I took a few final photos as the remains of the show were hidden by increased cloud and then it was home to bed. Next time I’ll need to take a seat, there is only so much you can do when waiting in the dark on a damp hillside.

A final look

A final look

The St Patricks Day Aural Storm

On the evening of 17th March 2015 there was a largely unexpected solar storm. The Aurora Australis facebook group was full of hopeful chatter that their might be a show as night fell so I took a chance and drove to Wellington to see what I might find. I found an aurora display that was simply wonderful and the best bit was that I could see parts of the display with the naked eye, no camera required! With the remanants of cyclone Pam blowing past New Zealand cook straight was all a-boil, heavy surf pounding the shore and sea spray blowing up the rocky beach. To avoid the spray I walked up to the plateau at the start of the Red Rocks reserve and set up the camera, and this is some of what I managed to capture.

Robin Hut graced with an aurora backdrop

Robin Hut graced with an aurora backdrop

Clouds trying to hide the show

Clouds trying to hide the show

A panorama at the height of the display

A panorama at the height of the display

I excitedly called Keryn and told her what I could see and then posted a quick photo to the Facebook group which led to a few more people arriving to share in the experience. I’ve never seen anything like it and I’ve certainly never photographed anything this magnificent before. Online there are opinions stating this is the strongest display for a decade so maybe I won’t see anything like this for a few more years, so I’m glad I took a chance last night.

Chasing the Aurora Australis

I had an idea last week that it’d be nice to try and get a photo of the Robin Hut (of Miniature Hikes fame) at night with a good star filled sky. The weather this last week has been amazing, proper summer heat with little wind and clear skies, so I kept intending to head out to the south coast each evening over the weekend but for a variety of reasons never ended up going. Then on Monday night there were indications that a show of the aurora australis was possible so this was the kick I needed to head out for some night-time photography.

There are various phone apps and websites to help with predicting an aurora show but often the best bet is to see what the experts think is going to happen. To this end I am a member of the Aurora Australis facebook group where a number of clued up people post regular updates on the potential for activity. Things that help with being able to see the aurora start with the right space conditions followed by appropriate weather (clear skies), night time activity and looking in the right direction (south) at the right time. From Wellington its not often possible to see the aurora with the naked eye, a long exposure on a digital camera being required to bring out the colours. It also helps to be further south with better shows at the bottom of the south island but seeing as I live in Porirua the Wellington south coast will have to suffice.

So I got to the Red Rocks car park and found a gap to park amongst all of the freedom campers. It was just as well I had visited the Robin Hut previously as it would be difficult to find it at night by torchlight. I was soon setting up the tripod and camera alone on the little plateau with a vista of stars and dark scenery. I took a few photos and was happy to see a faint aurora on the horizon. It was then a series of experiments using my torch to light the hut while the long exposure (20-25 seconds) captured the stars and the red glow in the distance.

Robin Hut with a faint aurora

Robin Hut with a faint aurora

Other than a couple of passing 4wd vehicles and two other photographers near the car park I was still alone on as I walked down to the beach for some more shots. The activity was dying away and I needed to get some sleep to still function at work the next day so I slowly made my way back to the car, taking a few more photos along the way.

Red Rocks walkway at night

Red Rocks walkway at night

Freedom campers underneath the milky way

Freedom campers underneath the milky way

My first photograph of the aurora australis was back on the 8th January. The aurora that night was much more powerful but was also not visible to the eye largely because there was a bright moon in the sky as well. Any light source (the moon, streetlights etc) will reduce aurora and star visibility. Still, it was a good capture and further south in Dunedin and Bluff (and over the ditch in Tasmania) it was spectacular.

The aurora from Moa Point

The aurora from Moa Point