So often we hear about the amazing ‘Northern Lights’. But what if I told you it was possible to see the same light show – the ‘Southern Lights’ – on the opposite side of the world? You can! Here’s how you can see the Aurora Australis in Tasmania…
Undoubtedly, one of the privileges of living in Tasmania is the opportunity to view the incredible southern light show that is the Aurora Australis.
The Aurora Australis has always been there, waxing and waning with the solar winds emitted by the sun, but in the past it was only scientists or other boffins that could understand the science behind it all and to predict the best time to see the Aurora Australis.
But now, the emergence of the Aurora Australis Tasmania Facebook page and awesome phone apps like Aurora Forecast have provided everyday people with a priceless link to the experts!
There are so many different types of people on that amazing FB page, and they all not only love the Aurora Australis but also want to share their knowledge so that we can all experience the southern lights in Tasmania for ourselves 🙂
When is the best time to see the Aurora Australis in Tasmania?
Unfortunately, observing the Aurora Australis is still an inexact science, but there are a few things you can do to increase your chances of seeing the southern lights in Tasmania.
To have a successful night of aurora watching, a few things need to come together at the same time:
- Strong enough solar activity – The sun is always emitting solar discharges, but if it isn’t big enough or strong enough then we’re not going to see anything on planet Earth. It’s like someone trying to talk to you from the other side of the street – if they whisper then you’re not going to hear a thing. Every day we’re seeing the apps and websites that show us this information getting more and more accurate, so predicting a strong Aurora Australis – or listening to the experts on the Facebook Group – means you’ve got a good chance of picking the right night to go Aurora hunting.
- Timing – Night is the best time to see the Aurora Australis in Tasmania. The conditions at sunrise and sunset are normally too bright for an aurora to be visible, and a full moon will also reduce your chances of seeing the Aurora Australis. With all this in mind, winter is the perfect time of year to see the southern lights in Tasmania as the nights are so much longer than during summer.
- Cloud cover – Clear skies in the south are the best for seeing the Aurora Australis. Clouds or fog will block or distort the light and you’re not going to get much of a show! Tasmania’s weather can be fickle, so keep an eye on the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) forecasts. SkippySky is also a great website that will show you predicted cloud cover. I use it all the time to choose the right morning to get up and do sunrise shoots (I’m not a morning person, so this is super-important 😀 );
- The right camera settings – While the Aurora Australis is sometimes visible to the naked eye, at Tasmanian latitudes this is rare and your best bet is to invest in a decent camera and tripod so you can take time lapse photos. This isn’t essential, but it will get you the best results (see below for tips on the best camera settings);
- A good viewing location – First of all you need to be facing south, because the south pole is the source of the Aurora Australis. Secondly, you will need to find a viewing location that is away from large cities or towns in order to escape the effects of light pollution that will inevitably drown out the subtle colours of an aurora.
While you have no control over the first three criteria, you CAN control the last two.
Where to see the Aurora Australis in Tasmania?
South, south, south!
Cockle Creek is perfect, but it’s a looooong way from Hobart. Your best bet is to drive to South Arm where you’ll find Clifton Beach and Calvert’s Beach to be really good viewing spots. Or if you’re located south of Hobart then Franklin is a good option.
If you’re in Hobart, never fear! Just a short drive will find you in at Howrah Beach, Seven Mile Beach, Taroona Beach or Park Beach. The summit of Mt Wellington is also popular, but you’ll often find that light pollution from the southern suburbs will dull the brightness of the Aurora Australis.
How to take a photo of the Aurora Australis in Tasmania
Taking a photo of the Aurora Australis is a piece of cake. Taking a good photo is a completely different story! Here are some great tips to get you started…
Shutter Speed 15-30 seconds
No longer than 30 seconds. Any longer and the stars will blur and turn into star trails.
I normally set my camera to a shutter speed of around 15-20 seconds, and then tweak my other settings (as you’ll see below) to get the best shot.
At least 800, but to keep your shutter speed as low as possible you can easily go up to 3200 (or even 12 800 in new cameras) before noise starts becoming an issue.
Older cameras don’t have great noise performance, so you may want to limit these to 1200-1600.
I normally end up shooting at around ISO 1200-2000, depending on whether there’s a strong moon in the sky or not.
Aperture = f4 or f5.6
Close to f4 is good.
Any wider (smaller f number) and you’ll find it difficult to get your focus and depth of field right.
You can go narrower (bigger f number), but eventually you’ll start compromising on shutter speed, pushing it out beyond 20 seconds.
Focus point on or close to infinity
Getting sharp focus is a balancing act.
Before starting, make sure your camera focus is in ‘Manual’ mode. If you only want a photo of the Aurora Australis, and don’t care about trees or other objects close by, then you need to focus on ‘infinity’ in order to make the stars as sharp as possible. There are two ways of doing this:
- Prepare before you go – I highly recommend this, as it’s can be very difficult to get it right in the middle of the night! To do this, during daylight hours focus on a tree or other object on the horizon and then lock the focus ring in place using paper tape. Or, if you know your lens really well then you can also simply memorise the position of the focus ring. For example, using my wide-angle lens I know that if I rotate the lens ring clockwise as far as it will go and then back it up half an inch it will be in the perfect position for shots of the night sky.
- Set the focus at night – In this case I recommend switching on ‘liveview’ (if available on your camera model). Then, point it at the sky so that a bright star is right in the middle of the LCD screen and zoom in as close as possible using the ‘+’ button. Once you’ve done that, twist the focus ring backwards and forwards until you get the star in focus.
It’s easy to forget, so I’ll repeat it – make sure your focus mode is ‘Manual’.
If you also want to include objects in the foreground (eg. a jetty or tree) then you may want to bring the focus point in just a tad from infinity, in order to get some extra focus on foreground. A narrower aperture (f8 – f11) will help with this but at the cost of a longer shutter speed.
Focal length to suit your preference
A wider angle (ie. zoomed out) will reduce the likelihood of star trails and gives you the opportunity to fit a wide aurora into one frame, but it may also make the aurora appear smaller. Alternatively, a narrower focal length (ie. zoomed in) will let you focus in on the detail of an aurora, but will increase the likelihood of star trails.
Personally, I prefer to get some foreground interest in my shots and like the effect of a sweeping panorama, so I usually stick with around 12mm on a crop (DX) lens.
To get the best quality photos you will need a tripod, or some other way of keeping your camera stationary for up to 20 seconds. The combination of very high ISO, wide aperture, short shutter speed and wide angle may give you decent hand held results, but I suspect you’ll struggle.
My experience chasing the Aurora Australis in Tasmania
This is an excerpt from my journal, back in 2014…
A couple of days ago the predictions were massive. With perfect weather conditions, everything pointed towards the biggest aurora in a long, long time. The Facebook page was going bonkers and expectations were through the roof!
I too got caught up in the excitement and found myself alone at sunset on Calvert’s beach on the South Arm peninsula. To be honest this was way too early for viewing an aurora, but I wanted to scout out the location and possibly take some sunset photos. For perfect light conditions you generally want to wait until at least an hour or two after sunset.
Perched like a shag on a rock, I waited…and waited…and waited. Intermittently checking the Facebook page to see if the conditions were improving and whether anyone else in more southerly latitudes was having any success. Occasionally scared witless when a possum or other small animal caused rocks to tumble down the cliff face behind me!
There was initial excitement when the light from a squid boat lit up a small section of the sky…and then when the International Space Station passed beneath the constellation of the Southern Cross, but otherwise there was nothing happening. The disappointment in the Facebook community was palpable.
Yet finally, for a window of no more than 15 minutes, we had success!
At around 10:50pm a very small band of purple/red appeared above Betsey Island, extending a few degrees above the horizon.
And just like the end of a Looney Tunes cartoon, “That’s all folks!”
Until next time anyway 🙂
This was my second opportunity to view an Aurora Australis in Tasmania. My first was back in July 2012 when the solar conditions were much stronger. The first photo in this article was from that night, as is this image…
It was a breathtaking night, and one I will never forget.
I hope this article helps you experience the Aurora Australis in Tasmania and to capture some fantastic memories. It’s a very special event and one that everyone should see at least once in their lives 🙂
If you’ve got any questions at all, just let me know in the comments below.
Happy aurora hunting!