Where to see the Aurora Australis in Tasmania (and how to take a GREAT photo!)

So often we hear about the amazing ‘northern lights’. But what if I told you it was possible to see the same light show on the opposite side of the world? You can! Read on, to find out how you too can see the Aurora Australis in Tasmania…

Why is the Aurora Australis in Tasmania growing in popularity?

Undoubtedly, one of the privileges of living in Tasmania is the opportunity to view the incredible light show that is the Aurora Australis.

In recent years there has been a HUGE increase in interest in the aurora, a trend that I put down to one thing alone…Facebook.

Auroras have always been present, waxing and waning with the solar winds emitted by the sun. So what is so special about a social media platform that has resulted in such a stratospheric rise in public interest in auroras?

It’s simple – Facebook has provided the link between complex science and the average man or woman in the street. It used to be that only those with a keen understanding of the physics and data behind an aurora that could pick the right night to  watch the light show unfold. But now, the emergence of the Aurora Australis Tasmania Facebook page has provided the layman with a priceless link to these experts!

Where to see the Aurora Australis in Tasmania - Clifton Beach

Clifton Beach Aurora

How to forecast 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 one in Tasmania.

To have success, a few things need to come together at the same time:

  1. Sufficient solar activity – astronomical measuring equipment can predict when the conditions are conducive to an aurora, however the vagaries of these solar winds are such that anything can happen between an emission at the surface of the sun, and these solar winds reaching the earth’s atmosphere;
  2. Timing – the sun doesn’t care if it’s night or day! You’ve got less than a 50/50 chance of the solar winds striking during the night, and in the hour or so before sunrise and after sunset there is still normally too much light for an aurora to be visible. A bright moon will also reduce your chances of seeing an aurora;
  3. Clear skies – if there’s cloud, then chances are you’re not going to get much of a light show! Given the vagaries of Tasmania’s weather this can be the biggest impediment to a successful viewing;
  4. Correct camera settings – while some aurora’s are 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);
  5. A good viewing location – first of all you need to be facing south, because this 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.

How to take a photo of the Aurora Australis in Tasmania

So how do you take a decent photo of an aurora? Here are some pointers…

Shutter Speed

No longer than 30 seconds. Any longer and the stars won’t appear as dots, instead appearing like star trails. I tend to try and achieve 10-20 seconds.

ISO

At least 800, but to keep your shutter speed as low as possible you can easily go up to 3200 before noise starts becoming an issue. Older cameras don’t have great noise performance, so you may want to limit these to 1200-1600. Noise reduction software is very good these days, so go as high as you can. I normally end up shooting at around ISO 1200-2000, depending on whether there’s a strong moon in the sky or not.

Aperture

Around f4. Any wider and you’ll find it difficult to get your focus and depth of field right. You can go narrower, but eventually you’ll start compromising on shutter speed, pushing it out beyond 20 seconds.

Focus point

This is a bit of a balancing act. Before starting, make sure your camera focus is in ‘Manual’ mode. If you only want a photo of the aurora then you will want to focus on ‘infinity’ in order to make the stars as sharp as possible. To do this, I recommend focusing on a tree or other object on the horizon during day light hours and either marking, or memorising where your focus ring on the lens is located, because at night time you won’t be able to tell if anything is in focus or not…it’s just too dark! However, 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 also help with this if possible. If you forget to mark ‘infinity’ before it gets dark, one other technique to use is to switch on ‘liveview’ (if available on your camera model), point it at the sky so that a bright star is right in the middle of the LCD screen, zoom in as far as you can using the ‘+’ button, and then tweak the focus ring until you get the star in focus.

Focal length

A wider angle 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 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 (DX).

Tripod

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 crept up on the cliff behind me causing rocks to tumble down the rock face!

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.

Where to see the Aurora Australis in Tasmania - Betsey Island

Aurora Australis over Betsey Island

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…

Where to see the Aurora Australis in Tasmania - Clifton Beach

Clifton Beach Aurora

It was a breathtaking night, and one I will never forget.


I hope this article helps any travellers interested in experiencing the unique difference of an Aurora Australis in Tasmania, and also any photographers wanting to improve the quality of their photos.

Happy aurora hunting!