A sure-fire guide to shooting solar flares | Larryn Rae
With several road trips around the south, and 1000s of kilometres travelled, Kiwi astrophotographer Larryn Rae is arguably New Zealand’s most driven and dedicated aurora chaser. Venturing out to our darkest and most remote skies, he gives us a beginner’s guide to capturing the aurora australis in all of its celestial splendour
Capturing the aurora australis is both one of the most exciting and one of the most elusive, difficult, and frustrating of all the landscapebased photography subjects there are. But there’s nothing I’ve found to date, in all of my photography adventures, that gives you the rush and excitement you get from witnessing and capturing one of nature’s most brilliant spectacles. What makes it so special and satisfying is that you have so many external factors that are beyond your control. Those with a view to capturing an aurora must have all the right conditions line up to even have a chance of success, and, as we all know, because of our rich, diverse climate, the weather in New Zealand is both reliable and totally unpredictable! It requires being in the right location with the right equipment. With a typical landscape scene, you have time to see the colours and shapes forming in front of you, so have time to play with settings and adjust accordingly. But, in the case of an aurora, you are often in pitch-black conditions; it is often sudden, without warning, and usually doesn’t last long. My endeavours to capture the aurora have seen me take several trips down to the South Island over the last year. These trips typically started out through receiving advanced warnings through some websites I follow and some apps I use. Space Weather Live is an excellent and highly accurate resource and can predict with great accuracy when and where solar activity will occur. Apps like Aurora and Aurora Alert give me an idea of the strength, time, and the type of activity that is coming. Once I’ve received notification of the likelihood of an aurora, I usually use Met Service and a Norwegian weather site called ‘yr.no’, as well as the usual TV channels, to check where the clear skies will be. With usually only two to three days’ advance notice, you have to move fast! So, in a sense, while I am unfortunate to be based in Auckland, a long way from where auroras are typically visible, I am fortunate to work freelance and can usually travel at a moment’s notice to wherever the aurora australis will be seen best.
PREPARATION Websites and apps will only take you so far — you will still have to travel to an ideal viewing position. I usually try to find a location away from towns and cities and away from any light pollution. When possible, getting set up during the day is a great
idea and gives me time to find my composition and decide what foreground elements I want in my frame. Because I usually prefer to shoot in a time-lapse form, I am always looking to enhance my timelapse through finding something interesting to frame an aurora against. I have found water to be an excellent element, as it often reflects whatever the sky is doing and thus doubles the interest value of my images. Whatever location and foreground you choose, in New Zealand, it needs to be facing south, where the aurora activity will be centred. As the poles are the magnetic hubs of our planet, this is where the activity will always be at its strongest, and the closer you are to them the better. I usually carry two cameras with me on every adventure, so that I can cover as many angles as possible. I normally have one running as a time-lapse, and the other I use for different compositions. In the case of a rare aurora, I will try to get a third camera to maximize the opportunity as much as possible. Most important, pack and prepare your kit for a long night ahead. Especially, make sure you have fully charged spare batteries and extra memory cards. You are often led to remote locations and forgetting these is a total buzz kill! Even with advanced aurora-predicting technology, an aurora is still so very unpredictable — you could be waiting until the wee small hours of the morning to see anything! My last mission, for example, had me pull three all-nighters before I saw a single thing — and, even then, on the last night, the aurora didn’t arrive until one in the morning and lasted until just before dawn. Warm clothing and plenty of snacks also never go amiss.
LARRYN’S NIGHT-SHOOTING SET UP 1. Scout location to find foreground elements. 2. Set up tripods and mount cameras securely, with
fully charged batteries and formatted cards. 3. Set focus to infinity by using live view on the brightest star at night time, or at the furthest object you can see during the day. 4. Tape-off focus ring (you don’t want anything to shift during the night … and you just don’t have time in the heat of the moment!). 5. Compose the image. 6. Take test shots to find an ideal exposure. 7. Set cameras off time-lapsing and wait for Mother
Nature to do her thing!
CANON EOS 6D, CANON EF 16–35MM F/2.8L II USM LENS, 16MM, 13S, F/3.5, ISO 640
CANON EOS 5D MARK III, CANON EF 16–35MM F/2.8L II USM LENS, 16MM, 30S, F/3.2, ISO 12,800