Ian Griffin, director of Otago Museum, and renowned aurora spotter, shares his tips for getting the best shots of the magical light.
If you are lucky enough to find yourself beneath one of Earth's auroral crowns, you will enjoy awe-inspiring views of mysterious lights, dancing in the sky.
In the Northern Hemisphere the oval is called the Aurora Borealis; south of the equator it is the Aurora Australis.
Our planet possesses two slim haloes of gently glowing gas encircling its northern and southern magnetic poles. When an aurora graces the sky, we are witnessing gas glowing high above us in the Earth's atmosphere. The gas glows and moves because it is interacting with material from the sun which has been captured by the Earth's magnetic field and forced to spiral around lines of magnetic force.
Earth's Northern oval passes predominantly over land, whereas, other than Antarctica, the southern oval occurs over the southern ocean. This is why a trip to see the aurora borealis or Northern Lights is on the bucket list for many travellers. Sitting beneath Earth's Northern Auroral Oval and gawping up at beautiful dancing lights in frigid Arctic winter conditions is one way of gaining bragging rights at dinner parties.
However, for those of us unwilling to journey to the far north, there is still hope. Over the past six years, I have seen and photographed some incredible displays of auroras, on hundreds of nights without venturing north of Wellington. That's because if you are willing to put in a bit of effort, auroras can be seen surprisingly often from Southern New Zealand.
The further south you are, the better your chance of witnessing an aurora. The long-term average number of auroras seen in Invercargill or Dunedin can be as high as two or three a month. Probabilities in observing aurorae from elsewhere in New Zealand are lower the further north you are.
Several websites are useful starting points for novice aurora chasers. The "Aurora Australis" Facebook group is an excellent starting point as it's full of enthusiastic aurora chasers, all willing to share their expertise.
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Even if an aurora is blazing brightly overhead, clouds might hide it. The phase of the moon is also critical. It is easier to spot an aurora near a new moon because moonlight doesn't wash out the sky in the same way it does when the moon is full.
Finding a dark observing site with an unobstructed southern horizon is essential. This is because auroral action is usually low in the southern sky, and the aurora itself can often be quite dim.
Luckily in Southern New Zealand, if you have access to a car, it is easy to get away from city lights. There are many excellent observing spots within an easy drive of Dunedin, Invercargill, and Queenstown airports.
Once you've found a decent observing site, don't expect to see amazing beams and colours as soon as you arrive. You need to give your eyes time to adapt to the darkness, which can take as long as 20 minutes.
Even when your eyes have adapted, don't expect to see the intense colours common in aurora photographs. Unlike cameras, eyes aren't good at detecting faint auroral colour. All but the brightest displays appear in shades of grey because the auroral glow is too dim to stimulate the colour-sensing cone cells in our eyes.
You can take good pictures of an aurora with pretty much any camera that can take exposures longer than a second. Just make sure you pack a tripod.
Another way of aurora-spotting is during night-time flights into New Zealand's southern cities. Whenever travelling to Dunedin or Invercargill at night I always book a window seat on the left-hand side. There are also occasional 10-hour long charter flights called "Flights to the lights" departing from Dunedin or Christchurch. These spend more than six hours in the auroral zone, giving passengers incredible views of the lights.