Southern Lights Over Kingston Village

We all know Queenstown Lakes abounds with incredible landscapes and impressive views – during the day. In the golden hours of early morning and dusk when hues of orange, pink and magenta bathe the mountains and lakes the effect is even more memorable. This year though, the night sky has been the star. With the sun currently in a phase of heightened activity, our southern skies glow often with the light show of the Aurora Australis.

Local photographers vie to capture ever more amazing landscapes lit by the glowing greens and yellows of the Aurora. They sport fast lenses and iPhone apps that give hourly forecasts of likely aurora activity. The effect is often most pronounced in the early hours of the morning, so these hardy souls willingly give up sleep and warmth in pursuit of a great shot.

I have to admit I have been a bit lazy. It’s been a cold winter and I’ve not had a lot of of success with night photography. Last night the readings pointed to a cracker light show with images starting to appear on Facebook. It was time for me to get outside.

I had already imagined the perfect location, high on the Kingston Road at the Devil’s Staircase. Here, the Aurora would appear cradled in the gap between the Eyre and Hector Ranges. Our little village of Kingston would be in the distance with the expanse of Lake Wakatipu in between, reflecting the eerie glow.

Night sky photography is tricky. It’s about getting as much light through the lens as possible in the shortest amount of time. Expose for too long and the movement of stars elongates them. No longer bright, round dots, they start to become lines. Depending on their speed, clouds also blur and lose their shape, so keeping the exposure as short as possible is key.

We can shorten exposure by raising the sensitivity or ISO of the camera and we can use faster lenses, with a lower ‘f’ number. Raise ISO too much and the image develops unsightly noise, so a faster lens keeps the ISO down.

My fastest lens is an f1.8, 35mm Nikkor, much faster than my f3.5, 10-20mm Sigma wide angle. The 35mm Nikkor, effectively works as a 50mm with my cropped sensor camera. A 50mm lens gives a magnification most like our eyesight, but the field of view is relatively tight. For my Aurora I planned a wide angle panorama, so this meant shooting the scene as a series of images which would be stitched together back at home on the mac. I spent the next two hours shooting the panorama over and over as the light changed and danced. Every now and then, spotlight beams shot into the sky, waving and dying away again. These are what I most wanted to capture.

My final image also needed a foreground so I had to shoot another series of images exposed longer for the dark ground in front of me. This foreground would have to be blended in to the panorama later.
Finally satisfied I had what I need I headed home around 2am.

I began working on the image excitedly this morning. Using Adobe Lightroom to tweak the RAW images was fun as it revealed and enhanced the glorious colours and details. Long exposures tend to introduce a lot of red into images so that had to be dealt with along with inevitable noise.

Now with the individual images ready I could merge them into a single wide angle panorama in Lightroom. This is where problems really began. Each shot had been exposed for 15 seconds. In that time the clouds had moved and changed shape. From image to image, Lightroom was having a hard time matching them. Sending them to Photoshop was more successful. It managed to render the whole sweep in two sections. In the middle of the scene the clouds were just too different and the app couldn’t connect the tow sides of the scene, but by using the transform tool and with some careful twisting and warping I was able to lay the halves over each other and blend them together.

The whole merging and blending process had to be repeated with the foreground I had exposed to be lighter and then this had to be added to the bottom of the wide angle scene. Finally, I used NIK Software’s Viveza plugin to adjust the tone, color and structure of specific areas within the image. A little leveling of the horizon and removal of a few distracting plants in the foreground and my Aurora was ready. All up the process involved several tries at merging the images and took around three hours.

I’ve related this process to illustrate the amount of work that can go into a single image. If you’ve never tried night photography – give it a go. I’m happy with my “Lights Over Kingston Village”, but I know there’s lots of room for practice and improvement and that will take more late nights in the field and hours at the mac.

Martin Kohn
Martin Kohn