As of late I’ve been doing a lot of aurora hunting, often heading off to the coast at a moment’s notice to try and catch the green and red dragon. Though I’ve been successful once, and had a few “near misses”, it’s been fun, and I’ve learned a lot about the sun, the earth, as well as the various satellites floating around earth (in particular the ACE space craft and it’s awesome near realtime data that makes sites like Aurora Services as well as apps like my own app-aurora for the Ninja Sphere possible).

I’m also a member of the Aurora Hunters Victoria Facebook page, where people share info and photos, plus tip each other off about upcoming auroras. On the page I’ve seen a bunch of questions from newcomers, and thought I’d jot down some of my own learndings about auroras. I’m no expert, so a lot of my info may be way off, but this is based on what I’ve read and experienced.

What causes an aurora?

The sun is not a uniform ball of gas. It’s much like a gigantic fiery ocean, with waves and such. When a large wave occurs, the sun spews out solar particles. If the particles are heading towards earth, the right conditions could cause an aurora due to the particles causing disruption to the earth’s magnetosphere. My experience shows that there are three key metrics for an aurora: Particle speed, particle density and Bz, all three of which, we’ll discuss later.

Be sure to check out this video by It’s Okay to be Smart, which gives an amazingly simple rundown of what causes an aurora.


Predicting an aurora is hard, because the sun is so unpredictable. You might see 3 day aurora forecasts, but the most accurate predictions occur about an hour prior, as that’s when the particles hit the ACE spacecraft and the info reaches earth. The forecasts are usually worked out by watching for telltale signs of the sun getting ready to spew out particles. There’s no spacecraft closer to the sun and if there were, the particles might scatter out too far, mostly missing the earth, which would still make predictions inaccurate.

A lot of sites use a Kp index to determine or predict aurora “strength”, but this isn’t the best way to determine activity, as I’ve personally witnessed an aurora out at Inverloch that was Kp 5 at it’s strongest, and Kp 7 at it’s weakest. As mentioned above, Speed, Density an Bz are your three keys.

So in short, you can ask “will there be an aurora on X day of the month”, but know that the answer will be as accurate as asking “will it rain on the 12th of December in three years’ time?”. Best bet is to watch sites like Space Weather to work out when solar flares are going to happen and where they’re directed.

Speed, Density and Bz

These seem to be the key three for seeing an aurora. The theory behind them goes something like this:


Speed is like throwing a baseball. The harder you throw, the more damage it does when it hits something. The faster the particles are travelling, the brighter they’ll be as they smash into other particles in our atmosphere


No, I’m not talking about Lorraine McFly (nee Baines) from Back to the Future. The more particles (i.e. the denser) that hit earth, the more intense the show will be. Going back to our baseball analogy, throwing a thousand balls looks cooler than throwing a handful


The ‘z’ is an orientation. There is also Bx and By, but generally aurora information sites don’t really worry about those. They’re available from the ACE spacecraft data site if you want to find out their values, but I don’t know how important they are. I’m still wrapping my head around Bz, so I’ll update this when I get a grasp on it, but Dartmouth’s “A Guide to Understanding and Predicting Space Weather” says:

The most important parameter is Bz, the z–component of the sun’s magnetic field. When Bz goes negative, the solar wind strongly couples to the Earth’s magnetosphere. Think of Bz as the door that allows transferring of significant amounts of energy. The more negative Bz goes, the more energy that can be transferred, resulting in more geomagnetic activity

Basically, the more negative Bz is, the more solar wind can get through and put on a good show.

Location and time

Finding a good spot is relatively simple if you’re just there to shoot the aurora, and don’t care what foreground features are present. Simply find the darkest, most southern (or highest, if you’re too far away from the coast) spot you can find, and point your camera south. Because the sun does what it wants, the particles could hit at noon. You obviously can’t see an aurora during the day, in the same way that a torch is less effective during the day, so if a big storm hits during your lunch break, ain’t nothin’ you can do about it.

If you’re located in the city and aren’t sure where to go, use Google Maps. Open it up, find your house, then look for remote spots away from towns, major roads and such. I live near three power stations so I have to travel a bit to get away from their warm glowing warming glow.

If you’re heading out somewhere new or remote, take a friend. Most non-astronomically inclined friends would be overjoyed to accompany you in the viewing of lights in the sky.

If you’re still not sure where to go because you exist in a world without Google maps (hey, it could happen!), then lots of people go coastal, to places including the Flinders blowhole, Cape Schanck, Inverloch, Cape Patterson and the other side of Melbourne to places along the great ocean road. Basically, if it’s dark and near the cost, it’s a good place. 

Photographing the Aurora

Asking what exact settings to use is like asking how much fuel you’ll need to drive to a random spot in Melbourne from a random spot in Victoria. You could give a ballpark figure, but if you wanted a more exact number, you’d have to think about traffic, roadworks, alternate routes, stopping for maccas, fuel economy, tank capacity and so on.

What you should do, is practice beforehand. Go outside and shoot the stars. Know how the street lights affect your shots. Know roughly what your camera settings do and don’t be afraid to experiment. Digital storage is cheap, so just keep hammering the shutter and dicking around with the settings on the camera until you get something good. Here’s what you’d need to know at a minimum:

Shutter Speed

This is how long your camera lets light in. The longer it’s open, the more light gets in and the brighter your photos are. You need to remember that the earth is constantly moving, so if your shutter is open TOO long, you’ll get star trails which would make your photo look blurry. This can be partially resolved with..


ISO is the digital equivalent of film sensitivity. ISO determines how sensitive your camera is to incoming light. Set it low, your image will be darker. Set it high, your image will be brighter, but will also get noise (graininess). You can probably already see the relationship between shutter and ISO. Shooting the night sky is about finding the right mix.

Many lower-end cameras might have a maximum ISO of 3200 or so, while higher-end cameras can go up to 64,000. Newer cameras have better noise reduction, so the graininess isn’t as pronounced on a newer camera as it is on an older one.


This is another “light determining” setting (which, face it, photography is all about controlling light). Your typical lens has a set of blades inside which form a circle. Remember the intro to James Bond movies with Bond shooting at the camera? The black surround is what aperture blades look like. They open or close to let more or less light in, and are like the pinhole on a pinhole camera.

Aperture is referred to as “f-stop”. If you see f/4, the aperture is wider than f/16. The higher the aperture, the sharper the photo (due to light bending) but also the less light that gets in. For shooting at night, you generally want this “open” (at it’s lowest number). If you’re shooting epic exposures (30 minutes+), you’d want to bump up the aperture, but practice lots beforehand

A good practical demonstration of aperture, is to put your index and middle fingers together, open them slightly, and peer through the gap. The scene might look darker, but it might also be sharper.


Many DSLR cameras have the option to shoot in JPEG or RAW. Both have their advantages, but if you’re new to photography, I strongly suggest you shoot RAW + JPEG (grab your camera’s manual and look it up), for reasons I’ll explain. If you’re getting better with your camera, switch to RAW exclusively and don’t look back. I don’t recommend you shoot JPEG only.


A JPEG is just a standard old image. Most images you view online would be JPEG, as it’s perfect for photos — it’s standardized, shrinks down well, can be opened on almost every computer in the world and can have variable quality, so a massive image can load rather quickly. The downside is that it’s what we call “lossy” — whatever is saving the file has no real qualms about tossing out information. That information could be merging 100 shades of red into 1 “close enough” red, or it could be a small detail in the background that nobody would look at.


RAW is a generic term that refers to file types such as CR2 (Canon), NEF (Nikon), ORF (Olympus) PEF (Pentax) and ARW (Sony). It’s basically the untouched image from the camera’s sensor. With a JPEG, as soon as it’s converted, you lose quality as mentioned above, whereas RAW is “lossless” and retains all information. RAW is supported by major apps like Photoshop, Lightroom and others, plus many online services such as Google Photos. I believe Windows 10 is starting to support it natively too. Sure the file size is bigger (up to 20+ times in some cases) but it’s worth it, because you can (to a certain extent) bump up or tone down the brightness, use them in HDR photos and even fiddle with white balance. And with most RAW formats being 12-14 bits, they can hold between 4096 and 16384 shades of colour, compared to JPEG’s paltry 256 colours. So if you’re not shooting in at least RAW + JPEG, put your camera away, please. Your hard-drive might groan, but your future-photographer-self will thank you for it. I speak from experience! 🙂

White Balance

Frankly, white balance is of little importance to me when shooting RAW, as I can simply change it later in Photoshop or Lightroom. The only time it matters to me, is when I want to see how the image looks on the back of my camera. Otherwise I’ll just ignore it. White Balance determines how warm or cool your photo looks. It’s also called colour temperature and it’s measured in Kelvins, with lower values meaning bluer photos, and higher values meaning more orange photos. Generally, just shove it on auto and fire away. Changing white balance in Lightroom doesn’t ruin your photos, so don’t panic too much about this.

Shooting Mode

Anything other than Auto. Anything other than Auto. Anything other than Auto. Anything other than Auto. Anything other than Auto. Anything other than Auto.

Got that? If you shoot an aurora in auto mode, you’re gonna have a bad time. I highly suggest manual. Sure it might be a bit complex, but you’ll have the most control and will be able to quickly set everything up for hassle-free shooting. If you’ve fiddled with your camera settings enough to know what each do, then manual is a piece of cake!


Focusing doesn’t work in the dark. Full stop. Well it kinda does, but it’s like trying to hit a squirrel with a stone in the dark. Possible, but difficult. The best trick I learned (which came from Royce Bair’s excellent book on astrophotography) is to focus before you leave home. Point your camera at something distant and focus on it (e.g. a house down the road, the other end of your loungeroom etc.) and mark the spots with masking tape so you can easily see where you were focused. If you couldn’t plan that far ahead, get a friend to stand a bit of a distance away, pointing a torch at themselves. Focus on them, then slip your camera into manual focus to avoid hitting the shutter and losing your spot.


Bring a tripod. That should be an “uh duh!” moment, but I’ve left home without my tripod connector before, meaning it was as good as resting my camera on a moving animal. If you find that you do forget your tripod, rest your camera on a flat rail, or prop it up with a rock or stick. Just be extra careful, as you’re more likely to drop or step on your camera

Actually shooting the aurora

I have a “favourite” setting when shooting the night sky. It usually works out to be ISO 3200, 15 second shutter speed and aperture set as open (low) as it’ll go (f/4.0 on my lens). That is slow enough to let light in, but not slow enough to cause movement. ISO 3200 ensures I don’t dip too low, while keeping my images as noise free as possible. If I catch you blindly setting these settings without knowing why you’re doing that, I’ll slap you, as these settings work for me sometimes, but if you’re closer to light pollution or in the middle of nowhere, your settings will need to change.

Shooting the aurora is as simple as setting your desire settings, pointing south and shooting. If your settings are correct, you should easily be able to see an aurora. If not, check your aurora data to ensure the aurora is strong enough to be photographed. And double check that you’re pointing south. Even if you’re staring across the water, you could be in a bay facing back towards land. I know this from personal experience out at Cape Liptrap.

What an aurora looks like to the naked eye

When you view the aurora with the naked eye, it’s not as pretty and red or green as it looks in your photos. This is basically because of the wavelength of red and green and detection by the human eye. When I first saw the aurora after pulling up at Inverloch, it looked like light pollution in fog off in the distance. It was an extremely dull greeny orange. Then when I saw the beams off to the right, they looked like people standing in fog shining odd shaped, slightly reddish lights in the air. I knew not to trust my eyes, and sure enough, my first photo yielded a blast of pink and green colours.

Links and stuff

Everyone likes links! So here’s a bunch that’ll help you become a better photography-type-person. Here’s some great links:


  • The Arcanum – This site is a paid site (roughly $70 a month) but puts you in a group led by a world class photographer. You complete photographic challenges and “level up”. You also get access to the Grand Library, which is hundreds of videos about everything photography, from how to shoot a wedding, right down to how to calibrate your monitor to get perfect prints every time. I’m a member and it’s been good value so far.


Webcams and Weather

Saying thanks!

If this post is helpful for you and you want to give back, there’s a few ways you can do it:

  • Share this post with your friends. Scroll to the bottom and find the share icons.
  • Follow me on one of my social media accounts. I’m on Facebook, Google+, Instagram plus plenty more (just search for davidgrayphotography wherever photos are found!)
  • Check out my store. I have prints, cards and other cool stuff for sale: davidgrayPhotography
  • Help me cover server costs through PayPal or with Bitcoin: 34agreMVU8QeHu4cLLPkyw5EYdSKp6NqTV

The TL;DR version

This has been a long post. Probably much longer than any other post I’ve written, but I did it to help people learn more about their camera, while learning a bit more about auroras. Here’s the rundown if you’ve got the attention span of a creature with a small attention span:

  1. Fiddle with the settings on your camera. All cameras have a “factory default” setting, so don’t be afraid to explore and learn about what each setting does
  2. Learn about ISO, shutter speed and aperture. Shutter = how much light is let in, ISO = how sensitive your camera is to light, aperture = F-Stop and is like a pinhole camera. Bigger pinhole, more light.
  3. Focus your camera before you leave home, put a piece of tape on your focus ring so you know where to focus when you’re in the dark.
  4. Use a tripod. Don’t have one? Any flat, steady surface will do, but be careful. It’s your camera!
  5. Shoot RAW. If you don’t wanna, shoot RAW + JPEG instead. Shooting JPEG only is like taking a photo of a Picasso masterpiece and trying to print it — it’s gonna come out “alright”, but it could be SO much better.
  6. Digital storage is so cheap, so don’t be afraid to take lots of photos and experiment.
  7. Head south. As far south as you can go. Can’t get south? Get up high.
  8. Go somewhere dark. Where? Get out Google Maps and look at your home, then move around until you find somewhere that’s away from major roads, away from towns, and preferably behind a hill (as hills block out lights really well). Take a friend. It’s lonely, spooky and potentially dangerous out there.
  9. It’s difficult to predict an aurora. A meteorologist can’t reliably predict the weather, nor can space weather sites. Accurate predictions are accurate up to an hour in advance, but keep an eye on space weather sites, as they often report potential solar activity, which could, with the right conditions, lead to an aurora.
  10. ISO 3200, f/4.0, 15′ Shutter speed. Those are my “starting out” settings, but don’t just blindly use these numbers. Find out what they mean and tweak them to your conditions

I just had a colleague come in who had taken lots of photos on holiday but was unable to find them after an occasion where they went into the menus to try and fix an issue after the camera was dropped  I ran my favourite utility, PhotoRec, and we realised that the photos were gone entirely, with little explanation as to why. I suspect she had overwritten the files by taking more photos, which is a data-recovery no-no So with that in mind, here’s a quick post giving a simplified and brief explanation of how media storage works and what you can do in order to prevent your own photographic catastrophe . This isn’t a how-to for PhotoRec / TestDisk, as there are plenty of tutorials out there for that.

In the digital world, speed is important, and storage controllers (that is, devices that read and write to your storage) take shortcuts to ensure things keep zooming along. For example, if you move a folder between two spots on the same disk, the controller isn’t going to spend forever physically moving your files, bit by bit. That would be like moving a house, brick by brick. Instead, a storage controller does the ol’ switcheroo, taking the label off your folder, and giving you the label of another folder instead. The folder hasn’t moved, but to anyone looking at it, it has, because the label has changed. This is why you can move 100gb of movies from one spot to another on your disk in seconds, but copying them over for a friend takes hours.

Digital storage also takes these sorts of shortcuts when dealing with deleting files. In order to delete a file properly, you need to overwrite it with 0’s. But if you have a 4gb movie, that’s a lot of 0’s to write. So what the controller does, is mark the file as deleted. It’s still physically there on the disk, but the system ignores it, because it’s been told that the file has been deleted. When a new file comes rolling along, it moves over the top of the deleted file, so it’s finally deleted.

As you can see, this makes file recovery easy with a tool like TestDisk which ignores the system saying “Nah, this file isn’t here” and makes a copy of the file on another disk, because the file is still there, but it’s just been marked as “invisible” essentially. As you can also see, if you keep shooting, you’re overwriting the “deleted” files, and you have almost zero chance of getting those files back. Even if you don’t take a photo, your camera might still perform some kind of maintenance which causes data to be written to it, and you obviously don’t want that.

So if you’re on holidays and your card stops working, just eject it, pop it in your bag, pop in a second card (you do have one, right?!) and keep on shooting. Unless your card is snapped in two or burned out or in the mouth of a dolphin you were taunting, there’s a good chance you can get your files back

The image at the top of this post is one I took in Sydney back in 2013. I had to recover this, along with a ton of other files with TestDisk because I had accidentally formatted the card, not realising that I didn’t have the photos stored on my PC yet.

So the TL;DR version of this post is:

  1. If your card is cactus, eject it immediately. Don’t write to it!
  2. Take it to your nearest willing IT guy as soon as possible, or use TestDisk / PhotoRec to recover it if you know how
  3. Make sure you carry many cards with you, just in case one dies. Storage is so cheap, you have no excuse!
  4. Keep backups of all your files and import them onto your PC as soon as you get a chance! Even if it’s just one photo, back it up! Your daddy taught you good, right?

Under the suggestion of a fellow Arcanum member, I purchased Royce Bair’s “Milky Way Nightscapes – A guide to photographing the Milky Way“. It’s 140 pages of practical tips on how to photograph the milky way (as the title obviously suggests). I’m still learning astrophotography, but it’s proven useful so far, even after a quick read.

In the book, it goes over many things, including how to remotely compose your shots before you even leave home (using free or cheap software such as Stellarium, along with Google Maps), post-processing using Adobe Camera Raw, lighting the foreground with a variety of lights (and even includes formulas for calculating light intensity and such) plus ideal camera settings for various print types.

If you have $20 USD and a keen interest in astrophotography, it’s well worth a look. The weather has been rather terrible most of the last week, but we’ve had some great weather this weekend, so I’ve had more chances to get out and put into practice what I’ve been learning. I’ve still got a long way to go, but I’m slowly getting there!

EDIT: Want to see the failed print in action? Video at the bottom of this post!

The Buccaneer sitting pretty, filament loaded, ready to start printing.

The Buccaneer sitting pretty, filament loaded, ready to start printing.

After almost a year and a half of waiting, I finally received my Buccaneer 3D printer. The printer, which was funded with Kickstarter, has experienced delay after delay, a fairly high number of staff joining and leaving, plus the ever growing angry backer crowd who were annoyed by lack of communication, delays in refunds, removed features and not knowing for sure when they were getting their printers. But those issues aside, was it worth the wait?

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The last few nights I’ve been out and about shooting the stars. It’s one of my first few times doing so, so I still have much to learn. My first port of call on Sunday night was Blue Rock Dam, a place about three quarters of an hour from home. It’s 11km from the nearest major town, about 2-3km from a small town, and about 20km (or more) to the nearest power station, so I was well away from light pollution (though you could still see some in the final shot).

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Today I travelled to Melbourne to visit my aunty, who was hosting a lunch for various family and extended family members. To get there, we had to travel along Eastlink, a tolled road that takes you to the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. Along the way, there are plenty of green and orange perspex panels that line the road, seemingly purely for decoration. Turns out that due to a parallax effect, they make a really neat long exposure photo!

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And here’s another shot from Mayday Hills. I do have other photos asides from ones taken at this location, you know. Just check out my portfolio!

This place really gave me the creeps. Nowhere else on the tour did as much as this location. I guess partly because there was a bed down there, all set up, and it looked like it had been slept in recently. One of my big fears when exploring places like this, is meeting someone inside, when you don’t know they’re there. Continue reading

Laundry at Mayday Hills, Beechworth

While touring Mayday Hills lunatic asylum in Beechworth, we came to this room, which is part of the laundry. On the wall were steam pipes that could dry clothing in three minutes flat. Some of the patients were assigned to do laundry, which could be a never ending job.

The door off to the left was also nailed shut. According to the guide, it was to stop people from breaking in (because honestly, who wouldn’t want to give themselves a self-guided tour?). They’d kicked down the door so many times, the owners finally nailed the door shut. It’d take a hell of a kick to get in after that.

For this shot I used my new Yongnuo YN560-IV which can be found on eBay for around $80. It’s different to my previous flash, the YN460, but still managed to light this large area perfectly — after I’d warned my wife and the tour guide to avert their eyes, because I had it set to full power.

As with other shots in the Mayday Hills series, this one was a single RAW file, edited in Lightroom using the John and Marcus Salvation LR preset with some tweaking.

A while ago I backed MIOPS, a high-speed camera trigger, on Kickstarter. The idea being, a sub-$200 high speed camera trigger that has support for sound, lightning, laser tripping, time-lapse, HDR or a mix of all the above. You can control it via Bluetooth, using the buttons and colour display on top of the unit, or via a cable that plugs directly into your phone’s audio jack and camera (and operates using sound. Very nifty!)

I had some fun doing high-speed photos (keep an eye out for more posts about this, coming soon), but on the Easter long weekend, I was given the chance to test out the time-lapse feature at Mayday Hills lunatic asylum in Beechworth, Victoria. We walked up to the women’s wing and into a room overlooking the courtyard. I set my camera up, attached my MIOPS, set it to take a shot every 10 seconds, then let it go for two hours while we walked around the place taking photos. The results are amazing:


I used Lightroom, and LRTimelapse 3 to deflicker my shots (as MIOPS doesn’t have bulb ramping yet) and added my logo in Windows Movie Maker (a great program for doing quick movie stuff where you don’t need the world.

I’ll do a better review of MIOPS soon, as I’m still playing with the various settings, but I thought I’d share a successful time-lapse