This week at Mawson station, an expeditioner details the perfect camera settings for taking a photo of the beautiful aurora australis displays that light up the sky down south. There is also an overview of what it takes to conduct vital training in the field.

How to take the perfect aurora photograph

One of the goals I set for myself this year was to capture a decent aurora photograph. Many people reading this will know far more about aurora photography than I do, but I thought I’d jot down the basics here for those who are interested. The general principle is that you need to get as much light hitting your camera’s sensor for as long as possible (because it will be dark!), while keeping your camera very still. A camera with a manual mode such that aperture, shutter speed and ISO can be adjusted is required.

Aperture (f/stop)

This is a measure of the size of the hole through which light passes to the camera’s sensor (where the image is recorded). A smaller number equates to a bigger‘hole and thus more light hitting the sensor. I use a lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 and then manually set my aperture to f/2.8. Confusion often surrounds the f/stop and this sequence of seemingly random numbers (f/2, f/2.8, f/4, f/5.6, f/8, f/11, f/16, f/22 etc). The f/stop number is actually the ratio of the lens opening to the focal length of the lens and is really an inverse amount, which accounts for its inverse relationship with the size of the hole. You don’t need to understand this, just set the number as small as your camera and lens will allow! This will give you the biggest hole and allow the most light to hit the sensor.

Shutter speed

Make this long so that there is sufficient time for the light to get through the aperture to hit the sensor. I typically use 15 or 25 seconds. Be aware that auroras move and you will essentially capture an ‘average’ image of where the aurora was over the time that the shutter was open (and the aurora’s light was hitting the camera’s sensor). 


This is a measure of the camera sensor’s sensitivity to light. A bigger ISO number makes the sensor more sensitive to light. Hence, for a given aperture and shutter speed a higher ISO will result in a brighter image. However, the tradeoff is that the image will start to appear grainy at higher ISOs (where exactly this occurs depends on the particular camera/sensor). I really don’t like this grainy quality and use quite low ISOs (under 400). Generally a wide angle lens that includes as much of the night sky as possible is desirable. I use a Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8. There is no reason that you couldn’t use a longer (eg telephoto) lens if you wanted to. More important is the lens’ maximum aperture. Remember a small f/stop number means a bigger hole and allows more of that night sky to hit the sensor. A higher maximum f/stop number (smaller hole) means that you will need to compensate by increasing the time that the shutter is open, or by increasing the ISO. In fact, to get the same amount of light hitting the sensor at f/4 as f/2.8, it is necessary to double the time that the shutter is open, or double the ISO.A tripod is very handy. It keeps the image — particularly any objects in the foreground — as sharp as possible.

Many people use a remote to open the shutter (ie to take the photo) so that they don’t bump the camera and blur the image when they press the shutter release button. I get around this by setting my camera to take the picture 10 seconds after I press the shutter release button (as you would for a self portrait). This way I’m not bumping the camera when the shutter opens. Another consideration is focus. Your camera might hunt for a focal point and refuse to take the photo because it can’t find anything to focus on. Best to set it to manual focus and, as auroras are a long way away, focus on infinity (ie as far away as possible). You might want to play around with this if you desire objects in the foreground to be in focus.

None of this is hard and fast. These are general principles only. Much of the fun is in playing around with settings and, let’s face it, hitting on a bit of luck as well!

James Chappell

Photos in front of Rumdoodle hut

Nikon D3200

Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8. Focal Length 11mm

Aperture: f/2.8

Shutter speed: 25 seconds

ISO: 200

Trained, and flourishing, Mawson expeditioners

If you have been following the past two months of Mawson station news you would have read many a story of expeditioners, some being your husbands, beloved sons, daughters and good friends, braving the cold and wind to learn the skills that will make their work and recreation more of a enjoyable and informed experience through good judgement.

My role over the past two months has been training personnel in survival training (two days duration) and field travel training (three days). You may have been aware of our late arrival at Mawson due to two voyages south, and our final arrival date here at Mawson on the 26th March, approx five to six weeks later than planned. With the temperatures beginning to fall and daylight hours on the decrease, we were on the back foot from the start. But really, this was a fantastic opportunity for expeditioners to get a real experience to learn how to operate in a cold and getting colder (and windier — a common theme here at Mawson) environment.

So what’s involved in survival training and field travel training? Skills such as:

  • Navigation, understanding how to read a map, interpret the data and relate it to your surrounds and make a trip plan;
  • Using a compass — take a magnetic and grid-bearing triangulation;
  • GPS use — building a route trace (to find the way back), entering a waypoint and using programmed codes, or functions, to determine location (GPS is our main navigation tool, backed up by map and compass skills);
  • Procedures to prepare for leaving station (it can take up to two hours to get all gear sorted and depart station, and then if you time it around lunch or one of Rocket’s scrummy morning teas, you can add another half hour because it’s going to be cold and food is another layer to protect you against the cold. Surely I need that extra sausage roll…);
  • Bivvy night — sleeping in a personal Bivvy bag (also been referred to a ‘chip packet’). This is a valuable experience which provides expeditioners the reassurance that their personal survival pack they carry off station everywhere is enough to survive a night out, if they have to;
  • Hut etiquette — leave it cleaner than you left it, how to reset the number two toilet bucket (very important!), how to avoid being affected by carbon monoxide poisoning, and general housekeeping;
  • Hut search exercise;
  • Weather forecast interpretation;
  • Environmental considerations;
  • Clothing and layering systems;
  • Sea ice travel and drilling procedures;
  • Movement of snow and ice using micro spikes and use of an ice axe;
  • Quad travel (the drive up onto the plateau to Rumdoodle hut is 20 km away) and the use of a quad survival bivvy and recovery kit. (Some expeditioners carried out this training in some very windy, realistic conditions and rated it as a rewarding even enjoyable experience!);
  • Refuelling in the field;
  • Radio use and different built-in emergency functions, satellite phone and personal locator beacon operation;
  • Use of stoves in the field plus tips and tricks on how to cook using one.

Looking back over the past two months of training, from the first groups going out and the last group going out at the end of May, it is rewarding to watch people operating with confidence and competence. We have access on the sea ice now and our first trips out to Auster rookery are underway. This is a 40 km journey over sea ice to Macey Hut and then a further 10 km to the emperor penguin colony. This is usually a three day journey by Hägglunds (tracked vehicle). We have four trip leaders that can lead these journeys, so the team are making the most of this.

For some of our returning expeditioners, also known as ‘re-offenders’, their training was not so rigorous. A familiarisation day trip where they tagged along on a survival training day got them back up to speed with navigation, the local area and quad bike travel.

We have just experienced a windier and warmer month of May than average (-0.7 on the 28th May and 99 knots/183 km/hr winds on the 20th May).

Looking back on May and what has been happening around and off station, it is great to see people getting out and using their skills and experience.

So, with June well underway and the Taylor rookery traverse planning happening (90 km over sea ice), it is time to start the next round of training. And with that you should begin to see a new ‘flavour’ of news stories emerging.

So enjoy reading the stories and rest assured that all have been trained and are out there comfortable (maybe the odd cold toe), and with skills that will enable them to make good decisions.