Earlier this week I had the most amazing experience of seeing the aurora australis from an airplane window. The photos and videos went a bit viral, appearing online with Qantas, The Herald Sun, The Daily Telegraph, The West Australian, ABC Perth and ABC Hobart.
While the majority of comments were positive there were a few people that could not comprehend that this image was actually possible. “If you’re going 600kmph, why aren’t the stars moving?!”, “How can you get a photo like that and the sides of the window are visible?”, “That looks suss!”.
So here’s a little behind-the-scenes look at how the image was made and why it is very much real!
A Little Back Story
Just before departing Sydney Airport on Qantas flight QF583, I received an alert from an aurora app on my phone (it’s called My Aurora Forecast). It said that a good aurora was expected very shortly. I thought that because I was flying from Sydney to Perth, I wouldn’t be able to see it that far north but once on the plane the pilot mentioned that due to strong headwinds, they’d be flying a southerly route down to Melbourne and across the Great Australian Bight. Perfect!
The Camera Gear
As I’d already considered taking some astro photos of the Milky Way while on the flight, I’d packed just the right camera lens for an aurora. The camera I have is a Canon 5D mkiii and I used a Samyang 14mm f/2.8 lens. This is a fantastic lens if you’re thinking about getting into astrophotography as the price is relatively cheap compared to the Canon or Nikon 14mm lenses but you still get a huge amount of quality for the price.
How The Image Was Shot
There was a bit of effort involved using a pillow, blanket and my jumper to prop my camera up against the window. I pulled the window shade down onto the lens, then shoved my scarf around it to block out the bright cabin light.
At first, I could see I was capturing a very faint pink aurora on the horizon, it could almost be mistaken for airglow but the colour looked more like pink aurora.
I spoke to a member of the Qantas cabin staff and mentioned that there was aurora expected to the south tonight and if the pilots see anything maybe they could let me know, as they’re in a darker cockpit.
It Did Not Look Like That Out The Window
Your eyes have to be adjusted to the dark to be able to see the aurora with the naked eye. I could hardly even make out the stars from my seat in the well-lit plane cabin! Even then, the camera is much better at picking up the bright colours of the aurora than our eyes ever can. This is due to the cones in your eye that only pick up muted colours in the dark.
The flight hostess came back just as dinner was being served and said the pilots could see something. I quickly built my little soft fortress again and started taking photos. This time it was definitely aurora with a very distinct green band on the horizon and a pink curtain floating above it, with some well-defined beams. I’ve only seen aurora once before and this was definitely a much better show and no clouds to block it when you’re at 30,000ft!
For the photography enthusiasts, these are the settings I used to get the shot.
– 13 second exposure
– f/2.8 aperture
WhY ArEn’T ThErE StAr TrAiLs?
Stars move surprisingly quickly, and with a normal astro capture you’d be limited to a 35 second exposure with a 14mm wide lens. There’s a formula you can use to figure out the maximum exposure for your lens focal length.
500 ÷ camera lens focal length = maximum exposure before star trails
so for me 500 ÷ 14 = 35.7 seconds (I’ll always round down)
When it comes to star trails in planes, the stars have to be the ones to move, due to their extreme distance from the plane. (Although if you move your camera, you’ll get them, go figure!). As long as the plane stays relatively smooth, you keep the camera absolutely still and stay under the max exposure, you can get a photo of the stars without any trail. You will however get light trails from any lights on land as the ground is a lot closer than the stars. (See below).
The pilots invited me into the cockpit to see the photos I took! Neither had seen an aurora from the plane before so they were quite happy that I’d let them know. They even got me to sit in the pilot’s seat and put the pilot’s hat on. Then I laughed all the way to baggage claim – what a flight!
Below is a timelapse of the 128 photos I took on the flight. Some were blurry, some were partially blocked by my scarf but at least you can see how the aurora moves in waves across the sky!