The Hobart

Local People: Margaret Sonnemann

by Hobart Magazine
Local People: Margaret Sonnemann

The Aurora Australis Tasmania Facebook group has been helping Tasmanians find and photograph the Southern Lights since 2011. Margaret founded and manages the group of almost 300,000 members, which had a 30,000+ surge after the spectacular Aurora displays of May.

Where did you grow up and where do you live now? I was born in the US but have lived in Australia for 41 years. My childhood was spread across seven US locations and I’ve lived in four Australian states.

Tell us a little about your work. I admin a Facebook group, Aurora Australis Tasmania and I compiled The Aurora Chaser’s Handbook: in search of Tasmania’s Southern Lights. I’m also an oil portraitist and genre painter.

What has it been like watching the Aurora Australis Tasmania FB group grow? In many ways I miss the early days when it was small. Aurora chasing was new, unknown territory in 2011 and the initial members became good friends. My focus is still the same as it has always been: to do what I could to help people capture the joy that is the experience of an aurora. There are so many new people joining every day but I hope it has managed to maintain a friendly, personal vibe.

What are your most notable Aurora chasing experiences? October 2012 standing on the side of the road in Franklin with some tourists from Queensland. I was enthralled by a subauroral phenomenon that hadn’t previously been named or well-documented. I knew it was something special. Since then, our group has been able to be “citizen scientists” and participate in identifying new auroral forms and this is ongoing. We discover new things every year. When I first started out, I hadn’t investigated good local viewing spots well enough, and there were few stressful moments. Pulling the car over in random places and raising local suspicion. A farmer setting his dogs to get ‘the stranger’ in the dark. I was six years a chaser without a camera, a ‘naked eye viewer’, until the group bought me one. I suppose I looked even more suspicious without photography gear.

What’s your advice for those wanting to start Aurora photography?

  1. Know where you want to go in advance. We never know how long auroral activity will last and you don’t want to lose precious time driving around trying to decide where to go.
  2. Don’t expect there to be an aurora every night. That’s why we started the group, so we could share real-time I see it now reports.
  3. Know your camera or device. Try some astro shots on a clear night. For auroras, a good starting point is: manual, 1600 ISO, f-stop 2.8, 10-30 second exposure time. Experiment from there with different settings.
  4. Know what you are looking for. Auroras are always in the South but might initially look like the soft white light of a distant town at the horizon.

Who do you admire? My daughter, Christina Baehr. She toured internationally as a harpist singer then became a successful indie book author with 10 young children…I know! Nick Monk – forensic photographer and gifted vocalist. I have close friends and family members with chronic illnesses. I admire their bravery and determination to not allow this to define them.

Favourite podcast or tv show? Podcasts of the literary variety. TV? Nothing current except Bluey. Line of Duty if you want to go back a bit. I just found out I’m going to be an extra on Bay of Fires (season two) so I’m going to be binge watching season one.

Secret vice? Cafés. Reading with tea and a box of chocolates at hand.

What are you reading now? I usually have several books going and almost always a few are 19th century re-reads: An Eye for an Eye by Anthony Trollope, What’s Mine’s Mine by George Macdonald; I’m a beta reader for my daughter’s July release, City of Serpents, which is hugely exciting.

What was your first job? Café waitress at age 16. The word was “waitress” back then.

What are your daily news/social media habits? FB aurora group first thing in the morning, and every few hours including the 2 or 3 times I check throughout the night. I post my aurora forecast every night around nightfall. I’m on X, formerly Twitter, because the sciencey aurora types are there. Instagram because my daughter and grands are there.

Your favourite place for…

Breakfast: The Kiln, Ranelagh, Huon Valley

Lunch: Little Missy Patisserie, Hobart

Dinner: I’m open to a restaurant shouting me a meal to help me with this question.

Dream holiday destination? I was fortunate to be the roadie when my daughter was performing and would love to revisit Paris and Venice. I have special memories of le Château de Chambord in the Loire. For something new? The Orient Express. A posh sleeper car on a train is my happy place.

Favourite Tasmanian secret? Where I live. Bush acreage 340m elevation and aurora view.

Parting words? If you’d like to try and catch an aurora, read the FAQ in my Facebook group, Aurora Australia Tasmania.

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July 2024

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