Novice tips for the northern lights

Started Jan 5, 2013 | Discussions thread
donaldsc Veteran Member • Posts: 3,119
Re: Novice tips for the northern lights

ajbaker wrote:

Hi all,

In February my wife and I travelling to Finland in the hope of finding the Northern Lights. I'm very much a novice photographer (but am not scared to use the manual mode), and hope people may be willing to offer tips or links to tutorials to help me out.

My kit consists of: Canon 550d, 18-55 kit lens, 50mm f/2.8 prime, Manfrotto tripod, UV filter, polariser. I'm hoping to purchase a Canon EF-S 10-22 f/3.5-4.5 lens before I travel. I also have two batteries and normal padded camera bag.

From what I've read so far I needn't worry about filters, need use the tripod, set the lens to focus to infinity, choose an appropriate aperture (I'm thinking a relatively high to keep trees/hills in focus too) and then go with whatever Tv works given the available light. There must be a lot more to think about...

I'm generally happy with the technical aspects but always struggle with composition, so if anyone has things I should think about for the northern lights in particular, that would be appreciated.

What is the best way to prevent the camera and lens from freezing? Should I keep it wrapped up even when I am taking photographs?

Thanks in advance.


First of all, check out these sites

Now some advice from me.  I have done an Aurora trip to Fairbanks and got some great pictures -

1. Take more than 2 batteries.  Keep the ones that you are not using in a warm place.  I kept them in a pocket with a chemical warmer.

2. Aurora can cover wide areas of the sky.  I used a 15 mm lens and it was barely wide enough enough to cover what I wanted to photograph.  Instead of buying the Canon wide angle lens, buy or rent a fast single focal length wide angle lens.  The faster the better.  It may not seem as if aurora are moving but they are.  I shot all my pictures with the lens wide open at 3 shutter speeds (20, 10, and 5 seconds or 10, 5, 2.5 seconds).  You should be able to do this by using bracketing.  The longer exposures were not as sharp as I wished.  When you are done shooting aurora, remember to turn off the bracketing.  I forgot to do this on the first night and this resulted in under and over exposed pictures taken the next day.

3. If by "relatively high aperture" you mean not using the fastest lens opening, that is a mistake. Your depth of field at wide open will be sufficient to keep both the sky and the trees in focus.  If you stop down the lens, you will have to compensate by using longer shutter times.

4. It will be cold.  You will need to wear gloves with thin liners.  When you need to adjust anything on the camera, take off the warm gloves and the liners will keep your fingers slightly warm.  If you need to adjust any settings on the camera, you need to do it outside in the cold for the reason discussed in item 6.

5. If your camera has a delayed shutter release, use it.  Otherwise, use a short self timer.  This reduces the camera movement caused by pressing the shutter release or from mirror slap.

6. You do not have to worry about the camera or lens freezing.  You do have to worry about moisture condensation on and within the camera when you take it back into a warm room.  This is why I mentioned in item 6 that any camera adjustments have to be done outside in the cold.  When you bring the camera back into a warm room,  put it into a sealed bag such as a kayak dry bag or a ziplock bag before you bring it into the warm room.  This will prevent condensation.

7. You do not want to ruin your night vision by using a bright flashlight when you have to adjust your camera or change batteries.  I bought a red flashlight since red light has a minimal effect on night vision.  They are available at astronomy supply stores and may be available other places.  Also, if you are photographing in a group, using a bright flashlight is very annoying to others in the group.

Hope that these suggestions help.  One other thing - be prepared to do a good bit of post processing after you are done to enhance the aurora and to remove the glow from the sky.

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