Cameras for Photographing the Northern lights

PRO TIPS

What is the “right” kind of camera for photographing the northern lights?

If you plan on traveling to a place for optimal viewing of the Northern Lights and plan to photograph them (I’m quite partial to Churchill, Canada), you’ll need to think about your camera equipment, as not all cameras have the capabilities to photograph the aurora.

Your Camera’s Capabilities

While actually getting the photo can be a little complicated (and I’ve outlined proper techniques HERE), determining if your camera can photograph them isn’t difficult at all.  While having a good quality lens is helpful, that’s usually not the limiting factor.  Instead, it’s your camera’s ability to shoot at long exposures while at a high ISO.

As a photo guide for Northern Lights Photo Expeditions, I’ve unfortunately seen some guests come with cameras that could shoot at long exposures, up to 30 seconds, and they could also get to high ISOs, 1600, and even 3200.  However, the camera could not do both at the same time.  This is a deal breaker!

Be sure to do some test shots at home (and at night) when evaluating whether your camera’s cut out for the job.

Deciding on the Right Lens

If you do have a point and shoot, and it’s passed the test from the above section – you’re all set!  No need to think much further.  However, if you have a camera with interchangeable lenses (or you’re thinking about upgrading to one), this section is important for which lens is right for the job.

Generally speaking, you should prioritize the angle of the lens vs. the speed of the lens.  You’ll often hear people saying that you need a fast lens…that is, one with a very wide maximum aperture, like f/2.8 or even f/1.4.  While this is helpful in getting the best photos possible, you don’t want to favor those apertures if it means you have to go with a 50mm or 85mm lens.  These just aren’t wide enough to get the full sky, let alone neat things in the foreground to give the shot context (like an igloo or inukshuk or people).

Thus, if you’re faced with the decision between a “normal” wide angle lens, like an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 vs. a 50mm 1.4, you really ought to go with the 18-55mm.  You need to have the ability to get a lot of the scene in your photo.  A 50mm version of the same shot as above looks like this…

It just simple doesn’t have the same effect, does it?

So, if you have an assortment of lenses, I personally recommend you bring the widest lens you have as your #1 pick.

However, if you’re planning on purchasing a lens specifically for photographing the lights, here are a few recommendations.  Keep in mind that they can get pricey, because the technology inside them to “have your cake and eat it too” is pretty advanced…

My top picks: 24mm f/1.4; 16-35mm f/2.8; 14-24mm f/2.8; 14mm f/2.8; 17-40mm f/4; 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6; 24-70mm f/2.8; 24-105mm f/4

The “best” camera

To start, let me just say that virtually any DSLR or mirrorless camera body is great, and you’ll likely come home with stunning shots.  However, if you really want to know the best, and shoot with the best, you ought to think about investing in a full frame camera.  They are indeed an investment, but they are specialists at photographing in dim or dark conditions.  They have a larger sensor, which means you can get dramatically better shots in very suboptimal lighting conditions.

If you’re not sure you’re ready to invest in a fancy camera body, read no further, as these are usually well over a $1,000 commitment.  However, if you have a budget to get the best, I recommend getting a full frame camera.  If you’re interested in learning more about different camera bodies, including full frame cameras, read my article about full frame cameras HERE.

In Conclusion

There are many ways and many combinations of camera bodies, lenses, and advanced point and shoots that will work for capturing the northern lights.  If you are opting for an all-in-one system, like an advanced point and shoot camera, be sure to test it to make sure it can shoot at long exposures and high ISOs.  If you are picking out a lens, make sure it’s very wide angle then choose based on the fastest speed (aka, smallest f/number)…not the other way around.  If you’re aiming to upgrade your camera system, want the very best, and price is no issue – go for the splurge and get a full frame camera.

Churchill winter active

Churchill is buzzing these days with all kinds of excitement! Aurora trips are in full swing with this being one of the best years to view the “northern lights” due to incredible solar flaring. Also, Churchill’s annual Aurora festival begins in March and overlaps with the start of the Hudson Bay Quest which begins in Gillam, MB on March 15th and finishes in Churchill this year.  And..oh yeah..polar bears are always in the news with the ongoing debates on how they should be listed on the endangered species list. Lots to think about in the heart of winter up north.

A polar bear watches intently from the willows.

A polar bear keeps a watchful eye from the shelter of willows.

Polar bears were listed as endangered in 2008. in 2010 the United States petitioned the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) to upgrade the listing from appendix II to appendix I..which would prevent any international trade in polar bear parts. That year the motion was declined and now this March 3-14th the USA is once again trying to push the change through. Of course there are many sides to the issue but passage of the motion would surely have ramifications all over the planet. This article goes more deeply into the reasons many different proponents and opponents have interest in the upcoming symposium.

Sled dogs in Churchill,MB

Avid sled dogs in Churchill,MB. Brad Josephs photo.

The Hudson Bay Quest is ramping up to full speed in preparation for the March 15th start date. An amazing field of mushers has already registered. Here’s the updated list below:

 
1. David Daley, from Churchill, Manitoba
2. Julie Robitaille, from Otter Lake, Quebec
3. Ryan Anderson, from Ray, Minnesota
4. Charlie Lundie, from Churchill, Manitoba
5. Stefan deMarie, from Christopher Lake, Saskatchewan
6. Alvin Hardman, from Ludington, Michigan
7. Dan DiMuzio, from Churchill, Manitoba
8. Jim Oehlschlaeger, from Newberry, Michigan
9. Ed the Sled Obrecht, from Otter Lake, Quebec
10. Blake Freking, from Finland, Minnesota
11. Troy Groeneveld, from Two Harbours, Minnesota
12. Jesse Terry, from Sioux Lookout, Ontario
13. Peter McClelland, Ely, Minnesota
14. Shawn McCarty, Ely, Minnesota
15. Matt Groth, from Two Harbours, Minnesota
16. Laura Daugereau, from Kingston, Washington
17. Hank DeBruin, from Haliburton, Ontario

This is shaping up as the most competitive field to date. Returning 2012 champion Shawn McCarty and 2011 hometown champion Charlie Lundie are both in the field with hopes to win again. Come on up to Churchill for St. Patty’s day and catch the racers as they mush into town on the16th and 17th.

Recently I posted some photo’s of one of Natural Habitat’s aurora groups building an igloo. Take a look at the finished product..fun was had by all. What an experience in cold temperatures!

 

The real thing in the Arctic. Photo Rhonda Reid.

Warm inside…frigid outside. Photo Rhonda Reid.

Igloo building in Churchill

Check out these photo’s from Rhonda Reid during Natural Habitat’s initial Northern Lights group in Churchill. Igloo building is an art that requires patience and practice. Usually the drift areas are excellent for cutting blocks and building the structure. Inside, the temperature can be 15-20 degrees warmer than outside and can be a critical survival strategy in the Arctic.

Guide Melissa sporting the Nanook of the north look. Photo Rhonda Reid.

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