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.

Two Northern Lights Perspectives

Foreground features in incredible images of northern lights can give the photo more depth and make the shot much more interesting to the eye. Scale is also brought into play when including such features as an inukshuk, trees, buildings or any other feature that makes it easier to believe these captivating aurora borealis are truly real and not photo – shopped. Below are two images of each, two with earthly features and two of solely northern lights in the sky. You decide which are more interesting to the eye and mind!

Churchill northern lights

Northern lights over the Churchill Northern Studies Center in Churchill. CSNC photo.

Aurora borealis in Greenland

Ribbons of aurora in Greenland. Melissa Scott photo.

Northern lights Wapusk Adventures in Churchill, Manitoba

Tee pee at Wapusk Adventures in Churchill. Alex De Vries – Magnifico photo.

northern lights in Churchill, Manitoba

Intense northern lights in Churchill. Drew Hamilton photo.

 

Northern Lights Time – Lapse

What a tantalizing time – lapse of the northern lights behind the town complex by Dan Harper in Churchill . The iconic inukshuk provides the focus of the glimmering aurora. With the unpredictable polar bear season finishing up we can’t wait for prime northern lights season in Churchill! It will be hard to match the incredible, non – stop aurora action of last season though there surely will be many surprises in the sky and out on the tundra.

 

Churchill Northern Lights, Wildlife and Snow

A snowy tundra was the perfect setting for an Arctic fox greeting Natural Habitat Adventures guide Moira Le Patourel and her group of travelers. As snow fluttered to the ground the inquisitive fox seemed indifferent to the rover’s presence. What beautiful colors melding together in an Arctic landscape!

Arctic fox churchill, Manitoba

Arctic fox surveying the land fast ice along the Hudson Bay. Moira Le Patourel photo.

Caught between the search for lemmings and waiting for the Hudson Bay freeze, this gorgeous fox will patiently wait for the latter in order to feed off the left -overs of polar bear seal kills. A fascinating existence for sure. Polar bear season in Churchill reveals the subtleties of survival in the far north.

Arctic Fox Churchill

Arctic fox waiting out the eventual freezing of the Hudson Bay. Moira Le Patourel photo.

Later, out on the tundra of the Churchill Wildlife Management Area, a sow with two cubs of the year (coy) revealed themselves on the horizon and explored the ground close to the polar rover. The three moved confidently across the thermokarst landscape while circling the group observing from the rover. Purely incredible to witness these polar bears in their natural environment.

polar bear family in Churchill, Manitoba

Sow and two coy wandering the Hudson Bay coast near Churchill. Moira Le Patourel photo.

The persistent unseasonable moderate temperatures have polar bears resting and conserving energy for the most part though we are still seeing magical behavior across the tundra. Surely the snow and cold will escalate and we will see more sparring in the coming weeks. Until then we are not complaining about the number of family interactions so far this year as well as the variety of other wildlife sightings.

Polar bear in Churchill, Manitoba

Resting polar bear by a stand of willows. Moira Le Patourel photo.

The group was charmed with a first – night orientation of some fantastic northern lights which they took in down by the large inukshuk behind the town complex. What a display squeezed in between the clouds and snow squalls.

northern lights churchill inukshuk

One of the best spots in Churchill to capture the magical northern lights. Moira Le Patourel photo.

The following day Moira brought her travelers back for an iconic group photo from the head of the Hudson Bay. If the incredible aurora displays this polar bear season are any indication, we are in for quite a northern lights season in January through March.

Churchill inukshuk

Natural Habitat group photo at the Churchill inukshuk. Moira Le Patourel photo.

Churchill Video of the Week – Aurora

This week’s video comes directly from Churchill..hot off the press, rather camera. Natural Habitat Adventures Churchill office staff member Joel Moore filmed this unique angle time lapse of some pretty awesome northern lights a few days ago. The scene is near the inukshuk behind the town complex. Very rarely does Churchill experience aurora with these kind of clouds moving below. The effect is pretty cool and inspiring for hopes for another outstanding northern lights season commencing in January. It will be tough to top last year’s explosive displays of aurora borealis though we hope to make a run at it! Enjoy.

 

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