Blog

DEC
06
2015

2016 Northern Lights Photography Workshop Equipment Advice


Photographing the night sky is easy. Capturing great images of the Aurora Borealis is not. The Northern Lights are unpredictable, and when they appear they are usually in constant motion. This adds an additional challenge but capturing great photographs of a dazzling Auroral display is so rewarding. My best Northern Lights images are some of the pictures that I treasure the most. And even more than the images that I have captured, watching the lights dance across the Arctic sky is a truly unforgettable experience.

Our nights together under the stars in Churchill, Manitoba will be dark and cold. Bringing the right equipment along for this workshop will greatly increase your odds of capturing stunning portfolio-worthy results. You do not need a lot of equipment to capture amazing Aurora images but you will need four things.

For photographing the Arctic sky at night, you will need a modern full-frame digital SLR camera body, a fast wide-angle lens, an intervalometer, and a sturdy tripod. Hopefully, the advice in this article will help you choose the right equipment for this adventure.

I know that I am recommending some expensive photographic equipment throughout this article but please don’t feel like you need buy anything just for this workshop. All of the equipment that I recommend in this article is available for rent. Renting a fast wide-angle lens, and a high-end DSLR camera body, for a photographic expedition like ours makes a lot more sense than buying something that you will rarely use in your regular photographic endeavors. Plus, most camera rental companies offer some type of insurance program for their gear which could save you hundreds of dollars if anything goes wrong in the dark.

Reputable camera rental companies include:

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Camera Advice

Canon EOS 5D Mark III Camera Body

Working with a modern full-frame digital SLR camera body will dramatically improve your Northern Lights photography experience. Most older camera bodies, even those that are just three years old, are incapable of capturing clean enough images at their higher ISO settings. The ability to shoot usable images at ISO 6400 and above is essential for success when photographing a vibrant Northern Lights show. This is a genre of photography where enhanced ISO performance often makes a critical difference. The following camera bodies are all excellent choices for this workshop.

Ironically, the Canon 6D and the Nikon D750 are usually the least expensive cameras on this list and yet they arguably offer the best image quality. Other models have more megapixels, sturdier construction, and other features but for image quality at night these “entry-level” full-frame DSLR bodies can’t be beat.

At this point surely some of you asking “what about using a mirorrless camera on this workshop?” Under ordinary conditions I believe that the latest generation of high-quality mirrorless camera systems are every bit as good as a comparable DSLR setup. I have nothing but respect for the image quality that Olympus, Fuji, and Sony are delivering in their tiny mirrorless camera packages.

One could make a very convincing case too that the Sony Alpha a7R II and the Sony Alpha a7II are amongst the very best cameras on the market today for night photography. The low-light performance of these Sony cameras is at the very top of the charts. But I am hesitant to recommend them for use under Arctic conditions.

My hesitation about recommending mirrorless camera systems for this workshop is their ease of use in the cold and the dark. The smaller buttons and knobs that make a mirrorless system so light and easy to travel with are really difficult to work with mittens on. It turns out that smaller camera controls, particularly tiny buttons on the back of the camera, are not helpful at all in sub-zero conditions. For unbaised information from professionals that I trust on working with the Sony mirrorless gear in challenging conditions see:

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Camera Accessories

Watson Spare Camera Battery

Shooting in the cold with any type of camera is an extra challenge. The sub-zero temperatures that we are likely to encounter at night at the edge of the Arctic will significantly shorten the usable charge on your Lithium Ion batteries. Keeping your spare batteries warm by tucking them into your pockets when they are not being used helps to extend their cold weather performance a little but the best solution is to bring lots of spares along on this workshop.

Fortunately, spare batteries for most digital cameras are relatively inexpensive. I have been using Watson brand batteries for many years in my cameras instead of the name-brand replacement and have seen little difference in their field performance. We will have the opportunity to recharge batteries almost continuously throughout this workshop but having two spares, or more, with you is definitely recommended on this adventure.

I also recommend adding a vertical grip onto your camera body when you know that you will be out shooting for extended periods of time in the cold. There are vertical grips available for all of the SLR cameras listed above that are designed to hold two batteries at once. By loading the grip up with two fresh batteries, you are doubling the amount of time that you can shoot between battery changes. B&H Photo Video sells Vello brand vertical grips for most digital SLR cameras for far less than the name-brand equivalents.

Extending the time between battery changes is particularly helpful for long-exposure shots and time-lapse photography projects. The only downside is that adding on a vertical grip, and an additional battery, makes the camera heavier and harder to fit into a small camera bag. But at night, with the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod, this is not an issue.

Plenty of spare memory cards, like spare batteries, are always a good things to brig along on a field photography workshop. There are lots of brands and models of memory card available today. Opinions on which cards are the best vary widely. I have been buying Lexar Professional 32 Gigabyte memory cards lately in two packs. These cards are fast enough for my needs and I save a little by buying two of them at once.

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Lens Advice

My advice for all night photography projects, especially those involving the Aurora Borealis, is to work with a single high-quality wide-angle lens that can gather a lot of light. For the Aurora, in particular, wide-angle lenses with super wide apertures are helpful for two reasons. First, shooting images with a very wide aperture setting allows you to choose a faster shutter speed or a lower ISO setting. Sometimes a faster shutter speed is the difference between crisp images of the Northern Light dancing across the sky or a photo that merely captures blurry streaks and blobs.

Second, lenses with wide apertures bring more light into the camera’s viewfinder at every aperture setting. The additional light in the viewfinder will not affect your photographs at all but the additional light makes it much easier for the human eye to see details in the camera’s eyepiece as day slips into night. It is much easier to compose a good shot at dusk falls if you can see what you are doing with the camera’s optical viewfinder.

If you are shopping around for a fast wide-angle lens then you will soon discover that each manufacturer produces a range of products that often compete with each other at any given focal length. In the Canon product line, for example, the best quality lenses are marked with an “L” designation. For Canon users the “L” rating means higher quality glass and sturdier construction. Nikon uses the “ED” marking for their highest-quality lenses and Sigma marks their top of the line equipment with the letters “APO.”

A regular “consumer” grade Canon 24mm f/2.8 lens sells for around $850 whereas the Canon 24mm f/1.4 L II lens costs almost twice as much. The “L” version costs a whole lot more here because the “professional-grade” lens can gather two-stops more light and because it is made with higher quality glass elements inside of a more durable frame. Under ordinary conditions the consumer-grade 24mm lens would probably be fine but at night those two extra stops of light gathering power really matter.

Personally, I would rather bring along just one great wide-angle lens with a super wide aperture then travel all the way up to the edge of the Arctic with a camera bag full of slower mediocre lens choices. Recommend fast wide-angle lenses for night photography include:

Two important notes here on these suggested lenses. First, you only need one good lens to get your money’s worth out of our nights together under the stars. Sure having a variety of high-quality wide-angle lenses to pick from is a nice luxury but on a frigid cold night one good lens is all that you are likely to use. Unlike other types of photography, there are lots of reasons why sticking with the same lens all night makes things easier. Second, you will find that some of these lenses are very expensive and some of them are very cheap.

The Zeiss lenses, in particular, are luxury goods and they are priced accordingly. Zeiss glass is exquisite but their price is beyond my budget especially when there are so many strong alternatives for night photography. At the opposite end of the price spectrum are the Samyang products. Samyang lenses are some of the least expensive super fast wide-angle lenses on the market today. All Samyang products are manual focus only but that makes no difference at all when photographing at night.

Despite their bargain basement price point, and lack of fancy features, Samyang lenses are fantastic choices for night photography. A lot of professional night photographers, myself included, rave about their Samyang. Now Samyang lenses are sold under at least four different brand names: Bower, Rokinon, ProOptics, and Samyang. All of these brands are selling the same product so it pays to shop around for Samyang products at a reputable camera store like B&H Photo Video before buying anything.

It is also worth noting here that the Samyang company does not have the same level of quality control standards as the big players like Canon or Nikon. Properly made products from this company are every bit as sharp, or even sharper, than comparable lenses from Canon or Nikon. A good Samyang lens is a magnificent tool but more lemons slip through their quality control standards than with the bigger players. If you are buying a Samyang product please get it from a reputable merchant and try it out before our workshop. A week at the edge of the Arctic is not a good time to discover that your lens has tragic flaws and failings.

If I had to choose my top-three lens choices from the list above I would go for the Samyang 24mm f/1.4, the Samyang 14mm f/2.8, and the Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 zoom lens. That said I do love, and will probably rent, one of the Zeiss lenses. The Zeiss 21mm is a favorite of mine but if you pick any of the lenses on the list above you will be all set for our week up north.

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Tripod Legs and Ball Head Advice

Induro 471 Carbon Tripod Legs

Truth: nothing will improve the quality of your night photography as much as a sturdy tripod and a solid ball head. Everything that we will shoot from dusk till dawn requires a steady tripod. Without a rock solid tripod, you do not have any hope of capturing a great shot in the dark. Carbon fiber tripod legs are great for traveling but they are expensive and there are other options. The most important thing when choosing a tripod for this adventure is to pick one that can adequately support your camera and your heaviest lens even in a heavy wind.

Recommended tripod leg sets include the:

You will also need a strong ball head on top of your tripod legs to do great work at night. Fussing around with anything less than a professional-grade ball head in the dark is an incredibly frustrating experience. Recommended ball heads include the Induro BHL1, the Kirk BH-3, and the Really Right Stuff BH-40.

Yes, the price tag on a Really Right Stuff, or a Kirk ball head, is a hard pill to swallow. My Really Right Stuff BH-40 was not an easy purchase for me to make but it is an investment that has paid off time after time. Nothing has improved my photography as much as this purchase. Remember though that high-quality tripods, and ball head systems, are also available for rent and that there is no reason to spend hundreds of dollars on something that you are not going to use again and again.

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Intervalometer Advice

Vello Shutterboss Intervalometer

An intervalometer is a fancy cable release with an integrated clock chip that can be programmed to fire the camera for you. Using an intervalometer allows you to shoot sustained bursts of images without touching your camera. This tool opens up a wide range of creative possibilities. Programable intervalometers are essential tools for time-lapse photography projects where we need the camera to shoot frame after frame without any variation.

Intervalometers are also wonderfully handy tools while out shooting in the cold. Sometimes the best thing that you can do is to setup the camera and then let the intervalometer fire away for you while you keep your hands warm or sip a warm beverage. Sometimes its nice to just let the intervalometer fire away for you while you lie on your back and stare up at the stars.

Although all of the different camera manufacturers make their own brand-name intervalometers, this is a place where I see absolutely no reason to pay top-dollar. Third-party options like the Vello Shutterboss Intervalometer are every bit as useful as their name brand competitors at a fraction of the price. The best advice that I can give on intervalometers is to shop for the one’s with the biggest buttons and the simplest setup. Complexity, and tiny buttons, here equals cold fingers.

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Laptops and Software

A laptop is not required for this workshop but there will be daily demonstrations and lectures on fine-tuning night photography images. I plan on demonstrating image processing using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop CC, and more. If you have a laptop, and would like to dramatically improve your image processing skills, then this is an excellent opportunity to improve your image processing skills.

Along with our daily lectures, we will have lots of time for software questions and personal assistance. Unlike other Aurora tours, I intend to teach every part of the night photography chain. By the end of the week I will have covered everything from our initial camera setup on to the processing required to produce a gallery quality finished product. Unlike the a night photography weekend, or camera club photo walk, we have time up at the edge of the Arctic to work together on your images and your processing skills.

Finally, let me say that photographing the night sky and the Northern Lights together is going to be a blast. A trip up to the Churchill Northern Studies Centre is a special experience. Please buy only what you need and rent, or borrow, everything else. If you have any additional questions about equipment for this workshop please call me at 406-356-6279. See you soon!

More Advice On Cameras, Lenses, and Photographing the Northern Lights:

This program is sponsored by Dr. James Halfpenny and A Naturalist’s World.

*TheLensHub.com is small company owned by a friend of mine here in Whitefish, MT. They only carry Canon gear. Please let me know if you are interested in renting anything from them and then I will inquire about picking up / returning your equipment for you following our workshop.

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About the Author
David Marx specializes in landscape, travel, mobile, and night photography. He is an Adobe Certified Expert in both Adobe Photoshop Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop CC with more than 15 years of experience in the field teaching digital photography. David loves sharing his knowledge with others, whether in person or online, and his entertaining teaching style works well for photographers of all skill levels. In addition to field workshops, David’s extensive library of video tutorials on image processing and mobile photography are available at focusphotoschool.com.