Greetings Northern Lights Photography Workshop participants!
I hope that this article will help you choose the right equipment for our upcoming Aurora adventure! As you will see, I am recommending some expensive equipment for our journey, but please do not rush out and buy a whole bunch of new toys. We will work with whatever equipment you bring and the fun of a photography workshop does not depend on purchasing expensive toys, it is in the experiences that we will share.
In addition, almost all of the equipment that I am suggesting is available for rent. Renting a lens or a camera body for a class like ours makes a lot more sense than purchasing an expensive piece of equipment that you will not use often 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 in repairs if an accident happens. Reputable rental companies include:
Rental discounts are usually available for members of photographic organizations like the American Society of Media Photographers or the National Association of Photoshop Professionals. Check your organization’s benefits and discounts pages for more details.
Advice on Camera Bodies
For auroras and night photography, having the right camera body is a big advantage. Capturing great aurora images will be much easier if you are working with a digital SLR camera body that uses a full-frame sensor and shoots clean images even at a relatively high ISO setting. Camera bodies like the Canon 5D Mark III or the Nikon D600 are excellent choices for this type of night photography.
Back in the film photography days, our 35mm lenses were designed to focus all of the light that entered the camera body onto a 1″ x 1.5″ piece of film. When digital SLR cameras came along, most manufacturers continued using the same lens mount but they began to manufacture camera bodies with sensor’s that are smaller than the traditional size. This reduction in sensor size helps the manufacturer keep the production costs down. Producing a smaller light sensitive wafer is less expensive and most consumers do not need the additional image resolution. While a reduced size sensor can produce an image that is every bit as colorful as a full-frame sensor, the trouble lies in the reductions that affect the camera’s field of view. If the camera’s sensor is smaller than a traditional piece of 35mm film, then the camera is said to have a “crop factor” or “focal length multiplier.” Unfortunately, the “focal length multiplier” does not really make our lenses more powerful, it merely reduces their field of view. Again, for everyday photography the crop factor is not a big deal, but it creates an additional challenge when working with the kind of wide angle lenses that are the common tools for night photography.
On a full-frame 35mm digital SLR camera, a 24mm lens has a 84.1° diagonal field of view. When you use this lens on a full-frame camera body, you can capture a large swath of the night sky. Using the same lens with a camera body that has a 1.6X focal length magnification factor however captures a significantly smaller area. With a 1.6X focal length magnification factor the 3mm lens produces a 58.8° diagonal field of view. The reduced size sensor decreases the lenses field of view and thus makes it harder to capture a super-wide angle image of the night sky.
Let me explain it a different way. To find a lens’s full-frame equivalent, multiply the lens length by the focal length magnification factor. A 24mm lens attached to a camera with a 1.6X focal length magnification factor will show the same field of view that a 38mm lens would have on a full-frame camera (24 x 1.6 = 38). A 16mm super-wide angle lens attached to the 1.6X camera roughly matches the field that a 25mm lens would have with a full-frame sensor or film camera.
Why does this matter? Well, if a narrower view suits the story that you want to tell, then the focal length magnifier is not a problem, but that focal length magnifier will limit your options when you want to capture an image of a great big aurora stretching way out across a vast expanse of sky.
If changing camera bodies is not an option, then the solution for the photographer with the reduced-size sensor camera who wants to create a super-wide shot is to use an even shorter lens. Fortunately, the camera manufacturers all make ultra-wide angle lenses these days to meet this challenge. If you are working with a camera that has a significant focal length magnification factor, then adding an ultra-wide angle lens, like the Canon EF-S 10 – 22 mm or the Nikon AF-S 10 – 24mm, to your night photography equipment list makes sense.
Adding an ultra-wide to your toolkit is a sensible solution, but the images that these lenses produce are rarely as sharp as the results that one can get from a Canon 24mm “L” or a Nikon 24mm “ED” on a full-frame body. In addition, as any lens gets wider, it produces more geometric distortion, causing vertical lines to bow into an arc. Working with an ultra-wide lens on a less than full-frame camera body is better than missing the shot that you want, but the results will usually be less sharp and show more geometric distortion than one would see in the same scene shot with a full-frame body and a slightly longer wide-angle lens.
High ISO Noise
There are three controls that determine a photograph’s exposure: Shutter Speed, Aperture, and ISO. When we are shooting the aurora we will generally be working with shutter speeds in the 3 – 60 second range. Most of the time, we will want to use our lens’s widest aperture to bring in as much light as possible and we will often need to use ISO values in the 400 to 1600 range.
Most digital cameras these days can shoot very clean images all through this ISO range, but on some older camera bodies the ISO 800 – 1600 range was noticeably noisy. If you have the choice, I would select a camera body that creates useable images all the way up to ISO 3200 for this trip. Camera bodies like the Canon 5D II or the Nikon D700 and their newer siblings are excellent performers at any of these ISO settings.
Advice on Lenses
My advice for night photography is to shoot everything you can with a top-quality wide-angle. Digital SLR camera sensors can record amazing levels of detail with today’s technology. Unfortunately this is a double-edged sword. When everything is right, our photos look great, but if you put a low quality lens in front of a top-quality sensor then you will get less than ideal photos. Our sensors are so powerful these days that they will record every flaw that the lens creates. Low-grade lenses are prone to soft spots and they create a lot more chromatic aberration. Again, you do not need to buy new equipment for this trip–and there is always the rental option–but I would rather bring along just one great lens than an entire camera bag full of mediocre choices.
I plan on using lenses in the 14 – 30mm range on a full-frame camera body for the majority of my northern lights shots. I am a Canon shooter, but that doesn’t matter. Within this range, 14 – 30mm, there are lots of great choices from Canon, Nikon, Sigma, etc. If I could only bring a single lens along on this trip then my top choice would have to be the Canon EF 16 – 35mm f/2.8L II USM Ultra Wide Angle Zoom Lens. With a full-frame camera body, a top-quality 16 – 35mm lens will give me plenty of options for my night photography needs and produce excellent results.
If you are shopping around for a new lens, you will soon discover that each manufacturer produces a range of products that seem to compete with each other at any given focal length. In the Canon product line, for example, the very best lenses are marked with an “L.” For Canon users the “L” rating means that you are paying for their best glass and their sturdiest construction. Nikon uses the “ED” marking for top-end lenses and Sigma marks their highest-quality equipment with the letters “APO.”
The regular grade Canon EF 24mm f/2.8 IS lens sells for around $850 whereas the Canon EF 24mm f/1.4 L II costs about $1750. Although they are both 24mm lenses, the “L” version costs almost twice because it is made with better glass plates inside of a more durable frame. (I need to point out here that the “L” version of this lens can be rented for about $80 per week — hint, hint!) There is another reason why the 24mm f/1.4L version of this lens costs a lot more than the 24mm f/2.8 model. The difference is in light gathering power. The “L” lens is able to draw in twice as much light at its widest aperture setting than one can get out of the lower priced version. This is the advantage of f/1.4 vs. f/2.8.
For a night photographer, the “L” lens’s extra light-gathering ability helps in two ways. First, shooting at f/1.4 vs f/2.8 would allow you to use a faster shutter speed or a lower ISO setting. Second, the f/1.4L version of this lens shines more light through the camera’s viewfinder than the f/2.8 version can gather. The additional light in the camera’s viewfinder has no effect on your photograph, but it makes it much easier for the human eye to see what’s going on as the day slips into night. It is much easier to focus and compose when you can see what you are doing through the viewfinder!
Moral: For this adventure please bring at least one high quality wide-angle lens with as wide an aperture as possible.
Tripod Legs and Ball Head
Everything that we are likely to shoot when the Northern Lights are booming will require a sturdy tripod. Carbon fiber tripod legs are ultra-light and great for traveling, but there are still times when I prefer my old-fashioned aluminum tripod. When it’s dark and cold, I like locking cam-style levers more than the twist-style locks that they use these days on most new carbon fiber leg sets. This is a minor detail, and any tripod is far better than nothing, but I find the twist locks harder to open and close when I have mittens on. I believe that leg sets like the Manfrotto 055X Pro or the Manfrotto 190X Pro are a solid and fair-priced choice for our purposes.
It is hard to give advice on ball heads. There are times when I love the simplicity of a single knob ball head like the Manfrotto 496RC Compact Ball Head. Other times I prefer the precision of a three way pan / tilt head like the Manfrotto 804RC. Picking the right ball head really is a matter of personal preference. The important part is to get something solid. For star trails and long night exposures, you need something that can hold your camera in the exact same position for hours.
Cable Release / Wireless Remote Shutter Release / Intervalometer
There are three types of toys in this category. What we are looking for most of all is a way to trigger your camera without actually touching the camera’s shutter button. Whenever possible, we want to trip the shutter without touching the camera for two reasons. First, pushing the camera’s shutter button potentially introduces a little shake, thus, a little more blur, into our relatively long-exposure nighttime images. Second, it is going to be cold out there. With a cable release or a remote trigger, you can set everything up and then shoot away without taking your hands out of your mittens!
The simplest way to achieve this goal is with an inexpensive locking cable release. Wireless remote shutter releases are even fancier and they let you move further away from your tripod, but they serve the same purpose. With either type of remote, you can trip the shutter without freezing your fingers off all night. Locking cable releases and wireless remotes are available for most SLR camera models and I have absolutely no brand loyalty here, as long as the release works. In my experience, third-party products like these Vello Cable Releases or these Vello Remote Controls are reliable and affordable. This is a place where I see absolutely no reason to pay for genuine Canon or Nikon parts. If it works, then it works!
While I am all in favor of a traditional cable-release or a wireless remote, I have replaced these toys with an intervalometer. An intervalometer is basically a cable release with a clock chip that can be programmed to fire the camera at a set interval. They are essential tools for time-lapse photography projects where the camera must shoot frame after frame. Using an intervalometer to shoot sustained bursts of images opens up a whole slew of new possibilities. Plus, when it’s really cold out I can set everything up and let the intervalometer fire away for hours while I move around to stay warm.
Always remember that all of these gadgets are just tools. They will not make great art for us. Buy only what you need. Rent, or borrow everything else, and never forget that a talented artist does not need a huge bag of expensive toys to create great work.
More Good Advice
- How To Photograph The Northern Lights With A Digital Camera
- Photographing the Aurora Borealis
- Night Photography Gear for Any Budget
- Prime Time! – Lenses for Night Photography
- Canon 1DX or Canon 5D III: The Best Night Shooting Camera?
- Digital Camera Reviews from Dpreview.com
Interested in joining us on this adventure? Space may still be available for but you will have to ask fast. For additional information please visit www.tracknature.com.
Filed Under: Lightroom Classes and Photography Workshops