Arctic Photo Tour
Cameras and Gear
Hugh and I photograph with Canon Gear, currently the Canon EOS 1D and 5D series. Canon's other digital SLR’s are
excellent options as well, throughout a broad price range. Nikon also has a strong lineup.
- EOS 1Ds MarkIII (21.1MP full frame sensor)
- EOS 1Dx (18MP full frame sensor)
- Nikon D3x (24.5MP full frame sensor)
- Nikon D3s (12MP full frame sensor)
- Nikon D800 (36MP full frame sensor) ($3500)
- Nikon D700 (12 MP full frame sensor) ($2379)
- EOS 1D MarkIV (16MP 1.3x crop) ($4750)
- EOS 5D MKII (21MP full frame sensor)
- EOS 5D MKIII (22MP full frame sensor) ($3500)
- EOS 7D (18MP 1.6 crop)
- EOS 60D (18MP 1.6x crop)
- EOS Digital Rebel t3 (12MP 1.6x crop)
Graphic shows the relative size of the sensors
in Canon's line of digital cameras.
The upper end of these cameras have excellent high ISO performance
with in-camera high ISO noise reduction and long exposure noise reduction software. Make sure that these options are turned on.
For some Canon cameras the Long exposure noise reduction has an auto setting. ISO settings from 400 to 1600 can deliver excellent
results. The length of your exposures will depend on how large
of an opening (f-stop) your camera lens has.
A Note About Point and Shoot Cameras:
While it is not impossible to photograph the aurora with a little point and shoot digital camera, it is challenging indeed. The models are constantly changing, and perhaps in the near future it will become easier. A few of the basic limitations of most point and shoot cameras are:
- limited timed exposure time (often 15 secs-not long enough)
- the bulb mode, if it has one, can be difficult to use
- the widest lens range is often not quite wide enough
- ISO quality is much noisier
- auto focus won't work at night--you need manual focus
If you have an digi cam with some advanced features, read your manual and see if it looks usable for aurora. You want:
- 400 ISO, preferably 800 or higher
- bulb mode
- manual focus option
- self timer release
- wide angle lens
Exposure Chart based on ISO400 & moderate aurora brightness:
Keep in mind that the chart below is just a reference. The exposures vary based on the intensity of the aurora, the amount of ambient light from the moon, and the reflective light from the snow. The best thing to do is take a shot, look at your histogram, and make adjustments from there.
Approximate exposure times in relation to f/stop @ 400ISO - varies based on ambient light.
|Canon EF 24mm L
|Canon EF 35mm L
|Canon EF 24mm
|Canon EF 16-35mm L
|Canon EF 10-22mm
Tripod and Ballheads
A "GOOD" tripod and "BALLHEAD" is absolutely essential for northern lights photography.
A tall tripod will be more comfortable, as you will
be aiming the camera up towards the sky. Squatting under a short
tripod cranking your neck can become very uncomfortable, very
fast. (NOTE: A GOOD BALLHEAD AND TRIPOD IS REALLY IMPORTANT, ON OUR PHOTO TOURS WE HAVE HAD MANY FRUSTRATED GUESTS WHOSE SMALL TRIPOD AND FLIMSY BALLHEAD EITHER BROKE OR OPERATED SO POORLY THEY MISSED MANY PHOTO OPPORTUNITIES. A GOOD TRIPOD IS WORTH IT.)
- This Bogen 055XB tripod, although on the shorter side, is an adequate
inexpensive tripod available at B&H
Photo here. It even has built in leg warmers to protect your hands from cold metal.
The GT3541 is an exceptional, and expensive, tripod from Gitzo.
It is lightweight and sturdy carbon fiber, and fairly tall. Notice
it has no center column. If you get a tripod with a center column, the ability to remove it can be advantageous for close up photography. Additionally, one should not rely on expanding the center column completely for aurora photography, since this makes the camera less stable and susceptible to wind movement during long exposures.
- We prefer ballheads as opposed to pan/tilt heads.
The Kirk Enterprises BH-3 is a great smaller ballhead. It is not
the best option for very large lenses above 300mm. Krik makes a larger ballhead BH-1 to support bigger lenses. I use both: http://www.kirkphoto.com/ballheadbh3.html
- Foam pads on your tripod legs.
You will be handling your tripod a lot, both night and day, and foam is much warmer on the hands than a metal tripod leg. Inexpensive pipe insulation available at hardware stores works well. Some tripod manufacturers also make special purpose foam leg pads.
- This is of equal importance as a tripod since we shoot from a vehicle window frequently, both while driving the haul road and when photographing polar bears. (We do not recommend hardware window mounts, they are slow and cumbersome, and the windows need to go up and down constantly). There are many types and variations, this is a good one from Kinesis. There will be an opportunity to buy rice or another grain to fill the bag in Fairbanks.
Kinesis SafariSack Bean Bag
There are several desirable qualities to look for when considering
lenses for aurora photography:
Fast (large aperture of F/2.8 or wider)
As a general rule of thumb, you can pick any three of the above.
We have yet to discover the perfect lens, but here are a few to
- Canon 16-35mm F/2.8 USM or Nikon 17-35
F/2.8: Outstanding optical performers, but not exceptionally
fast. A bit expensive but versatile for both aurora and excellent for daytime general landscapes. It is one of my favorite lenses.
- Canon 24mm IIL F/1.4: New from Canon, a reported improvement over the previous version. Offers a two-stop advantage
over the 16-35. This means a 30 second aurora exposure can be
taken in 7.5 second, freezing the shapes and giving more definition.
Older versions can be found for about $1000. Achieving critical focus with f/1.4 apertures is more difficult.
- Canon Super Wide Angle EF 20mm f/2.8 USM
Inexpensive alternative to the more versatile zooms
Price: $ 399.95
- Sigma 20mm F/1.8: Available for both Canon and Nikon. Provides very good performance
for an inexpensive lens. The corners are moderately dark and
soft, which is mostly eliminated on non-full frame digital cameras.
- Any 50mm F/1.4 – F/1.8: These “standard”
lenses are exceptionally inexpensive and perform well optically
because they are “easy” to make. However, 50mm is
not very wide and may not capture the entire aurora shape well.
- An option for those shooting with Digital SLR's with
a 1.5-1.6x multiplication factor: such as the Canon 50D or Nikon D90. They are about half as fast but offer wide angle (16-18mm equivalent), and are versatile
for other landscape work. Only compatible with
reduced-sensor size cameras
- Canon Zoom Super Wide Angle
EF-S 10-22mm f/3.5-4.5 USM Autofocus Lens
Price: $ 690
- Nikon Zoom Super Wide Angle
AF 12-24mm f/4G ED-IF AF-S DX Zoom-Nikkor Autofocus Lens for Select Digital Cameras
Price: $ 950
- Nikon Zoom Super Wide Angle
AF 14-24mm f/2.8G ED, AF lens
Price: $ 1800
- Long lenses
You will also want to bring longer lenses for daytime
wildlife and scenic photography. Remember space and weight but don't leave long lenses behind. I use my 500mm often, in conjunction with a 1/4x or 2x converter, using a full frame sensor. Photography is often done from a vehicle window. Lenses like the 100-400mm zoom are great for this, especially if you are not using a full frame sensor, since the lens then becomes a 160mm to 640mm. If you have a 500mm f4, bring it. The 600mm f4 is large, heavy and very difficult to use from within a vehicle. Image stabilization is excellent and a benefit in almost all cases. If you don't have a long lens, you might consider renting one. If you prefer to have it shipped to Alaska, you can do so to the courier address at the right.
At least two camera bodies if possible.
Newer cameras work fine in the cold as long as you can keep them supplied with a warm battery. Digital or film is your choice. The latest digital SLR cameras, especially those with a full frame sensor, are exceptional at capturing aurora. Compact point and shoot digicams, however, are virtually incapable of aurora photography due to their limited light sensitivity and light gathering abilities. Although new digi cam models enter the scene constantly, thus far they have not proved productive for aurora photography.
Other Related Equipment
Bring extra batteries. Cold weather saps energy from batteries
at a rapid rate! You can keep one battery warm in your parka and change them out as necessary. At least two batteries, but three would be better.
- Digital media and Storage device (laptop optional)
Extra media cards and some form of storage space, either a laptop computer or small digital storage device.
- Cable release
A must for your cameras. You will be doing long exposures with
your camera set on bulb and you do not want to shake the camera.
Below illustrates how Canon's cable releases get rather rigid
in minus 40 degree temps. However, those temps will not be encountered on this trip. Plastic things do get more rigid however in cold weather. NOTE: DO NOT GET A WIRELESS RELEASE. THEY ONLY WORK FOR EXPOSURES UP TO 30 SECONDS, AND DO NOW ALLOW ACTIVATION OF THE BULB MODE!
- Chemical Hand warmers
These are critical when
you are handling metal cameras for long periods of time in cold
weather. They can be kept inside an overmitt or in a pocket of your coat for a quick hand warming option. They are critical in my winter photo arsenal.
This is an important piece of equipment for aurora photography.
A headlamp allows two hands to be free while changing film or
making camera adjustments. Consider the on-off switch in purchasing,
as you will be operating the headlamp with gloves on. There are a million to choose from. A starting point - This Princeton Tec Remix Headlamp has a built in LED Red light in two levels of brightness, along with a bright white light also.
- Visible Dust Sensor Brush
These brushes are essential for any field work
with a digital camera. They have revolutionized the sensor
cleaning process and made it very simple to perform.