What Camera Do I Need to Photograph the Northern Lights?

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Experiencing the Northern Lights is a once in a lifetime adventure for many people and as such, they want a photograph of the experience.  But a lack of research and planning can result in bitter disappointment, as some bring a camera that cannot do the lights justice and others don’t even try, assuming they need professional and expensive gear.

The first question most people ask is “what camera do I need to photograph the Northern Lights?”

Essential Items:

Camera

Can you take a photo of the Northern Lights with an iPhone, iPad or Compact Digital?  Well you can try, but it’s challenging, your options are limited and you are more than likely going to be disappointed with the results.  So in other words – no!

Do you need an expensive professional DSLR camera?  No.  Of course, all other things equal, a high quality DSLR camera is going to produce higher quality images and gives you more creative control, but you can still capture the Aurora without taking out a second mortgage on your house.  All you need is a camera that allows you to manually focus and set the ISO, shutter speed and aperture.

How good does the low light capability of your camera need to be?  In other words how high does the ISO need to be?  This depends on the lens you are using, available light and the strength of the Aurora.  Different cameras have different ISO capabilities, so ideally get familiar with the ISO levels that create acceptable v unacceptable levels of noise in your camera.

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Lens

Ideally you want a wide, fast (f/2.8 or wider) and sharp lens.  If you have a lens with the widest aperture of f/5.6, does this mean you can’t photograph the lights?  Not at all – but it means you will need to increase your ISO to compensate and the trade off is that increasing your ISO introduces more noise into your image.

Tripod

A strong, sturdy tripod is essential.  Why?  Because Aurora photographs require a longer exposure time (on average between 5 to 30 seconds) and a hand-held shot at this exposure will create too much camera shake.  And camera shake equals blurry photos.

 

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Other Useful Items 

Cable Release

A cable release allows you to release the shutter without touching the camera to help reduce camera shake.  If you don’t have a cable release (or, like me, often forget to take it) you can attempt to avoid camera shake by setting your camera on ‘timer’ to allow a 2 second delay after you take the photo.

Spare Batteries

Batteries often deplete faster in cold weather, so carrying a spare is essential. And don’t forget your charger!

Storage

If your camera gives you the option, shooting in RAW instead of JPEG gives you greater control over the post-processing process.  But as this creates larger files, make sure you have a memory card with adequate space and always carry a spare.

Torch

A head torch is useful when you are setting up your camera or adjusting the settings whilst a stronger torch gives you the ability to ‘light’ elements of your foreground when creating your image.  It is also useful when you are walking around in the dark!  Just be mindful of other people shooting nearby and don’t ruin their shot by shining your torch into their frame.

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Gloves

Chances are you are going to be standing outside in the cold.  Thin glove liners are useful when adjusting the settings on your camera and thicker gloves or mittens can become essential when you are standing in the cold for hours waiting for the skies to dance.

What Next?

So let’s assume you’ve done your research and selected a time of year and location that increases your chances of seeing the Northern Lights.  Let’s assume the conditions and an element of luck is on your side and they are dancing in the sky above you.  And you have the right photography equipment, because you read this post before you left!

But how do you actually take the shot? 

Check out : How to Photograph the Northern Lights: Step-By-Step Guide”

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Kellie is a traveller and photographer who is most at home when exploring the world beyond it. Through the intersection of her travel, writing and photography passions, she shares her experiences to inspire others to create there own. The desire to live life instead of existing through it has introduced Kellie to inspirational locations throughout seven continents and from this a passion for landscape and wildlife photography has evolved. She feels a particular connection to the polar regions and Africa. You can see more of her photography at www.kellienetherwoodphotography.com

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