Canon 5D Mk. III
Photographing The Aurora Borealis
Stability - Tripods and Heads
It’s one thing owning a top of the range camera and lens but if you haven’t got a sturdy base to mount it on then, without doubt, the overall quality of your images will suffer greatly. With this in mind, I really can’t overemphasise the importance of using a good quality tripod and tripod-head, particularly whilst photographing the Aurora. The main reason being that when you’re photographing this particular subject matter the exposure times tend to be fairly long – anywhere from several seconds to minutes. This is dependent upon a number of factors including, for example, your camera’s ISO capability, the lens that you’re using and the intensity of the Aurora, which can vary quite considerably.
Another important factor to be taken into consideration is wind and, in particular, vibration. In essence, if your camera is mounted on a sturdy platform then it is less likely to be affected by vibration – thus ensuring your images remain nice and sharp. Moreover, it also helps to reduce the risk of your equipment becoming unstable and, God forbid, toppling over and causing untold damage.
If you don’t already own a good quality tripod then it’s most certainly a worthwhile investment and, as long as you take good care of it, it will serve you well into the future and improve your photography no end. I would also recommend the use of a ball-head as opposed to a tilt / pan head, as it allows for relatively quick and simple repositioning of the camera – with a minimal of fuss. When you’re working at night in sub-zero temperatures the last thing that you want to be doing is fiddling about too much.
I would also suggest that you give careful consideration to the height of the tripod. Remember that your camera will be projecting upwards most of the time and the last thing that you want to do is to end up with a bad back or, indeed, agitate an existing one.
For your reference I use a Gitzo tripod and a Kirk Ball Head.
Useful Tips: I always carry a couple of metres of para cord and a tent peg with me at all times when out photographing the Aurora. It comes in really handy as, if necessary, I am able to anchor the tripod to the ground. This not only aids stability, but also provides a little re-assurance should the wind suddenly decide to pick up. There’s nothing worse than nipping to the vehicle to warm up for a few minutes and then returning to find your camera lying on the ground. Another useful tip is to place foam pads around the legs of your tripod, or one of them at least, as it makes it much more comfortable to carry around in cold climates.
If, like me, you’re a stickler for straight horizons, then it’s well worth considering investing in a camera spirit level. I use the Hama camera spirit level, which sits comfortably in the hot-shoe, and is relatively inexpensive. If my memory serves me correctly I paid approximately £12 for mine. I would advise you to avoid the battery operated ones, as they tend not to work at low temperatures and, if they do, then the battery doesn’t last very long.
The most critical factor when when choosing a camera to photograph the Aurora is its’ low light capability. Ideally, what you’re looking for is a camera that has a high ISO performance. I use a Canon 5D Mark 3, for example, and typically tend to shoot anywhere between ISO 400 to ISO 800, depending upon the actual amount of available light, and the effect that I’m trying to create. It should be mentioned that the higher the ISO setting the more noise that you will encounter, which is why the choice of lens is equally important. Remember – the wider the lens aperture the more light that will be allowed in and, thus, the lower the ISO setting that you’ll be able to get away with using.
A note about cameras and mobile phones
I am often asked whether or not is is possible to capture the Aurora on a compact digital camera or, indeed, a mobile ‘phone. The simple answer to this question is yes, as long as the equipment in question has a manual focus function, a remote function or self-timer and, ideally, a relatively wide angle lens and ISO range. Of course it’s far from ideal and can be somewhat of a challenge but, never the less, it can be achieved.
Ideally, you should use a lens that is wide, that is fast (an f-stop of 2.8 or greater) and that you are confident will produce sharp images with minimal vignetting. I use the Carl Zeiss 21mm f/ 2.8 as I’ve found that it lets in bags of light, it’s pin-sharp and it’s never let me down.
Of course there are many other lenses that will do the job and you don’t necessarily have to spend a fortune. I would suggest checking out the reviews on the likes of fredmiranda.com as they tend to be unbiased and contain actual user images, and opinions. In fact, I always have a good read through these prior to purchasing any camera equipment.
Useful Tip: Don’t attach filters to your lens whilst photographing the Aurora as they cause ‘interference fringes’, which are extremely hard, if not impossible to remove in post production.
It is important that you carry a few spare camera batteries, as they do tend to drain very quickly in the cold. Also using long exposures and ‘live view’ (if you have this facility on your camera) will have a huge impact on battery life. I normally carry 3 or 4 spares and I tend to keep them in an inside pocket and fairly close to my skin, which helps to keep them warm. I think that it’s fair to say that battery technology has come on leaps and bounds over the past couple of years and, to re-enforce this statement, I have found that the new Canon batteries, for example, that I use in my Canon EOS 5D Mk 3 are lasting much longer. In fact, a single fully charged battery will normally see me through the night, even at -40 degrees C.
Useful Tip: It really is stating the obvious but, whatever you do, please don’t forget to take your battery charger, and a universal mains plug adaptor. It’s not so easy to purchase these items in the Arctic wilderness.
As I shoot digital, I normally carry 3 x 32 GB SD cards. I could of course use higher capacity cards but the reason that I don’t is because if you only only have one or two high capacity cards with your and it / they malfunction, then you have a problem on your hands. Furthermore, when I return to base, I always back up the images as soon as practically possible to either a portable hard-drive or a dedicated image storage device.
Remote Camera Operation
If your camera has the facility to attach a wired remote switch, then I would highly recommend using one. Try to obtain a good quality switch, and preferably one that has a fairly thick cable, as the freezing temperatures can play havoc with it. I’ve seen mine freeze solid, and form all sorts of weird and wonderful shapes but, never the less, it’s carried on working. Once again, I’d try to avoid the battery operated ones as they tend to be less than reliable in this environment.
Okay, now that we’ve talked a bit about equipment it’s time to delve into the fun part, photographing the awe-inspiring Aurora Borealis.
The first thing to do is to attach your camera securely to the tripod. This is where the head-torch comes in really handy, as you need both hands at this stage. Once you have done this you should now attach the remote switch to the camera and, if you haven’t already done so, insert your battery and card.
You should then set your camera to manual function – normally marked ‘m’ on most cameras. Once you gain more experience of photographing the Aurora, and are better able to judge the intensity of light that’s coming at you, you can also make use of the bulb setting, which allows for even greater flexibility.
If you’re shooting on a digital camera then you should set your camera up to shoot RAW images or RAW and small jpeg images, whichever you prefer. Also, I would highly recommend that if your camera uses in-camera noise reduction that you de-activate this function. The reason for doing this is that if noise reduction is enabled then it doubles the write time to the card. In essence it cuts down the number of images that you’re able to capture in a given amount of time meaning that you’ll end up missing a great deal of the action. This is particularly relevant when shooting time-lapse sequences. And finally, depending on the lens that you’re using, you need to change the ISO and shutter speed settings on the camera. If you’re using an f/2.8 aperture lens, for example, then a good starting point would be ISO 800, at 15 seconds. These settings will inevitably vary according to the intensity of light being emitted by the Aurora and, as previously discussed, the size of the lens aperture. Don’t worry, it may seem like a rather complicated procedure at first but, rest assured, you’ll soon get the hang of it. It’s like any other type of photography really – it’s simply case of experience, experimentation and getting the balance right.
Once you have set the camera up, it’s time to turn your attention to the lens. Firstly, if you have a filter attached to the lens, remove it and put it in your bag for safe keeping. Now switch the lens to manual focus and rotate the focus ring to ‘infinity’. At this stage, you should also set the lens to its’ maximum aperture. You’ll no doubt be pleased to hear that you’re almost ready to go. I say almost because there is one more vital step that you need to take and that’s to achieve what’s referred to as ‘critical focus’. There are several ways to achieve critical focus – in my case, as I’m using a camera that has a built in ‘live view’ facility – I simply point the camera at a bright object – the moon for example – and rotate the focusing ring until I find the ‘sweet spot’. If you do not have a live view facility on your camera then you can do exactly the same thing by looking through the viewfinder. Once the sweet spot has been established, it’s a good idea to tape the focusing ring to the non moving part of the lens so that you don’t accidentally knock it out of place. Alternatively, if you decide not to tape it, then you should check it at regular intervals to ensure that it’s not moved. Tape’s best though, as it means that you’re using your head-torch less often which, to be perfectly honest, can prove an irritation to other photographers – not too mention ruin your own night-vision.
When checking for critical focus in Live View
- If there is no moon to focus on, I usually find a bright star and then digitally zoom (10x) on the star. If you slowly shift your focus ring on this star, you’ll see it go from a having a slight ‘halo’ or blur to it being a pinpoint. Stop focusing when you get the pinpoint, and you’ll be properly focused.
- Once you have set up your equipment, composed your shot and taken a test image that you’re happy with, make sure that you switch off the LCD preview screen. This will help to conserve your battery power. I only use it when I have to.
It is an excellent idea to familiarise yourself with the equipment that you’ll be using prior to heading out on tour. Believe me, the last thing that you want to do is to get out of a vehicle at night, in sub zero temperatures, and not have a clue what goes where, and what does what. As the old saying goes – ‘preparation is half the battle’.
Above all else, good luck, and enjoy yourself !