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Thread: How to photograph Northern Lights...

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    Member danattherock's Avatar
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    Default How to photograph Northern Lights...

    Thinking about flying up to Chena Hot Springs in March to catch the lights. Getting ready to buy my first DSLR and wanted to know if anyone would mine sharing thoughts on how to photograph them. I am new to photography so talk to me like a kid and I should get it. I just used point and shoots till now. Hoping to get some good pictures of the lights. Any suggestions on camera settings, shutter speed, and lens selection would be most appreciated.

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    Here's a bunch of information, although it relates to film instead of digital. Still, the ideas are about the same. http://www.ptialaska.net/~hutch/aurora.html

    Most digital SLRs need a slightly wider lens to capture the same field of view as a film camera. So instead of a 35mm lens, you might want to try a 24mm. Also some DSLRs have better low light image quality than others, so if you are going to do a lot of this, it should influence your camera's brand & model.

    Basic idea for a starting point is to use manual focus with a reasonably wide lens, set the ISO to 800, lens aperture to f/2.8, and hold the shutter open for 10-15 seconds. Always use a tripod, and trip the shutter with a remote device/cord.

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    I don't do it myself, but here are some instructions on how to take such photos with a digital SLR camera:
    http://www.royhooper.ca/articles/aurora.html

    And to find out about auroras activity in Alaska, this is the place to ask (UAF):
    http://www.gi.alaska.edu/

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    Member ak_powder_monkey's Avatar
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    Checklist:

    -Study Tripod
    -Mirror Lockup
    -cable release or self timer
    -apeture to widest setting
    -wide angle lens (~28mm)
    -focus to infinity
    -100 iso
    -20-60 second shutter (the shorter the better, but make sure you expose enough)
    -Northern Lights

    Haines (not great, not very many displays in SE)
    I choose to fly fish, not because its easy, but because its hard.

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    fairbanks fast photo had a cheat sheet for times and exposures. I gave it a go once on marginal lights just to see and they came out great....haven given it a go since. But I'd drop in and pick it up.

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    Quote Originally Posted by ak_powder_monkey View Post
    Checklist:

    -Study Tripod.....
    Why a study tripod. I'd prefer one that's just rock solid and doesn't move...

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    Member ak_powder_monkey's Avatar
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    lol I make bad typos
    I choose to fly fish, not because its easy, but because its hard.

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    Member danattherock's Avatar
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    Default Canon...

    Thanks for all the great info/links so far. I got my first DSLR last week, a Canon EOS 40D. Already took the best photos I have ever taken with it. I have a lot to learn though. So many controls and settings on that camera. Having only used point and shoot Sony's till now, I have much to learn. It came with the 28-135 mm lens. I thought of getting a Canon 10-22mm lens for it. Anyone have any thoughts on that lens. Sounds like the wide angles are a good choice for northern lights shots. My only thought (based on what I read above) was if the lens was fast enough. It is 3.5-4.5 if I am not mistaken. Any thoughts on how using such a lens would affect my shutter speed and iso. I am just beginning to learn what those (and other) settings mean so I have very little insight into what would make for a good lens for night photography. I will have a tripod but see that the slowest shutter speed my camera has is 30 seconds. Is that long enough with said lens? Thanks for any additional insights you may share.

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    Member EricL's Avatar
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    You will be limited somewhat on that lens for the lights. The faster the lens, the faster you can set the shutter speed. All this ='s less noise in your shots. The slower shutter speeds will start to cause some shots to be washed out. Of coarse, play around with it to get the feel for it. I have a 16-35 f2.8 Canon lens that works pretty well for night time shots.

    I have been contemplating a 40D as a backup camera. Keep me posted on how you like that body!

    I do have a dumb question...Do you guys see the lights in N.C. or are you coming north?
    EricL

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    Member EricL's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by danattherock View Post
    I will have a tripod but see that the slowest shutter speed my camera has is 30 seconds. Is that long enough with said lens? Thanks for any additional insights you may share.
    I did a quick search on your new camera. I sure thought it had the "bulb" feature. This is where as long as you hold the shutter button down the shutter will stay open. I couldn't find where this body has this feature though. This may or may not come in handy while using a slower lens on dark situations. One other handy piece of gear would be a cable release. Good luck!!
    EricL

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    Member danattherock's Avatar
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    Default no..

    Eric,
    No northern lights in NC. We go to Alaska 1-2 times/year. Mostly we float/fly fish rivers in the Fall. Thinking about heading back to Chena Hot Springs this March. Went there a few years ago and had a nice time. We are travel nurses working on Nantucket,Mass now. I heard just today that the lights can (rarely) be seen here. Heard of a few northern states where they can be seen with some regularity. Thanks for the info.

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    The 40D *does* have a bulb setting for the shutter speed. You just dial back the shutter past 30 seconds and there it is. You will need a remote release for it so your hand doesn't shake the camera. Canon's wired version is a bit pricey, but knockoffs sell on eBay for much less, and seem to work just as well. I have an ADIDT M1 that I didn't pay much for. It has a locking trigger just like the Canon version, so if you want you can lock it open for hours without making your finger fall off. Still, I doubt you will need the bulb setting for this. But the remote works well any time you are using a tripod, so it's a good thing to have.

    BTW, I can't say enough good things about the 40D. It is a great improvement over the 20D, and that was already a good camera.

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    Member danattherock's Avatar
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    Default how...

    Jim,
    I cant find that feature. I get to 30" and that is as far as it goes. Am I missing something? Being my first DSLR, it is rather likely. Also, is the mirror lock good to use with night photography. And if applicable, is there any harming the camera by exposing it (especially locked) in sub zero weather. Thanks for any thoughts.

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    I believe you have to have the camera in Manual mode to get to the bulb setting. I don't have mine in front of me right now or I would check it out for you.

    The mirror usually vibrates the camera for less than a 1/4 second, so it's primary use is in shutter speeds from 1 to 1/30 seconds, not that it will hurt to use it with other speeds. With shorter speeds it can't be detected, and with longer ones, the vibrating portion of the time that the shutter is open is insignificant to the whole exposure time, so it can't be seen.

    Modern cameras are quite good in low temps. The older mechanical ones had grease & oil that would get stiff, but the new ones generally run most parts either dry or with very light synthetic oil. The problem will be with battery life. Lithium, and lithium Ion batteries are the best option for cold weather, but even they will run out pretty quick. Most people use several batteries and keep the spares in a warm pocket. You can swap them in and out as needed. once rewarmed they come back to life enough to shoot again until cold.

    The other cold weather issue is with condensation when you bring it back into a warm area. You can put the camera in a large zip lock before moving inside, or just leave it buttoned down in a camera bag until warm. Don't be tempted to take it out of the bag for an hour or so though. Condensation, if bad enough, can cause damage to cameras & lenses.

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