Using a DSLR or mirrorless camera gives you more control and generally superior performance in low-light conditions compared to a smartphone, although a recent model smartphone can offer surprising results. That said, here are ten tips to help you capture the Northern Lights effectively with a DSLR or mirrorless camera:
- Sturdy Tripod: As with smartphones, a good tripod is essential to prevent camera shake during long exposures. I’ve used this lightweight tripod from MeFoto for years and it’s always done me right and helped me get great results whether when supporting my iPhone or a larger DSLR or mirrorless camera..
- Use a Wide-Angle Fast Lens: A wide-angle lens, preferably with a focal length between 14mm and 24mm, will allow you to capture a larger portion of the sky. A fast lens with a wide aperture (f/2.8 or wider) will let in more light, which is crucial for capturing the aurora.
- Manual Focus to Infinity: Autofocus might struggle in the dark. Turn your lens to manual focus and set it to infinity. Some lenses might achieve the sharpest focus slightly before or after the infinity mark, so it’s a good idea to test this during the day.
- RAW Format: Shoot in RAW. This will capture more data and allow greater flexibility in post-processing, which can be particularly helpful for tweaking exposure, color balance, and noise reduction.
- Manual Mode for Full Control:
- ISO: Begin with lower ISO values between 200 and 400, then bump it up if necessary. A higher ISO increases your camera’s sensitivity to light, but the tradeoff is that it can introduce noise, although today’s cameras are getting better and better at minimizing this.
- Shutter Speed: Start with a shutter speed of around 15-25 seconds. If the aurora is moving quickly, you may want to shorten the exposure to capture more detail.
- Aperture: Use the widest aperture your lens allows (e.g., f/2.8 or f/1.4).
- Remove UV and Polarizing Filters: These can introduce unwanted reflections or limit the amount of light reaching the sensor and in this situation, you’re going to want to let as much light in as possible.
- Use a Remote or Timer: To avoid camera shake when pressing the shutter button, use a remote shutter release, or see if you can control your phone from its associated app. If you don’t have a remote, the camera’s built-in timer set to a 2-second delay can also work.
- Check Your Histogram: The histogram is a tool on most DSLRs and mirrorless cameras that shows the distribution of tones in an image. Ensure there’s a good balance and that you’re not underexposing the shot. For best results try to avoid having the information bump up against either the right (highlights) or left (shadows) sides of the histogram.
- Batteries: Cold conditions can drain batteries quickly. Carry a set of backup batteries to ensure you don’t run out of power at that decisive moment. Also, keep your batteries warm by storing them inside your jacket when not in use. You can also use chemical warmers for your hands, feet, and batteries.
- Consider using a battery grip for extended shooting.
- Experiment and Be Patient: The Northern Lights are unpredictable. Take time to try different settings and compositions. If the lights aren’t too bright to start, don’t be disheartened; they can often flare up without warning.
Finally, remember to occasionally put down the camera and simply enjoy the spectacle. The Northern Lights are a breathtaking natural phenomenon, and it’s important to take a moment to appreciate the experience beyond the lens.
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