Whats kind of equipment you should bring with you? It’s a delicate question based on your personal choice and your level of expertise… but it’s some rules to understand and follow for the best result.
What to pack in your camera bag?
If you are interested in landscape and night photography you probably have your favorite lens/camera combinations. I will give you some advice about preferences for Aurora Borealis if you never did it before. Otherwise, you can experiment it and learn it during the time. I highly recommend you to be prepared and know your equipment otherwise you will miss some good moments/photos. If you don’t have or want to update your existing gears then I will give you some advice based on my personal experience.
Point and shoot cameras are not recommended for night photography and Aurora Borealis. I am not going to explain in details why. It’s fine during the day time. I have seen many people trying and not succeeding in taking the good photos. Considering all time and money spent on the all parts of your trip and having the bad camera will ruin your experience. For those who are not interesting in photography and just observing the phenomena it is totally another story.
Most popular cameras are with ASP-C sensors and with exchangeable lenses. Are they mirror or mirror less doesn’t meter as far as you have enough with wide lenses. Standard all-in-one zoom optics usually starts with 18 mm and end it from 55 mm all the way to 300 mm. It can be used but don’t forget that 18 mm (26 – 29 mm on 35 mm standard) is mostly not wide enough. Aurora Borealis can dance very wide and you will simple miss big parts of it. Even here it depends on intensity based on previous Solar activity. I highly recommend primes with 8, 10 or 12 mm and F/stop around or less than F/2,8. You need all lights available and primes will help you with that and you will even get better quality photos. More lights mean lower ISO and less noise as well.
Second part of your equipment is the tripod. Choose one which you are comfortable to work with and learn all functions and adjustments. You are going to be outside in really dark conditions and not knowing how to adjust your tripod can be disturbing for your surrounding. For example using your head torch (recommended packing with you) all the time will disturb other and can affect long exposure photos with all this extra light.
You need to learn how your camera works in order to change some basic functions. Night photography can take some time to learn and master it but the results can be astonishing.
If traveling alone then you need to find place during the daylight for night photography. For example, you need to know where to park, how long distance is to the shooting position, is it clean view to the north, any dangerous objects like stones or holes in the ground, etc… Yours and other members safety (if few) are the most important task for successful mission.
After arriving to the chosen spot
After arriving to the chosen spot and the night you need fix your position with your tripod and camera on it. Point it to the North direction if Aurora not visible and wait. Prepare your camera at home or int the car/buss with following preferences. Manual mode is the best one (M on the wheel). Aperture with the lowest number 2,8 or similar, shutter speed from 5 to 30 sec depending on how wide lens you use and intensity of Aurora. (cheek photo below for more info) Sometimes the whole sky is on the fire and you can use shorter shutter speeds and higher F-stop if needed.
Sett ISO on auto to start with (you can always adjust it in manual mode). Usually you can choose range of your ISO and save it in your preferences. Some cameras give you many different preset possibilities and you can make one for Aurora. Depending on your camera high ISO performance you can choose for example range from lowest 800 and highest 1600.
Use remote control or cable realize (recommended buying or taking with you) if not heaving any then you can use your timer which all camera usually have. Many of cameras have base option with 2 or 10 sec. I recommend 10 sec. if you are not experienced to be on the safe side and avoid all unwanted camera shakes.
If you are not getting wanted quality/results then do some small adjustments with shutter speed and ISO.
One of the most important and sometimes not easy task to accomplish is to get the right focus. If isn’t any available lights source to focus on it and your camera isn’t advanced enough to focus on the lightest stars, then you have to do your focus before your arrival. During the day auto focus on something really far away and then switch AF to manual focus. Use tape and to secure your focusing wheel and don’t touch it anymore. Do one more test photo to be sure that your focus is still good. One another option if you are already at the place during the night is to ask some of your friends for help. Ask them to go at least 20 m in any directions if possible with some light source. Focus on his/her light source and you are good to go… most of the times. Modern cameras have other ways of manual focusing and it’s good to know how to use it.
My personal recommendation is camera body with full frame sensor and UW lens. It is many camera and lens manufactures and which one you are going to use is your personal choice. Most of you already have one or few companies which you are familiar with and you will probably start by exploring their UW lenses (if not already heaving one). Don’t forget that you can always rent UW lens if your intention was not to own one. In that case you can rent top of the line lenses considering their usual high price.
Reason of recommending the UW lenses are:
• Aurora can be really wide sometimes and you don’t want to miss any part of it.
• If you are photographing in front of a lake or just heaving water in the foreground you probably would like to get Auroras reflection at the water surface.
• Wider lenses give you more opportunities to make better composition and make photo more interesting.
• Wider range give you longer shutter speed before the Earths motion start to create star tail. (check photo with more info) Otherwise the usual range between 24-35 mm can be useful but with higher ISO range if you want to avoid star motion with shorter shutter speed. But if you are lucky to have light intensity Aurora night then you can definitely use those lenses as well.
Even here lower F/stop mean more light. Nowadays it’s many prime lenses which can be useful and starts from 14 mm F/1.8 like Sigma, Canon 14 mm F/2.8, Sigma 20 mm F/1.4 even zoom lenses like Nikon 14-24 F/2.8, Tamron 15-30 F/2.8 and many others companies with similar lenses.
Even here you need to prepare your self by exploring the location, bring tripod, extra batteries and warm cloth… etc.
I never tried to photograph Aurora with medium format camera and I guess that even bigger sensor can bring even more lights and details.
Good luck with hunting!