Heading to the Yukon and shooting the Northern Lights is no easy feat, but that was the top item on Kathleen’s bucket list. Shooting at night in very low light requires a good DSLR camera and the ability to manipulate the setting manually. Equipped with a Canon EOS 70D camera and an EF10-22mm ultra-wide angle USM lens, she was able to achieve some striking photography. Here are some tips on how you too can produce your own great photos of the Northern Lights or any other nighttime event.
Adjust your ISO
Using your Canon DSLR, the easiest way to get great images at night is to crank up your camera’s ISO, which governs how sensitive your censor is to light. Generally, you should be using ISO 100 for full sunny days, but at night you can experiment with higher and higher settings. Kathleen’s 70D features an expanded ISO range of ISO 100-12800 (expandable to 25600 in H mode), which makes shooting possible in very dark environments. The camera’s exceptional noise-reduction technology is enhanced when using one of Canon’s EF or EF-S lenses with Optical Image Stabilizers that allow you to reach higher ISOs without adding excessive grain to your images.
Play with time lapse
Another thing to consider when shooting the Northern Lights, which are in constant motion, is time-lapse photography. The first thing to remember when shooting with your DSLR is to shoot RAW files rather than JPG, as the quality is much higher, and it’s a feature point and shoot cameras often don’t offer. The next most important thing is to set up the interval time that your camera will shoot at, as time-lapse photography requires taking a photo of the same scene periodically over a length of time. Knowing that you need 25 frames to create one second of video, a standard length of 10 seconds of footage will need 250 frames. Multiply 250 for each additional 10 seconds to calculate how much time you need to invest in completing your time lapse. When shooting the northern lights, you will be unaware of the duration of the event, so select “infinity” or “zero” in the number of frames from your remote when choosing your intervals.
Set up a tripod
Another solution to shooting the sky at night is to use a tripod. Your camera will need a lot of time to capture light in low-light conditions, so the shutter will need to stay open for a long time. That means any movement from you will blur the image. By leaving your camera on a tripod, you can make your images crisp and clear. Just be sure to use your camera’s self-timer or wirelessly with the EOS remote (only available on the EOS 70D or 6D) from your smartphone to ensure the camera isn’t being jogged by your hands as you release the shutter.
Shooting in cold or extreme climates
When shooting at night during the dark, cold Yukon winters, you will need to be extra prepared for the elements. Carry a Ziploc bag for your camera, as it is a great way to protect it from condensation on the lens or from moisture building up inside the camera’s body. Going from very cold outdoor weather to warmer indoor temperatures can cause problems for your camera, so be sure to protect it. Also carry extra batteries as very cold temperatures decrease the life of your camera’s battery. You want to protect yourself as well by wearing the right gloves when your hands are exposed. Thin-knit gloves will allow you to access your camera with ease but they will not keep you warm for long when holding your camera and tripod. Really thick gloves or mitts will keep your hands warm but will restrict your access to many of the buttons on your camera, including the shutter. The best option is to combine the two: either wear thin-knit gloves under your mitts for quick changes, or buy mitts that open at the top to reveal fingerless gloves underneath.
Capturing the sky
There is no perfect way to capture the northern lights because in any situation your exposure will largely depend on the light. That being said, keep your camera on full manual mode and use the Live View setting to ensure a sharp focus at infinity or slightly less depending on your lens. Try your ISO between 800 and 3200, your aperture between f/2.8 and f/5.6, and your shutter speed at between 15 seconds and 30 seconds to start, and make your adjustments accordingly depending on the night. You will notice that shutter speeds above 15 seconds will result in slight star movement, but when you’re ready to go, lock your mirror up, compose yourself and take your shots. If you end up with slightly over- or underexposed images, continue to play with a combination of the above settings until you get your exposure exactly where you want it.