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Lens for Northern Lights Photography

Sunny Reed , Dec 02, 2010; 03:38 p.m.

Hi. I just moved to Fairbanks area, and started shooting the Northern Lights. For my first aurora shots, I used Canon 5D Mark II + 17-40mm f4L. It came out ok... but I needed bump up the ISO to 1600-2500. The images are noisier than my taste. I'm thinking to buy new lens... I've been looking at Canon EF 24mm f/1.4L II or Canon EF 28mm f/1.8 USM. If anyone owns these lens, please share your opinions. Or any other suggestions? Thanks!


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Tony Bynum , Dec 02, 2010; 03:57 p.m.

the camera, exposure and iso determine noise. You wont change anything about noise by buying a new lens. the Nikon d3's seem to have a foothold on the high iso.

That said you should be able to get some relatively low noise images at those iso's. Exposure has a lot to do with hi iso shooting . . .

David Henderson , Dec 02, 2010; 04:49 p.m.

For recent Northern Lights photography in Iceland I used ISO 200 , f4 and an exposure time of 75 seconds on my 5Dii. I still got noise, especially when i tried to lighten the photographs a little to show some form of context. The basic problem I had (outside ot the fact that I had no intervalometer and so used bulb) is that whilst my exposure gave me well exposed "lights" the sky and land around were pretty uniformly nearly black. Lightening these dark areas produced a lot more noise. Basic message here IMO to minimise noise is not to underexpose and take to provide exposures you're happy to use without much lightening in post. That will mean over exposing the "Lights" - you can always bring them down later- so that they are well to the right of the histogram though avoiding clipping. You need the black of the sky and landscape to be away from the very left of the histogram so you get some detail in there without having to make it lighter.

Oh, and don't buy a new lens.

Steve Henry , Dec 02, 2010; 05:01 p.m.

See Patrick Endres' website alaskaphotographics.com. He's an excellent photographer who lives in Fairbanks. Look here http://www.alaskaphotographics.com/alaska_aurora_borealis_photos.shtml and here http://www.alaskaphotographics.com/how_to_photograph_northern_lights.shtml for his excellent advice on photographing the Aurora.

Kyle West , Dec 02, 2010; 07:46 p.m.

I second Steve's recommendation that you look at www.alaskaphotographics.com No one knows more about aurora shooting than Patrick. He's also a great guy and incredibly capable and knowledgable outdoorsman\photographer.
In short: the fastest lens you can afford is your best bet -- f/2.8 is very good, faster is even better. I think f/4 is getting too slow (your exposures will be twice as long as with f/4). If you can afford an f/1.8 or 1.4 go for it! I found 11-16mm on a 1.5x crop sensor was ideal. Focus at infinity and lock that down with gaffers tape and switch all to manual so the camera won't try to change the infinity focus. Keep ISO low enough to avoid unacceptable noise--for most people this will mean no higher than 800, probably 400 is better. Play with that, though. Sturdy tripod. Start with 30 second exposures, check histogram, and increase as necessary.
The longer your exposures, the more diffuse the light display will be. I was getting pretty good results up to 2.5 minutes though.

Kyle West , Dec 02, 2010; 07:57 p.m.

Kyle West , Dec 02, 2010; 08:03 p.m.

Kerry Grim , Dec 02, 2010; 08:11 p.m.

Although not an answer to your question. it is well worth checking spaceweather.com

The site has information about the auroras, including the Aurora Oval and a photo gallery as well. In most cases the photographer supplies the photo information used.

Sunny Reed , Dec 03, 2010; 12:37 p.m.

Hi. Thanks for good information.
Kyle, your image is beautiful!

carl donohue , Dec 04, 2010; 10:00 p.m.

hey Sunny
Agreed. The faster the lens, the better. The 24mm f1.4 would be awesome. I've a 2.8, but the 2 extra stops make a huge difference. For the aurora, the faster the shutter the better.

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