Aurora photos with kit lens and camera
So, you are going to Iceland! Or Norway, or Yellowknife, or Alaska, or the Yukon, and you are all packed, including your:
Canon Rebel, or
Sony A6*00, or
Fujifilm X-A, or
...and the 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 kit lens it came with.
You've also packed your compact tripod.
You hear that the Aurora will come out at some point and you want to know:
"Can I get good photos of the aurora without buying a bunch of specialized gear?"
Well, yes! Keep in mind that your 'entry-level' camera, if sent back in time 15 years, would pretty much alien technology, with its low noise sensor, high pixel-count, and advanced processing. The kit lenses are sharper, too. So you are already doing pretty well: "Entry-level" today is yesterday's "Pro-sumer".
So what will be the differences between the photo you might take with your camera and the one taken with more expensive, specialized gear?
Let's do a visual experiment of exactly that: same tripod first with the specialized gear, then with "entry-level" gear:
First up - a full-frame camera with an 14mm, f/1.8 lens, cropped to about 18mm. Something dedicated to wide angle night photography with low noise... and about $4000(!)
Now, let's looks at what the 'entry-level' APS-C camera and kit lens would have captured with the same settings on the same tripod. Let's assume the megapixel count is the same, as well (for this comparison it is not going to be a deciding factor anyways):
Some things to notice here:
Cropping due to smaller sensor
From the same tripod in the same place, the 18mm kit lens appears 50% closer to the lighthouse, with less room for aurora. Even though the lens focal length has not changed from 18mm, the sensor is 50% smaller in the 'entry-level' camera (that's the meaning of "APS-C" versus "full-frame" sensor).
Fix: It would help to stand about 50% further back to get similar framing as the full-frame camera. In this case, we couldn't, because we'd be in the water. Tilting the camera up a bit helps get more sky and aurora in frame.
Darker due to slower kit lens
"Slower" is a term that means it take longer to let as much light onto the camera sensor as a "faster" lens. This is because a slower lens' aperture (the light path through the middle of it) is smaller in cross section than the faster lens. It is the same principle as a garden hose versus a fire hose. The kit lens at 18mm has a maximum aperture of f/3.5. This is typical for all standard kit zoom lenses. f/3.5 lets in around 1/4 of the light that the faster f/1.8 lens does per unit time, and with the same exposure time of 4 seconds, the resulting image is proportionally dimmer, in this case by 2 stops (a difference of 1 stop is one doubling of amount of light).
Fix: Increase the exposure time to compensate, in this case we have 1/4 the light per unit time, so need 4 times the time, or 16 seconds. It is the same as putting out a fire with a garden hose instead of a fire hose, you are going to have to stand there a lot longer.
Now we have:
The exposure has been fixed up, but now the aurora curtains have had 16 seconds to move around, rather than just 4. The appearance of fine vertical structure is reduced in areas of the aurora curtain where there has been movement. This may not be an issue for nights where the aurora is not moving quickly, though.
Here is a checklist of settings for your 'entry-level' camera when shooting aurora
✅ Shoot in RAW and JPG simultaneously if possible. Saving the RAW image file allows you far more post processing flexibility in your photos compared to JPGs.
✅ Set your camera to manual (M) mode. You will be manually controlling both the aperture and shutter speed, so it is in full manual.
✅ Set iso to between 1600-3200. 3200 is about the max for APS-C without a lot of noise distracting things.
✅ Custom white balance - I use the Kelvin setting of 4500K as a starting point. This only affects the JPG files, not the raw, but prevent the images from having an overly warn green-orange aurora
✅ Disable internal flash
✅ Camera is on a tripod - no exceptions for this. It has to be stable.
✅ Switch the lens to manual focus and focus to infinity. To do this at night zoom in on some stars using the manual focus assist option on your camera (not the mechanical lens zoom) and focus till they are pin sharp using the focus ring on the lens. This makes sure the aurora will be in focus. Every camera maker has a slightly different manual focus interface so hit the manual on that
✅ Consider using the 2 seconds countdown timer setting so that camera vibration from touching the shutter has time to settle down
Also consider these checklist items:
✅ Make sure you have enough SD card space - aurora photography tends to use up a lot of shots, several hundred in a night
✅ Make sure you know your tripod. Also many aurora photos are taken in portrait so it is nice to be able to switch the tripod mount from portrait to landscape
✅ A headlamp with a red light is really nice for night shots, since you otherwise can't see the controls. Make sure to turn it off before pressing the shutter!
✅ Consider using an intervalometer to take several sequential shots and to remove any chance of camera vibration from touching it. Many cameras have a built-in intervalometer or an external remote or camera-connected phone app
✅ Check that long exposure noise reduction is OFF, otherwise the camera may take a 10 second dark frame after every 10 second exposure, halving the number of aurora photos you get. Check your specific camera for that operation
✅ Be ready to shift the shutter speed up or down as aurora can flare up and down quickly up to three stops or more!
✅ Bring an extra battery - the aurora are up north, and the north gets cold. Cold batteries die faster. Keep the extras in a warm pocket
✅ Try a few night shots at home as rehearsal, trying to capture some constellations or the galaxy - that will reveal any shortcomings in the gear and setup
✅ Consider going with a tour group to get away from city lights, an expert greatly increases your camera is in the right place at the right time
✅ Consider renting a fast wide prime lens from your camera store for your trip. a 10mm or 12mm f/2.0 can really level the playing field between the specialized gear and your gear
Get that "entry-level" camera doing the stuff it was made for!