Photography gear for 2019 aurora trips

Photo gear laid out on a table

Here is what I brought on my aurora-centric photography trips in 2019.

A typical aurora photograph is taken in this situation:

  • I have flown to the destination - everything must pass through international carry on luggage/backpack and weight less than 10kg total.
  • It is midnight and cold. I have been standing relatively still outside for a while and it is exciting, boring, cold, and achy, but magical and fully engrossing
  • A typical exposure is 1-10 seconds, ISO1600-3200, f/1.8, capturing a large portion of the sky
  • I am taking a continuous sequences of exposures, at least 10 at a time
  • camera must be repositioned rapidly to capture changes in aurora activity in the sky
  • I am changing location and camera settings (usually shutter speed and portrait/landscape orientation) every 15 - 30 minutes

I've split up the gear in terms of what it does to make this fun and productive. it must:

  1. Capture as much light as possible
  2. Capture as much dynamic range as possible
  3. Take rock-solid longer exposure image sequences (1-30sec)
  4. Provide some practical comforts for setting up and staying warm and awake
  5. Provide some fallback opportunities

    Capture as much light as possible

    Wide angle, bright lens is really the most important part of the kit. In this case, the main lens is a Sigma 14mm f/1.8 - about as wide and bright as can be found for anon distorting lens.

    It is like carrying a big, delicate eyeball around.

    It is heavy at three pounds (Only the tripod is heavier) and has a bulging front element, which I cover with the lens cap whenever I move the camera and tripod. I feel it is well worth the weight and exposed front element.

    Capture as much dynamic range as possible

    High dynamic range is a bit like an exposure time-machine. It is how much of the really dark and really light areas of an image you can recover: brightening a dark foreground, or darkening a really bright spot in an aurora. This is all done in post-processing with my software of choice (Adobe Camera RAW at the moment).

    Right now I am using a Sony A7III. When shooting RAW image format at ISO 800-3200, the shadows and highlights can be recovered at least 2 stops.

    The the sensor has very low noise, so you feel comfortable shooting at slightly higher ISOs to reduce shutter speed and freeze some of the aurora movement.

    Finally, the camera is ISO-invariant, meaning an underexposed image shot at ISO800 and then brightened 2 stops in software looks about the same as one shot at ISO3200 - no significant increase in noise.

    Take rock-solid long exposure image sequences

    Without a good tripod, a good camera and lens are essentially useless. An aurora tripod has to be rock solid, easy to work with in the dark, and fast to reframe as the aurora move.

    I use a Benro aluminum/magnesium tripod with a ball head since it can support the weight of the A7 and the Sigma 14mm. The ball head allows for fast reframing. The camera also has an aluminum L-bracket, which gives me the option of switching between portrait and landscape orientation quickly.

    A solid tripod cannot be touched while image sequences are being taken. The slightest vibration with show up when I look at my photos at 100% as stars that are actually little squiggles. An intervalometer will allow the image sequence to be started and stopped hands-off, and also allow I to keep my hands warm in my mitts or pockets (an amazing luxury and necessity). By the way, thick gloves don't cut it - mitts with inner light gloves is more flexible and warm.

    A wireless unit is really nice so I are not anchored 3 feet from my camera. The A7III recently got a firmware upgrade for a great internal intervalometer, making this a little less needed, but it is still needed for bulb exposures.

    Provide some comfort and safety

    First for the gear:

    Neck strap is a safety net! I bring a camera neck strap like this Peak Designs one for whenever I move the camera - it is like a safety harness, even when the camera is attached to the tripod and I am moving the tripod. I can't afford to have the lens and camera slide off the tripod. 

    Lens Pen - for brushing off lens elements, displays. It's great to have one but learn to use it properly, especially on lens elements.

    External USB battery - useful for emergency charging, especially of a mobile phone. My iPhone tends to lose a lot of charge in the cold and this helps a bit.

    Extra Z battery - The Sony Z batteries are as good as SLR batteries in how long they last. A whole night of interval shooting will not fully drain one. But having a spare is a big comfort

    Lexar 128GB U3 cards - they are not the limiting factor in file write speed with the A7III, and have not let me down yet. They are good for a few days of shooting using compressed RAW format.

    Now for the photographer:

    Headphones are good for the long hours of shooting, sometimes a bit of music is welcome.

    Hand warmers for boots, mitts, and camera gear. These can be taped to camera gear to keep batteries warm, using...

    Hockey Tape is great in the cold and just enough stickiness for temporary attachment of batteries to tripods, organizing cables, and especially for taping hand warmers to the sides of cameras to keep them warm when intensely cold.

    Caffeine and warm drinkI use up a lot of core heat, energy when shooting all night standing still. Staying warm is vital and caffeine helps with the early morning drive home.

    Light cotton gloves - I find these great for temperatures down to 5 degrees celsius. They allow use of the cameras smaller buttons and insulate against the cold metal and fit under big mitts for "real" winter weather. They are also handy for quickly wiping condensation.

    Provide some fallback

    image og aurora taken with secondary camera

    Light Camera

    For super light camera with decent image quality, I use a Canon EOS M50 and a Rokinon 12mm f/2.0 (equivalent to  about 18mm on full-frame). It is very compact, light setup for manual wide-angle photography during the day. Canon's "flip and twist" rear display is really great for composition and I wish the Sony had it.

    This is actually a great setup as a secondary aurora camera, especially with bright aurora that don't require ISO3200.

    Secondary Lenses

    Standard lens: A compact Canon pancake 40mm f/2.8 prime is great for just leaving on the A7.

    Short telephoto: A Canon 85mm f/1.8 act as a short telephoto.

    These work with both camera bodies using the Sigma MC-11 Canon lens to Sony body adapter. It's also useful to carry the Canon EF to EF-M adapter so that these two primes can be used on the M50 as a 60mm and 130mm equivalent focal length.

    Both work well for landscape and manual focus, as well as casual photos for the rest of the trip.

    The results in 2019

    Overall, I found this setup worked as well as it has in the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. This is tailored to be carry-on luggage light and for aurora photography.

    Still I would like to have had a second lens a little less wide for certain coastal elements that simply seemed too small in frame. The 40mm pancake helps, but is not bright enough and has a lot of coma which shows up as weird-shaped stars at the edges of the photo. The 85mm is also a bit soft at f/1.8.

    The new camera strap saved the camera at least once when rock hopping on the coast, taking the time to replace the lens cap and putting the strap on before moving the camera and tripod is really non-negotiable unless I am willing to risk drop the camera and scratch the front lens element.

    I enjoyed having the secondary body with me at 18mm equivalent. Next time I would use it as a secondary aurora camera, as it is only about 1.5 stops noisier than the A7III, and exposed properly gives good images.

    I ended up not taking the laptop for this trip, but often use it as an emergency charging pack, kept in my Lowepro back pack with a long microUSB to USB cable.

    The results of a recent Iceland trip using this setup

    The results of a recent Yukon trip using this setup

    An Yellowknife, NWT image using the compact secondary camera setup

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