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Gear/Techniques for Photographing the Northern Lights?

Discussion in 'Open Discussion' started by jloden, Jun 29, 2012.

  1. jloden

    jloden Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    May 15, 2012
    Hunterdon County, NJ
    Jay
    I found this old thread from a couple years ago: Photographing the Northern Lights and I have the exact same question. Unfortuantely, I didn't see much info in the original thread. I thought rather than bring that one back from the dead I'd start a new one since it's been a couple years and gear has changed some since then.

    I'm going to Alaska at the end of the summer and there's a good chance we'll get to see the Northern Lights, so of course I want to get the best photos I can. I've got a pretty wide assortment of lenses, and a G3 + GF2 to work with, but I'm not sure what to use or what kind of settings would work best. The only info I can find on the web is focused on film or DSLR tech (only some of which is applicable). Anyone have any experience with Micro Four Thirds gear for this purpose? Tips, tricks, suggestions?
     
  2. jair

    jair Mu-43 Regular

    65
    Feb 14, 2012
    I am just a newbie, thus far from authority on the subject, but I have a little expirience photographing the aurora with m4/3, so i'll give my 2c.

    You need sturdy tripod, like really sturdy. I hope you are as lucky as me and expirience an intense show, but most of the time it is faint. So you need long exposure time, i.e. good sturdy tripod.

    The G3 is much better choice then the GF2, because of the better sensor. If the lights are fast and dancing you will want to reduce the exposure time, which can only happen when you bump the ISO. As for the lens I guess both 20 and 25mm will do just fine, depends on how wide you want to shoot.

    Basically you need the highest ISO that you feel comfortable with, after that you can do noise reduction in post processing and there isnt really much sharpness in aurora photos you can lose. The aperture is maximum, of course..then it all depends on the show - bright, intense lights = shorter exposure time, faint, steady lights = longer exposure time.

    You need to focus to manually focus to infinity...or at least thats what the theory says. In my case I had problems with that and all my photos from the first night of shooting were blurry. On the second night I just switched to MF without rotating the ring...pictures turned out perfectly sharp.

    You can find some of my aurora pictures in this thread, all shot with GF2 and 14mm pancake. G3+20/25 for sure will give better results.
    https://www.mu-43.com/f56/iceland-criticism-needed-23613/

    Another thread with better pictures:
    https://www.mu-43.com/f56/northern-lights-20898/

    So your setup is perfectly capable, just hope the nature will cooperate.
     
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  3. David A

    David A Mu-43 All-Pro

    Sep 30, 2011
    Brisbane, Australia
    The aurora will be a highlight in the image, and you want detail in it. Based on Zone System principles I'd start out using spot meter mode, meter the aurora and then set +2 stops exposure compensation to put the aurora into the highlight range while maintaining detail. You can experiment with a bit less and a bit more exposure compensation but that +2 stops should be pretty close if you're using spot meter mode.

    If you're averaging then it's likely to be less but how much less will depend on how much of the frame the aurora is taking up and how bright it is. You'd have to play around and check your shots after as you try different exposure compensation settings if you want to use an averaging meter mode.

    Since the aurora moves I'd use shutter priority and let aperture shift with the exposure compensation since the aurora is at infinity and depth of field isn't going to be an issue unless there's something in the surrounding landscape you want to capture as well.
     
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  4. jair

    jair Mu-43 Regular

    65
    Feb 14, 2012
    It is impossible to meter the aurora, it is very faint...all amazing pictures you see are long exposures, in reality it is very rarely that bright.

    Only working mode is manual, there is not enough light for the camera to get any metering done, you just need to open the lens as much as possible and modify ISO/shutter speed based on conditions/preference.

    As a consequence, you obviously cannot apply exposure compensation.
     
    • Like Like x 1
  5. tflovik

    tflovik Mu-43 Regular

    39
    May 19, 2012
    Finnsnes, Norway
    Tom Eirik
    I live in the Northern part of Norway and we have plenty of Northern light in the winther time. Use your G3 because it has better ISO capability.
    Set your lens to the biggest aperture and focus manually at near infinity.
    You have to put the camera in M mode and try out different shutter values. The best is if you can use under 10 sec shutter times so you can capture the motion of the Norhtern Light. So you have to up the ISO to get the desired shutter value.
    On my GH-2 i used max ISO 1600 and got good results. If the moon is up it will be easier because you get more light.
     
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  6. David A

    David A Mu-43 All-Pro

    Sep 30, 2011
    Brisbane, Australia
    My bad. I've never seen the lights, sadly they don't visit sunny sub-tropical Australia, not even the southern ones.
     
  7. jloden

    jloden Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    May 15, 2012
    Hunterdon County, NJ
    Jay
    Thanks for the tips so far, very helpful! I assumed the G3 would be my main workhorse for this trip with the better sensor and of course the tilt screen which will make composing easier from a tripod.

    So to summarize so far: I want as close to infinity focus as possible, use the largest aperture, highest ISO I feel comfortable with, and use a long exposure time?

    What about the "long exposure noise reduction" feature on the Panasonics, do I want that on or off? I've done some long exposure night shots before and always had it on, but never tried anything like the northern lights.

    For lenses - I've got a few options I was considering, these are my top three:

    1) Panasonic 7-14mm f/4 zoom - great wide angle FOV but smaller aperture.
    2) Voigtlander 25mm f/0.95 - huge aperture, easy (manual) infinity focus but smaller FOV
    3) Olympus 12mm f/2.0 - in between option for aperture and FOV, infinity focus via manual focus ring. Mine is posted for sale as I was planning on replacing this with the 12-35 f/2.8, but I may hang onto the Oly 12 a bit longer.

    Any input on the lens options? If I have enough time I can of course try several options but I figured I should start with the "best bet" combo first.
     
  8. jair

    jair Mu-43 Regular

    65
    Feb 14, 2012
    "Long exposire noise reduction" is a valuable option to use. What it does is after the picture is taken it repeats the exposure time, but this time with a closed shutter. In this way any hot spots on the sensor generated by the long exposure are identified and removed. You cannot do this in post processing as far as i know.

    Negative effect is that essentially you double the exposure time.

    As for lenses: get the biggest aperture you can, thats the main point. Then try to get as wide as possible. The 17mm Voigtlander will be ideal, but the 25 will do also good. And yeah, I would keep that 12mm Oly too until after the trip. f4 on the 7-14 will be way too small imo.
     
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  9. tflovik

    tflovik Mu-43 Regular

    39
    May 19, 2012
    Finnsnes, Norway
    Tom Eirik
    P10004851.

    This picture was taken with my Panasonic GH-2, i used the Olympus 9-18mm lens at 9mm. The biggest aperture on this lens is only f/4, so thats what i used and the shutter was set to 10sec. ISO 800.

    So as you can see taking pictures of the Northern Light works fine at f/4.
    The advantage of using this lens is that it is wider than the fixed lenses.
     
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  10. jloden

    jloden Mu-43 Hall of Famer

    May 15, 2012
    Hunterdon County, NJ
    Jay
    That looks great Tom! That's a very similar setup to mine you were using so that helps a lot.
     
  11. tflovik

    tflovik Mu-43 Regular

    39
    May 19, 2012
    Finnsnes, Norway
    Tom Eirik
    I'm glad you liked the picture, and it says a lot more than words :)