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How to Use Your DSLR in Cold Weather & Shooting the Northern Lights

I’ve been in Sweden in February 2013 for watching Northern Lights and other beauties of Winter. For that I crossed the line of North Pole and went to northernmost Sweden. It’s been really cold. Polar weather is very dry but at some point you realize that everything is freezing including yourself. It’s been a challenge for me also for my Photography equipment. Before I go to Sweden I red many articles about using DSLR in extreme cold conditions and how to capture Northern Lights in that condition. This article will be another guide you’re going to read before you use your DSLR in extreme cold conditions. I have few lessons learned, suggestions and tricks to share with you. I hope they will be useful to you.

My Photography Gear

I have two Pentax DSLR cameras. Pentax K-X and Pentax K30. Pentax K-X is 3 years old and has 10k shutter count. K30 is brand new. K-X doesn’t have a Weatherproof body. K30 is equipped with Weatherproof body and 18-55 mm kit lens. K-X runs with 4x AA size battery. K30 has Li-ion battery. My other lenses are Sigma 70-300 mm AF and SMC Pentax 50 mm MF. Max aperture of 50 mm lens is f/1.8 and 18-55 & 70-300 are f/3.5. Max aperture is very important for photographing Northern Lights but we’ll get that later. Don’t forget a dust blower, cleaning cloths, separate batteries and a good bag to keep your gear warm and safe. Here is the full list of my gear that I used in Sweden.

  • Pentax K-30
  • Pentax K-X
  • Pentax DA 18-55mm / 3.5-5.6 AL WR
  • Sigma 70-300mm F4-5.6 DG Macro
  • SMC Pentax-M 50mm F1.7

Using Your Tripod Correctly

“A tripod is your best friend during your trip.”

Using a tripod is vital for taking great photographs for Northern Lights. You will be taking photos in between 15 to 30 seconds exposure time (shutter speed) and simply you can’t hold your camera in your hand without shaking it. You can place your camera on a flat surface but probably you can’t find it in a tricky surface such as mountain or forest. You should buy a tripod that covers your preferences. I bought a Manfrotto MKC3-H01 because it’s cheap and lightweight also portable. Of course there are better options in the market. Especially carbon fiber tripods are very strong and lightweight but expensive. If you choose a heavy tripod it will bother you while you carry it so I suggest you choose a lightweight and portable tripod.

“DO NOT touch tripod with bare hands!”

Cold is a serious issue in Arctic Circle. Everything is freezing under the cold sun and silent stars. I was taking some photos over a frozen lake and the temperature was around minus 20 and 30 celsius. I wanted to move the tripod and touched it with my bare hand and it instantly burned my hand. I couldn’t even held it for a second. It’s same as touching a stove. Don’t forget to hold it with your gloves on and never touch it with bare hands. 

“Think twice before you open last legs of your tripod.”

Wobbling is another issue for your tripod. Depends on your DSLR’s weight and tripod’s stability it may occurs as a problem. After you opened your tripod till last thin legs it may looks standing very still but actually it doesn’t. Even lightest wind is effecting it and shaking it gradually. The result will be visible in out of focused photos. If your tripod is lightweight and has thin legs then don’t open last legs or last thin legs. Your camera will be standing still when only thick legs are opened. Don’t forget to stab it hard into snow and don’t forget to use a remote control for taking photos. If you don’t have one then you should set the timer before you push the shutter. If you press the shutter manually then you actually shake the camera a bit. This operation must be completed without any vibration for the perfectly focused photos. 

Survive Your DSLR in Cold Weather


Technically cold is not effecting DSLR body but it’s effecting two things; the Battery and the Lens. Most electronic devices’ optimum operating temperature are between 0 to 32 Celcius degrees. Cold is simply draining the battery life quickly and at the end your full charged battery will end up just in minutes. To avoid this you should keep your DSLR and batteries in your bag and do not use it unnecessarily. Turning the DSLR on and off very often will result a shortage of the battery life. Just go to the place you’re going to take photographs and set your tripod then start shooting. Don’t be surprise if you see the battery is going to empty soon on the display because most DSLR can’t calculate the remain battery percentage duo cold weather. It will work until it’s completely drained. 

“Don’t be afraid when you see your DSLR like that.”
Lens is another component you should take care of in cold weather. If you put your DSLR outside without turning focus ring manually or if Auto Focus motor hasn’t been used for while then your lens focus and zoom rings might get frozen after a while. To prevent this you should keep your DSLR in your bag or just turn the focus and zoom ring frequently with using AF motor or do it manually.
“You must avoid pasteurization effect.”

This part is a bit tricky. After you finish shooting and you want to go to inside what will happen to your camera? Remember that your DSLR is very cold at that moment and you don’t want to put it in a warm environment. This can cause serious damage on your camera. There are few things you can safely avoid this situation. Before you enter indoor put your camera into your bag and wait for a while or just take your camera and put it in a cold room. That can be your bathroom or any room that has less temperature. Just leave it there for a while. It will defrost in a few minutes. Avoid using external heaters and do not change or remove your lenses. Just wait. After defrosting completed you can bring it to a warmer place and begin the cleaning procedure.

“Eventually it will defrost.”

Recording a Video? Nevermind it


Unlike taking a photo, recording a video is much more complex process and requires more power to do that. If it’s too cold then you need much more power and the thing is that even if you have dozens of separate batteries you can’t record longer because your battery’s power will be draining so quickly. It’s also known as “cold bug”. Electronic devices are struggling receiving the power from battery and battery can’t provide it properly. In conclusion if outside temperature is too low and if your camera doesn’t connected to a power source then don’t use your DSLR in video recording. Otherwise it will be wasted in minutes.

“Nearly -35C over a Frozen Lake”
Here is an interesting story. During the dog sledding tour I wanted to record a video with my iPhone. It was inside pocket of my overalls and fully charged. I was crossing a frozen lake and it was about -35C degrees. Because of the wind my eyes were becoming watery and freezing instantly. I started to record the video. Everything was OK but then I saw a warning on the display. It says battery has been depleted and it switched off after 13 seconds of recording and I couldn’t opened it. When the iPhone was warmed a bit I opened it and battery percent was around 90. Probably it was the cold bug and even Apple won't give you warranty that it will work under those conditions.


Catching the Northern Lights


You should use correct settings for taking photos of Northern Lights. Otherwise your photos will be blurry or dark. As I mentioned earlier you should use a tripod. It would be better if you choose a wide lens or a fish eye lens. Also make sure that the maximum aperture of your lens is between f/2.8 and f/3.5. Shutter speed is very important and it’s connected to ISO settings. If you have a high-end DSLR then your camera performs very well even at lowest ISO settings. You can select ISO from 400 to 1600 at 30 seconds shutter speed. If you lower shutter speed to 15-20 seconds then you should select ISO from 1600 to higher. High-end DSLR are tolerating noise greatly. You can select 12800 or 25600 ISO but If you have entry level or intermediate DSLR make sure to hang around between 3200 to 6400 for less noisy photos. 15 seconds or 30 seconds exposed photo will be resulted very different. At 30 seconds shutter speed Northern Lights will be looking like a signature, seamless and less detailed but if you lower shutter speed your photos will be much detailed. This is why because Northern Lights are always shifting. You can catch the light beams at the slowest shutter speed as much as possible but then again you need the combination of a maximum aperture and highest ISO settings. You should try these settings before you go to take a photo of Northern Lights. Remember practice makes perfect.

“Patience is a virtue.”

You should wait patiently if you really want to see the Northern Lights. They don’t show up every night. Many people say that you can see them if you’re lucky enough but luck is not related with that. First you should be in the Arctic Circle in the Winter session from September to end of March. Secondly you should be in a dark environment as much as possible. Stay away from light sources. That’s even including the Moon. Yes that is correct. Northern Lights are visible best in the New moon phase. Thirdly weather must be clear and sky must be cloudless. Clouds are preventing them to be visible. If the weather is clear blue sky during the day and temperature is cold that is the sign of a open sky at night. Fourthly you should be patient not lucky. I waited hours to see them clearly. I set up my camera at 9 PM but they showed up at 11 PM. They don’t have a routine timing. Even if it’s very cloudy don’t be upset quickly and just wait. Clouds can be go away. That happens very often if you are in a higher ground such as a mountain. If it’s windy then it helps to distract clouds dramatically.

“White balance can make a difference.”

Different white balance settings can change the look of your photographs. Tungsten as the White Balance Setting is ideal for Northern Lights. It will fit the cold environment. However you can choose other white balance settings. It’s actually a matter of personal taste. It’s always better to shot in RAW mode. You can easily change the WB after and it will perform much better than a JPEG photo.

Infinity Matters

“Infinity is a serious matter.”

OK now this is very important. It's not important just because of shooting Northern Lights but everything else regarding to Photography. Infinity can make your photograph looks good or bad. It's very important to set the infinity on your lens correctly. If you don't then your photographs will be blurry and any objects with a light source will be looking unfocused. When using your lens in AF mode this won't be a trouble since it's doing this automatically and error free but when setting the infinity manually you should find the exact point where the real infinity point is. In most cases people are turning the lens ring till the end of it and think that is the infinity but actually not.

If you want to set the infinity correctly then you should do few things. Fırst read the manual and inspect what it's saying about it. Secondly google your lens and search for some comments or tutorials about setting the infinity. Thirdly shoot some for testing and compare the results. Most of manual lenses don't have the exact infinity point so you should play with the ring and try to find the best point. I think this is the best and much practical solution. It will only take 5-10 minutes but at least you'll find the infinity once and for all.

Conclusion


Thank you again for reading this article. I hope it will be useful to you and I hope you'll excuse my English :) My experience may not be the same in your case. It depends on variable situations. Your hardware, exact temperature and humidity will play a different part in your case. Please be careful with your hardware and first of all take care yourself.

Feel free to share your experience and feedback. You are more than welcome!

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