Iceland Trip Preparation
I wanted to share some information with you about techniques and equipment for photographing the Aurora Borealis, and a couple of suggestions to make yourself more comfortable during the cold Icelandic nights. On the Iceland tour page, there is a sidebar with links to some basic gear you may wish to acquire for the trip. The sidebar to the right of this page contains links to cameras and lenses that I recommend for night photography, and more specifically for high ISO shooting to capture Northern Lights and Milky Way imagery. These are Amazon affiliate links, so using these links helps support TheNightSkye.com.
Warm clothing is pretty obvious, but I’ll offer a few suggestions that I have found helpful during wintertime Night Photography. Even tho the temperatures should not be too far below freezing, standing around for 4 or 5 hours in the cold can make it feel much colder than it really is.
Start with good quality long underwear- polypropylene, silk, or merino wool. Do not use cotton for the layer closest to your body, as a moisture wicking fabric will help keep you warmer. Dressing in layers is important.
A comfortable hat that covers your ears is essential, so is a good scarf or neck warmer. A balaclava might look silly, but will keep you warm.
Flip-top mittens that have a pouch for a chemical hand warmer pack will go a long way towards keeping your hands warm. Constantly taking off and putting gloves back on is a real pain. I would bring 2 pairs of hand warmers for each day of the trip.
Waterproof, insulated lightweight hiking boots are the best protection for your feet. Add a pair of sheepskin or wool insoles for extra comfort and warmth.
For outerwear, a lightweight, breathable, waterproof shell for daytime use, and a heavy down coat for night photography would be ideal. Waterproof pants that have side zippers so they can be put on over your boots is also a necessity, especially if you tend to wear jeans, or other cotton pants. Fleece, or flannel lined jeans are a big improvement over basic jeans. Synthetics are generally more versatile for travel and variable weather conditions.
For camera equipment, a DSLR that performs well at high ISO (at least 1600) is essential for the best quality images. Full frame sensor cameras like the Nikon D800, D3S, D4,or D600 or a Canon 1Dx, 5D mkIII or 5D mkII are ideal. I am a Canon shooter, and prefer them for their superior live view performance in low light, and automatic long exposure noise reduction. The high end Nikon cameras have a slight edge as far as image quality, but this will only be noticeable in very large prints. For me, the ease of focusing with Canons, and not having to wait as long for LENR makes the 5D mkIII the camera of choice for me. Recent model crop sensor cameras like the Nikon D7000 or Canon 7D will give acceptable images, but are not ideal if you plan to make prints larger than 13×19. The main limitation of most cameras will be noisy shadows.
For lenses, wide angle (24mm or wider on full frame), manual focus primes with fast maximum apertures are best. The Zeiss manual focus lenses will yield the very best image quality, but they are not especially fast, and are very expensive. You might consider the Zeiss 18mm f/3.5 Distagon T* ZF.2 Series Lens or Zeiss 21mm f/2.8 Distagon T* ZE Series Lens. Samyang, a Korean manufacturer produces lenses under the brand names of Bower, Rokinon, and Samyang. These are all essentially the same lenses, and are the best value for this type of work. The Rokinon FE14M-C 14mm F2.8 Ultra Wide Lens is an outstanding value that offer excellent image quality in an extreme wide angle lens for under $400. It outperforms both the Nikon and Canon equivalent lenses at wide apertures, and those lenses cost at least five times as much.
The Bower, Rokinon, Samyang 24mm f1.4 lens will probably be the most useful lens for aurora photography during our trip, and costs less than $700. The fast f1.4 aperture and excellent image quality make it an obvious choice. These lenses do not suffer from the extreme coma problem of both the Canon and Nikon equivalents. Coma is an optical artifact that renders stars at the edge of the image in the shape of birds in flight rather than as points of light. See this comparison by Rick Whitacre for an example, and make sure you view the images at full size.
Bower, Rokinon, and Samyang also make a 35mm f1.4 lens that costs under $500 and offers similar advantages over camera branded lenses. How do they do it for so little money? I have no idea. One caveat is that these lenses have been known to have quality control issues, so it is important to thoroughly test any new lens for edge to edge sharpness at apertures between f1.4 and f5.6 before leaving on your trip. There have been no reports of problems exchanging defective lenses from Amazon or B&H, as the quality control issue is well known. I’m not sure how common these issues are, but it is essential to test any new equipment before leaving home.
If you already have, or simply prefer zoom lenses, The Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II and Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G ED AF-S are the very best options. Excellent image quality combined with the versatility of a zoom lens make these the go to lens of many amateur astrophotographers. Other zoom lenses will give varying results, but remember that a maximum aperture of f2.8 or wider is highly desirable.
Other essential camera gear includes a sturdy tripod, three or more camera batteries, an intervalometer and a backup remote release, either another intervalometer, wireless, or basic cable release, graduated neutral density filters, and perhaps a 10 or 13 stop neutral density filter for long exposures in daylight. You’ll want to bring a variety of flashlights and spare batteries for light painting, focus assist in low light, and finding things in your camera bag or on the ground. I list of suggested lights can be found in the sidebar to the right on this page. A back up camera body if you have one and or a second compact camera for snapshot situations would also be helpful. Bring more memory than you think you will ever need. Most laptops, camera battery chargers, and phones accept multiple voltages, but you will need plug adapters. Iceland uses the German style 2 round pin type plugs. Check all of your electrical devices to make sure that you do not need a transformer as well as a plug adapter.