By Nat Hab Expedition Leader Eddy Savage
My Northern Lights Photography Kit
Chasing the aurora borealis is an exhilarating adventure. Standing outside, looking into the sky at one of nature’s most beautiful phenomena is an experience that fills the soul. For many of my travelers, it is an experience they have dreamt of since they were children and a journey to the community of Churchill and Canada’s subarctic in pursuit of the “Dawn of the North” is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The best time to look for the northern lights by far is during the middle of winter (February and March). The first ingredient, the aurora, occurs over 300 days of the year in Churchill and is almost certainly visible if the skies are clear. The second ingredient, long and dark nights, makes for optimal viewing conditions, and occasionally the aurora will appear shortly after sunset. Finally, the third ingredient: consistently cold weather that keeps the moisture of the Hudson Bay trapped beneath the sea ice and significantly reduces the likelihood of clouds. The ingredient of extremely cold weather is the most persistent hardship we endure on these expeditions. With air temperatures (without wind chill) often plummeting below -30°F at night, we need to be sure our camera equipment and our bodies are ready to embrace the chill head-on.
Fingers get cold fast, patience dwindles, and, unfortunately, frustration ensues. Having your photography kit well organized and prepared ahead of time will make your evenings out in the cold easier and more enjoyable. Better yet, practicing using your equipment in a warm and comfortable environment will greatly improve your experience and reduce your likelihood of technical frustration amplified by the cold. I have several key preparations in my Northern Lights Photography Kit that make my life easier and the rush of photographing the aurora borealis a lot of fun.
Protect Your Hands
Most importantly, protect your fingers! All cameras have small buttons, switches, caps, focus rings and dials that require the dexterity of our fingertips. Before each season, I seek out a solid pair of glove-liners that will fit inside of my mitts and stand up to the difficult subarctic photography environment. In my years as a northern lights photo tour leader, I have seen all shapes, sizes and materials of glove liners. I personally have thought on multiple occasions that having a merino-wool liner would be ideal given their excellent warmth capabilities, but I have been repeatedly disappointed as the wool just isn’t strong enough to hold up to the cold camera dials, tripods, parkas zippers, camera bag zippers, etc. and results in holes quickly developing in these liners. My recommendation would be a “touch-screen” capable polyester or polyester-wool blend glove-liner. These liners are slightly more wind-proof than merino wool and are much stronger when handling camera equipment in extreme cold.
Bring lots of batteries and learn to keep them warm
One of the most common reasons people need to stop taking pictures for the night is due to their batteries depleting rapidly. On a typical night, I use most of two DSLR batteries which usually can last for 900 shots apiece but in the extreme cold, I’m lucky to get 100 shots from each. Another aspect of battery longevity in the cold is how you care for them. You will want to be prepared to remove your battery whenever you’re not actively taking pictures and place it into a pocket close to your body so it can warm up. The extreme cold is unfriendly towards battery life and so by practicing a strict regime of battery care, you will extend the life of each battery significantly. I’ve left a fully charged battery in my camera after taking a dozen shots, left for 20 minutes and came back to take more pictures but found my battery completely dead. Another challenge with batteries is going to be removing them in the dark. Fumbling around your cold camera in the dark and trying to find your battery compartment and remove your battery can be a maddening endeavor unless you’re prepared for it. I highly recommend you familiarize yourself with taking your batteries out and putting them back in while sitting in the dark and with your glove liners on. Practice this a few times and save yourself the arduous experience in -40°F.
Bring the right headlamp
Having a good headlamp will make your life a lot easier. Sometimes I see folks trying to use handheld flashlights or cellphone flashlights, and they are somewhat successful. I prefer being able to use both hands when manipulating my camera in the cold. More so, having a headlamp with a red light setting allows you to preserve your night vision while still being able to clearly see your equipment. If you’re bringing a headlamp that is new to you, I highly recommend practicing with it in the dark and learning what all the buttons do and how they can change the brightness, color, etc. of your specific headlamp. And of course, having a set of spare batteries for the headlamp never hurts!
We’ll provide a sturdy and easy-to-use tripod
One of the best pieces of equipment that Natural Habitat Adventures provides for travelers journeying to Churchill on northern lights trips is the collection of high-quality Manfrotto 055XPROB tripods. If you’re thinking about bringing your own tripod across the country and up to Churchill, think twice. These tripods are easy to adjust with gloves on, heavy-duty and won’t vibrate or fall over in the wind, and best of all, they don’t have to fit in ANY of your luggage because they already live in Churchill. Travel tripods, thin aluminum tripods or any tripod with plastic pieces are prone to disaster in the extreme cold. We have specifically selected these tripods for our groups because of their durability and ease of use. Unless you are adamant about bringing your own tripod, please take comfort in knowing we’ll lend you one of ours.