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09-01-2014, 02:15 AM   #1
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Northern Lights, Lenses and Weather Resistance

Hello everyone,

As the title says, I am a bit of a beginner, and I need some advice. I will be spending two weeks in Finland in late December, including eight days in Northern Lapland, 300 km north of the Arctic Circle, and I am fervently hoping to come back with some quality pictures of the Northern Lights. I have done some research, both on the forum and on Google (this thread was particularly useful), and I have found that I will need very long exposures (up to 30 seconds apparently), so I have armed myself with a tripod. Still, I am not too comfortable about the idea of 30 second exposure, for a number of reasons, such as wind-induced motion, greater chance of snowflakes falling on the lens, loss of detail of the lights themselves, battery dying fast (according to Wikipedia, temperatures are usually in the -10/-20 C (14/-4 F) range) and my wife getting fed up with my time-consuming hobby and running off with a Finn on a reindeer-pulled sleigh.

Onto the actual questions:

1) I am currently equipped with a Pentax K-50 and two lenses: an SMC Pentax-DA L 18-55mm F3.5-5.6 AL WR and a Tamron AF 70-300mm F4-5,6 Di LD Macro 1:2. I realize the latter is obviously not the right tool for the job, but what I am too inexperienced to judge is: would the former enable me to take some good quality pictures with a more reasonable (say, 10-15 seconds) exposure, or am I asking too much from my kit lens?

2) I am also considering the option of purchasing a new lens, but between the trip to Finland and the camera itself, I've already broken the bank for this year, so my choices are limited to the < 200 end of the spectrum. Would it make sense for me to buy an SMC Pentax-DA 50mm F1.8? The high aperture is quite attractive, but I am slightly worried that I will have trouble taking pictures of landscapes with that focal length.

3) Weather Resistance. The manual says the K-50 can go as low as -10 C. Northern Lapland often goes lower, but not terribly so. Will the camera sustain any permanent damage, or can I expect it to go back to normal once it's thawed back to room temperature?

Thanks in advance for your advice.

09-01-2014, 05:59 AM   #2
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Congratulations on the impending trip - one I would certainly like to do. I've not shot the northern lights, but have spent a lot of time outside in Canadian winter conditions, which sound similar to what you are going to experience during your photography trip. I'm also basing this on my experience of the K-7 and K-5IIs, but expect the weather sealing and temperature performance to be similar.

In terms of the battery life - it will be shorter, but the -10C rating is not where camera operation stops! I've not sustained any noticeable damage from repeated exposure over a number of years (low of ~-25C. Icing on the camera/lens is the only thing I would try to avoid. I would also bring a couple of ziploc freezer bags, and ensure your gear is sealed in them when transferring from hot to cold temperatures, and vice versa (to prevent fogging or internal water damage). If you can, just leave your camera and lens outside and take the battery in with you.

I would also think about picking up the AA battery pack adapter, and a set of Eneloop (Lithium) batteries to make sure you don't run out (you can exchange the inbuilt battery and warm it next to your skin, while still having battery power from the Eneloops).

I terms of the photography, I believe you can also set your camera to do timelapse style recording, so if it does get too cold to be outside, exposures of up to 30 seconds can be made without you being near the camera.

Lens-wise, I believe in WR. Stopped down (say to F7.1-F9), the 18-55 is a good little lens. I have personally gone for the 18-135mm WR for this sort of work, and have had some fairly good results.The relatively long reach of the lens means that no lens changes in snow, etc. are not required. I do miss the wide angle though, so if that is where you do a lot of your shooting, would certainly recommend the 16-45mm F4 as an option. For a fixed focal solution, the 35mm F2.4 may also suit your needs (and is a lot faster). I find that the 50mm is a "in-betweener", being too long for many landscape applications, and too wide for others.

Hope this helps.
09-01-2014, 07:21 AM   #3
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I usually use some wide angle lenses to shoot northern lights. This way, you have a large portion of the sky and you can still include some elements of the foreground such as trees or hills. In terms of settings, I usually end up with ISO 1600-3200 (on K-5) and f4 to f5.6 for 15 to 30 seconds, depending on the intensity of the Aurora. So I think K-50 and kit lens might do the job. Maybe you can also find a cheap Samyang 14mm f2.8 which is a pretty good lens for this kind of photography.

Regarding WR, if it is snowing or raining you won't be able to see the lights anyway, so it might not be that important.

Last edited by envelk; 09-01-2014 at 07:23 AM. Reason: typos (a lot)
09-01-2014, 09:01 AM   #4
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QuoteOriginally posted by envelk Quote
I usually use some wide angle lenses to shoot northern lights. This way, you have a large portion of the sky and you can still include some elements of the foreground such as trees or hills. In terms of settings, I usually end up with ISO 1600-3200 (on K-5) and f4 to f5.6 for 15 to 30 seconds, depending on the intensity of the Aurora. So I think K-50 and kit lens might do the job. Maybe you can also find a cheap Samyang 14mm f2.8 which is a pretty good lens for this kind of photography.

Regarding WR, if it is snowing or raining you won't be able to see the lights anyway, so it might not be that important.
Very good point! However, I do like WR for situations like this:

Raging storm
by clarke_ag, on Flickr

The Samyang suggestion is an excellent one - I'm trying to locate one at present,

09-01-2014, 10:47 AM   #5
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QuoteOriginally posted by Wolframium Quote
wind-induced motion, greater chance of snowflakes falling on the lens
Now if you were to take me with you (at your expense) on this epic trip, I would act as a wind break and guarantee no snow flake would dare approach your lens.

Seriously you've already received great advice, enjoy the experience of this trip.

Remember to post some images here on your return.
09-06-2014, 09:11 AM   #6
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I've had the K-30 out for some pretty cold hikes and the temperature has never been a detriment to the camera or lens. I think you'll want a sealed lens even if it's not snowing or raining, there is still moisture in the air, and even if you put the lens in a bag to cool down there's still a chance of condensation. Personally I've found the OEM type batteries last longer than eneloops in cold weather, I assume that's because if more surface area, or maybe I need some new eneloops. Whatever extra batteries you take heed Clarkey's excellent advice of keeping them in a pocket close to your body.
09-06-2014, 09:40 AM   #7
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I've had my K10D and K20D out in -30C weather without any problem. I do have battery grips for extra battery life and also carry extra batteries. I'd buy one or two Pentax batteries with your lens money. Remember to charge the batteries every day before you go out. If you are near your car when shooting you can keep the batteries (and your wife) warm inside the car!
09-09-2014, 05:34 AM   #8
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Cold? No problem with the camera. BUT the battery is another story. Get a few spares and keep them in a breast pocket beneath your coat - or an interior coat pocket which goes inside the insulation. Then you can swap them out once they show they're going flat. I had to do that last winter during "Husky Huddles" at the dog parks. You can't wear those dogs out when it's 10F, but your feet and your batteries are another matter.

The 18-55 probably will do well enough in those situations. A dedicated wide-angle like a DA21mm might be a great choice too.

09-19-2014, 08:42 AM   #9
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The Samyang/Rokinon 14mm F2.8 is probably one of the most used lenses for northern lights now and can be found for your budget used.
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