Masthead header

Why the Zeiss 21mm Distagon T* lens Rocks for aurora photography

Star filled night sky and aurora. Canon 5D Mark III, Zeiss 21mm f/2.8, 30 secs @ f.2.8, ISO 1600

I’ve always liked Don McLean’s song “Starry, starry night”, about Vincent van Gogh. This scene made me think of it, with the profusion of stars broadcast across the sky. I love the night sky and am so glad I live in a place that offers a light-pollution-free experience of the star-studded theater overhead. It is possible to photograph the aurora borealis in all moon phases, but the sky absent of a moon will render this starry sky look. While out photographing last week, I was amazed at how warm it was for early March. I did not even use hand warmers, which is very rare for me. And by warm, I mean around 10 degrees F. While the March season is fantastic for aurora, the cold weather can hinder your performance. One of the main challenges is getting your lens in critical focus and if this requires the use of live view – which is the case with my Nikkor 14-24 lens mounted on a Canon body – then it requires bare hands for a while to apply tape once focus is secured. If this is not ringing clear to you, I’ve written about it in detail in my recent eBook on How to Photograph the Northern Lights. But this night, I wanted to try out another lens that ranks high for aurora photography in all essential categories: The Zeiss 21mm Distagon T*

  • Optical Quality – Extremely sharp
  • Ease of use – i.e., Super easy to focus
  • Price – Very expensive!
  • Speed – f/2.8, Fast enough for aurora
  • Wide angle – Expansive at 21mm

Besides the obvious concern for quality – the biggest advantage of this lens is that when you turn the manual focus ring to infinity, it actually is infinity, unlike the other autofocus lenses on the market today. Because of this, there is no pre focus measures that need to be taken and no messing around in the dark trying to use live-view to secure solid, critical focus. For this reason, I’d like to make it a mandatory lens for the participants of my photo tours, but who can require a $2000 lens! It is expensive indeed. It can be rented however, at about $150 for 2 weeks from It is available in mounts for Canon and Nikon. If you want a fool-proof, critical focus lens for your next aurora trip, this is it.


Shooting star over the Brooks Range. Canon 5D Mark III, Rokinon 24mm f/1.4, 25 secs. @ f/1.4, ISO 1600.

After writing and talking a lot about the aurora recently, I finally vacated the office and spent a few nights trying out some new lenses on the northern lights. I’ll be testing these lenses more thoroughly over the next few weeks, but at first glance I was happy with the results. More specifically, when my Canon 24mm f/1.4 II was stolen, I thought it would be a good opportunity to try out another f/1.4 version. The Rokinon 24mm f/1.4 is what I picked up, and the first round of results are pretty satisfactory. It is a little unfortunate that I no longer have the Canon to do a side by side comparison of the same scene, but here is a shot I took the other night. The 25 second time indicates that the aurora was not super bright, but considering the exposure value with an f/2.8 would have been nearly two minutes, it shows the value of an f/1.4 aperture. While there is some comatic aberration in the outer edges, there appears to be less of that compared to the Canon counterpart. Sharpness is in the league of good acceptability. More on this lens to follow in the next few weeks. The Rokinon is about $650 and the Canon is $1750.

Pastel light of Antarctica. Canon 5D Mark III, 100-400mm f/5.6L IS, (190mm), 1/200 sec @ f/5.6, ISO 800

I took this picture just 30 seconds before midnight in the summer January light of Antarctica. The beautiful soft pastel tones are very reminiscent of Alaska under similar low-angle light conditions. As our icebreaker cruised through this beautiful scene along the western side of the Antarctic Peninsula, I resisted sleep long enough to enjoy such a view. Sleep management, or just lack of the latter, was also reminiscent of Alaska. In the north, as in the south, the summer unfolds with nightless skies, often requiring a schedule shift that prioritizes photography from the hours of 10pm to 3am. But that becomes very difficult with a daily work schedule, like on the this ship.

Colorful aurora suspended over spruce trees. Canon 5D Mark III, Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8, 25 secs @ f/2.8, ISO 1600.
I’m often asked about where to go to photograph the aurora in the Fairbanks area. Really, all is necessary is an interesting foreground, and any given clump of trees can serve that purpose well. If you go to some of the higher domes in the Fairbanks area, it is often windy, and can lack trees or foreground subjects. This is not intrinsically bad, but it is not necessary to be high on a ridge to capture good aurora photos.

2013 is reported to be a great year for aurora borealis photography because the sun is at a peak in the 11 year solar cycle. This has inspired many to make quests to destinations that offer high aurora viewing probabilities. In Alaska, Fairbanks becomes a landing point for many because of its northern latitude and a chance to see the aurora. I released my first eBook a few weeks ago titled “How to Photograph the Northern Lights” with the express purpose to empower photographers with the information to make their journey a success.

With that book project behind me, I’m now getting ready to get back in the field myself with hopeful anticipation for some clear skies and dancing northern lights. March is a great month to photograph in Alaska. Night time temperatures are still pretty chilly, but the sun pours forth a little warmth during the day. I’ve got a few new lenses to put through an aurora photography test and will hopefully have some comments to share about them in a few weeks. Specifically, I’ll be testing the 21mm Zeiss f/2.8 and the Rokinon 24mm f/1.4.

If you are at all serious about attempting to shoot the northern lights, check out my eBook. How I wish I had a resource like that when I first started. It would have saved me not only many hours of trial and error, but many dollars as well.

  • koichi takimoto - 実際に見ることはできませんが、写真に取られているその瞬間の、



  • paul wain - Halfway through the e-book and loving it, thanks. Just taken delivery of my new tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 at-x lens, hopefully I can get some Aurora shots in Finland this December.
    Thanks for the inspiration.ReplyCancel

  • Artists - Amazing click mate. Love it the reflection of lights shade.ReplyCancel

  • Patrick Endres - Phyllis, Looking forward to a great tip! Let’s hope for clear skies and solar storms.ReplyCancel

  • Phyllis Burchett - Bought your iBook so will read on the plane on my way to see you guys in a week or so….looking forward to lots of aurora shots!ReplyCancel

Both the patterns in the clouds above and the ice below create an interesting presentation of a penguins habitat – life on icebergs. Photographing with wider angle lenses help show the environment. Tunnel vision is a common propensity when photographing wildlife and it is a learning process to back off a bit and show the viewer what is happening above and below your subject. Canon’s 24-105mm is a great lens for responding to compositional variations common when photographing from a small boat that moves around and repositions frequently.

Adelie penguin on iceberg, Antarctica. Canon 5D Mark III, 24-105mm f/4L IS (32mm). 1/1600 sec @ f8, ISO 200

  • Kathy Jura - The perspective is stunning…and most humbling.ReplyCancel

  • Michelle Simpson - This one is amazing!ReplyCancel

  • Lois Bryan - Well said, Patrick … I am guilty of “tunnel vision” when shooting wildlife myself … as you’ve so beautifully shown us, the backing off and getting some of the environment in the image is great advice!!ReplyCancel