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Colorful aurora corona, interior, Alaska. Canon 5D Mark III, 14-24mm f/2.8 Nikkor, 5 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 1600. Taken at 1:41 a.m. on 3/18/2013

The colors revealed in aurora borealis photography are often not what the human eye observes. The camera sensor’s sensitivity in conjunction with the data collected over a mulit-second exposure result in some stunning and colorful aurora displays should the solar output be strong enough. In my recently published eBook on How to Photograph the Northern Lights, Neal Brown, the director of Alaska Science Explained writes a brief description of the aurora colors:

The colors of the aurora change depending on which sun storm electrons and protons collide with which atoms and molecules in the earth’s atmosphere. The green light and the deep, broad red color that often occur high in aurora appear when electrons collide with atoms of oxygen. The bluish-tinged vertical rays in the aurora appear when electrons impact singly ionized molecules of nitrogen. The brighter lower borders of some aurora appear when electrons impact molecules of nitrogen and oxygen, and may briefly appear magenta in color. A faint broad band of blue that runs from magnetic east to west, and just south of the greenish aurora, appears when protons impact hydrogen atoms in the earth’s high upper atmosphere.

The night of March 17, 2013 unveiled a great aurora show with a KP index of 6, which is high solar activity, meaning the aurora oval was extended to far southern latitudes. Along with that, came a lot of colors in the aurora filled sky.

Magenta and red aurora over the White Mountains National Recreation Area, interior, Alaska. Canon 5D Mark III, Zeiss 21mm f/2.8, 13 sec @ f/2.8, ISO 1600. No vibrance or saturation added to this photo!

Me watching an aurora corona display in Alaska’s interior. Canon 5D Mark III, Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8, 13 sec. @ f/2.8, ISO 1250.

If you follow aurora borealis activity at all, you have likely seen many pictures already posted on the web from the explosive northern lights display on March 17th. I was in Alaska’s backcountry on a ski trip, and spent a long night watching and photographing that amazing and colorful display. While I’m a little blurry in this photo, it was my self portrait attempt in the absence of any models.

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.