Thursday 2 October 2014

Night Photography with A DSLR with Transun. Tips for Visiting the Northern Lights with a Camera.

Transun DSLR Northern Lights Workshop
So what do you do if you don't actually own a DSLR, but fancy learning how to create great night photography on "manual" WITH a DSLR? You go on a Transun Night Photography DSLR Workshop of course! I must have needed a night out real bad.

So, as I can't currently put into practice what I learned I thought I would type up my notes to share with you lovely folks. If you find this information beneficial you can thank me by commenting and sharing; you can also thank the hosts of this great workshop, Transun by visiting their website. Thanks from us both in advance. Oh, and by the way, I myself just visited their website and am rather taken with the Christmas holidays like Santa's On His Way. Having this morning had a very good look around the site, I am 100% entering their Lapland Competition (open to bloggers only).

The theme of our workshop was the Northern Lights and the "teacher" was Simon from Iguana Photography.

He opened the worskhop (after introductions) by saying that light pollution would create a hue, from the street lights that would mean night photography wouldn't work. We overcame this by firstly staying in the room for 70% of the workshop, by learning all of the many settings that come to play when you keep your DSLR on manual, and when we did go outside we focused on light painting (see below), making passers by disappear or blur, and taking pictures of the moon (half moon). 
Light painting by playing with settings

My favourite moony of the night was from The Boy and Me, and thankfully she has already posted it online:
You would fully appreciate how good that photo is if you knew that (1) it was incredibly cloudy (2) there was a ridiculous amount of yellow light pollution and (3) there were wispy clouds constantly moving across that moon, even when it did pop out from behind the clouds. It's amazing really as I didn't realise that the moon was even as full as that portrayed in the photo. In the lunar calendar we are currently in the phase of the waxing moon and it won't be a full moon until 8th October. 1st October, last night, was what is called "first quarter". After the 8th October we then have a waning moon until the new moon. All of this is of particular significance to females, as our menstrual cycle is in harmony with the lunar cycle, as are our moods. Anyway, I digress.
Playing with manual settings takes a lot of concentration - that's Debbie and Jane above. The empty table behind them is the "teacher's desk" so it's not that the worskshop wasn't full - it was.

Simon pointed out that even when working in manual, you can still have the camera on AUTO FOCUS, whilst controlling everything else. So what is it you can actually control? Well, here we go:
  1. Aperture - which controls the amount of light let in.
  2. ISO - how quickly the light gets onto the exposure. 200 apparently is a good benchmark which "absorbs a decent amount of light". Go up in numbers, absorbs more light. Too high leads to grain/speckle effect.
  3. Shutter speed - slower lets more light in. Need that for dark night time shots, like of the Northern Lights or, when you have moving subjects across a photo.
All of this may sound straight forward, but it is getting to know your camera well enough to know how to change all of these things that can be part of the battle. Also different brands of cameras require completely different knobs to be turned or buttons pressed as we discovered with so many different cameras at the workshop.
Manual settings on a DSLR
Following on from "2" above, if a wedding photographer says "there's a lovely grain in that photo" ask for 50 pounds off, as it will have been a mistake.

So they are the three important elements that you have at your disposal.

If comparing a camera to an EYE:
  1. The sensor acts like a retina
  2. The shutter like an eyelid and
  3. The aperture like the iris/pupil.

Those lovely photos where the subject is clear and the background is blurred are done with apertures. The lower the number the more blur you get. Also provides a depth of feel (the photo is less FLAT).

For The Northern Lights Simon suggests we would need a tripod and long exposure to get light into the camera. He asked us what we could use in the absence of a tripod and suggested we could even make the snow into a mound (which would then need to be covered as the chill drains the camera battery). One of the delegates joked this would be a snow-pod :-) *boom boom*.

When Simon visits Disney World he is carrying too much children related paraphernalia so isn't able to carry a tripod. He therefore uses his imagination and rests the camera on a dustbin, or leans against a lamp-post. This is to get good night time shots of the night parades they do at Disney.

TOP TIPS for your Northen Lights Camera Packing:
  • When visiting the Northern Lights bring 3 or 4 batteries as the cold will drain them. Make sure the spare ones are cheap ones as you may well never need them again, being that this is possibly the trip of a lifetime. 
  • For the same reason have a well insulated decent camera bag, so that your camera is kept as "warm" as possible.
  • As above, bring a tripod or build a snow-pod.
  • In terms of lenses, Simon said:
    • Nikon are dearer than Sigma and Sigma is dearer than Tamron. Unless you are selling photos that will be used on a billboard, you possibly don't need an expensive Nikon lens. Also, he said Tamron are no longer the poor man's lens - they have come a long way and now stand up to testing.
    • When Simon is shall we say, climbing up scaffolding, he would do so with a Sigma, rather than a Nikon lens, due to the cost and potential of dropping it.
    • Don't be frightened of buying off EBay as (i) you can buy from a seller with a great track record (ii) make sure product is described as in good condition (iii) EBay have a sound money back guarantee and (iv) in the photography area of EBay there are a lot of genuine sellers.
  • A 24-70 Lens will work for the Northern Lights and is a good workhorse lens that goes down to an aperture of 2.8. However a Sigma one could set you back 600 pounds, so possibly if you are not a serious photographer, for your Northern Lights trip hire some equipment, or see above RE: cheaper brands, or less than brand new.
  • Hire your equipment if you are not an every day photographer.
  • Make mood boards before you go (possibly on Pinterest) to give yourself inspiration with regards to what others have done.
  • Don't just photograph the Northern Lights. You could get great shots of the trip itself: the arrival, the accommodation, the food etc...
  • Use a 15 to 30 second exposure for the Northern Lights.
  • You need to practice before you go, as you may only see the Northern Lights for 10 or 15 minutes.
  • Therefore preparation (as with everything in life) prevents poor performance. So next time you go to Sports Day, spend those valuable minutes when you arrive setting up your camera.
  • Make sure your camera is zoomed out at the Northern Lights. You can CROP when back home. No need to risk missing anything.
  • Once you are there and ready, with camera on tripod, don't actually forget to point it AT the sky.
For a photo with aperture F10 or F11 you can have 8 seconds of exposure, and on ISO 200.

Work out whether speed or aperture is important to you.

Simon was once asked to photograph an art gallery. His client wanted to see that it was visited, without the visitors being the subject of the photo. So Simon used a 45 second exposure, which meant that there was movement in the photo, as someone may have spent 8 seconds at each image in the gallery. Also has the advantage that the blurred image of the visitor cannot be identified.

Using camera techniques you can even make a passer by disappear from the photo.

So, I hope some of that information was of use to you, let me know.

I am happy to link up to others who were also there, so drop me a line. Also, to the two ladies whose light painting I captured let me know who you are so I can credit you with a link. This one is great (below) Simon is very neat when writing with a light:
Light painting and capturing on DSLR
Despite not having a DSLR I did have a great play with ALL of the night time settings on my Sony Cybershot, and I loved the "fireworks" setting:

It was great getting to know Debbie, Jane and The Boy and Me. Such a lovely lovely night. Thanks all. Thanks too Jane for the lift.

Liska xx

P.S. you can spot me below. I am the one without a DSLR :-)

I will leave you with this official FACT SHEET that the Photographer Simon put together:

Choose the appropriate mode for your shot


(You control the Shutter Speed and ISO)
Ideal for freezing or capturing motion


(You control the Depth of Field and ISO)
Ideal for ‘everything in focus’ shots or blurry backgrounds


Gives you FULL control of ISO, Shutter Speed and
Depth of Field

Shutter Priority

A rough guide to shutter speeds
1/4000 - 1/2000 will stop the wings of a hummingbird
1/1000 - 1/500 will freeze an athlete running
1/250 - 1/60 will stop everyday motion
1/30 - 1/8 will blur motion
0.5 - 30” will capture low light, motion and long exposures

Aperture Priority

A rough guide to aperture
The aperture controls the depth of field, so the wider the aperture
(smaller number, i.e. f2.8), the less is in focus, whereas the smaller
the aperture (bigger number, i.e. f22), the more is in focus.
Don’t forget - The aperture also controls the amount of light
reaching the sensor. So, at f2.8, more light gets in and at f22,
less light gets in.

ISO affects Noise/Grain
Aperture affects Depth of Field
Shutter affects Motion


  1. Great post, it was lovely to see you again last night.

    1. Thank you. You too. You've been on my mind a lot this morning. So much to discuss. xxx

  2. It was lovely to see you again. Thanks for doing such a fab write off. I do love the fact the photos of me I've seen such have been ones of intent concentration- I will master manual :) xx

    1. Yes it was a lot of concentration to find the right settings while still listening to the next tip/trick. Glad I was only note taking :-) xx

  3. Fab post, I am going to see the Northern Lights next year, I will definitely need a new camera before then!

    1. oh you lucky lucky thing, hope the tips help xx

  4. Great tips. I am still getting to grips with my bridge camera but hope to move to a dslr one day.

  5. Thanks so much for sharing these great tips! x

  6. I loved learning how to use my camera on manual. So exciting!

  7. Cloud do with this class as I have a Nikon d3100

  8. I so need a decent camera - infact I need any camera that isn't my phone

  9. Wow! I need to go on a photography course. I just bought a Nikon but need help!

  10. I really need to do a photography course as my night photos are rubbish! The northern lights are on my bucket list

  11. What a great post and the Northern Lights are something I would love to see x

  12. Great post. Thank you for all these handy information. Now it is time to test it out!

  13. What a fabulous course. I've been using SLR cameras for over 20 years now and my pet peeves people who leave them on 'Auto' all the time. It's such a waste! I'd love a chance to capture the Northern Lights one time. Occasionally they are visible in the UK.

  14. Great tips, one to bookmark for sure! I recently did a Jessops course (haven't written up yet!) and I thoroughly enjoyed that. I really want to buy a DSLR... we both should save up for one!! ;)

  15. great post - sounds like a fantatic course

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  17. Looks like you had an amazing time and learned a lot :) I'm saving up for a bigger lens :)

  18. A dslr camera is at the top of my wishlist and I'd love to do a course like this, it looks great :)

  19. Fabulous blog post glad you had fun

  20. I just bought my first DSLR camera and really really want to learn to use it well. Thank you for the interesting post!

  21. Great post! I am desperate to see the Northern Lights and these tips would be invaluable if and when I do!!

  22. Good work lady. Impressed you translated your copious note taking into such a comprehensive post!
    Re the lift - my pleasure!


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