I just returned from a week of shooting northern lights in Alaska. Cree and I went up to visit friends and explore some new areas around Fairbanks for future northern lights trips. We had a fantastic time staying in remote cabins, catching up with friends (we used to live in Alaska) and eating a lot of salmon. And lucky for us, we had great aurora displays multiple nights. If you want some shooting tips, see earlier blog posts I’ve done on photographing the northern lights. But what lens is best for northern lights photography?
If you are a Nikon shooter, you can’t go wrong with the 14-24mm F2.8. This lens is legendary for its night sky performance, and I know Canon shooters who use it for their northern lights photography. This lens is especially good for minimal coma on stars. Coma results in stars looking like small birds in flight, especially noticeable in the corners of the frame. The 14-24mm barely registers any coma, making it the first choice for many photographers no matter what camera brand you use.
We also used the 20mm F1.8, and I’m happy to report this lens did fantastic. Coma was well controlled; not as good as the 14-24mm, but not a big issue either. If you stop down from f1.8 to f 2.8, the coma is very minimal. A thousand dollars cheaper, lightweight and compact, this just might be the lens of choice for many photographers.
One other advantage to the 20mm F1.8 is the fast aperture. More than a stop faster than the 14-24mm F2.8 means you can shoot at faster shutter speeds, important to render sharp aurora displays. I did many of my images around 2-4 seconds at ISO1600 at F1.8. If you shoot long exposures the aurora movement can soften the final aurora display in your image. But no matter how you photograph the aurora, it should be on every photographer’s bucket list. It will be a night to remember!