Shooting the earth's natural wonders on the Canon EOS R6

Whether it's freezing night skies streaked with an aurora's green light trails or a volcano spewing red-hot lava, when the action happens you need capable and reliable kit. 'Aurora whisperer' Timo Oksanen and travel photographer Dave Stevenson explain why they both opted for Canon's full-frame mirrorless camera.
A green aurora lights up the sky above a mountain, the milky way visible next to it.

Photographer Timo Oksanen, a member of a Finnish aurora hunter's group, travels hundreds of miles every year in search of the stunning light displays. "Clear skies are a must," he explains. "Last October, we travelled around the northern Finland-Norwegian border for up to five hours simply to find clear skies, returning at 4am. There is always more to find – new locations, and revisiting at different times of year." Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 15mm, 10 secs, f/2.8 and ISO6400. © Timo Oksanen

Several times a year, Timo Oksanen makes the 12-hour drive from his hometown in Finland to Lapland, the country's northernmost region. He's on the hunt for auroras, the luminous atmospheric phenomena that create light displays in the sky. "I'm addicted to the beauty of it," says Timo, who jokingly describes himself as the aurora whisperer. "I love the hunt for the nights when the aurora is really dancing, and to come up with something new as a photographer."

The long drives have been worth it, and the Finnish photographer has built a gallery of breathtaking aurora photos and time-lapse sequences, shot on his Canon EOS R6, which have proved hugely popular on social media.

Professional travel photographer Dave Stevenson shares Timo's passion for the spectacular, previously having shot Mount Bromo volcano in Indonesia at sunrise, chased storms in the US and got up close with mountain gorillas in Rwanda. "I'm a sucker for energetic displays in nature and being so close to something so powerful," he says.

When the Geldingadalir volcano in Iceland, dormant for 800 years, began erupting in March 2021, Dave packed his Canon EOS R6 and Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM and RF 24-105mm F4L IS USM lenses for a once-in-a-lifetime trip to view the event. "When I first came over the hill to witness the eruptions, seeing 1,000°C lava shooting 15-18m in the air was just amazing," he says.

Both instances of natural phenomena posed extreme photographic challenges – harsh climates and challenging nighttime shooting conditions – and each was a tough test for the Canon EOS R6. Here, Timo and Dave explain the kit and camera settings they use to capture their dramatic images and why the full-frame mirrorless EOS R6 is so well-suited to such difficult scenarios.

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Orange lava and smoke rise up into the dark blue sky above an erupting volcano.

It doesn't get completely dark in Iceland in June, so Dave only had a two-hour gap, around midnight, to shoot. "Really it's just blue hour, but that made for a lovely balance between the rich blue of the sky and the orange of the lava," he explains. Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM lens at 135mm, 1/640 sec, f/7.1 and ISO2500. © Dave Stevenson

How did the Canon EOS R6 cope in such extreme conditions?

Dave: If you want to know if your camera equipment is as weatherproof as claimed, take it to Iceland. The weather is so mercurial – and it's not just that the kit gets wet, it gets wet for two hours at a time!1 My gear got rained and rained on, plus the sides of the mountain were very sandy. Ultimately, I've always got confidence in high-end pro Canon gear such as the Canon EOS R6, which is just as well because I can't go back and reproduce these moments – this was essentially my one chance to see such a young and energetic volcano.

Timo: In October 2020, I was out in -30°C1 for up to seven hours a night. I had two cameras continuously on the go making time-lapses, capturing 10,000 shots every night for a week. I put hand warmers on the lenses to prevent them misting up in the freezing conditions, and placed the cameras 100 metres apart so I could walk between them in order to stay warm. Even though the cameras looked a bit frosty after many hours in such extreme cold, I've been able to operate all the menus and buttons without any issues. I've kept a couple of older compatible batteries from my previous camera, the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV, but as I have two higher capacity LP-E6NH batteries for the EOS R6, I haven't needed to use them, even on the coldest nights. To maximise battery life, I turn on Airplane mode, turn off the viewfinder and keep the screen at its dimmest brightness setting. On normal nights, I'm usually fine without changing the battery.

Lava trails zigzag down the side of a volcano.

"The 100-500mm lens has a 5x optical zoom range, and over the four days I used the whole range," explains Dave. "My favourite frame was taken nearer the 135mm focal length, but the detailed lava shots looking down into the valley were taken at 500mm." Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM lens at 500mm, 1/200 sec, f/7.1 and ISO1250. © Dave Stevenson

What has been your go-to lens and why?

Timo: I usually use the Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8L IS USM lens for auroras. Further north, the auroras fill more of the sky, so I often use the wide 15mm setting. Further south, nearer home, I am more likely to use the narrower 35mm to capture the auroras on the horizon. With the Canon EOS R6, you can push the sensitivity even to ISO10000, which means that the f/2.8 aperture in the RF 15-35mm lens is wide enough in low light. It's helpful because, ideally, I wouldn't change lenses when I'm out.

Dave: It was obvious to me that wide-angle landscapes were never going to be the hero image, and I'd need a telephoto lens. Being able to stay longer and move around safely on the hillside was more important than getting up close. I took the Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM, which is lighter and smaller than other super-telephoto lenses, freeing up bag space for supplies – especially helpful for the long hike up a windy hillside.

How did you set up the EOS R6 to get your pictures?

Timo: I always use Manual (M) mode at night. My general camera settings for capturing auroras are f/2.8, 1.3 sec and ISO8000 – and then I set the interval timer to unlimited frames at three-second intervals. If the auroras are not fast moving, I can opt for a longer shutter speed and lower the ISO. You get a more natural look for time-lapses using as fast a shutter speed as possible. At 15mm and f/2.8, the hyperfocal distance [the nearest point of sharp focus when the lens is focused at infinity] is only a couple of metres, so the objects in the foreground tend to be sharp enough not to need to focus stack. I rarely have anything in shot closer than a couple of metres, and it is very important to have the sky focused to infinity, to keep the stars sharp. If I'm using a prime lens, I usually lock the infinity focus with tape, but with the Canon RF 15-35mm f/2.8L IS USM lens, I tend to check the focus every time I move the camera.

A meandering river surrounded by forest, shot under an orange and purple sky.

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Dave: My shutter speeds are often as high as 1/640 to freeze the action. Here, with such frequent eruptions, I wasn't rushed and there was freedom to experiment with slower shutter speeds to blur movement or even intentional camera movement. Generally, I left the lens at its maximum f/7.1 telephoto aperture whatever focal length I used, in order to keep the same manual exposure values and avoid fiddling with exposure changes.

Lava trails glow orange as they flow down the sides of a volcano.

"Any time you shoot at distance there is atmospheric distortion, and when your subject is 300m away and spouting hot liquid lava, a lot of haze is created, so focus has to be a priority," explains Dave. "The outflow creates lots of smoke and heat haze that drifts over the crater, obscuring the view. Images can look soft even with sharp focus." Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 100-500mm F4.5-7.1L IS USM lens at 300mm, 1/800 sec, f/7.1 and ISO4000. © Dave Stevenson

Regarding image quality, how did the Canon EOS R6, with its 20.1MP full-frame CMOS sensor and high ISO capabilities, benefit your photos?

Dave: Typically shooting at f/7.1 and at least 1/640 sec to freeze the action, I needed to set the camera to around ISO3200. This is the nice thing about shooting with the latest gear – you can be really aggressive with the ISO. Given the dynamic range of the volcano at night – there is a lot of black in there – noise will be obvious, so it was really important that the camera shoots clean images at high ISOs. Shadows look super clean in images at ISO4000.

Timo: Low light capability is the biggest plus for the EOS R6 – it seems to perform better at high ISOs than other higher megapixel cameras, making it preferable for night photography. When using a very fast prime lens at f/1.4, I'm able to shoot real-time video of the auroras at 25fps (1/25 sec). Even at ISO51200 the quality is tolerable after some noise reduction in post-production.

The skies above a mountain peak lit with green light trails from an aurora.

Tell us about your videos…

Timo: For time-lapses, I use an intervalometer and take individual RAW images, processing them afterwards to make sure there is a consistent brightness throughout the sequence, ensuring the brightest highlights in the aurora aren't clipped. I try to minimise shutter speed to one second with minimal interval time, so the final time-lapse isn't too hectic and movement is smoother. Time-lapse sequences consist of around 150-300 photos and create a final video of about 15 seconds. I like to create multiple angles and put them together in a series.

I save live 4K videos for the brightest, most active part of the aurora, as the ISO needs to be as much as 51200 due to the 1/25 sec shutter speed. Having experimented with and without the Canon Log profile, I prefer the look of graded C-Log especially now C-Log 3 is available for the Canon EOS R6 [via a firmware update]. Panning over a sequence also allows you to include more of the scenery, and to observe the full arc of the aurora in the sky.

A wooden rowing boat sits amongst snowy rocks at the edge of a lake, with a mountain in the background, the scene lit in blues, pinks and greens by the aurora in the sky.

"I always try to find an interesting foreground in the lower third and leave the aurora to fill the rest of the frame," says Timo. "It might be trees or distant mountains." Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 15mm, 15 sec, f/2.8 and ISO6400. © Timo Oksanen

A stream cascades over snowy rocks, the whole scene lit green by aurora in the sky.

"My pictures are also part of a time-lapse sequence, where an aurora might start lower and move higher as it gets more active," explains Timo. "The aurora can move out of your screen, at which point you need to run to find a new location to start shooting again. These are positive problems!" Taken on a Canon EOS R6 with a Canon RF 15-35mm F2.8L IS USM lens at 35mm, 8 secs, f/2.8 and ISO6400. © Timo Oksanen

What has the transition from Canon DSLRs to the Canon EOS R6 been like?

Timo: The EOS R6 feels familiar in your hands, which is important considering we work in darkness. A tangible change is image preview and the viewfinder experience. Even at nighttime you are seeing what you will see in your picture and the brightest thing in the shot will be the green of the aurora.

Dave: Handily, the EOS R6 takes the same batteries as my Canon EOS 5D Mark III (now succeeded by the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV), plus the controls are the same and in what I consider an intuitive place, but on a smaller body.

Any practical or technical advice for others wanting to shoot earth's natural wonders?

Dave: You make these situations for yourself. Go out there, be brave and commit. If you try it, stick it out, then at least if you don't capture anything worthwhile, when you are back on the plane with dripping clothes in your carry-on, you can say you gave it the best possible go.

Timo: Just go out and experiment! It takes some time to find your own style, your choice of camera, lens settings and colour preferences. Shoot and then repeat and find what makes you satisfied.

Here more from photographers capturing extreme weather:

Tim Coleman

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