How I shoot the Northern Lights

Well I have just returned from Iceland where I held a couple of 3D stereoscopic master classes and a workshop on video for the internet. They went well and we all had fun despite almost a foot of snow fall the morning of the classes. On the last day of my trip I decided to try and get some more Northern Lights footage. As I am often asked how I do this I put together the clip below which explains what settings I use for the Aurora and also gives a brief description of S&Q on an XDCAM EX. Basically what I do is use the EX Slow Shutter at 32 or 64 frames to increase the sensitivity of the camera. For a dim Northern Lights display I use 64 frames but for a bright display I drop down to 32 frames. The slow shutter acts like a long exposure on a stills camera. I then combine this with interval record shooting at 1 frame every second. I did also have a Canon DSLR with me and tried to shoot the Aurora with that. I found I needed a 10 second exposure at 800 asa to get a similar result to that achieved with the EX. The 10 second exposure means that it would take longer to get a decent length video sequence and most of the motion of the Aurora would be lost. Some of the exposure difference was I admit to the slower F4 lens on the Canon compared to the Sony EX’s F1.8, so perhaps with a faster lens you could bring the exposure down to around 5 seconds and this is something I hope to try when I go Aurora chasing next winter.

If you watch the video make sure you stay to the end to check out my attempt to record a piece to camera in 60 mph blowing snow! Don’t know why I even thought it would work. What I will say is that my new Vinten 5AS did a great job of keeping the camera steady in some pretty extreme conditions.

4 thoughts on “How I shoot the Northern Lights”

  1. Thanks for that, it gives me some idea of the task I’m facing in March when I visit Iceland. Looking at your video maybe my Panasonic SDR H85 will not be up to the job. I have an Acorn Ltl 6210 MC wildlife camera, which has time-lapse features. Would you think this would be better? The Panasonic doesn’t do well in low light. Is there a reasonably low cost camcorder you would recommend for this job?

    Love the videos, thanks

    1. There is no low cost camcorder that I can recommend for this. You need exceptional low light performance. I would suggest you use a DSLR with a 4 or 5 second exposure and shoot time-lapse.

  2. Thanks for your tutorial!
    i’m going to the top of finland next week for a TV shoot, I wil shoot with on the Sony-PDW700.
    I checked in the camera and the slow shutter function only goes up to 16 frames.
    Would this be enough to shoot the northern light? perhaps with the addition of maybe 6DB gain?

    Thanks in advance.

    1. I doubt it. You will need 6db just to get the equivalent of a 32 frame slow shutter and 12db to get to 64 frames. With the EX1 I used to have to add 6 to 12db of gain on top of the 32 frame slow shutter, so you will need a minimum of 12db if not 18db. The camera is nowhere near as sensitive as most large sensor cameras, it’s only around 340ISO. I’d buy or rent an A7s which is not only far more sensitive at 3200 ISO (18db more sensitive than the PDW-700) but also less noisy when gain is added so you can easily use the A7s at 6400 ISO or even 12800 ISO.

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