I’ve just return from the arctic cabins that I use for my Northern Lights Aurora tours following a great trip where the group got to see the Aurora on 3 nights. In this video there is footage from two nights, the 13th and 14th of January.
I recommend watching the video direct on YouTube and on a nice big screen in 4K if you can.
Most of it is real time video, not the time-lapse that is so often used to shoot the Aurora. The Sony FX3 (like the A7S3) is sensitive enough to video a bright Aurora with a fast lens without needing to use time lapse. On the FX3 I used a Sony 24mm f1.4 GM lens, this is a great lens for astro photography as stars are very sharp even in the corners of the frame. The Aurora isn’t something that is ever dazzlingly bright, so you do need to use a long shutter opening. So, often I am shooting with a 1/15th or 1/12th shutter. I have been using the CineEI mode at 12,800 ISO and also using the S-Log3 flexible ISO mode to shoot at 25600 ISO. This isn’t something I would normally do – add gain while shooting S-Log3, but in this particular case it is working well as the Aurora will never exceed the dynamic range of the camera, but the footage does need extensive noise reduction in post production (I use the NR tools built into DaVinci Resolve).
I also shot time lapse with my FX30 using a DJI RS2 gimbal. On the FX30 I had a Sigma 20mm f1.4 with a metabones speedbooster. I shot using S&Q motion at 8 frames per second, this gives only a slight speed up and a more natural motion that time lapse shot at longer intervals. By shooting at 8 frames per second I can use a 1/4 of second shutter and this combined with the FX30’s high base ISO of 2500 (for S-Log3) produces a good result even with quite dim Auroras.
By shooting with S-Log3 you can still grade the footage and this is a quick way to get a time-lapse sequence without having to process thousands of still frames. It also needs only a fraction of the storage space.
In a few days I will be heading off to the north of Norway for my annual trip to shoot the Northern Lights. This year I really do hope to stream the Aurora live.
I’ve tried to livestream the Aurora before, but not really been successful. We go to a very remote location to get away from city lights and light pollution. But that means the cellphone connection isn’t great. And then I have had issues with getting the streaming hardware to work correctly in the extreme cold, it’s often well below -20c. I really want to stream the output of my FX3 rather than shooting the back of the camera with a phone as I have done before. Hopefully I will actually succeed this time. There have been some major updates to the software on my Xperia Pro phone and now the HDMI input app includes rtmp streaming direct from the app, so now I can stream from the FX3 via HDMI and the Xperia Pro more easily than before.
The next big unknown is when will the Aurora be visible. To see the Aurora I need clear skies and then the Aurora has to actually be present. There is no guarantee that it will be visible and I certainly can’t predict exactly when. So – I can’t tell you when I will be live. Most likely it will be sometime between January 12th and January 22nd, after 16:00 GMT and before 02:00 GMT. I may be live many times on different nights.
I will also be on facebook and this would be a good way to keep updated as I will try to post on facebook prior to going live on YouTube.
As well as the FX3 I’m taking an FX30 and it will be interesting to see how this performs trying to shoot the Aurora. Main lenses for the Aurora will be the Sony 24mm f1.4 GM, 20mm f1.8 G but I will also have a Sigma 20mm f1.4 with metabones speedbooster for the FX30.
Every January I run tours to northern Norway in the hope of seeing the Northern Lights. Over the years I have been incredibly lucky and to date, every single tour I have run has seen the Northern lights. I’ve taken all sorts of cameras on these tours, everything from optical disc camcorders (PDW-700), solid state camcorders including the original Sony EX1 and most of Sony’s large sensor video cameras from FS100 to the FX9.
All of these cameras are fairly bulky and require larger tripods and battery systems. In addition, I have always taken a stills camera to shoot timelapse of the Aurora. This year I decided to downsize the equipment I was taking, so instead of taking a full-size video camera I decided to take 2 small cameras.
I already have an FX3, which is a great camera and extremely good in low light. Being part of the Sony Cinema line, it has Sony’s very nice looking Venice based colour science as well, can shoot using S-Log3 as well as the handy what you see is what you get S-Cinetone gamma curve. I know this camera well and I knew it would be a good choice for the challenges I would encounter in Norway. To compliment the FX3 I also decided to take a Sony A1. The A1 (or Alpha 1) is Sony’s flagship compact mirrorless stills camera. As well as amazing photo performance the A1 also promises much as a video camera. It’s 50.1 megapixel sensor allows it to shoot high quality video at 8K. Like the FX3 the A1 can record using S-Log3 and offers similar dynamic range to the FX3.
Need for Speed – fast lenses.
For many years my main lens for shooting the Northern Lights has been the Sigma 20mm f1.4. This is a great lens, but it is quite heavy and I’ve never found the autofocus on this lens to be all that good. I already have Sony’s 20mm f1.8 and this is a great lens for the money. But for the Northern Lights you really want your lenses to be as fast as possible.So for this trip I decided to take Sony’s 24mm f1.4 GM lens to see how that performed.
The other lens that I use extensively on trips like this is the much-underrated Sony 24-240mm zoom lens. This is a 10x zoom giving a huge range of focal lengths from pretty wide to nice and long. The aperture does ramp, going from f3.5 to f6.3 as you zoom in. But for the kinds of shoots I use this lens on this is rarely an issue. Todays cameras are so sensitive that f6.3 is plenty fast enough for all daytime applications. In northern Norway in the winter the temperature is typically -20c, often getting down as low an -35c. Changing lenses is not something you want to do unless you really must when it’s this cold, so a zoom lens is what I like to use when I’m out and about on the show scooters.
Shooting 8K with the A1.
Wherever I could I shot with the A1 in 8K. I recorded internally to CFExpress type A cards using the XAVC-HS codec. When shooting 8K at 24fps the file size is 7860×4320. It is 10 bit 4:2:0 and the bit rate is 400Mb/s. When you shoot 24p at 4K using the XAVC-SI codec the bit rate is 240MB/s, so you might wonder how it’s possible to record frames that in 8K are 4 times larger than 4K with a codec only half the size. The XAVC-HS codec is based on the latest H265 codec. H265 is an ultra efficient long GoP codec. Long GoP codecs can be very efficient as they record a master frame called an “I” frame and then for the next group of frames they only record the differences between the first “I” frame and the next “I” frame. The GoP (group of pictures) can be anywhere up to 180 frames long (but is typically 24 to 60 frames long). This method of compressing moving images is very effective and very efficient. But it can sometimes struggle with very complex images where there is a lot of random motion. Random motion cause issues for the motion prediction algorithms in the codec. In my own footage from Norway, I did notice some minor artefacts in the rippling water within shots across the Fjords.
Moving water is always going to be tough for a Long GoP codec, But I suspect that unless you were actually looking for the artefacts most people wouldn’t notice them. When I graded the A1 footage I also found other very minor artefacts if I pushed the footage hard during the grade. But having said all of that, overall, I think the footage from the A1 looks pretty amazing.
One thing you really do need to consider if you are thinking of using the A1 to shoot 8K is that the XAVC-HS HEVC codec requires a lot of extra processing power to decode. So, your computer needs to be a fast one. Preferably one made in the last couple of years as the most recent processors and graphics cards now include special optimisations for the HEVC codec that will really help.
The sensor in the A1 uses Sony’s latest multi-layer stacked technologies. It is surprisingly sensitive and very low noise. It has excellent dynamic range, around 14 stops which is typical of most current large sensor cameras and very pleasing colour response.
The camera performed better than I expected in low light and while for me at least the A7SIII/FX3 and FX6 remain the kings of low light, the A1 isn’t actually all that far behind. This is particularly impressive when you consider that the pixels in the A1 are much smaller than the pixels in the A7SIII. Having said that, it does appear that the A7S3/FX3/FX6 sensor combines 4 photosites under a single colour filter to create a single “pixel” – could they both be based on a very similar sensor? The A1 sensor is 8640 x 5760 while the A7S3 sensor is 4240 x 2832, the numbers are close enough to believe the underlying sensor could be the same.
For a camera with so many pixels the A1 has a very low level of rolling shutter, you are highly unlikely to encounter any significant rolling shutter issues thanks to the 16ms readout time at 8K. Again, it is interesting to note that the 8.7ms readout of A7S3/FX3/FX6 at 4K is almost exactly half that of the A1 – further pointing to sensor similarities.
Golden Hour = Golden Day.
One of the great things about Norway in the winter is that when the skies are clear the very low sun means that you get golden hour light almost all day. The A1 did an excellent job of capturing the rich colours and deep shadows, especially that deep orange light that seems to make objects glow. Rather than going for a film style grade I chose to use a high contrast and vibrant grade for the sample video. I edited the footage in DaVinci Resolve using ACES colour management. The initial grading was done in HDR and I have uploaded an 8K HDR version for those of you that have an HDR TV or monitor.
The days in northern Norway in January are very short and brutally cold. You only have to look at the shots of the dog sled driver to see how well wrapped up he is. It got down to -34c the day we went dog sledding. Even without a cover the A1 performed very well in the cold. There was some loss of battery life but this is to be expected. If you do find yourself shooting somewhere very cold, try to keep your batteries in an inside pocket until you need them to keep them warm.
At night I decided to use the A1 to shoot time-lapse of the Aurora while using the FX3 to video the Aurora. The A1 has a built in intervalometer so it’s very easy to shoot timelapse with it.
The 24mm f1.4 GM lens.
Shooting stars at night with a wide angle lens is very challenging. You have to be very careful to ensure that your stars and in good focus. I use the cameras built in image magnification to check and double check my focus. One thing that many wide lenses suffer from is an optical defect called “coma”. Often stars that should be a tiny round point of light will take on a slightly elongated appearance, looking like a comma sign or comet rather than a dot, especially towards the edges and corners of the frame. My Sigma 20mm has very little coma and it’s one of the reasons why I like it so much. But the Sony 24mm f1.4 has even less, in fact it is almost completely non-existent. The 24mm is also very, very sharp even wide open, there is no need to stop down to sharpen the image as with some other lenses. It is also a very compact lens and yet despite its small size and low weight it manages to fit in a proper iris ring as well as the large focus ring. Like most of Sony’s most recent lenses the 24mm GM has a linear focus ring. Linear focus means that the amount you turn the focus ring for any given focus change remains completely constant. As a result, you can manually pull focus from one object to another very easily as each time you shift the focus back to your starting point the focus ring will return to exactly the same position each time.
While not quite as wide as my 20mm the clarity and lack of distortions in the images from the 24mm GM means that this lens is now easily my favourite lens for shooting the Aurora or star fields. Of course, it is also very competent for shooting during the day as well. The autofocus is very fast and completely silent due to the use of linear focus motors. The extra assignable button on the lens body is also very handy.
Together the A1 and the 24mm GM were a delight to use. I have to admit that I am wondering whether an A1 could replace my FX3 or FX6. The richness of the 8K images from the A1 are impressive to say the least. I have done a few 8K projects for clients already, But I am not yet regularly delivering in 8K and I don’t think it will be something that I will be asked for regularly for a couple years yet. Besides, most of my clients that do want 8K are really going to want me to shoot on a Venice 2 rather than the A1. I also don’t think I can push the A1 8K images in post quite as much as I can the XAVC-S-I or XAVC-I from the FX3/FX6. Plus, when you do start to do any heavy image manipulation at 8K even my MacBook M1 Max starts to bog down (I actually find it easier to work with the 8K XOCN from Venice 2 than the 8K XAVC-HS from the A1). The FX3 will remain my main camera for my Aurora shoots for the next couple of year but perhaps I will need to start saving some pennies to add an A1 to my camera collection, it certainly impressed me and it would be nice to start shooting some of my stock footage in 8K.
NOTE: To watch the video in 8K you will need a monitor, TV or device capable of 8K playback. To view in HDR you will need to be using an HDR TV or HDR monitor. If you do not have an 8K or HDR TV/Monitor then YouTube will detect this and instead send you a standard dynamic range verison of the video at the highest resolution that your device can support. For the best viewing experience please watch using a HDR device that supports HDR10 ST2084/Rec2020.
I’ve just got back from my latest Northern Lights expedition to Norway and thought I would share some real time footage of the Northern Lights shot with the Sony FX3 and a Sony 24mm f1.4 GM lens. The 24mm f1.4 is a lovely lens and brilliant for shooting star fields etc as it is pin sharp right into the corners. It also has near zero comma distortion so stars remain nice and round. It was -27c when this was shot and my tripods fluid head was starting to get very stiff, so that’s my excuse for the bumps on a couple of the camera moves. What you see in this video is pretty much exactly as it appeared to my own eyes. This is not time-lapse and the colours while slightly boosted are as they really are. I shot using a range of ISO’s using S-Log3. Starting at 12,800 ISO but going all the way up to 128000 ISO. I perhaps didn’t need to go that high as the Aurora was pretty bright but when an Aurora like this may only last a few minutes you don’t want to stop and change your settings unless you have to for fear of missing something. The low light performance of the FX3 really is quite phenomenal.
After having to skip a year my Northern Lights tours are back on again starting January 2022. These trips are made for those that appreciate the beauty of nature. The arctic is a spectacular place in so many ways. Especially in winter when the low arctic sun skims along the horizon providing golden hour light all day.
During the long nights when the sky is clear the Northern Lights come out to play. The cold air provides very clear viewing and most guests are blown away by the numbers of stars visible. It’s a photographers paradise.
For more information take a look at the tour page. If you are interested, send me a message.
Here’s a compilation of footage from this years winter trip to Norway. This was all shot with the PXW-FX9. Mostly with sony lenses and autofocus. The AF was great for following the dog sledding. The camera performed really well and did a great job of capturing what was a very faint Aurora display in between cloud banks.
The daytime footage was shot using S-Log3 in CineEI. I didn’t expose any brighter than base, so used 800EI or 4000EI. I used the viewfinder display gamma assist rather than any LUT’s as I know I can use gamma assist no matter what frame rate I shoot.
The Aurora was very faint, barely visible to the naked eye, so I had to shoot using a 32 frame slow shutter (the equivalent of about 1.3 seconds at 24fps). I then used interval record with a 2 second interval to create the timelapse Aurora sequences. As there were no dynamic range concerns I chose to shoot using the default S-Cinetone settings in custom mode so I could see exactly what I was getting. I was amazed at how many stars the camera picked up with such a short exposure, a sure sign of how sensitive the camera is. For the Aurora I used a Sigma 20mm f1.4 lens with Metabones speed booster and 4K s35 scan. I felt that the extra stop of light gained from the use of the speedbooster was better than the slightly lower noise that would have been present if I had used the 6K FF scan. I did also try S&Q at 1 frame per second with the shutter off to see how this compared to the slow shutter. The S&Q was much noisier, the cameras built in NR seems to work particularly well with the slow shutter function, so if you need a long exposure on the FX9 I recommend slow shutter and interval record over S&Q at 1 frame per second.
For the sunset shots I made use of the variable ND filter, set to auto to control the exposure. I used the cameras “backlight” auto exposure setting to obtain a bright exposure despite the strong sunlight. These shots were shot using S-Log3 in CineEI and it’s nice that the auto exposure functions work very well in this mode. The main lens used was a Sony 24-240mm f3.5-f6.3 zoom. Not the very greatest of lenses, but for such a zoom range the image quality is pretty decent. I used this lens because the temperature was often below -15c dipping to -34c at times. In addition there was a lot of blowing snow. I don’t like doing a lot of lens swapping in these conditions and the 24-240mm allowed me to take just one lens on most of the trips out and about on the snow scooters or dog sleds.
Another big help was the Core SWX V-Mount adapter. I used both the Core Neo 98Wh V-Mount batteries and some of my Pag Paglink 150Wh V-Mounts. They all worked very well in the harsh conditions and a great feature of the Core Neo’s is the run time indicator that gives an accurate time remaining readout based on the batteries capacity and the cameras power draw. This is very handy when using a V-Mount adapter as all the adapters currently on the market convert the battery voltage up to 19.5 volts to feed the FX9. As a result you don’t get any form of capacity or run time indication in the viewfinder. The Core V-Mount adapter also incorporates an LED indicator that turns red as the battery voltage gets low and then flashes red when it’s about to run out – a very nice touch. I did use a loose fitting insulated cover that I made myself. It’s not heated but does have a fleece lining so helps keep the heat generated by the camera when it’s operating in the camera. Where this really helps is to keep the lens warmer than the ambient air and this helps stop the lens from frosting over when shooting the aurora at night (see the picture at the top of the article where you can see just how frosty things can get at night).
As usual on these trips we had one guest break a tripod. A lot of materials that are normally solid and robust become very brittle at temperatures below -15c. I was using a Miller CX18 tripod head with Miller Solo legs and once again this proved to be a great combination. The fluid damping of the head remain almost completely constant all the way down to -34c. A lot of other heads become unusable at these sorts of temperatures.
For file backup and file management I use the Nexto DI NPS-10. This is a relatively new device from Nexto DI. Designed to offer a robust backup solution at a much lower price than similar previous Nexto DI products it too worked very well even in these harsh conditions. I have a 1TB SSD in mine and I can backup a 128GB XQD card in around 5 minutes. I can’t recommend the Nexto DI products enough for those that need to have a simple, reliable backup on location.
The workshop shots are part of a sequence of shots for another video I am working on. For these I used Sony 85mm f1.8 FE and 24mm f2 FE lenses. The sequence is mostly available light but I did have a Light & Motion Stella 5K on hand to add a little extra light here and there.
Post production was done using DaVinci Resolve and ACES.
In February 2019 I am running 2 Aurora hunting trips to the north of Norway. One of these has just sold out so that means that places are now only available on the first tour.
These are very different to the normal Aurora hunting trips to a big city. We start in the town of Alta in Northern Norway, staying in a nice hotel close to the amazing looking Northern Lights Cathedral. From there we travel inland to the capital town of the Sami people – Karasjok.
As we get near to Karasjok we exchange our mini-bus for snow scooters and sleighs and journey way off the beaten track, up above the tree line and across frozen lakes to a small lodge used by cross country skiers and dog sled teams. This group of cabins becomes our base to explore the Finnmarksvidda for 4 days as well as being a near perfect location for watching, photographing and filming the Northern Lights.
It is stunningly beautiful around the cabins, it’s also amazingly peaceful and quiet. We are looked after by a couple of Sami people who cook meals for us, take us ice fishing and help us explore this spectacular and unspoilt winter wilderness.
If you want to know more please take a look at the main page for the tours: https://www.xdcam-user.com/northern-lights-expeditions-to-norway/
I’ve been running my Aurora adventure tours for 11 years and so far every trip has seen the Northern Lights. This year I had a couple of guests that had already travelled to Iceland and Finland in search of the Aurora, but had not seen it. So it was wonderful to see their faces when the Northern Lights came out to play for us most nights.
For the last couple of years I have been basing the tours out of Alta in Northern Norway, travelling from Alta to some cabins far off the beaten track at very special place just outside of the very small town of Karasjok. We stay at the cabins for several reasons.
1: It’s very different – only accessible by snow scooter.
2: It’s truly beautiful – a chance to get back to a slower way of life for a few days.
3: Clear skies – this location seems to deliver clear skies when many other areas are cloud covered.
4: Adventure – where else can you stand on the top of a hill and not see anything else man made from horizon to horizon.
So why not come and join me for an adventure you’ll remember forever? I’ll help you take your own photos or video of the Aurora if that’s what you want to do. Or just come and enjoy a bit of Sami culture as our host Oskar cooks traditional meals of reindeer, elk and salmon before we enjoy a traditional Sauna. During the day we go ice fishing, head out up on to the arctic plateaux by snow scooter or go dog sledding through the snow covered trees of the forest.
I’ve worked hard this winter to get the very best deals on the hotel and cabins that we stay at. As a result the cost of the tours is now lower than the past couple of years and I am even able to offer a really amazing early bird deal for those that book and pay 6 months before the tour. Full details here.
Due to the unexpected redundancy of one of my guests I am now looking to sell on a couple of places on my Northern Lights expedition in January on his behalf.
The trip starts and finishes in Alta, Norway. Food is included for most of the trip. We spend 4 days up on the Finnmarksvidda where we normally get amazing Northern Lights viewing opportunities. I can also help guide anyone that wants to learn how to photograph or video the Aurora.
This is a real adventure and a lot of fun. The only way up to the cabins by snow scooter, crossing frozen lakes along the way. We eat a campfire lunch in a Sami style tent, we go ice fishing, exploring by snow scooter and enjoy traditional sauna nights.
I few years ago I was privileged to have Jean Mouettee and Thierry Legault join me on one of my Northern Lights tours. They were along to shoot the Aurora on an FS100 (it might have been an FS700) in real time. Sadly we didn’t have the best of Auroras on that particular trip. Theirry is famous for his amazing images of the Sun with the International Space Station passing in front of it.
To be able to “see” the Aurora in 3D they needed to place the camera rigs over 6km apart. I did try to take some 3D time-lapse of the Aurora a few years back with cameras 3Km apart, but that was timelapse and I was thwarted by low cloud. Jean and Thierry have gone one better and filmed the Aurora not only in 3D but also in real time. That’s no mean feat!
I’d love to see these projected in a planetarium or other dome venue in 3D. It would be quite an experience.
Jean was also in the US for the total Eclipse in August. He shot the eclipse using an FS5 recording 12 bit raw on a Atomos Shogun. He’s put together a short film of his experience and it really captures the excitement of the event as well as some really spectacular images of the moon moving across the face of the sun. I really shows what a versatile camera the FS5 is.
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