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Shooting the Northern Lights with the Sony FX3 and FX30

Top Contributor

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 have another trip to the cabins that starts tomorrow, so hope to get more footage, but thought I would share some video from the first trip and some details of how I shot it.

I recommend watching the video direct on YouTube and on a nice big screen in 4K if you can.

To see the Aurora you need to travel upt to the Arctic circle and find somewhere with clear skies. Generally you need to go in the winter when the nights are long and dark to maximise your chances of seeing the Northern Lights. So - that means shooting in some very cold conditions. On this trip it got down to -30c (-22f). But the cameras performed well despite the cold. I will go into the equipment in more depth in another post after the second trip.

Most this video 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 normally need to use a long shutter opening. So, often I am shooting with a 1/15th or 1/12th shutter.  the FX3 I used the CineEI mode at 12,800 ISO and also 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. But I have to admit that the stars from the Sigma lens are not as well rounded as form either my Sony 20mm or 24mm lenses, perhaps on this second trip I will use the Sony 20mm f1.8 instead. With the Fx30 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. While shooting with traditional time-lapse with still frames does allow you to shoot raw stills, the difference in image quality isn't actually all that great. With some cameras you might be able to shoot at higher resolutions which may be beneficial, but then you can't shoot real time video. I'm really pleased with what I am getting and when I compare what I can get today with cameras like the FX3 (A7S3) and what I was getting 5 years ago, todays material is vastly superior.

Alister Chapman

Top Contributor

Gorgeous, mesmerizing! I am wondering, when you were shooting on either the FX3 in CineEI mode at 12,800 or the FX30 at 2500, did you do anything special with the EI setting? Seems like you have dark sky and bright aurora, and wondering what the best practice is here, because it looks lovely.

The brightness of the Aurora varies immensely. One moment it can be dim, low contrast and barely visible and 30 seconds later it can be bright enough to cast shadows on the ground with great contrast. Additionally the location I go to tends to have extremely dark skies as it is well away from any city lights or other light pollution. Plus, when it is very cold (and it normally is -20c or colder) the air becomes very clear, so contrast increases and this is a big, big help.

There is no one magic setting for every Aurora. Generally most of the Aurora footage was shot with the FX3 with the 24mm f1.4 GM as having a second base ISO of 12,800 in S-Log3 is highly beneficial and contrary to what I would normally do, adding a bit of gain in camera by going to 25600 using the flexible ISO mode proved useful. As the Aurora doesn't move very, very fast you can get away with a 1/12th or 1/15th shutter. When the Aurora is dim it also tends to be moving much slower. So, rather than increasing the ISO still further or adding ever more post production gain I will use S&Q and lower the frame rate, perhaps using 8 frames per second and a 1/8th shutter and then return this to normal speed in post with a bit of subtle frame blending. When shooting the Aurora I am constantly tuning the camera settings to the way the Aurora is behaving and how bright it is while shooting. The tips of my fingers suffer every year from constantly touching the extremely cold camera controls. It's like repeatedly touching a red hot surface. 

In post production I do add noise reduction as without it the images would be noisy without it and there will be some grading to provide the best looking image. In the past when I shot mostly time-lapse with longer exposures, I tended to go for a more vivid look, but recently I have dialled things back a lot as I wish to give a more true to life representation of how the Aurora actually looks when you see it in person.

The final factor is time outside. As the aurora comes and goes, often quite quickly, you have to spend the time outside with the cameras setup and ready to go in order to not miss the brightest flare ups. These are often short lived and it is all too easy to miss them if you stay inside and just pop out occasionally. So, that means long periods standing and waiting in the cold. In the early part of January, up in Northern Norway it was dark enough to see the Aurora between 3pm and 9am and each night I would be outside for around 11 to 12 hours at a time, but possibly only shooting for a couple of hours during that period. Then do that for 2 or 3 weeks at a location with very clear skies and you have a chance of getting some great footage.

Alister Chapman

Super interesting! Especially to hear about the shutter you can get away with during the Aurora. Thank you. Hope your fingertips are recovered!

Leading Creator

Beautiful footage.  I'm surprised by how high above the horizon the lights extend, and the foreground trees and cabin really add a sense of perspective.