PHOTOGRAPHING NORTHERN LIGHT WITH THE SONY a9

March 18, 2018

 

Just like previous years, I guided groups of photographers in the north of Norway from mid-February until mid-March. One of the main subjects of these photo tours is the northern light. Compared to last year, we didn't see the northern light that often. But when we saw it, the shows turned out quite spectacular! Some nights had some short intense peaks of activity, but on other nights we had the northern light dancing over our heads for hour after hour. Another big difference with last year, is that I had the Sony a9 with me, instead of my Canon 1Dx. And boy, what a game changer that was! 

 

 

Boosted brightness of live-view 

 

The biggest difference which you directly notice, when using the Sony a9 at night, is the light sensitivity of the live-view. The brightness is boosted by the camera, so that elements in the landscape appear on the live-view. Even the tiniest bit of northern light will show up on the live-view. In some situations it is not possible yet to see with the naked eye if there is some northern light in the sky. Previously I was used to make a test picture to find out if there was something green in the sky or not. Now I just point the camera to the sky and see on the live-view if there is any green appearing. 

 

This rather weak northern light was clearly visible on the live-view. 

Sony a9, Samyang 14mm f2.8, @ f2.8, ISO2500, 15sec.

 

Because the brightness of the live-view is boosted, composing the pictures becomes much easier! I mean MUCH easier! Usually, with a DSLR camera, I have to find a composition through the view-finder. Of course I managed. But this becomes rather difficult when photographing (straight) up or from a low point of view. With the Sony a9 I can put the camera in the position I want, fold the screen out and use the live-view. 

 

In order to get the tree in front of the northern light, I had to put my camera on ground level. The combination of the boosted brightness and the foldable screen made it easy for me to get the shot I was after. 

Sony a9, Samyang14mm f2.8, @ f2.8, ISO4000, 10sec.

 

Also the darkness makes it difficult to directly find the wanted composition. Normally I have to make a test picture to see if the composition is what I want it to be. With the Sony a9 I don't have to make a test picture, because I can see the composition directly on the live-view. This also means that I can change the composition much easier and faster. Sometimes the northern light is moving very fast and I want to change my composition from picture to picture. With the Sony a9 this is a piece of cake. Because of this, I managed to get shots which I definitely would have missed with a DSLR camera!

 

Because the composition was clearly visible on the live-view, it was easy to line up the northern light with the chimney of the little observation house. 

Sony a9, Samyang 14mm f2.8, @ f2.8, ISO4000, 4sec.

 

 

High ISO performance

 

The high ISO performance of the a9 is outstanding. I can only compare it to my Canon 1DX, which is an older camera. The Sony a9 outperforms the 1DX by ease, which it is expected to do. For my northern light pictures, I have not applied any noise reduction for the pictures taken on ISO 4000 or lower. A big difference to my Canon cameras, is the amount of color noise. This is basically absent on the pictures of the Sony a9. I don't know how this compares to the latest Canon and Nikon cameras.

 

The weak northern light lined up nicely with the Milky Way. By boosting the ISO to 10.000, both became visible. The orange glow comes from a fisherman village behind the mountain.

Sony a9, Samyang 14mm f2.8, @ f2.8, ISO10.000, 15sec.

 

 

Manual focus  and "peak levels" assistance

 

When photographing northern light, most of the focusing is done by manual focusing. When using the Sony G master lenses, the focusing distance appears in the live-view when turning the focus ring. This gives you a good indication where the focus is roughly at. But it gets better. The Sony a9 has a focusing assistance system, called "peak levels". Which means that contrast edges which appear in focus, light up in a selected color. While turning the focus ring, the camera zooms digitally. Once a subject appears in focus, the edges start to color in the color you selected in the menu. This makes it a lot easier to focus. I noticed that this worked very well in combination with the Sony lenses. With the 14mm f2.8 Samyang lens, it didn't work as accurate on objects very far away. But I have to say that this lens can be quite a nightmare to get in focus at night. Luckily, with the boosted brightness of the live-view, manual focusing the Samyang lens became much easier. 

 

 

Auto-focus 

 

Auto-focus??? Yes, auto-focus!!! When the sky is clear, it is possible to use the auto focus on for example a bright star or a group of stars. I only tried this with the Sony 24-70mm f2.8 G master lens. I don't know how this will work with a lens with a wider angle. 

 

With the auto-focus the camera focused on a bright star. 

Sony a9, Sony 24-70mm f2.8, @ 25mm, f2.8, ISO6400, 4sec.

 

Battery life

 

Photographing northern light eats batteries! The temperature is normally rather low, which lowers the battery life. This in combination with the long exposures, makes sure your batteries will be drained quickly. Once again I'm so happy with the new and improved batteries of Sony for the a9. Where some of my follow photographers were already on their 3rd battery, I was still on my first. Before going out, I made sure I had two full batteries in the battery grip. I never had to change batteries while shooting northern lights. 

 

 

For those of you who photograph northern light and have not yet tried to do this with a Sony, I can advise you to give it a try! For me it made a big difference compared to any other DSLR camera I have photographed with. In the past few weeks I photographed together with photographers who had the Canon 5d mkIV, Canon 1DX mkII, Nikon D5 and the Nikon D850 with them. Those cameras performed very well of course! But the boosted brightness of the live-view of the Sony a9, gave me the upper hand in the field. 

 

Sony a9, Samyang14mm f2.8, @ f2.8, ISO5000, 1.6sec.

 

Do you want to join me next year to the north of Norway to photograph this amazing phenomenon? These are the tours which I have planned for next year. 

 

  • 9 - 16 February - Troms and Senja, 4 spots remaining - book here with the Belgium traveling agency

  • 17 - 24 February - Lofoten, book here with us FULLY BOOKED!

  • 25 February - 4 March - Lofoten, 4 spots remaining - book here with us

  • 4 - 11 March - Senja, 7 spots remaining - book here with the Dutch traveling agency (tour will be open for booking soon!)

 

Here some more images from the past few weeks. All taken with the Sony a9 in combination with the Sony 24-70mm G master lens and the Samyang 14mm f2.8. 

 

 

 

 

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