As someone who frequently photographs the night sky and nocturnal landscapes, I was intrigued by the recently announced SiOnyx Aurora IR Night Vision Camera. The Aurora is a compact camera designed to shoot stills and video in color under low light conditions, in addition to providing night vision capability.

The camera is marketed for outdoor enthusiasts (e.g., boaters, fishermen, hunters, hikers) who need to see in the dark and might want to capture their nocturnal activities. At a retail price of $799 it's more than an impulse buy, but it promises some impressive capabilities. Being an aurora photographer, I was interested in its performance capturing the Northern Lights so I took the Aurora to Yellowknife, Canada.

Key specifications

  • 'Ultra-low-light' 1"-type CMOS sensor
  • 1280x720 resolution (stills and video)
  • 16mm (47mm equiv) lens
  • Three shooting modes: Night (F1.4), Twilight (F2.0), and Day (F5.6)
  • Image stabilization
  • Video frame rates from 7.5 to 60 fps
  • OLED viewfinder
  • IP67 water resistant

Night Vision

The SiOnyx Aurora features a one-inch-type ultra low light CMOS sensor—sensitive to both visible and infrared light —capable of capturing stills and video in either monochrome or color, though it's limited to shooting stills and video at 1280x720 resolution.

This resolution may seem low by today's standards but it makes sense for a night vision camera. In everyday photography pixel size has very little effect on image quality, other than that small pixels give more detail. However, the tiny advantage that large pixels can have can become significant in extreme low-light situations, which means a night vision camera is one of the few instances where bigger pixels offer a recognizable benefit.

The SiOnyx Aurora features a 1"-type ultra low light CMOS sensor sensitive to both visible and infrared light. It also includes effective image stabilization for handheld use in dark conditions.

Resolution and pixel size aside, as soon as I picked up the Aurora it became evident that its compact size and light weight were going to put this camera in its own category. The water-resistant Aurora is 11.7 cm (4.6") long and weighs only 227 g (8 oz) so it fits easily in a jacket pocket. Its portability and the fact that a tripod is not required to shoot at night means that the Aurora can always be within reach and ready to shoot.

The Aurora has three shooting modes for daytime (F5.6), twilight (F2.0), and nighttime (F1.4) scenes. The daytime setting performs as expected but the twilight mode performs well only for a short window of time. My impression was that I needed to change the dial to the night setting long before twilight was over. When you rotate the dial from Twilight to Night, the infrared filter is removed from the optical path. The Night scene mode is the most useful (and fun) since at that setting the camera captures light at wavelengths way beyond what the human eye can see. Specifically, its wavelength range goes from blue (400 nm) to infrared (1,100 nm). In comparison, the human eye can see from blue (400 nm) to red (700 nm).

All videos below are straight-out-of-camera and were shot handheld.

Comparison of the Twilight and Night scene modes shot two hours after sunset. It was dark enough that I needed my smartphone LED light to safely walk around. Download original
Scenes shot in Twilight and Night modes two hours after sunset. Download original

The Night scene mode has three color settings collectively referred to as ‘Night Glow’: Grayscale and Green, both useful when there's almost no artificial light and barely any natural light, and Night Color, beneficial when viewing colors is important, as in the case of the Northern Lights.

Scenes shot in Grayscale Night mode. The armadillo was shot near a street lamp. The scene in the park was very dark to the human eye since those trees blocked most of the artificial light. The third scene was shot under moonlight and some street lighting. Download original

Point, Focus, and Shoot in the Dark

The benefits of the Aurora for hunting, fishing, and other outdoor enthusiasts is very apparent, but I wanted to see how useful it would be to capture video of the Northern Lights. Since most of the time the Northern Lights move slowly, time-lapse photography with exposures of several seconds is the perfect technique to capture them. That way, we get to capture more light with long exposures and we get to compress (or speed up) time by playing the frames at a higher rate than those at which they were taken.

During a substorm the lower end of an aurora curtain can move at speeds exceeding 5 km/s and look motion-blurred in time-lapse sequences. The higher frame rate of video works better to capture the substorm motion...

Nevertheless, time-lapse photography might not be the best technique to capture a substorm: the sudden brightening and increased movement of auroral arcs that can last for tens of minutes. During a substorm the lower end of an aurora curtain can move at speeds exceeding 5 km/s and look motion-blurred in time-lapse sequences. The higher frame rate of video works better to capture the substorm motion, but the shorter exposure for each frame results in lower signal-to-noise ratios and lower image quality.

I set the camera to the Night Color mode, the frame rate to 30p, and set focus to infinity. Once a substorm started all I had to do was to take the camera out of my pocket, turn it on, and press record. The electronic viewfinder (EVF) shows you exactly what you are capturing so it is very easy to point, shoot, and follow your subject.

Handheld video showing strong green and red auroral emission during a substorm on the moonless night of 9 September 2018. The foreground in all of these auroras videos was extremely dark and the use of flashlight to safely walk around was imperative. Download original

As expected, the SiOnyx Aurora works best when the Northern Lights are at its brightest, and you can see how the video gets noisier when the lighting conditions are darker (0:20 and 1:08 marks on the video above). Also, the Auto White Balance appears to shift during faint periods (1:33 mark). Overall, the camera captured the colors and rapid motion of the substorm well.

The images above are video frames taken from the SiOnyx Aurora camera. Both video and still images from the camera have a resolution of 1280x720.

A few nights later I shot a brighter auroral substorm from the side of a road. The infrared light reflected by nearby trees at the beginning of the video below indicates that the ambient light at that location was also brighter. Note that the infrared light detected by the camera comes from objects reflecting it and not emitting it. In other words, the camera does not detect thermal emission (light emitted due to the temperature of matter).

This brighter auroral substorm resulted in a video with lower noise. Notice the infrared light reflected by vegetation and the very fast motion of the aurora around 0:25. Download original
The SiOnyx Aurora outputs JPEG stills and MOV (H.264) video files with audio. Unless otherwise noted, images in this articles are frames from videos files. To compare the quality of a JPEG with the quality of a video frame, I shot a still in Color Night mode (F1.4) with an exposure of 1/30 sec at ISO 20,000 and compared it with a frame of a video of the same scene shot in Color Night mode (F1.4) at 30p. I can only assume that the chosen ISO (the Aurora always operates in Auto ISO) was 20,000 as well.

The video frame looks cleaner and the edges look slightly sharper but the shadows are clipped. This could be the result of further image processing and video compression. One definite advantage of shooting stills is the ability of taking exposures as long as 1.5 seconds.

Comparison of a still image with an exposure of 1/30 sec at ISO 20,000 and a frame from a video shot at 30p. Both were shot in Color Night mode (F1.4). The foreground tree was illuminated by a street lamp.

To see how the SiOnyx Aurora compares to another camera that performs well in low light conditions, I shot two scenes with the Aurora (set to Color Night mode) and with the Nikon D5 with a Nikkor 50mm F1.4G. Both image sets were shot with the same exposure parameters.

Still image shot with the SiOnyx Aurora: 1/30 sec, F1.4, ISO 20,000 Still image shot with a Nikon D5 and a Nikkor 50mm F1.4G: 1/30 sec, F1.4, ISO 20,000. Sampled down to 1280 px wide.
Still image shot with the SiOnyx Aurora: 1/15 sec, F1.4, ISO 102,400 Still image shot with a Nikon D5 and a Nikkor 50mm F1.4G: 1/15 sec, F1.4, ISO 102,400. Sampled down to 1280 px wide.

Not surprisingly, given its relatively low resolution, the images from the SiOnyx camera are not as sharp and clean as those shot with the Nikon D5, but they do show more vegetation due its extended range into the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The second scene was too dark for the unaided eye to clearly perceive and, while I was able to easily focus using the Aurora EVF, it was impossible for me to focus using the D5 viewfinder or Live View mode. It is evident that the advantages of the Aurora are its infrared sensitivity, bright EVF, ease of use, compactness, and light weight.

The Aurora sports a fixed 16mm lens (47mm equivalent in full frame terms) which provides a diagonal FOV of 48 degrees. Although, I wished I had a wider FOV to capture the auroral displays, I think the fixed 48-degree FOV is a good compromise for most uses. Lens focus is manual only, but I was surprised how easy it was for me to focus in the dark thanks to the bright OLED EVF. Additionally, the camera features focus peaking, which displays a red highlight on in‐focus edges.

Features Galore

The Aurora is packed with shooting features including shutter speeds from 1.5 sec to 1/8,000 sec, burst mode (2.5, 5, or 10p), HDR, self-timer (2, 5, or 12 sec), panorama (up to 180 degrees in landscape or portrait mode), and time-lapse. Video frame rates range from 7.5 to 120p. The Aurora also features Electronic Image Stabilization and remote operation using the SiOnyx mobile app (iOS and Android).

Lens focus is manual only, but I was surprised how easy it was for me to focus in the dark thanks to the bright OLED EVF.

Its EVF displays shooting parameters and modes, current time, compass direction, GPS coordinates, and optionally, focus peaking, grid (to aid in image composition), and pitch & roll (to aid in keeping the camera level in two axes).

The EVF has the option to turn itself on only when you move your face close the eyepiece. Although this definitely helps to save power (from a standard Fujifilm-style NP-50 lithium ion battery) I thought that battery life was very limited. Fortunately, the Aurora can draw power from an external source via USB. (NB: For this to work you still need a battery inside the camera). This is very helpful, for example, when taking long time-lapse sequences.

The SiOnyx app lets you connect remotely to the Aurora via Wi-Fi to: browse and delete content in the microSD card, change settings, and shoot stills and video.

Final Thoughts

Not only can the Aurora capture video and stills at night, but the list of uses (thanks to its bright EVF) in wildlife watching, hunting, boating, fishing, and other nocturnal outdoor activities is long.

I think it's important to stress what the camera is not for. It's neither designed for capturing high-resolution images for prints or HD monitors nor for shooting video for professional productions. Hence, it is not in the same category as low-light mirrorless cameras or DSLRs. The camera is very useful as a device to do tasks in the dark—especially when safety might be an issue—and to capture outdoor activities and the natural world at night in a fun and easy way.

Video frame of Northern Lights tour participants warming up and waiting for the natural spectacle to begin.

I benefit tremendously from using high-end DSLRs to take long exposures and time-lapse sequences of natural phenomena. I don't see the SiOnyx Aurora as a substitute to my equipment but as a complement instead.

I'll let my high-end DSLRs do what they do best—capture time-lapse sequences for my science films—and use the Aurora to capture nocturnal videos that allow me to demonstrate phenomena in my science lectures (e.g., how fast can the Northern Lights appear to move). As a science communicator, handheld videos shot in real time, especially with audio, help me bring audiences closer to the natural phenomena I present and, as a photographer, the fact that I can take this camera out of my pocket and be ready to shoot in seconds is a big plus.

As a science communicator, handheld videos shot in real time, especially with audio, help me bring audiences closer to the natural phenomena I present...

Does the SiOnyx Aurora let me see things in the dark that I can't see with the unaided eye? Absolutely: the infrared sensitivity makes a big difference and, hence, my stress on the night vision capability of this device. The fact that you can also capture what you see is a plus. For me it was capturing Northern Lights, but I'm also looking forward to capturing surface lava flows in Hawaii, bioluminescence in Puerto Rico, as well as other phenomena around the world.

What we like:

  • Pocketable, always with you size
  • Easy to operate in the dark
  • High enough image quality for instructional use or social media
  • Image stabilization

What we'd like to see improved:

  • A dial less prone to accidentally turning off the camera
  • Ability to set white balance manually
  • Video metadata saved to XMP file (GPS coordinates, direction, etc.)
  • A hot shoe (for accessory lights)
  • A lens cap

José Francisco Salgado, PhD is an Emmy-nominated astronomer, science photographer, public speaker, and tour operator who creates multimedia works that communicate science in engaging ways. His Science & Symphony films through KV 265 have been presented in more than 350 concerts and lectures in 18 countries.

José Francisco is a seasoned night sky and aurora photographer and filmmaker. If you would like to view, photograph, and learn about the Northern Lights please inquire about his Borealis Science & Photo Tours in Yellowknife, Canada.

You can follow him on: Flickr, Instagram, 500px, Facebook, and Twitter