Alpha Universe Story Detail

Lights Alive with the α7S II

Steve Collins

When Steve Collins finds a problem, he solves it. “When I find something and I don’t like how it works,” he says, “I try to find a solution pretty quickly, otherwise it annoys me!”

It was this mantra that led Steve to develop the Live Aurora Network, with his brother Tony – a way that anyone in the world can watch the aurora live, in amazing quality, on their smartphone via an app. 

steve collins sony alpha 7SII brilliant aurora display appears to erupt from a silhouetted mountain

© Steve Collins | Sony α7S II + 20mm f/1.4 | 1s @ f/1.4, ISO 800

Steve first saw the Northern Lights when on honeymoon with his wife, when he set his alarm to wake him up on the hour, every hour until he saw them. “After a few nights I eventually saw it,” he laughs, “but they weren’t quite like what you see in photos; there was no colour, it was like a misty white cloud.”

steve collins sony alpha 7SII a soft green aurora reflected in a calm sea

© Steve Collins | Sony α7S II + 24mm f/1.4 GM | 2s @ f/1.4, ISO 5000

Determined to see the aurora in all of its glory, Steve and Tony soon booked a trip to Tromsø in Norway, and downloaded all of the forecast apps he could find. But none really got anywhere close to predicting the aurora correctly, which was when Steve started to look for webcams.

Using webcams, he was able to sit and watch in the comfort and warmth, only heading out to watch the sky when he saw the aurora on the webcam. “We timed it perfectly! For five nights in a row we had a perfect show,” he tells us.

“It was this trip”, he explains, “that gave me the idea for the Live Aurora Network. I wanted to create an app that would alert people when the aurora was happening based on live footage.”

steve collins sony alpha 7SII dancing aurora display over distant mountains and snow covered roads

© Steve Collins | Sony α7S II + 20mm f/1.4 | 4s @ f/1.6, ISO 1200

So how do you go about setting up a series of cameras across countries and continents that remotely live stream the night sky? Steve’s idea was to create an algorithm that would monitor the brightness, colour, density and movement of the night sky to let him know when the aurora was taking place.

steve collins sony alpha 7SII aurora and stars hang over a wooden building in iceland

© Steve Collins | Sony α7S II + 20mm f/1.4 | 2s @ f/2.0, ISO 1250

He started by placing a CCTV camera at a house in Iceland to monitor the sky as an experiment, and once he’d proven that this worked, the idea quickly evolved. Steve began using Sony α7S cameras, with the full frame sensor allowing for a much higher quality of image than the CCTV cameras he had used.

However, he found that for the Live Aurora Network to really work, the cameras needed to be placed in more remote dark sky locations. Steve found a company in the USA that could build him bespoke housing which would be home to the α7S cameras, along with a fan, heater, Windows 10 computer and a 4G router, to allow a network connection for image viewing and camera control.

As the project has developed, the α7S II has become Steve’s camera of choice for the Live Aurora Network, along with the stunningly sharp FE 24mm f/1.4 G Master lens. It hasn’t always been an easy project and there have been many challenges to overcome, including how to remotely control all of the exposure settings on the cameras. “We have installed the latest cameras on a relay so that we can swap from streaming video to using the Sony remote camera software,” he explains, “which allows us to change the settings and take images.”

steve collins sony alpha 7SII intense green aurora light dances over a waterfall in iceland

© Steve Collins | Sony α7S II + 20mm f/1.4 | 1s @ f/1.4, ISO 800

Previously all Steve’s images were grabs from the live stream, so they came out quite grainy. However, now that he can remotely switch to camera mode on the α7S II, he is able to produce JPEG images that are a high enough resolution to even be used for advertising purposes.

The impressive project has now created an archive of over 450,000 images of the Aurora, as well as video footage, with five cameras lined up from Norway to Iceland. Steve hopes for two more cameras to go live shortly, including one on Lofoten Links golf course on the Norwegian Lofoten island, and another near Anchorage in Alaska. From there, the plan is to have a global network of 24 cameras spanning the whole of the Northern Hemisphere.

steve collins sony alpha 7SII arrow shaped aurora display over a rocky beach

© Steve Collins | Sony α7S II + 20mm f/1.4 | 1s @ f/1.4, ISO 800

As for the app itself, it has been a huge success, with as many as 14,000 people viewing the aurora each night. Whilst helping people make sure they don’t miss seeing the aurora when they are travelling was the initial aim of the project, Live Aurora Network has now taken on a life of its own.

“Some people will sit at home and watch the aurora on their phone, or stream it to their television,” Steve explains. “It is so encouraging when I have people say to me: ‘thank you for helping me see the lights - you have literally sorted out the number one thing on my bucket list.’ I feel proud to have helped be part of that.”

And perhaps the most intriguing part of Steve’s story? “I was never a photographer before this, but I am now!”

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