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How the BBC films the night side of Planet Earth

Meet the cameras that can see in the dark.

Capturing Planet Earth is a three-part video series from Vox Observatory about the evolution of the BBC’s wildlife films. Click here for part one and part two.

One of the oldest challenges faced by wildlife filmmakers is the battle against darkness. Plenty of animals avoid light, but cameras need light to form an image. For decades, that left the BBC’s natural history producers with few options.

They could bring lanterns and flashlights into the wild and hope the animals didn’t panic or disappear. More often, though, those stories simply remained off limits.

Now new technologies can capture behaviors that take place in the dark. The quality of infrared and thermal photography has jumped since the BBC started using them more frequently in the early 2000s. They provide a monochrome but crisp image.

This scene was lit with near-infrared lights and filmed with a Red Dragon camera that had been tweaked to pick up infrared.
BBC Planet Earth II

And large-sensor digital cameras can now do more with less light, allowing producers to film earlier in the morning and later in the evening, without introducing more noise. These technologies perform like the human eye, but better. And they’re really new.

“That’s only really taken off just about halfway through our filming,” said Chadden Hunter, producer of the “Grasslands” episode of the BBC’s Planet Earth II. “So I’m most excited for our upcoming series now. There are all sorts of wildlife stories that we thought were impossible to film, so now we’re scrambling out to get them.”

You won’t be able to tell that the footage is much brighter than the real-life scene actually is — it’ll simply look like a well-lit shot. But expect to witness stories you’ve never seen before.

Learn more in the video at the top of this post, or watch on our YouTube channel.

Planet Earth II airs on BBC America Saturdays through March 25.