How to use a smartphone to photograph the northern lights

Oct 16, 2019

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Last year, while my fellow passengers were fast asleep, I was fortunate enough to catch the elusive northern lights on a very special delivery flight. TPG and I were traveling on Singapore Airlines’ first 787-10 Dreamliner from Charleston, South Carolina, to Osaka, Japan, and finally on to Changi Airport.

As our flight approached the state of Alaska, flyers on the starboard side were treated to a magnificent display, which — with much effort — I was finally able to clearly capture with my Sony RX100 III point-and-shoot cam.

At that moment, I pledged to see the northern lights from the ground — not far from our Dreamliner’s flight path — in interior Alaska. That adventure became a reality this past weekend, when I traveled up to the incredibly remote camp of Coldfoot, Alaska, along the state’s famed Dalton Highway.

I’ll be sharing more from that experience soon — for now, let’s talk about snapping some killer aurora pics!

Capturing

Just about every photo you’ve ever seen on the northern lights has been an extended exposure. Since the lights are quite dim, compared with objects and effects captured in daylight, photographers use shutter speeds of one second or longer. That means the lights don’t look quite as vibrant in person, but, on a clear night, they look absolutely spectacular in photographs.

Generally, if you’re using a “real” camera, you’ll need a tripod — unless you have exceptionally still hands, which is especially challenging in subzero temperatures. In many cases, if you’re joining an aurora tour, your guide will provide one, but you’ll certainly want to confirm that in advance; you might not be able to capture sharp photos if you arrive unprepared. I also recommend bringing along a flashlight, to aid with focusing (more on that below).

In my opinion, there’s a much better option, though. This latest generation of smartphones can capture outstanding photographs in low light. I was able to snap some incredible shots using only a handheld iPhone 11 Pro Max, but Samsung’s latest Galaxy devices and the upcoming Google Pixel 4 should have you covered as well.

I’ll focus on Apple’s night mode here, since that’s what I used, but other recent models offer similar functionality. Also, note that you’ll be able to capture these same results with all iPhone 11 models, since night mode works with the wide (1x) lens. Here’s how to get it done:

  1. Select the content for your frame — consider mixing in mountains, trees, cabins and other structures, to make your pictures more interesting and add perspective.
  2. Open the native camera app and ensure focus — briefly light a tree or structure using a powerful flashlight, if your phone is struggling to focus on its own.
  3. Confirm that night mode is active — when using the 1x lens in “photo” mode on the iPhone 11, an indicator will appear at the top left corner, while other smartphones may offer a dedicated “night” shooting option.
  4. Capture plenty of frames — the aurora effect changes quickly, so don’t be afraid to snap away!
  5. Review your work every few shots to ensure that you’re happy with focus, exposure and other details.

If all goes well, you should walk away with images that look something like this:

Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.
Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

Post-processing

You may notice that the image above looks a bit dull compared to the finished product I included up top. While you can certainly share an image directly from the phone, you can really make your shot pop by making some tweaks directly on your smartphone, as I did here:

Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

For aurora photography specifically, I recommend the following adjustments, all of which are available with iOS 13:

  1. Correct exposure as necessary — I didn’t make any adjustments here.
  2. Reduce the highlights to bring out more detail in the northern lights — I adjusted to the full range (-100).
  3. Increase shadow levels to boost detail elsewhere in your image — I adjusted +18 here.
  4. Boost vibrance — I added 51 to this image.
  5. Reduce warmth — this is my preference, but I felt the image really popped with a warmth of -13.
  6. Adjust the tint — I added 94 to this image.
  7. Increase sharpness and definition, if necessary — here, I went up 20 and 91, respectively.
  8. Correct vertical or horizontal perspective, to ensure trees are aligned (this one’s a bit complicated, so if you’re not sure how to achieve this with your smartphone, feel free to skip this step).

The extent of your processing will depend on the image and your own preferences, of course — darker auroras may need a bit more work than brighter ones. If you’re planning to share on your Instagram Story, you’ll also want to crop the image to 9:16 within your photo app, to ensure maximum sharpness.

How to find the northern lights

Typically, your best shot at capturing the northern lights is to head somewhere above the Arctic Circle, including in Alaska and Scandinavia, though there also are opportunities to see the aurora farther south, including in Iceland and sometimes even in the contiguous United States.

I decided to venture deep into the state of Alaska, a few miles past Coldfoot, a small truck stop, to the tiny village of Wiseman. Roughly 10 people live in Wiseman, and the village consists of little more than a few log cabins, but, given its position directly below the auroral oval, you can see incredible activity throughout much of the sky on a clear night.

In fact, my visit happened to coincide with forecasted periods of low activity, but that simply affects the distance from which you can see the northern lights — the display was quite vibrant directly underneath. The full moon also had little impact — in fact, I found it helpful, since the moon lit up the nearby mountains and cabins.

Image courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Image courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The ideal viewing period varies depending on when and where you go — for my October visit to Wiseman, I was told we’d have the best show between midnight and 3 a.m., so plan for a very long day, perhaps broken up with a post-dinner nap.

Though my 5-degree-Fahrenheit night in October was considerably warmer than what you’ll find in winter, when temperatures can drop to 40 below, you’ll have a much better chance of seeing the lights later in the season. That includes the spring, when temperatures begin to warm again.

Just note that there’s never any guarantee that you’ll see activity, even on a clear night — I missed out on the second night, as clouds and snow came in after sunset, despite a clear forecast. The one variable you can control is your camera, however, and if you’re going to spend the money to travel for the aurora, I highly recommend investing in the latest smartphone, too.

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