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TravelHow to use a smartphone to photograph the northern lights

How to use a smartphone to photograph the northern lights

I was lucky enough to catch the elusive northern lights on a special delivery flight, Singapore Airlines’ first 787-10 Dreamliner delivery flight 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 point-and-shoot camera.

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 in 2019 when I traveled up to the incredibly remote camp of Coldfoot, Alaska, along the state’s famed Dalton Highway.

Capturing photos of the northern lights

Many of the best images you’ve likely ever seen on the northern lights have been taken with an extended exposure.

Northern lights over Mount Kirkjufell in Iceland. SUTTIPONG SUTIRATANACHAI/GETTY IMAGES

Since the lights are often quite dim, at least when compared with objects and effects captured in daylight, photographers often 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 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.

The newer generations of smartphones can capture outstanding photographs in low light. In 2019, I was able to snap some incredible shots using only a handheld iPhone 11 Pro Max, and of course, there are even more advanced models and technology out since then.

I’ll focus on Apple’s night mode here since that’s what I used, but other recent models offer similar functionality. Note that the process with some models that have come out even more recently than this may differ a bit, though the concepts likely remain similar:

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  • Select the content for your frame — consider mixing in mountains, trees, cabins and other structures, to make your pictures more interesting and add perspective.
  • 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.
  • Confirm that night mode is active — when using the 1x lens in “photo” mode on the iPhone 11 that was used at this time, an indicator will appear at the top left corner, while other smartphones may offer a dedicated “night” shooting option.
  • Capture plenty of frames — the aurora effect changes quickly, so don’t be afraid to snap away!
  • 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.

Related: Why the iPhone 15 is a game changer for travelers

Editing photos of the northern lights

You may notice that the image above looks a bit dull compared to the finished product I included at the 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 northern lights photography specifically, I recommend the following adjustments.

  • Correct exposure as necessary — I didn’t make any adjustments here.
  • Reduce the highlights to bring out more detail in the northern lights — I adjusted to the full range (-100).
  • Increase shadow levels to boost detail elsewhere in your image — I adjusted +18 here.
  • Boost vibrance — I added 51 to this image.
  • Reduce warmth — this is my preference, but I felt the image really popped with a warmth of -13.
  • Adjust the tint — I added 94 to this image.
  • Increase sharpness and definition, if necessary — here, I went up 20 and 91, respectively.
  • 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.

Related: Guide to taking a cruise to find the northern lights

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 — such as this weekend — even in the contiguous United States.

On my aurora-hunting trip, 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.

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.

There are also apps such as My Aurora Forecast & Alerts that can give you alerts to help tell you when it’s a good time to step outside and take a look up at the sky.

Bottom line

It’s extraordinarily rare that the northern lights dip all the way south into Texas, Florida and even Mexico, but that gives so many of us a special chance to enjoy them without having to travel north in search of this magnificent natural phenomenon. And luckily, your smartphone can do a pretty good job of capturing the moment if you follow some of these tips.

Don’t worry if you miss this round, as we are forecast to be in an extended period of higher-than-normal northern lights activity in case you feel inspired to start planning a trip for later this year with that main purpose in mind.


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