How to use a smartphone to photograph the Northern Lights – The Points Guy

I was lucky enough to view the elusive Northern Lights on a special delivery flight, the first delivery flight of Singapore Airlines’ 787-10 Dreamliner, from Charleston, South Carolina to Osaka, Japan, and finally at Changi Airport.

As our flight approached the state of Alaska, the passengers on the starboard side were treated to a magnificent sight that, with much effort, I was finally able to clearly capture with my compact camera.

At that point, I committed to observing the Northern Lights from the ground – not far from the flight path of our Dreamliner – in interior Alaska. This adventure came true in 2019 when I traveled to the incredibly remote Camp Coldfoot, Alaska, along the state’s famous Dalton Highway.

Take photos of the Northern Lights

Many of the best images you’ve probably ever seen of the Northern Lights were taken with a long exposure.

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

Since lights are often quite dim, at least compared to objects and effects captured in daylight, photographers often use shutter speeds of a second or faster. This means the lights don’t look 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 always hands, which is particularly difficult. In many cases, if you’re going on a Northern Lights tour, your guide will provide you with one, but you’ll definitely want to confirm this in advance; you may not be able to take clear photos if you arrive unprepared. I also recommend bringing a flashlight to make focusing easier (more on that below).

In my opinion, however, there is a much better option.

New generations of smartphones can capture exceptional photos in low light conditions. In 2019, I was able to take incredible photos using just a portable iPhone 11 Pro Max, and of course, there have been even more advanced models and technologies since then.

I’m going to focus on Apple’s Night Mode here since that’s what I used, but other recent models offer similar features. Note that the process with some even more recently released models may differ a bit, although the concepts likely remain similar:

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  • Select the content of your frame – consider mixing in mountains, trees, cabins and other structures to make your photos more interesting and add perspective.
  • Open the native camera app and focus: briefly shine a bright flashlight on a tree or structure if your phone has trouble focusing on its own.
  • Confirm that night mode is active: When using the 1x lens in “photo” mode on the iPhone 11 that was in use at that time, an indicator will appear in the upper left corner, while other smartphones may offer a dedicated “night” shooting option. .
  • Capture lots of images: The effect of the aurora changes quickly, so don’t be afraid to take photos!
  • Review your work every few shots to make sure you’re happy with focus, exposure, and other details.

If all goes well, you should leave with images that look like this:

Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

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

Northern Lights Photo Editing

You may notice that the image above looks a little dull compared to the finished product I’ve included at the top. While you can certainly share an image directly from the phone, you can really make your photo stand out by making a few edits directly on your smartphone, like I did here:

Photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

For Northern Lights photography in particular, I recommend the following adjustments.

  • Correct the exposure if necessary – I haven’t made any adjustments here.
  • Reduce the highlights to bring out more detail in the Northern Lights – I adjusted across the full range (-100).
  • Increase shadow levels to improve detail elsewhere in your image – I’ve adjusted +18 here.
  • Boost the Vibrance – I added 51 to this image.
  • Reduce the heat – this is my preference, but I felt the image really popped with -13 heat.
  • Adjust the hue – I added 94 to this image.
  • Increase the sharpness and definition, if necessary – here I increased it to 20 and 91 respectively.
  • Correct the vertical or horizontal perspective to ensure the trees are aligned (it’s a bit complicated, so if you don’t know how to achieve this with your smartphone, feel free to skip this step).

The extent of your treatment will of course depend on the image and your own preferences: darker auroras may require a little more work than brighter ones. If you plan to share on your Instagram Story, you’ll also want to crop the image to 9:16 in your photo app, to ensure maximum sharpness.

Related: Guide to taking a cruise in search of the Northern Lights

How to find the Northern Lights

Generally, the best way to capture the Northern Lights is to head somewhere above the Arctic Circle, including Alaska and Scandinavia, although there are also opportunities to view the Northern Lights further south, notably in Iceland and sometimes – like 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 from Coldfoot, a small truck stop, to the small village of Wiseman. About 10 people live in Wiseman and the village consists of only a few log cabins, but given its position directly beneath the auroral oval, you can see incredible activity across much of the sky on a clear day.

In fact, my visit coincided with expected periods of low activity, but that just affects the distance from where you can see the Northern Lights – the display was quite vibrant just below. The full moon also had little impact – in fact, I found it helpful, as the moon illuminated the nearby mountains and cabins.

Image courtesy of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

The ideal viewing time varies depending on when and where you go. When I visited Wiseman in October, I was told that we would have the best show between midnight and 3 a.m., so plan for a very long day, perhaps broken up by a nap after dinner.

Although my October night at 5 degrees Fahrenheit was considerably warmer than you’ll find in winter, when temperatures can drop as low as -40 degrees Celsius, you’ll have a much better chance of seeing the lights later in the season. This includes spring, when temperatures begin to warm again.

Just note that there is never any guarantee that you will see activity, even on a clear night. I missed the second night, as the clouds and snow arrived after sunset, despite a clear forecast. The only variable you can However, the control is your camera, and if you’re going to spend money to travel for the Northern Lights, I highly recommend investing in the latest smartphone as well.

There are also apps like My Aurora Forecast & Alerts that can send you alerts to let you know when it’s a good time to go outside and look at the sky.


It’s extremely rare for the Northern Lights to dip all the way south to Texas, Florida and even Mexico, but this gives many of us a special chance to experience them without having to travel north to the search for this magnificent natural phenomenon. And luckily, your smartphone can capture the moment just fine if you follow some of these tips.

Don’t worry if you miss this round, as we should be in for an extended period of higher than normal Northern Lights activity in case you feel inspired to start planning a trip later this year with this primary goal on your mind.