Don’t listen to anyone who says you can’t photograph the northern lights. Let’s put that myth to rest. You absolutely can, and your smartphone might just be your best bet! Here’s what you need to know for your next Northern Lights Tour:
- Above all else, know thy phone - spend some quality time with your built-in camera and the adjustments you can make
- Don’t skip the tripod - unless you’re a robot, you’re not gonna hold your camera still enough during long exposures
- Hello, darkness, my old friend - light pollution will ruin otherwise great shots of the aurora
- Geek out with your manual settings - a little time messing with exposure and ISO can make all the difference
- Go ahead and edit - even a few nudges on those sliders can bring out dazzling detail hidden in your images
The northern lights can be an elusive subject. A little shy at times, even for professional photographers. And while most people don’t lug around €5,000 ($5,500)-worth of camera gear, a seven-man crew and a portable editing suite, most people do have the next best thing: their smartphones.
Smartphones have come a long way. Take the iPhone. Larger sensor. Double lenses. Brilliant performance in low light (like if you’re, say, shooting the night sky). Smart tech all around. And now Apple has added the “live photos” feature, which can bring a whole new dimension to a difficult subject like the northern lights.
1. KNOW THY PHONE
Not all smartphones are created equally. Take a look at your camera specs and find out what kind of features you have. Regardless of your equipment, keep a few basics in mind.
- Keep your lens clean with a microfiber cloth or lens wipe - Iceland can get pretty damp. But your lens doesn't have to be. No shirt tails or fingers, please. Distilled water can help with grime, but don’t even think about using harsh cleansers. They’ll damage your lens faster than you can say “extended warranty”.
- Quit out of other apps if they’re running simultaneously - CPU power matters, so give your cam all it needs.
- Turn off your calling/messaging functions - the last thing you want when you’re nanoseconds from capturing the ultimate shot is a call or text message to shut it all down.
2. DON’T SKIP THE TRIPOD
Even the finest surgeons and gunslingers ought to heed this advice. The human hand is just not going to hold your camera steady enough.
- Dark images need a long exposure - even the slightest movement can leave you with a blurry, soupy photo.
- Inexpensive smartphone stands work well too - we like the ones with bendy legs that you can prop up on a rock or a backpack or wrap around a fence.
3. EMBRACE THE DARK SIDE!
You want as much contrast as possible: dark sky, bright lights.
- Get out of the city - light pollution is enemy #1.
- Move away from the road - even passing headlights can spoil your blackness.
- Our drivers will turn off all the lights they can - we won’t leave you in the dark; this is your best chance to get a clear shot.
- Do what you can - if you find yourself around ambient light, even shielding your setup with a jacket can help.
4. SWITCH TO MANUAL MODE
The auto mode on your phone is probably not really ideal for this kind of photography. Try your manual settings instead.
- Some pre-sets that might work - look for names like starry night, lightning and fireworks.
- Manual mode lets you adjust things like ISO and exposure - some phones don’t have a manual mode in the native camera app, like the iPhone, but you can download apps like ProCam, that offer manual controls.
- Dial-in your ISO to 800 - If the lights aren’t clear enough then up your ISO, but too much and you’ll get graininess.
- Try a 15-second exposure - up your exposure time if the Northern Lights are being shy. You’ll have more time to capture it if it flickers across the sky, but this is where you really need a tripod.
- Let the games begin - start with those settings and adjust until you get your best images.
5. AIN’T NO SHAME IN EDITING
Editing your images is not cheating! You took the picture. Enhancing it just brings out the good work you’ve already done.
- Don’t leave well enough alone - With a subject as delicate and fleeting as the Northern Lights, you ought to at least tweak your images to bring out depth and definition.
- Nothing fancy - basic adjustments like contrast, brightness and tone can make a world of difference and most cameras offer these editing features in the device.
And remember, you are not alone. A lot of photographers—amateurs and pros alike—have tried their hand at capturing the elusive Aurora. So look online and see what the hive mind has to say, even about shooting with your particular device.
A little money might go a long way too, and not just with equipment. If you’re willing to spend a little on camera apps, you might end up with some priceless pictures from your Northern Lights Tour.
And one last note: don’t forget to look at the lights with your own eyes as well. Remember to enjoy the moment and make memories. Those images in your head may end up being the ones you treasure most.