I recently got back from Iceland and I was extremely lucky one night to see the northern lights dancing vividly, right above my Akureyri hotel! I didn’t bring along a fancy camera, all I had with me was my cellphone and a tripod, and I was able to capture quite a few beautiful auroras!
If you don’t have a camera, or perhaps don’t have the room to pack one, and have the ability to use a manual camera on your cell phone, read on!
First of all, some of the newer cellphones have a night camera setting. Some of these are good enough that you can actually capture some of the auroras by simply selecting it. I did try a few with my night setting and I could see them, but they definitely weren’t as bright as the ones I got with my manual camera. For comparison, night camera is on the left, manual camera on the right:
If you don’t have a manual camera, that might be your best bet. And some dimmer photos are better than none!
If you have a manual camera, here are some settings you can change in your manual mode (sometimes called pro mode) to capture the auroras:
F stop – 2.5 or lower (I had mine set to f/1.4)
Shutter Speed – 3+ seconds (I played around with this a lot, even tried some at 20 seconds)
ISO – 1600+ (depending on how the lights are moving, you may want to go higher, and if yours can’t go this high, go as high as it will let you)
White Balance – 2500-4000 (I mostly stuck between 2800 and 3500)
Manual Focus – If you’re able to manual focus, tap the brightest area of the lights before taking the photo
Another thing you can play with is your shutter speed. The longer the speed, the more light that enters the camera. I did take a few long exposures, which gives off a very different vibe. These ones are set between 10 and 20 seconds. The brighter the photo, the longer my shutter speed was. I had about 1.5 hours of the northern lights coming and going, so I had plenty of time to play around with it.
When they first appeared, I was in the process of trying to set my tripod up and I kind of panicked, and just started taking pictures 😂 You can see more blurriness in these ones:
That is the main reason I recommend a tripod, if you have one. Here are some with the tripod, much sharper, and you can see the difference.
If you take it a step further, and have a Bluetooth remote for your camera, you can get it even steadier, as hitting the button on the phone to take a photo often causes a shake, even if very small. When you’re shooting at night, that tiny movement is more unforgiving. Plus, when you have a Bluetooth remote, you can capture you in the photo with the northern lights, which is pretty cool:
They might not make the cover of National Geographic, but being able to have those photos for your own memories is pretty cool, if you ask me.
This may have been a once in a lifetime experience for me (though fingers crossed I’ll get another chance in the future!). I’m really happy I was able to capture some of the breathtaking auroras to have that memory forever.