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Can you give justice to the Northern Lights on your iPhone camera? Well, yes, you definitely can. In this article, we discussed the necessary steps to capturing great photos of the Northern Lights on iPhone.
We divided this article into three parts. The first one is about preparation and research, where we discussed the most important information you should familiarize before you start the shoot. Meanwhile, the second one is about the best practices in taking photos of the Northern Lights on iPhone, and the third is about post-processing.
How to capture the Northern Lights on the iPhone camera
To capture the Northern Lights in its glory, you have to invest in a few gizmos, first. If you don’t have these, we suggest you consider buying them before taking this activity seriously. We want you to have the best experience. And you do, too, right? So, we are recommending these gadgets:
The things you’ll need
iPhones are not exactly known for being battery-efficient; so, stash a powerbank or two before taking a trip to capture the Northern Lights. If you don’t live near the Arctic Circle, where the Northern Lights is the most visible, you should get a lighter travel powerbank. We can recommend the Anker PowerCore, which is lightweight and small for a 10,000mAh powerbank.
While it’s not always necessary to have around, you can take better photos with a reliable iPhone tripod. We always suggest getting a tripod with flexible, bendable legs when you’re taking landscape photos; however, we recommend you get a tripod with straight legs this time. Through this, you can easily take photos with wider angles. Get the ZoMei iPhone tripod, which already comes with an iPhone holder and Bluetooth remote shutter button.
Clip-on wide-angle lenses
Whether you have an older iPhone or a new one with an Ultra Wide-Angle lens, you should still invest in good clip-on lenses for your iPhone. The Ultra Wide-Angle lens in iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max—while a big deal with its 120-degree view—might still limit your view of the Northern Lights.
Why not add more elements into the scene with a clip-on wide-angle lens? You can get the Xenvo Pro lens kit, which comes with a 0.45x wide-angle lens and 15x macro lens. With an add-on wide-angle lens, you can extend your camera’s field of view (FOV). You can capture more pine trees, mountains, or quaint houses in your Northern Light photo.
You will probably get tired of taking multiple photos, so why not bring a portable chair? It’s always handy to bring a chair, instead of standing at the location and freezing with aching legs. We suggest getting this super-compact chair by SitPack, which comes in a small, lightweight tube. You can also get this AILLOVCOL mini folding stool if you want to sit back, watch the lights, and drink a beer or two.
Travel photographers’ backpack
While your iPhone is not a handful, your other stuff will probably be heavy to carry. So, if you don’t have one yet, we suggest you get a photographers’ backpack. This small backpack by Besnfoto is small and waterproof. It has a compartment for a tripod, phones, passports, DSLR camera, lenses, and a laptop if you want to edit your photos afterward.
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Part 1 – Preparation for capturing Northern Lights on iPhone
You’re aiming for great photos, right? So, it’s only imperative that you spend time researching. Here’s what you should know:
Where are the Northern Lights usually visible in the US?
The Aurora Borealis is visible in the following places in the US:
- Fairbanks, Alaska
- Priest Lake, Idaho
- Fairbanks, Alaska
- Beaver Bay, Minnesota
- Aroostook County, Maine
- Upper Peninsula, Michigan
Meanwhile, if you’re going overseas, you’ll see the Northern Lights in the following places:
- New Zealand
- Tromsø, Norway
- Northern Canada
- Northern Sweden
- Yellowknife, Canada
When is the best time to capture the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights is an elusive phenomenon, so it typically depends on where you’re going to capture it. The key is to take photos when the nights are longest, but the skies are also clear. The ideal time for some countries is from December to March, where it’s the coldest time of the year.
Where can I know about Aurora activity and forecast?
Since you’re using an iPhone, it’s better to be safe than sorry; so, wait for when the Aurora is the brightest. This way, you’ll be at peace knowing that you can easily adjust the exposure when you’re editing it. It’s typically the most active when it turns green.
As for the Aurora forecast, inquire about it with your motel or with the locals. Better yet, check into a website where they constantly update your preferred location’s weather forecast. Make sure to check it when you arrive there as well; by doing this, you’ll know if nearby spots with clear skies are available in case your chosen location has cloudy skies.
What are the best apps for capturing Northern Lights on iPhone?
In one of our previous posts, we talked about using NightCap Camera for capturing stars using your iPhone. Of course, you can use it to take photos of the Northern Lights! Besides manual camera controls that are not available in the stock iOS camera app, NightCap has presets like Long Exposure, Light Trails, Star Mode, Meteor Mode, etc.
We also suggest using camera apps that let you take RAW photos, such as Pro Cam 7 or Halide. This way, you can easily edit them later on any photo editing app. You’ll have more plenty to tweak by shooting RAW because it retains all the image data that your camera sensor captured.
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Part 2 – Capturing the Northern Lights
Remember these tips when you’re taking photos of the magnificent Aurora Borealis. Make a mental checklist or, better yet, make a to-do list on your Notes app.
1. Establish your composition.
The key to taking great photos of the Northern Lights on iPhone is a good composition. Without it, your photo will look a bit off or feel unbalanced to viewers.
Remember the rule of thirds (ROT).
Let’s face it. Composing portraits to follow the ROT is technically easier since you can direct your subject to move around the frame. However, in landscape photography, obviously, you can’t move the mountains or the waterfall. You have to adjust your position yourself—even if that means carrying your tripod or gimbal—just to capture an aesthetically pleasing shot.
Should you follow the ROT when taking photos of the Northern Lights on iPhone? You should since you’re all about taking the great, pleasing photos, anyway; but you can’t let yourself become too limited by it.
Just take a handful of photos where your most important elements (ex. the Aurora or building outlines) are positioned at where the two or four grid lines intersect. After that, you can experiment with other creative shots and forget the ROT. Let your artistic eye take the lead.
Meanwhile, to enable gridlines on your iPhone camera, go to Settings > Photos & Camera > Camera > Toggle Grid.
Don’t focus too much on the Aurora.
Yep, we know that’s what you’re really trying to capture. You want your Facebook friends to gasp at the beauty of Aurora, and congratulate you for taking a photo by just using your iPhone. But a well-composed photo means more than two elements are doing a dance in a scene. They should be able to complement each other. That means you should include other elements in your photo, such as water, rocks, houses, or trees.
There are plenty of creative angles for capturing an Aurora without it taking 80% of your photo’s composition. Make it look like you’re telling a story, instead of just presenting how beautiful the Aurora is.
For example, you can position your iPhone camera behind you and set it on a timer. Take a medium, over-the-shoulder shot of yourself looking at the wonder of the Northern Lights. You’re still sending a message to the viewers that you’re admiring its beauty; but by including yourself, you are helping them imagine themselves admiring the Aurora in person.
2. Make sure everything is well-exposed.
Goes without saying, you should make sure the Aurora is well-exposed. But don’t let the other elements in your photo suffer at its expense. Otherwise, your composition will be affected, as well.
The solution to this is using HDR to expose the pitch-black areas in your photos without affecting the Aurora’s brightness. Don’t use Smart HDR on your iPhone, by the way, so you can adjust accordingly.
Another key to making sure everything is well-exposed is being patient. The Aurora’s activity or show can be unpredictable. The lights can change directions in less than a minute.
So, grow your patience and don’t move too much. Don’t follow it around, as it will only exhaust you. Instead, try staying in one position first and take multiple shots. You can just choose from a batch and edit the most pleasing ones later.
3. Use Night Mode.
If you own an iPhone 11 or later model and don’t like using a third-party camera app, you can use your iPhone camera’s Night Mode. The Night Mode helps you capture well-exposed photos in a low-light area such as the Northern Lights.
However, for the best results, you must make sure to use a tripod and wait for a few seconds after you tapped the shutter button. You might feel inconvenienced with this, especially with the Aurora changing directions in under a few seconds. So, follow this practice with caution.
How to turn on Night Mode on iPhone
- To use Night Mode, tap the moon-shaped icon at the top left of your screen.
- The Night Mode icon will also indicate the time that the camera will take in capturing it. To make it longer and to make sure your subjects are better exposed, tap the icon and a few more seconds will be added to the time of capturing.
- Tap the shutter button to capture your photo. Wait for the camera to finish capturing.
Remember that you can’t use the camera flash and take Live Photos while on Night Mode. So, if you want to capture Live Photos, tap the Night Mode icon again until it switches off.
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Part 3 – Post-processing your photos
Want a secret about the greatest landscape photos? Most of them are heavily post-processed. However, you only need to tweak several elements when you’re editing photos of the Northern Lights.
Of course, you’re free to experiment, but if you can tweak any of these elements, then your photo will already turn from good to great.
If you want to deepen the midtones, adjust the contrast of your photo. This will instantly make the Aurora lights look more vibrant and saturated. Plus, adjusting the contrast will help avoid your photo from looking flat. You can also dehaze your pictures if they appear to indeed look flat. Dehazing a photo means adding saturation and deepening the shadows. It’s basically a tool for editing a foggy photo.
White Balance and Exposure
To make the lights and the objects into which they fall look more realistic, adjust the white balance and exposure. Your Aurora photo will probably have a variety of colors because of the changing lights, so make sure to tweak the white balance for the color temperature to look lifelike. This will avoid your picture appearing too warm or too cool.
Last but not least is adjusting the clarity. This will help the details in your photo stand out without adding too much noise. If you used HDR, don’t go overboard with this element, as your camera already did its part by exposing the subjects in your photo. Just think of this as the seasoning in your cooking—only add it at the later parts and do it gradually!
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Capturing the otherworldly Aurora Borealis is a daunting task, especially with an iPhone. So, don’t hesitate to follow our tips and practices above. It will save you from disappointments and heartache.
Do you need a special camera for the Northern Lights?
Nope. An entry-level DSLR camera can even do the job already. If you really want professional photos, you can consider investing in full-frame Nikon and Canon cameras. You also need to add wide-angle lenses.
What’s a good Northern Lights camera app?
We highly recommend NightCap Pro. It has all the manual controls you don’t have in your stock camera app.
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