How to Photograph the Northern Lights with an iPhone, Smartphone or Camera

Iceland, the land of fire and ice, is every adventurer’s dream destination for a tour. Ask a globetrotter about their bucket list and you will surely find out that Iceland is at the top. Volcanoes, glaciers, black sandy beaches, the northern lights or nights spent in igloos, are all teasers to the start of all great adventures. The best part is that it’s almost guaranteed that you can point your lens anywhere and you’ll end up with a great photo. That being said, if you do your research and follow these essential tips for where to take the best photos in Iceland, you’ll end up with incredible photos that you will cherish for a lifetime.

Northern Lights Photography with iPhone Smartphone Camera - Infographic

iPhone/Smartphone apps for northern lights photography

  1. Northern Lights Photo Taker App ( Apple iOS )
  2. Cortex Camera ( Apple iOS / Android )
  3. NightCap Pro ( Apple iOS )

Iceland northern lights photography tips

If you are aiming to take professional photos, regardless of what you are using, you need to have at least a few basic pieces of equipment at hand during your solo travels or multi-day tour. Remember, poor weather conditions will influence the quality of your photos, so you need to make sure that once again, you take all the necessary safety measures.

Iceland photography

#1 Tripod

You will witness the northern lights during nighttime, so long exposure shots are a must. The camera needs to stay still for quite some time. This is the moment when a tripod will come in handy. Add the freezing temperatures into this equation and there is no room left for doubt that tripod is a must! Quick tip: stay away from the carbon fibre tripods as they break easily when temperatures are low.

#2 Digital camera, DLSR or smartphone

Whether it is a DSLR camera or an iPhone, with the right settings adjusted accordingly you will be able to take astounding shots of the northern lights.

#3 Lenses

The wider the lens means the more of the sky you can capture. Don’t forget to also bring a wipe to take off the moisture and frost from time to time. It might sound like something exra to pack or worry about, but trust us, it’s worth it. 

#4 Batteries

You will need spare batteries or a portable power bank. Store these in a warm place, for they tend to discharge much faster at cold temperatures. Ideally, you want your camera or phone to be fully charged when you reach your destination, but those few spares batteries or power bank could save your evening. After all, we’d hate for you to go to all this effort just to then lose power on your batteries. You might not win any awards shooting the Aurora Borealis with your iPhone but you can definitely document the experience, like I did with my iPhone 6s. You’ll need a tripod or mount of some kind to keep your phone steady for a long exposure. Try using an app like Slow Shutter or Cortex Cam to get a long exposure time. I am hopeful the new camera upgrades with the iPhone 7 will make the results even better. – Jen Pollack Bianco, My Life Is A Trip

Northern lights photography with a camera

Chasing Aurora Borealis with your camera is the ideal way to take stunning captures. First, you need to apply a few basic photography settings so that your device will adapt to darkness and successfully establish a focal point. 

Set the focus

Since the northern lights are at a huge distance from us, the first thing you want to start with is setting your camera’s lens focus to infinity. Sometimes, this may not be enough so you will have to bend over the limit a bit.

Avoid wasting precious moments when the spectacle descends and handle these preparations in advance, during the day. You’ll also want to find the best place to see the northern lights in your Iceland adventure and let your camera work its magic.

Use the ‘Live View Mode’ of your camera and zoom in. Focus on the most distant point in your composition, as this is how you will know that you’ve set your lens to infinity. Make all the final adjustments manually and start testing your camera by taking a few shots with an aperture of f/8-f/11. Should you find that your test photos are below your expectations, simply repeat the previous steps.

Northern Lights Photography Camera Settings
Enjoying the view. / Photo by Sean Scott Photography

Once you’ve got that right, make sure that you keep the settings in place.

Set your camera

Now that you have set your focus, start working on how to best adjust your camera’s settings.

Depending on how bright the Aurora is and how fast it is moving, the settings range from 30 seconds at f4 ISO 800 to 5 seconds at f4 ISO 5000. To minimize blur, increase the ISO and open up for only a few seconds. – Sean Scott Photography

#1 Image format

First, make sure that the format of the image is raw.  Then, choose a metering mode suitable for nighttime photography. You will discover that every type of camera holds a suitable match.

#2 White balance

Adjust the balance of white at the moment of shooting the northern lights. As you are photographing them in a raw image format, after processing the photos, you should expect some changes in the quantity of white. Set the ideal values in the K mode somewhere in between 2800 and 4000.

#3 Aperture

When it comes to night photography, setting the aperture is quite easy. A suitable level is f/2.8. Anything above this value will only make it harder for you to capture a good landscape shot at night.

#4 Exposure & ISO

These two go hand in hand together and they both depend on the speed and the brightness of Aurora Borealis. Are the lights moving too fast? Then, a 5-7 seconds exposure will work. Are they moving too slow? Try a 25-30 seconds exposure time.

As far as the ISO is concerned, start setting it from 400-800 and work your way up from there. Increase the value as you go, until you reach the quality you are aiming for. Don’t go above 1200, though, otherwise you will seriously damage your photos.

Wonderful landscape captured by Lisa Scott.

Selecting the best shutter speed will depend on how fast the aurora is moving. If they’re dancing in waves across the sky you need to keep the exposure time shorter to avoid a big blurry green mess in the sky. If the aurora shows up as a glowing green sky, or if you’re taking photos of stars, take a longer 30 second exposure to illuminate as much details as possible. – Lisa Michele Burns, The Wandering Lens.

Regardless of the device, you are using, keep one thing in mind is to handle all of the technical preparations beforehand. While you are there, take a moment for yourself just to gaze at the beautifully coloured sky of Iceland. Start photographing Iceland’s northern lights and capture the magic. 

Photo by Emily Landeen
Icelandic evenings. / Photo by Emily Landeen

For me, the key to capturing the northern lights is patience and appreciation. There are nights I go out and don’t see anything. But often, after all the other cars have left and I’m about ready to give up, I start to see a dim light rising above the mountains. I jump out of my car and click the camera into action just as the sky explodes in color, dancing around, showing me what I’ve been patient for. – Emily Landeen

General tips capturing the northern lights

Anticipation is the key

Whether you carry a camera with you or just your iPhone, there are a few aspects you need to keep in check. One thing to remember: northern lights are extremely volatile and unpredictable. This means that you need to do everything in your power and take precautionary measures to increase your chances of seeing and, most importantly, photographing them.

Northern Lights dancing in the sky. / Photo by Jamen Percy

Don’t ever be too focused on what camera you are using. The aurora is always different shapes, colors and size – making it a challenge and spontaneous shooting every time so you need to have some core principles to remember. The most important elements of an aurora photograph is the composition and foreground. – Jamen Percy

Best place and time to see the northern lights

Due to its proximity to the Arctic Circle, Iceland is considered to be one of the best places on earth to chase the northern lights. Triggered by solar flares crashing into the atmosphere, the best time to see the northern lights is from September to April. However, because of their unpredictable nature, there are times when they won’t even show up. Don’t even think about seeing them around cities! Northern lights and pollution don’t get along at all.

Check the northern lights activity

It goes without saying that the first thing you want to do is check if they are active in the area you are located in. To do so, run a quick Google search and you will find yourself opened to a multitude of websites and mobile applications specialized in northern lights prediction.

Colorful Aurora Borealis. / Photo by Mickey Shannon Photography

The camera can capture the aurora before the naked eye can. So the key to photographing them, especially from locations further south, is to shoot north and see what you get! You can photograph some beautiful aurora’s without ever seeing them with the naked eye. – Mickey Shannon, Mickey Shannon Photography

Check weather conditions

Northern lights are best to be seen on clear skies and in the cold crisp air. This means that the chances of catching them are the highest in winter.  

Make sure you check the weather forecast several times throughout the day. A sky covered in clouds could put an end to your hunt, or push you towards other areas during your Icelandic adventure where the sky might be a bit clearer. The good news is that sometimes, even a partly clouded sky could be a scene for dancing northern lights.

Wear warm clothes

Known for the cold temperatures, Iceland is the perfect scene for northern lights. As they are visible only when outside is freezing, make sure you’re fully prepared. Warm comfortable clothes are desirable since you will be waiting out in the cold for a while. No one can fully predict the moment when they will appear, so you could be waiting for outsides anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours.

Most importantly, don’t forget to grab a pair of gloves and mittens with you to avoid having your hands freeze onto your camera.

Northern lights Vs southern lights

Visiting Iceland and the northern lights

The country is full of unique sights that should not escape your camera. Embrace Iceland and immerse yourself into the world of northern lights photography, or capture the ethereal volcano landscape and don’t forget to document your walk on the Black Sand Beach from the shore of Reynisfjara. Iceland truly rewards those who are organised and those who are prepared to explore the country from coast to coast searching for incredible photographs.

Searching for more inspiration? Take a look at our collection of the best articles on Iceland. 

How to photograph the Northern Lights with an iPhone?

For taking pictures of Northern Lights, you need a tripod, your iPhone, and a portable charger.

Which are the best countries for seeing Northern Lights?

The best countries for seeing Northern Lights are:

  1. Iceland
  2. Canada
  3. Finland
  4. Norway
  5. Alaska (US)

Which is the best time for seeing Northern Lights?

The best time to travel to see the northern lights is between September to March. The lights are most clearly visible when there is little to no external light, so cold, dark winters are perfect. Chances of seeing the lights are slightly slimmer in September and November, but for travellers who don’t deal well with extreme cold, it may be the best option. In general, while you can never predict when you’ll see the northern lights with 100% accuracy, visiting in December, January, and February gives travellers the best chance – just be sure to dress warmly!

Which is the budget for a Northern Lights tour?

On TourRadar you can find Northern Lights tours that fit to every budget, from the luxury ones to the cheapest ones.

What are the Northern Lights?

The northern lights, or aurora borealis, are a natural phenomenon found in the Northern Hemisphere, especially the closer one gets to the North PoleThe light effect happens when the sun drives solar wind away from itself, causing high-energy particles to strike the Earth’s magnetic field. When these particles collide with oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere, they produce red or green lights; when they collide with nitrogen, the light produced is green and purple. 

Antonia is a passionate writer and an avid reader. Eat well, travel often - are some of the words she lives by. When she's not writing or reading, she loves getting out in nature, hiking or losing herself in unknown cities.

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