How To: Take Pictures of the Aurora with a Cellphone

Now, we don’t normally have ‘How To’ stories on Every Road a Story, because let’s face it, Terri and I are the last people in the world who should be giving advice. But I’ve had a lot of people ask me how to use a cellphone to take photos of the aurora after our recent Fairbanks trip, so I’m going to tell you want the pros up there told me. Because I can occasionally follow instructions.

A big shout out to Drew at Borealis Base Camp, and Jack Reakoff up in Wiseman, Alaska, who, as part of Northern Alaska Tour Company, helped me “master†this ability. While my photos are not National Geographic quality, they did turn out pretty well, considering what I was working with (the cellphone and my complete lack of technological talent). So here we go…

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
The aurora over A Taste of Alaska lodge in Fairbanks. No tripod, pure luck.

Step 1:

Do you have an iPhone? Yeah, forget about it. As Terri unhappily found out (and she’s still bitter), these phones are not particularly good for photographing an aurora. The best thing you can do is find a friend with an Android and offer to buy them alcohol in exchange for pictures. (Hint, hint)

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
Sometimes the lights just take your breath away. Or maybe that’s the -33 temperature.

Step 2:

If you have a fairly up-to-date Android, you should be able to capture the Northern Lights. I used a Samsung Galaxy S9. No, they aren’t paying me to say that (though guys, if you want to hit me up for an affiliate deal, we can talk.) You will also need a tripod, because even if you have nerves of steel, your hands are going to move too much holding the phone for it to stay in focus. Especially if it is 33 degrees below zero and you don’t have your mittens on.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
I feel like I’m about to be beamed up in this one. Guess they didn’t find signs of intelligent life…

Step 3:

Go into your camera settings and put it on the PRO setting. (I know, right? It’s so easy to become a pro at something!)

Step 4:

Set your ISO to 800. On my camera, it’s the listing on the far left. Hit the button and then slide the scale. No, I don’t know what an ISO is, either. I just know it has to be on the highest setting.

Step 5:

Set your F-stop to 10. Again, I don’t know what an F-stop is, but it’s the second listing to the right and is labeled F1.5.

Step 6:

Set the Manual Focus (MF) as far to the right as possible.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
Reminds me of a whale’s tail. Another super cool Alaskan thing to see!

Step 7:

Put the phone in a tripod, with the lens facing up. Trust me when I say that I had to learn this the hard way—no one needed to see that many horrendous selfies. Terri also had a problem with this when I asked her to take a photo of me under the lights. And yes, we will soon be starting a “really bad photos†gallery.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
This is why you have to point the camera the right direction.

Step 8:

Take your phone and tripod outside, aim it in the general direction of the lights, and start snapping. At this point, if you’re like me, you will realize that when you put the phone into the tripod, you covered the button that lets you take pictures, so you will have to reposition it again. You may or may not choose to use a few swear words at this point. (I did, but work at your own comfort level.) While it’s awkward to have to get underneath the phone to take photos, trust me, it’s worth it.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
The aurora above Wiseman, AK.

When you first see the aurora, you may be surprised that it is white and not the greens and purples you see in photos. This is because the human eye does not see the same thing that the camera does—and you are going to be blown away when you look through the lens.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
We stood under the aurora for about three hours, and it just kept getting better. And colder.

Step 9:

Send pictures to all of your friends and post on social media to make everyone jealous.

A chicken sandwich and fries are on the table.
There’s a reason why you hear that the Northern Lights dance.

Some added hints learned from experience:

  1. Wear lots of layers, and put handwarmers in your pockets. It’s almost impossible to snap the photos wearing gloves, so you’re going to need to get heat on your fingers as much as possible.
  2. Bring an extra picture card. There’s nothing more frustrating than having your camera fill up and not being able to take photos after all this trouble. (Again, swearing level is up to you.)
  3. Don’t spend your entire time taking pictures. Seeing the aurora dance is an incredible experience, and you need to soak it all in. It looks a lot more impressive when viewed through your own eyes, so savor the moment and don’t worry so much about social media.