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 green sky with some lights in the background
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 green light is shining on the sky.
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 green light is shining over the trees.
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 green light is shining on the sky.
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 man with his face covered by the dark.
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 green light is shining over the trees.
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 green light is shining on the sky.
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 green light is shining on the sky.
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.


A Night On the Moon, Sort Of

When you’ve arrived in Fairbanks, Alaska in January and your host asks if you would like to spend the night at Borealis Basecamp, you say yes…even before you know what that means. And then you look it up and realize you’re not just heading to a destination, you’re heading straight into an experience—one that you’ll never forget.

Situated on 100 acres in the snowy boreal forest just 25 miles outside of Fairbanks, Borealis Basecamp feels as if it’s worlds away from civilization—in a good way. Guests stay in geodesic domes with expansive clear ceilings that provide unobstructed views of the night sky and if you’re lucky, the Northern Lights. And you can see all of this without ever leaving the comfort of your warm and cozy bed. Considering that the temperatures in the region can dip as low as -35 or more, the ‘not leaving the warm bed part’ of this equation is especially enticing. And we were lucky enough to snag a typically sold out dome—which pretty much looks like an igloo or a pod…or maybe an egg.

A group of snow covered cabins on top of a hill.
Borealis Basecamp a/k/a the Moon!

Capturing the Sights

As we headed out on the ice-covered Elliot Highway and climbed up the mountain—Vanessa’s teeth gritting the whole way and me just admiring the scenery—the snow clouds we’d been under all day began to clear. Our chances for seeing the aurora borealis were improving. YAY! Along with those vast blue skies came a spectacular sunset that warranted a stop for photos.

We were snapping pictures like mad when we arrived at the property, which resembles nothing so much as a compound on the moon with pods dotting the monochromatic, snow-covered landscape. We were greeted by Drew, the head of maintenance, who had an abundance of tips to help us capture the aurora by cell phone…well, some cell phones.

Drew:  Are you planning to take photos of the aurora?

Terri:  Absolutely!

Vanessa:  But we don’t have a clue how.

Drew:  What are you using?

Vanessa:  I’ve got a Samsung cell phone. A Galaxy 9.

Drew:  Excellent! I can show you a few tricks.

Terri:  I’m planning to use my cell phone, too. It’s an iPhone.

Drew:  You’re outta luck.

Turns out that iPhones can’t capture the aurora (thanks, Apple!) so I spent the next few minutes listening to Drew explain to Vanessa how to set up the Pro setting on her phone. Seeing as how Vanessa is COMPLETELY technologically challenged, I had my doubts. Yet, she eagerly listed to Drew’s advice, even following him into a dark bathroom to test out the settings. She was quite excited by whatever she was seeing in there, leading some other visitors in the lobby to look questioningly at the sounds coming from behind the closed door. Ah, the lengths we go to for our art.

A group of snow covered cabins on top of a hill.
Inside our cozy dome/igloo/egg

A Lesson in Toilet Technology

Photography lesson concluded, our lovely hostess Rachel led us to our dome. Inside we found wood floors, stylish furnishings and a cozy, warm atmosphere. If this is off-grid living, sign me up!

She showed us how to adjust the Toyo heater and then suggested that we follow her into the bathroom. We were starting to wonder if this was a thing here since this was the second shared bathroom request in less than an hour, but who are we to question the locals?

The three of us stood in the bathroom looking down at the closed toilet.

Rachel:  So I need to explain the toilet to you.

Terri (looking at Vanessa worriedly):  Um, okay. You know we’ve used a toilet before, right?

Rachel: This is a dry toilet. It’s environmentally friendly and very important when you’re living off-grid.

Then she opened the lid. We both stood there in amazement—our toilet was filled with aluminum foil. Then she flushed it.

Vanessa:  What the fresh hell? That looks like Jiffy Pop!

Rachel:  Well, it kinda does. But I wish you hadn’t said that out loud.

Terri (sighs):  No more Jiffy Pop in our future.

I realize that we’re starting to sound like toilet freaks at this point. But seriously, just watch the toilet flush video (yes, of course, we stood there and took one) and you’ll understand why it’s so fascinating.

Rachel:  Just one more thing. The foil lining is actually a cartridge, and there are about 12 in each set. When you see the line at the bottom of the toilet, call me, and I’ll come replace it for you. I’m here until about 2 a.m.

So now we’ve got a quandary. Have you ever tried to keep track of your flushes? Yeah, me neither. And I have to admit, it’s a little stressful. Even if you don’t have to go to the bathroom, you suddenly do when someone tells you that you have a limited number of chances…and leaves you wondering at 3 a.m. if you should spin that roulette wheel and use the bathroom, possibly leaving your roommate with no facilities, or hold it until you explode. The struggle is real.

Anyway, we finally pulled ourselves away from the toilet to go take photos of the lunar-like landscape, and then headed to the dining room for a delicious three-course, chef-prepared meal that included the choice of flat iron steak, Alaska sockeye salmon or Alaskan king crab as entrée options—no complaints here! Housed in a large yurt with floor-to-ceiling windows, the dining room was just as impressive as our dome/igloo/egg. There was also a lounge area with a fireplace and comfy sofas where guests could hang out and play games, read and use toilets that flushed without the benefit of Jiffy Pop linings.

A group of snow covered cabins on top of a hill.
Dining in the Yurt

Starry, Starry Night

That evening, we stretched out in our warm beds and looked up at the sky above us. The stars did not disappoint. The Big Dipper was center stage from our beds, and we watched numerous shooting stars in a sky that seemed to go on forever. We anxiously awaited the aurora borealis—and at one point, it started to rise.

Terri:  This view might even surpass the toilet.

Vanessa:  Unless you take into account that we may be eaten by a massive hawk because we’re sitting in an egg.

Terri: Hopefully, hawks don’t hunt at night.

Vanessa:  Or an alien might beam us up. We are sleeping in a pod.

Terri:  Please tell me that you’ll be asleep soon.

A view of the sky from underneath a plane.
Skyview from our Beds–waiting for nightfall!

The Elusive Aurora

The Northern Lights show up when they’re good and ready, so it’s common to ask for a wake-up call when they begin to show. We had just drifted off to sleep when my cellphone rang…you know the one that would do me absolutely no good when taking photos. #bitterpartyofone

Rachel: Hi, Terri! The aurora is starting!

Terri:  Excellent, thank you.

I hang up the phone and have no idea who that was or where I am. I mean, it’s not your typical hotel room since you open your eyes to look straight up into the sky.

Vanessa:  You look confused.

Terri:  Because I’m in an egg in Alaska. Waking up at 2 a.m. to see the sky change color. Because that makes perfect sense, right?

Vanessa:  Some people are just not morning people.

We watched, waited and eventually began to see a little bit of light rising above the horizon. Vanessa ran outside numerous times to try to get photos, only once making the mistake of going out in her long underwear without remembering to put on pants.

Alas, a brilliant aurora wasn’t in the stars for us that night. (See what I did there? ) However, we did spend a night sleeping under the stars, in a dome/igloo/egg-pod, possibly on the moon with a dry flush toilet that still had cartridges available for use. It really doesn’t get any better than that.

A group of snow covered cabins on top of a hill.
Off-grid & Loving It! Or as our friend, Sue said: “You’ve Hatched!”

If You Go:

Reserve early because the Borealis Basecamp has approximately 95 percent occupancy during aurora season from August 21st through April 21st.  In addition to viewing the night sky, other activities are available that include sled dog rides, snow machining and walking tours.