Northern Lights: how to take a picture of the Aurora Borealis with your phone's camera using long exposure

You don't need an expensive DSLR camera to capture the phenomenon of the northern lights

If you live in the UK and you hear that the Aurora Borealis is visible in your area, you will have to hope the event is really strong or you are in an area of low light pollution, like the countryside. Otherwise, you might not be able to see the spectacle with the naked eye. 

However it may be possible to see the northern lights with a camera, like the one on your smartphone. Thousands of people across the UK managed to just that on Sunday night (26 February).

Professional astrophotographers modify consumer and professional cameras in combination with astrophotography equipment to capture high quality astro imagery.

But the technique they apply is what is known as a long exposure - a feature that most camera phones have.

What is long exposure?

In a DSLR or mirrorless camera the clicking sound you hear when you take a picture is the camera’s shutter opening over the sensor and closing again. The amount of time the sensor of a camera is exposed to light is known as the shutter speed. 

In well-lit areas, a camera’s shutter can be set to open and close in the fraction of a second. But if you're hoping to take pictures of stars, planets and other astronomical events like the aurora borealis, the shutter speed of a camera needs to be set to anything longer than 30 seconds. This is known as long exposure. 

This allows a camera’s sensor to record all the light emitted within a scene over a prolonged period of time, making night environments almost appear like daytime.

The technique can also be used in well-lit environments to make objects that are moving appear streaky or blurred out.

A photo of the northern lights over Shropsire taken by Alex Murison (Image: PA / handout)
A photo of the northern lights over Shropsire taken by Alex Murison (Image: PA / handout)
A photo of the northern lights over Shropsire taken by Alex Murison (Image: PA / handout)

How do I take a long exposure shot on my phone's camera?

You do not have to have expensive camera equipment to take a decent long exposure shot of the aurora borealis. Your camera phone comes equipped with a feature known as night mode, which essentially takes a long exposure.

The only other accessory you might need is something to keep your phone static - such as a tripod, selfie-stick with tripod legs, or somewhere to lean your phone against.

On an iPhone, the feature turns on automatically when you are in photo mode and in a dark setting - as indicated by a half-moon icon at the top of your phone. Next to this icon, you can set the duration of your exposure. In this case, you want to set it for as long as you can.

On Samsung devices, you can swipe to the dedicated night mode within the camera app. If you can’t find this, keep swiping left until you see a section named 'more', where you will see an overspill menu with additional camera modes.

Once you have the mode open, click the timer icon at the top and set it to 10 seconds (the longest time available).

Once you have your camera set up, attach it to your trusty tripod, or lean it against whatever you can find.

After a couple of attempts, you will hopefully have the best picture of the aurora borealis on your smartphone.