Photographing the Northern Lights with your mobile phone

We are often asked “can we see the Northern Lights from the Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage?”

The answer is “Yes”… and “No”!

Yes – we certainly have darks skies and a low clear horizon; when you look North, there is just John o’Groats and Orkney, and neither of them are New York.

But No – because we cannot guarantee the weather, or the Aurora Borealis.

The Northern Lights at Noss Head Lighthouse
Noss Head Lighthouse and the Northern Lights – taken on an iPhone without any additional apps

Statistically September and April have clearer skies and darker nights. In the summer months it doesn’t get dark enough, and in the winter months more likely to be cloudy. And that shouldn’t be a surprise – the UK is known for rain.

I have seen the aurora covering half the sky, and reflected back from the sea. But sad to say the reason it’s special is because it doesn’t happen very often, even here.

Predicting the Northern Lights

So what about the Aurora itself?  It all depends on changes in the particles that make up the “solar wind” whizzing past the Earth and into our magnetosphere. (At this point I wrote a long paragraph about stuff I don’t really understand so I decided to delete it!)

What we need to know is that 2024 is expected to be a good year based on the sun’s 11 year cycle of activity, and that forecasts are only accurate an hour or two ahead. You can get more general predictions three days out, and a much vaguer indication 27 days ahead.

The simplest way to predict the aurora is to get alerts from an app.

I like the Glendale App because it crowd-sources sightings in real time, though you do have to register to use it. Another good app is My Aurora Forecast, though it can be a bit excitable sending alerts when it’s actually raining outside, which can be frustrating to get.

Seeing the Aurora

Normally I like to live in the moment not through the lens. But when it comes to the Northern Lights it helps to have a camera with you – even if it’s your phone. This is because the aurora will be paler than you expect when you see it for the first time. Our eyes are not good at seeing colour at night, so the people taking those photos of emerald green curtains of light would have seen swathes of much paler colours with the naked eye.

So it really helps to have a camera or phone with you. If you’ve got a DSLR then it’s worth taking a deeper dive into how to photograph the aurora. But if – like me, you just want to use your phone, then the next section is for you.

Capturing the Northern Lights with Your Phone Camera

Now I have to admit that what follows is based on online recommendations I found using AI. It seems to check out, but it’s not from personal experience.

For iPhone users, the advice is to use the ProCam app or NightCap Camera, both allowing manual control. Set a longer exposure, higher ISO, and focus manually to capture the vibrant colours.

If you have an Android phone, I found recommendations for Camera FV-5 or Open Camera which offer manual adjustments for optimal results. Disable the flash, increase exposure time, and set a higher ISO for better sensitivity in low light conditions.

And if you want to improve your photos after you’ve taken them, use editing apps like Snapseed or Lightroom Mobile. Adjusting contrast, saturation, and sharpness can bring out the vividness of the auroras. Reducing noise will refine the image quality.

Conclusion

So my advice is to download the apps and spend time playing with them – enough so you have set up the alerts and know how to use the photo apps – and then forget it. You are most likely to see the Aurora in Scotland in September, March or April, and if the Aurora happens – what a treat!

And if it doesn’t, then at least you are in Scotland and can take great photos in what David Bowie called “serious moonlight”!


Apps for predicting the Aurora

Apps for photographing the Aurora with an iPhone

Apps for photographing the Aurora with an Android phone

Apps for editing photos

Advice on photographing the Aurora using a DSLR


About me

My name is Ben, and I live at a lighthouse in the far North of Scotland. I love to welcome people to stay next door at the Lighthouse Keeper’s Cottage, a self-catering cottage which sleeps six people in three bedrooms. Our guests love walking, exploring nearby ruined castles, letting the dog run on the beach, and taking photos of our rather amazing sunsets and skies.

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PS – I couldn’t resist including this photograph of the lighthouse buildings taken at 11pm one night in May by Alistair Moreton with his iPhone. As a Samsung user, it hurts me how good this photograph is!

Photo by Alistair Moreton, taken at 22:55pm on 9th May, with an iPhone.