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Why your smartphone sees the northern lights better than you

Any chance your smartphone’s pictures of the northern lights from this weekend turned out better than in real life?

On Friday and over the weekend, several of the lower 48 states had a chance to see the northern lights, or aurora borealis, dance across the night sky. From Massachusetts to Utah to Northern California, people looked up to see the greens, blues and purples of the natural light show courtesy of the sun.

Electrons collide in the upper part of Earth’s atmosphere and excite the atoms and molecules to higher energy states, NOAA’s website explained of the lights. As all of these particles relax back down to lower energy states, they release their energy into bands of light, similar to how neon light works.

So with all of this happening in the skies above, people often want to capture it on a camera. Through the convenience of a smartphone, that’s possible, often yielding better-than-expected images.

The trick with an iPhone is to use night mode, which is “particularly good for faint light photography and, in some cases, is better than simply taking a long-exposure image,” The Verge wrote in 2023 about capturing the northern lights seen from Greenland.

“Night mode is typically taking multiple images, like maybe five to ten images at a set speed that it optimizes for,” astronomer Sten Odenwald at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center told the outlet. “And then it compares the images to find the best ones and basically combines those into your final image. It does dark subtraction and flat fielding, which removes distortions, and also removes some of the graininess.”

On an iPhone, night mode will automatically turn on when the camera detects a low-light environment, according to Apple. The icon appears at the top of the display and turns yellow when it becomes active. After you snap a photo, it could depend on how dark it is for the photo to finish being taken. It might be quick or it might take several seconds.

“Night mode uses multi-frame processing to combine 30 images into one clear photo,” according to Samsung about its Galaxy phones. “The extra light captured by the phone’s camera sensors will help your photos appear bright and enhanced.”

On an Android, night mode “uses artificial intelligence to analyze the scene you are trying to photograph,” according to Android Authority.

To try longer night mode photos, tap the arrow above the viewfinder. Tap the night mode button that appears below the viewfinder, then use the slider above the shutter button to choose Max, which extends the capture time. When you take the photo, the slider becomes a timer that counts down to the end of the capture time.

Odenwald told The Verge that if the aurora is much brighter and moving fast, maybe switch from night mode and use a camera app that allows the user to take a long exposure image.

Apps such as Northern Lights Photo Taker, NightCap Camera, ProCamera, and Slow Shutter for iOS, or ProCam X Lite for Android, come recommended by Iceland’s tourist website, Visit Iceland.

One tactic skywatchers can use is to prop up a steady tripod, according to Visit Iceland. These are considered essential for long exposures in low light, but should be weighted down if it’s windy. As well, use manual focus in order for the aurora to appear sharp.

Visit Iceland does not recommend flash when photographing the northern lights. The idea with capturing the aurora is to be far away from any light pollution that can dim even the most vibrant display, where long exposure and night mode will be essential.

USA Today recommends holding the phone horizontally for a wide-angle shot and using the panoramic feature to capture the northern lights in its entirety. The newspaper also suggests taking a candid photo of someone in front of the northern lights, which will capture their shadows in the foreground.



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