Somewhere over Greenland, I opened up the window shade. People see the northern lights on their flights to Iceland, right? Might as well check. I was sitting parallel to the wing, the blue and yellow Icelandair logo lit against the black sky. But as I looked back toward the tail of the plane, I saw something else: a faint white smudge in the sky. I looked away and back a few times, and sure enough, the light was moving. I could just make out a white line with vertical bands radiating upward. Not the awe-inspiring green waves you’d hope for, but not nothing.
The only camera I had close was my iPhone 13 Mini. Not ideal. A picture through a dirty plane window with a tiny phone camera sensor? Pfft. No chance. I figured I’d try anyway just to have something to point to when we got back home and told people we saw the northern lights. The camera app switched into night mode automatically, and a few seconds later, I had a picture — the northern lights, clearer than I’d seen them with my own eyes.
Night mode came in clutch again a few days later on a northern lights boat tour that was unfortunately absent of northern lights — at least, any we could see. A crew member told us he’d spotted some activity using a “nice camera,” meaning a full-frame Sony mirrorless ILC, as far as I could tell.
I had the Xiaomi 13 Pro on hand this time, and sure enough, my night mode photos revealed a faint green line in the sky that was invisible to the naked eye. The crew passed around shots of aquavit, too, so it wasn’t a total bust.
Night mode might not have been developed specifically for astrophotography, but as it turns out, it’s actually really good for taking pictures of things like the northern lights. The long exposures it uses can reveal light that’s too faint for our own eyes to see, and computational processing produces a clean, bright image.
Night mode is particularly good for faint light photography and, in some cases, is better than simply taking a long-exposure image
“Night mode is typically taking multiple images, like maybe five to ten images at a set speed that it optimizes for. 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,” says Sten Odenwald, an astronomer and educator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who literally wrote the book on smartphone astrophotography. He explained to me why night mode is particularly good for faint light photography and, in some cases, is a better option than simply taking a long-exposure image with your phone camera.
In addition to noise reduction from multiple frames, it has another benefit over traditional long-exposure photography: stabilization. “If there’s a feature in the scene that’s going to be constant, like city lights in the lower border of the image, it’ll use those to figure out how to stabilize the rest of the image.”
If the aurora is much brighter and moving fast, he says that that’s when you might want to switch out of the automatic night mode and try a camera app that lets you take a long exposure. “The thing is that aurora change. They literally change from second to second. So if you let the AI add things together, it’s going to blur out some of the details. But if you take the images yourself then you’re able to keep up with the actual rapid changes and the shape of the aurora.” The bottom line, he says, is to know your camera and app and experiment with different settings to get the results you like best.
I spend a lot of time thinking about and using phone cameras, but it never occurred to me that my phone might be a really good tool for night sky photography. If you’re ever on the hunt for aurora and don’t see anything, give night mode a shot — you might be pleasantly surprised.