Northern Lights

How to choose a northern lights camera that fits your needs

Elizabeth Ewen

Elizabeth Ewen

The anticipation is building up inside as you dream of your next vacation where you'll be photographing the spectacular northern lights. As you wait to create these lasting memories, you want to ensure you have the right camera to capture every moment of your trip. These photos will be ones that you'll cherish for years to come. You may be questioning if you should use a specific camera to photograph the northern lights?

The short answer is yes.

Some cameras will struggle to get a great shot of the northern lights because it will be extremely dark outside. Not every camera has the ability to produce high-quality photos in a low-light environment.

There are many cameras to choose from, which can be overwhelming if you're not familiar with photography.

To narrow down your options, there are three factors to consider when choosing a camera for precisely capturing northern lights photos: Quality, simplicity, and price.

Once you determine which one of these factors is most important to you, it's effortless to know which camera you should buy for your trip.

1. Quality

If you want high-quality photos, use a DSLR or mirrorless camera. Using a DSLR or mirrorless camera will capture images that will be clear and crisp looking. Both these cameras can use manual mode. Using manual mode allows you to choose your own settings (ISO, aperture, & shutter speed) to get a high-resolution image.

If you decide to go this route of using either a DSLR or mirrorless camera, expect to spend time before your trip to get familiar with your camera. 

In addition to this, ensure you use proper equipment, such as using a tripod. Having a tripod when using these two types of cameras is necessary for stabilization. Without a tripod, the images will end up looking blurry for northern lights photography.

Choosing to opt for a phone camera will lead to photos that will look grainy. This grainy look is due to the resolution, which will be considerably lower using a phone for your photography. The benefit of using the camera on the phone rather than a DSLR or Mirrorless camera is simplicity.

2. Simplicity

If you are looking for simplicity, choose a phone such as the iPhone 11 Pro. The camera on the phone requires little knowledge but will capture the northern lights.

Choosing to use a DSLR or mirrorless camera will require a learning curve to use these cameras effectively. To learn the basics is not difficult, but you will need to be familiar with using the camera BEFORE your trip, as I mentioned previously.

3. Price

Suppose you already have a phone that can take decent photos in a low-light environment, such as the iPhone 11 Pro, due to its Night Mode feature. There is essentially no extra cost in that scenario unless you want to purchase a tripod for maximum stability.

3 Types of Cameras for Northern Lights Photography

Below I will go into more detail and depth of these three types of cameras you can use to take photos of the northern lights and be happy with the results.

The order of each camera will rank from the most user-friendly to using a camera that will require a learning curve before using.

1. iPhone 11 Pro & up

Northern Lights

Most people would tell you that you'd need a DSLR or mirrorless camera to take photos of the northern lights. But thanks to technology, you can now take pictures with your phone! If you have an iPhone 11 Pro, you will take decent photos with this camera because of the night-mode option. 

I can't attest to other cell devices because I haven't had the chance to photograph in the northern lights with other mobile phones. If you have used another camera to take northern lights photos, let us know in the comments!

The iPhone 11 Pro has Night Mode, a feature that will brighten images and improve the resolution quality.

Letting in light is an essential key aspect when photographing the spectacular northern lights. 

The iPhone will automatically switch to Night mode when it is in a dark environment. Essentially, you just have to take out your iPhone 11 Pro and hit the camera's shutter button. 

To reduce the shakiness from your hand, you could consider purchasing a tripod for more stability. The more stability you can achieve, the better the quality will be in the final results of your image.

By now, you must be wondering why anyone would invest in an expensive camera if you can simply use your phone?

Quality is why someone would choose a DSLR or Mirrorless camera instead of their camera on their phone.

2. DSLR

The benefit of using a DSLR camera is the ability to switch from automatic to manual mode. Using manual mode is the key to capturing high-resolution photos.

The iPhone 11 Pro took pictures where you could actually see the northern lights. However, the image quality is poor when comparing the final results with photos taken with a DSLR camera.

There is a bit of a learning curve to use this camera properly, but the photo quality is immensely better.

But, if you can invest some time to understand the meaning of these three settings, you will capture stunning photos: iso, aperture, and shutter speed.

Practicing at night is the best way to get comfortable with photographing the northern lights. Want more tips on taking photos at night? Read our blog about night-time photography to learn which settings we used for capturing the perfect shot of the northern lights!

This was the photo taken on a DSLR. The resolution is higher in a DSLR camera than an iPhone. Having a high resolution results in a better quality photo.

3. Mirrorless Camera

Green Northern Lights

When using a mirrorless camera, you will still need to do your research on using the camera. You will learn the same basic camera settings as a DSLR: ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. There are many tutorials on Youtube and blog posts written on each of these camera settings.

Mirrorless cameras have the advantage of taking better images for low-light environments. This was the main reason why I recently purchased the Sony A7S III. With this camera, I can take pictures using a low ISO, generating images that look clear.

Typically, with a DSLR, you have to increase ISO considerably high to capture more light in a photo. The tradeoff of using a high ISO is ending up with a low-resolution image.

Since I am constantly trying to take photos in a low-light environment, the SonyA7S III was my top choice. However, if you are a beginner photographer, I would not recommend this camera.

Mirrorless cameras are more expensive than DSLR cameras. The camera I currently have is a professional camera, which isn’t necessary when you are first starting photography.

If you are a beginner photographer and don't want to invest a lot of money, choose a DSLR camera instead. It would be ideal if you can get a second-hand camera so you can explore photography as a hobby without spending a lot of money.

Contact your Tour Operator

If you are still concerned with getting high-quality photos of your trip, contact your local tour operator. With an aurora viewing package, photographs are either included with your aurora viewing package or will require an additional fee.

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