Anchorage, Alaska, offers a front-row seat to one of nature's most mesmerizing spectacles – the aurora borealis otherwise known as the northern lights. With nothing more than your smartphone, a tripod, some warm clothes, and a spirit for adventure, it is possible to capture this breathtaking phenomenon.

Gear needed for a night out chasing the northern lights

As you get ready for an exciting evening, it's essential to prepare yourself for the weather. Ensure you have your trusty smartphone, a sturdy tripod to capture steady shots, and warm layers of clothing to shield yourself from those chilly Alaska nights. Dressing in layers is key, allowing you to stay warm while adjusting camera settings in the frosty night air. You will also want to have a good pair of winter boots to shield your feet from the cold ground, and a warm pair of gloves and socks to keep your extremities warm. Your hands and feet tend to get cold the quickest so it’s important to take proper precautions to have an enjoyable night. Hand warmers and a thermos with a hot drink is also a good idea.

Jeremy Martin Northern Lights Images #1
Photo by Jeremy Martin

Choose the perfect location for aurora gazing

Anchorage boasts an array of picturesque spots for capturing the northern lights' magic. One of the most popular locations in Anchorage is Flattop Mountain with its large parking lot and beautiful views of the  Chugach Mountains and city. Beluga Point, just south of Anchorage on the Seward Highway, is also a great choice with a good-sized parking lot and some of the most amazing views of Cook Inlet which can make for some beautifully dramatic photos. Around 42 miles north of downtown Anchorage, Eklutna Lake sits in a small valley surrounded by picturesque mountains and makes for a great location for trying to photograph the northern lights. These locations offer wide, open vistas, minimizing light pollution and enhancing your chances of capturing vivid and awe-inspiring auroras. 

Your smartphone camera settings  

Switch to manual or pro mode in your cell phone camera settings 

  •  ISO Settings: Begin with a lower ISO setting of around 400 to help keep your photos crisp looking and help prevent graininess. The lower you can keep the ISO the better your pictures will turn out. You will adjust it as needed, increase it for faint lights, and decrease it for intense displays of the northern lights.  

  • Exposure Time: Choose an exposure ranging from a few seconds to around 30 seconds. Longer exposure times may lead to blurred stars due to the Earth's rotation, so finding the right balance in exposure time is crucial. 

  • Focus: Switch your phone to manual focus mode and set it to infinity (∞). This setting ensures sharp, clear images of the distant lights, and helps you capture the beauty of the northern lights against the vast Anchorage night sky. 

  • Turn Off Flash: Ensure your phone's flash is turned off, this helps preserve the natural lighting of the northern lights.  ​

Jeremy Martin, Northern Lights Image #4
Photo by Jeremy Martin

Using a tripod

Keeping your phone still is paramount when photographing the northern lights. Mount your smartphone securely on a tripod, if you don't have a tripod, you can simply lean your phone against something. Using either a remote shutter or your phone's timer function is also a necessity. This minimizes camera shake, allowing you to capture crisp, clear images during long exposures.  

Be patient and enjoy the process​ 

The allure of the northern lights lies in their elusive nature. Patience becomes your greatest friend during this enchanting pursuit. Plan on a long night of adventure, the lights can come out anywhere from just after sunset to just before sunrise. Alaska nights are long and give you a lot of opportunities to see the northern lights. You can stay informed by monitoring aurora forecast apps, websites, or Facebook groups to help you anticipate the peak activity times for the most spectacular displays. 

Jeremy Martin, Northern Lights Image 2
Photo by Jeremy Martin

Enhancing your northern lights photos with editing 

After capturing the mesmerizing northern lights photos, consider using a photo editing app to subtly enhance your photos. Adjust brightness, contrast, and saturation slightly to help bring out the natural beauty of the northern lights, transforming your photos into beautiful works of art that do justice to the beauty of the real-life experience. With your smartphone in hand, some warm clothes, and a warm drink, you‘re ready for an unforgettable night of chasing the northern lights and taking some beautiful pictures of a once-in-a-lifetime event.