Lumia Smartphone shoots the Northern Lights!

Shooting the Northern Lights with a Lumia Smartphone

by Stephen Alvarez

It stuns me how fast imaging technology is changing. Not in DSLRs. They are fantastic but have not advanced much in half a decade. I’m talking about telephones, that is where technology is moving at a breathtaking pace. For the last two and a half years I’ve been working with Lumia smartphones and had a ring side seat to watch those advances.

Two and a half years ago I was asked to shoot the Seven Natural Wonders of the World using Lumia smartphones.

Ok, really I was asked to shoot six of them, as I had already photographed the Grand Canyon with the Lumia 1020 while exploring the American West.

John Burcham wanders through knee deep snow in the frozen forest above Levi, Finland.

John Burcham wanders through knee deep snow in the frozen forest above Levi, Finland.

This was a straight up commercial assignment, first for Nokia and then for Microsoft. Throughout my career I have always been interested in the technology behind imaging. To me the exciting advances in cameras are all taking place in the smartphone space. Smartphones represent a democratization of photography. I have been happy to watch up close as the technology has advanced by leaps and bounds over the past two years.

The Seven Wonders was a great assignment. And a challenging one, too. I was to make National Geographic quality images using only Lumia smartphones.

I went through the list of the remaining natural wonders and made mental notes of the demands I faced with each location.

Rio de Janeiro: heat and humidity

Mount Everest: high altitude and cold

Victoria Falls: dangerous animals

Paricutin volcano in Mexico: dust and dirt

Great Barrier Reef: underwater

With my 20 years of experience shooting for National Geographic Magazine all those issues were manageable. But the Aurora Borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, had challenges that initially I wasn’t certain I could face.

The Northern Lights are the only Natural Wonder that are not a place, they are phenomena. Their appearance relies on the interaction of charged particles given off by storms on the sun hitting the Earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field. The sun storms are intermittent, unpredictable, and so are the Northern Lights. Coupled with the lights unpredictability is the extreme cold and bad weather of the far north.

When they do happen the lights can be spectacular but they are not very bright. Smartphones’ weak point has always been shooting in low light. There are fantastic images of the Aurora out there. In general they are shot on high end DSLR cameras by photographers who live or are spending long amounts of time in places the Aurora happens. How was I going to shoot the Northern Lights on a telephone? My solution was to do the logical thing in arranging the assignments and put the aurora shoot off to the end!

A lumia 950 shoots time lapse images in Norway.

A lumia 950 shoots time lapse images in Norway.

This wasn’t just procrastination. As Microsoft’s Devices Ambassador I knew Microsoft’s camera phone technology was advancing at a fantastic pace. Once I got the Lumia 950 in my hands I was pretty sure it was capable of capturing a natural phenomenon that happens only at night. But I would only know once I was in the field.

On this assignment I chose to work above the Arctic Circle, in Northern Finland and Northern Norway. The idea was to see different landscapes and people in the land of the aurora while waiting for the right combination of weather and light display. I also timed the trip around the appearance of a full moon. That might seem counter intuitive because the moonlight would tend to wash out the colors in the sky. However, I wanted as much light on the snowy landscape as was possible.

It was bitter cold shooting in Finland. Temperatures hovered around 35 degrees Celsius below zero! Days up there in January are short, 2-4 hours of daylight so we had lots of night to see the aurora if it would appear.

Stephen Alvarez and John Burcham at 25 below zero

Stephen Alvarez and John Burcham waiting for the Aurora at 25 below zero

At night my friends and I would walk through the snow covered dreamscape of the Finnish winter. Eyes glued to the sky. We’d look at clouds and ask “do you think that is the aurora?” Then one night when it was 40 below there were no longer questions! There were curtains of light from horizon to horizon.

The tripod was so cold that touching it burned my fingers but I needed it to stabilize the phone. The Lumia provides me with manual control so I turned the ISO to 200, the exposure to four seconds and fired away. As fast as the sensors in the lumia have advanced, the imaging software has advanced even faster. The algorithms that control what the final image looks like are very good at taking the limited bandwidth of information taken in at such a dimly lit scene and making a good photo out of it.

I made pictures while great ribbons of green orange and white light crisscrossed the sky. They looked like dragons flying above us. I could not believe what I was seeing both above me and on the screen.

With the Lumia 950, low light, the last barrier to smartphone photography has fallen away. I was shot the Aurora Borealis on a smartphone!

The Aurora makes an ealy evening show near Tromso, Norway

The Aurora makes an ealy evening show near Tromso, Norway

About the author

Stephen Alvarez is a photographer and frequent commentator on the role technology and photography play in our interconnected world. He is founder and director of the Ancient Art Archive (