Use Your iPhone to Take Long-Exposure Photos of This Weekend's Aurora Light Shows

Use Your iPhone to Take Long-Exposure Photos of This Weekend's Aurora Light Shows

This weekend Spectacular Aurora Borealis Light Show The night sky provides a wonderful opportunity for photographers to test their skills and capture amazing images. To photograph the Northern Lights, you don't necessarily need a DLSR or fancy equipment. iPhone Alone can create images of a lifetime.

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If you've seen artistic photographs of waterfalls or rivers, you've likely seen long-exposure shots where the water is deliberately blurred to appear silky smooth while the surroundings — rocks and trees — are blurred. Be fast. It's a great technique for giving the impression of movement in a still image and used to be something you needed a DSLR with filters and a tripod to capture. But a neat feature in the iPhone camera lets you take shots that look just as good.

You don't even need the latest. iPhone 15 Pro or Pro Max To take advantage of this feature. It works on any iPhone launched after iPhone 6.

Read more: Take your best photos ever with your iPhone.

This technique uses Live Photos, a feature that turns a still image into a short animation by recording a few seconds of video when you fire the shutter. By analyzing which objects are moving, iPhone captures motion and blurs it. It's also able to recognize what's not moving (a rock or wall, for example) and tries to keep those objects sharp and in focus. This allows you to capture long exposure images even in bright afternoon sun without using a tripod or filter. Take that, DSLRs.

Comparison image of sea jetty with and without long exposure effect Comparison image of sea jetty with and without long exposure effect

A standard photo taken with the iPhone 11 Pro (left) and the same photo, with long exposure mode enabled (right).

Andrew Linkson/CNET

Here's how you can do it.

Learn what makes a good long exposure shot.

Not everything works as a long exposure photo. A close-up of a flower blowing in the breeze will just become a blur, while a static car image will remain, well, static.

What you need is a scene that contains both static and dynamic elements. Waterfalls are common subjects, as the flowing water will blur while the surrounding rocks remain solid. Any body of water, really, would be a good subject to experiment with.

An example image from a Disney park showing the long exposure effect. An example image from a Disney park showing the long exposure effect.

The standard shot (left) looks like an old Disney park photo. But a long exposure (right) turns it into a surreal image that really shows movement in the scene.

Andrew Linkson/CNET

You can also try the busy city streets. The long exposure effect keeps buildings and streets sharp and steady in the picture, but people walking around will be blurred into ghostly shapes, which looks atmospheric and dramatic.

This weekend's spectacular Aurora Borealis events are also one. Great opportunity for long exposure photos. Because the lights are changing so quickly, a long-exposure photo can capture reds and greens that our eyes can't even see.

Turn on Live Photos.

In order to get a long exposure photo, the movement that is recorded in Live Photo is needed, so it is important to activate this mode during shooting. It is located in the camera at the top right of the screen (when placed in portrait orientation) or at the top left (in landscape orientation). You will see an icon of two circles surrounded by a third dotted circle. If there is no line through it, Live Photos is activated. If there's a line through it, tap the icon and you'll see the “Live” message appear on the screen in a small yellow box.

An image showing the Live Photos button on the iPhone 11's camera screen An image showing the Live Photos button on the iPhone 11's camera screen

Make sure there is no line in this icon.

Andrew Linkson/CNET

Be persistent

While the iPhone doesn't need a tripod to get a good long exposure photo, you'll get the best results if you hold the phone as steady as possible while taking a live image. I recommend resting the phone against a wall or other fixed surface while shooting. If you have to hold the phone in your hand, I find that tucking my elbows in toward my body and holding my breath helps reduce motion blur while taking the shot.

It's also a good idea to take multiple shots by hammering down the shutter button while holding the position. That way you'll increase your chances of taking at least one photo that's stable enough to create an attractive long exposure.

Create a long exposure

Once you've captured your live image, it's time to turn it into a real long exposure. Start by opening your photo in the Gallery app. At the top left you will see a small icon that says Live Along with the small arrow pointing down. Tap the arrow and you'll have the option to turn the image into a looping GIF, a bouncing GIF that moves forward then backwards or, below, a long exposure.

It will take a second or two, but you'll quickly see how any movement in your shot is blurred into the dreamy effect you're after. Then you can zoom in to check that it's still nice and sharp. Feel free to apply the same effect to other photos you've taken of the same scene, just in case they work better.

If you're still on iOS 14 or higher, open the photo you've set in your gallery and swipe up. This will bring up a panel called Effects Where you can loop motion in video into GIFs. Swipe to the end of the Effects panel though and you'll see a call. Long exposure. Tap it. But you should really update your phone to the latest version.

A picture of a castle next to a lake using a long exposure effect A picture of a castle with a lake using the long exposure effect

I didn't plan on making this shot a long exposure when I first took it, but since it was a live photo, I was able to go back later and turn on the long exposure mode.

Andrew Linkson/CNET

Create long exposure images from existing live images

If you don't have a view of the aurora in the night sky, take a look in your library to see if you already have other images that work for long exposure photos. The best thing about using the iPhone's long exposure tool is that you don't have to use it while shooting. You can go back and apply it to any live image you've taken so far.

Maybe you visited Niagara Falls in New York or Havasu Falls in Arizona a few years ago and happened to have Live Photos activated while taking your shots. You can swipe on any of these shots and activate the long exposure. You can even go to your Live Photos album in your gallery to see all the shots you've taken on your phone that can be converted into long exposures. I suggest? Put on a good podcast, settle into a comfy chair and see what dreamy shots you can pull from your library.

I took 600+ photos with the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max. Check out my favorites

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See it: We revisit the iPhone 15 Pro Max, 7 months after its launch

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