Tips on Seeing (and Photographing) the Northern Lights in Iceland

Though it’s nothing I would ever recommend doing, I went to Iceland just to see the northern lights. Having been there, now one of my favorite countries in the world, I would definitely recommend going to Iceland just to see Iceland. But at the time, my main impetus was seeing the Northern Lights. Here is why I wouldn’t recommend doing what I did:

There’s a good chance you won’t see them. 

Throughout my stay, I went on a total of three aurora borealis sightseeing tours and I only really saw them on the last night. So if my trip had ended one night earlier, I would have gone home greatly disappointed. On the first tour, in the city of Akureyri, we drove for 3 hours trying to chase down a bit of clear sky. The lights were so strong that you could see the colorful movement through the clouds, but unfortunately the clouds never parted. On the second tour, out of Reykjavik, we once again drove far outside of the city to avoid city lights but the elusive aurora did not show itself. Finally, on the last night, the sky was clear and the aurora was active. So adjust your expectations to avoid disappointment. And make sure you have other things you’re excited to see and do in Iceland, or anywhere else you might visit to try to catch a glimpse of the lights for that matter.

How to increase your chances of seeing the northern lights

While there is no way to guarantee seeing the northern lights (unless you move to Iceland), there are certainly ways to improve your chances. First, you should time your trip to coincide with the best time of year to see them. In order for the lights to be visible there has to be absolute darkness. Because of Iceland’s location, in the summer, there is daylight almost all day, with just 3 to 5 hours of darkness a night. You’ll want to go from September to April, to have the best chance of seeing them because during those months there are more hours of darkness per day.

Another thing to take into account is the weather. Like I found out, it does you no good to have bright northern lights if they’re hiding behind clouds. Take a look at the weather forecast during your trip, and pick the days that will give you the best chance of actually seeing them. Rain, snow, or cloudiness are all going to prevent you from experiencing the lights even if they’re particularly strong. You should also take a look at the aurora forecast, which will give you a forecast on a scale of 1 to 9 for how likely it is that they will be visible depending on the strength of the effect and the forecast weather.

Despite having a 33% success rate on my tours, I definitely recommend having a guide to the northern lights. First, because unless you happen to live in Alaska (in which case, you really don’t have to go anywhere to see the northern lights), you probably won’t be very familiar with driving in potentially heavily snow-covered roads. But aside from that, the guides of northern lights tours do this all the time; they know the best places to go to get away from city lights and more importantly, they’re in communication with each other. So if another guide has spotted them elsewhere, they’ll give everyone else a heads up. The Icelandic people are awesome like that. They will also give you hot chocolate to keep you warm outside. You will need it.

As a passionate traveler, I feel like it’s also my duty to mention that if you don’t see them, you shouldn’t take it out on your guides. The Icelandic people are extremely kind, welcoming, and interesting. Both tour companies I used offered a free second night tour if we didn’t see the lights on the first night. But they are not God and this is not Disney. Don’t go on a tour expecting to see them and don’t be rude and disrespectful to the people who tried to make that happen by complaining or mocking them. Because you sound like an obnoxious jackass when you do that and it’s annoying to both the guides and the other people on the tour.

How to photograph the northern lights

If you are lucky enough to see them, you won’t necessarily be able to photograph them. In order to get great photographs of the lights you’ll need three things:

  1. A DSLR camera
  2. The right manual settings on the camera
  3. A tripod

Even if you have a DSLR camera, if you only know how to use it in automatic mode, you will not get pictures of it. If you have a smart phone, you will definitely not get any pictures of it. Without getting too technical, in order to get good photos, you will need a high aperture, high ISO, and long exposure time. The aperture is how wide the lens open to determine how much light to allow into the camera. On your DSLR, that will be the f-number. A lower f-number (2.8 or lower) will allow in more light. If you set your camera to 2.8 on a regular sunny day, the picture will be extremely bright, even completely white. But when you’re photographing the lights and it’s very dark, you want the aperture to be very wide to allow you to capture the low light available.

The ISO on a camera is the sensitivity to light. When you’re shooting in bright light, you would probably use an ISO of 100 to 200. But on a dark night in Iceland, you want your ISO to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 800, which requires less light. Don’t be tempted to use the highest ISO setting as it might create grain in your photos. For these purposes, you should be okay in the neighborhood of 800.

Finally, the single most important factor is exposure time. With a standard DSLR camera, you can take photos with a shutter speed as fast as a fraction of a second and as slow as several seconds. To get a great photo of the northern lights, you need to set the shutter speed between 20-40 seconds. What this does is take a 20-40 second photo capturing the movement of the aurora in one picture. This is also why you need a tripod. If you try to hold a camera that long, especially in that freezing cold, you will end up with a blurry photo. The best photos of the lights include part of the horizon which should be sharp in contrast to the lights which will appear whispy and curtain-like.

Since your iPhone doesn’t have the kind of settings to allow you to take these photos, don’t waste your time trying. You will only end up frustrated and with dozens of dark pictures. Similarly, the lights don’t film well, which is why “videos” of the lights are usually in time-lapse, made up of thousands of individual pictures.

How are photos different from seeing the northern lights in person

The northern lights are a completely unique phenomenon in that it’s impossible to capture them in photos or video the way they look in person. Because the only way to see them in photos is to take a long exposure shot, the photos you see of them can be brighter and make the aurora seem more dense than it actually is in person. In person, the lights are extremely transparent. In photos, they will look more opaque as though they’re “thicker.” Obviously, no photo or time-lapse in the world can capture the sensation of seeing the way they move, which is why it’s truly a phenomenon to behold. But don’t be disappointed if they are not as colorful or intense as you’ve seen them in photos.

With all this in mind, you’re ready to trek out to Iceland and be wowed by the awesome power of the northern lights. And if you don’t get to see them on your first trip, there are worse things in the world than living in Iceland.