It is an almost an every night event for those who live in the northern (and southern) hemisphere and a dream to see for those who live further down the globe.
I must say, Iceland is a pretty good place to see northern lights and there is a great chance you will be able to observe them when you are here.
What actually are northern lights?
Northern lights are the result of a collision of different gases in earth atmosphere and charged particles that travel from the sun. This phenomenon happens only near the magnetic poles, that is why you can only see them in the northern hemisphere (where they are called Aurora Borealis) and in the southern hemisphere (where they are called Aurora Australis).
Researchers have discovered that aurora activity is cyclic, peaking roughly every 11 years. The last peak was in 2013 and it was the weakest solar maximum in a century.
Why northern lights have colors?
Sun particles hit different gases at different heights thus different colors. The colors most often associated with the aurora borealis are pink, green, yellow, blue, violet, and occasionally orange and white.
Most common pale green-yellowish color is produced when solar particles hit oxygen molecules around 60 miles above the earth. This is what you can see most of the time when you are in Iceland.
Nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red auroras. Rare all red northern lights are produced by oxygen around 200 miles above the earth.
Where is the best place to see auroras?
Northern lights occur at a latitude higher than a 60°N (and 60°S in the southern hemisphere) due to the certain angle the particles enter earth atmosphere and magnetic fields around poles.
The northern lights can easily be seen from Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Northern Russia.
In Iceland when aurora borealis are strong you can see them stepping just outside your house/accommodation, even in Reykjavik. In recent years they were even events when the lights in Reykjavik were switched off so people could observe the northern lights!
Most of the time, the best place to see the northern lights is just outside the city, without the “light pollution”. You do not have to travel far, just far enough to be away from city lights.
Of course, there are iconic places in Iceland (where we take our guests on Northern Lights Tour) where auroras are just even more epic.
When can you see auroras?
Activity on the sun is all year long, so the sun particles travel to earth January to December, but you can see the northern lights ONLY when it is dark. In Iceland, the first spottings of Auroras are already at the end of August until late Aprill.
Where to check the forecast?
You can check the aurora forecast in Iceland here. Please remember that this forecast is… well, only a forecast…
The lowest activity is 0 the strongest is 9. The presence of northern lights changes throughout the night and there are few things to keep in mind:
- the activity of northern lights changes all the time eg: there could be very little going on around 11 but there could be huge burst after 1! So remember to stick around for little longer.
- the highest activity doesn’t warrant that you will see the auroras (see point above)
- sometime when the activity of 2 you can still catch an amazing spectacle (again, the point above 🙂
You can’t see them if the sky is covered with clouds! You can check the cloud coverage on the same page. The white spots are places where they forecast no cloud cover. If you are in the green zones do not despair. Just go outside and look up. You might be still lucky to see them.
How often can you see the northern lights?
There are times when you could see northern lights every night and sometimes you can’t see them for few days. It means that you should NOT plan your stay in Iceland based on northern lights. It should be just a cherry on top of the cake.
Common misknowledge about Northern Lights
1. Northern lights can be seen at specific hours – No. They can come and go at any point
2. You can see them during summer – No. Although they are present all year round, you can only observe them when it is dark (end of August till Aprill in Iceland)
3. They look different than photos I’ve seen. – Yes. What you see in pictures on the internet are images that have been enhanced on computers.
4. It needs to be cold outside to see them – No. It doesn’t need to be cold. You can see them when it is dark and there are no clouds.
5. The orange glow near Hveragerdi and Fludir are not Northern Lights. It is the light coming from greenhouses.
Our favorite spots to watch northern lights
We will keep adding new spots to the map
Few tips how to shoot northern lights with your camera
First of all, decide where would you like to photograph northern lights. Are you ok with catching them with the lights of Reykjavik or would you prefer spots with beautiful lakes, mountains, rivers or some buildings? Here are few of our favorite spots.
What lens would you like to shoot with? Honestly, it doesn’t matter! You can have a wide lens but you can also capture great images with a telephoto lens. It all depends on your vision. Remeber: you do not need an expensive lens to capture great images. Your kit lens will be more than enough.
How about a camera?
It is not the camera which makes the picture but the photographer. I have seen so many great northern lights photos made with old digital cameras or even phones. So stop stalling, you can do it too! 🙂
The best camera is the one that allows you to set everything manually: where you can control aperture, shutters speed, and ISO.
generally, you want to keep the ISO the lowest possible. In many cases high ISO, long exposure and darkness make for very grainy photos. Often it is ok as modern digital cameras can have perfectly fine images with iso 1600 or higher and you can reduce noise in Photoshop or Lightroom. BUT, ISO should be the last thing you will adjust.
Northern lights shots are usually long exposure shots. Try experimenting with the shutter speed and see what you will get.
the wider the aperture the more light is reaching camera sensor. Keep in mind that wide aperture have the much narrower field of focus. Generally, in landscape photography, you want to have everything sharp on the picture thus small aperture. But when you shoot at night often your scene is dark and the attention is on the northern lights so you can play with wider apertures.
if you want to shoot in jpg set the values in the K mode somewhere in between 2800 and 4000.
Shoot in raw and you can change it easily later.
So how I approach the northern lights photography quest:
Northern lights are in constant motion. Sometimes you will want to capture them blurry and sometimes freeze the motion. Either way is fine and try yourself which images do you like more.
To blur the northern lights you goal will be to make the shutter speed longer (10, 15 20 and more seconds) To freeze the northern lights your goal will be to lower the shutter speed (4, 2 or 1 second).
First I look for a great location. When I arrive I will spend few minutes walking without my camera looking for great composition:
– reflections in the water
– interesting buildings to include in the frame
– some majestic mountains
– or anything else that will make the photo more interesting
When I picked my spot it is time to set my tripod. You should also. Now use a cable release if you have one or set the camera to 2 sec self-release. This will make sure that you haven’t moved the camera when pressing the shutter (it could render your images not as sharp as you would like to)
Next, I will set the ISO for 400. Aperture for around 8.0 and time for around 20s and will shoot the first photo. My next steps are based on what I get. I will manipulate the time first. Make it longer if the image is still too dark or shorten it if it is too bright.
If my photo is still dark at the 30s you can switch to BULB mode (if your camera has it) and use a watch to measure 40, 50 or 60 s.
If you do not wish to do that you can start changing other settings like the aperture and ISO. It will be your call. Try experimenting with all the settings.
Often you can increase ISO slightly while widening the aperture at the same time and observe how the image is changing. Spend some time experimenting, but my initial settings are a great place to start with.
When the auroras are faint you will need more light to enter the camera. When they are strong you can lower the shutter speed, close down the aperture or lower the ISO
Few tips how to shoot northern lights with your mobile phone
It is possible to capture Northern Light with your phone!
General rules are the same as for the “big” cameras. Make sure you have an app downloaded that enables you to shoot in manual mode or an app dedicated to shooting at night.
Northern Lights Photo Taker App ( Apple iOS )
Cortex Camera ( Apple iOS / Android )
NightCap Pro ( Apple iOS )
Read those articles how to shoot at night with your phone:
What you NEED for northern lights photography:
- Warm gloves in which you can operate your camera – this is so important. Shooting in the cold when your hands are freezing is no fun at all. Plus, with numb fingers, you can drop your camera!
- Warm clothes as it will be very, very cold and windy most of the time – being outside when is cold and not being dressed accordingly is … painful
- Headlamp – so you can see what you are setting on your camera. You can use your phone flashlight, but remember that some phones do not like cold and will switch off.
- Tripod – it could be anything that will allow you to rest your camera on and take a steady shot. If you do not have one, you can always put it on your car (be careful, it could slide). Having a solid ground for long exposure shots is very important. Otherwise, you will not have sharp photos.
- Extra batteries – cold and batteries are not the best friends. If you have extra batteries take them with you so you can shoot, when the current one will die on you
- Something hot to drink: hot chocolate, coffee or tea. When it is really cold it will help you stay longer in the cold and make your shooting more fun!
Important things when you go out shooting northern lights
- Remember to check the weather conditions before you will go!
- Be smart and stay close to civilization. Let someone know where are you going. Iceland is unpredictable and every year people die.
- Book Northern Lights Tour to go with knowledgeable guide
Happy northern lights hunting!