Iceland is easily one of my top travel experiences to date and has so many amazing sites and landscapes to offer travellers. I would be lying however if I did not admit that a huge reason for visiting Iceland in the middle of winter was to try and see the Northern Lights. During my roadtrip around Iceland I went searching for the lights twice and on the second night was lucky enough to see the whole sky lit up in bright green waves of aurora borealis. Witnessing them in person was absolutely breathtaking and I feel extremely lucky to have had the chance to see such an awe inspiring natural phenomenon. So, how can you find, view and photograph the Northern Lights? The following article gives a summary of all the research I did before embarking on my trip!
How to find the Northern Lights
Tours vs Car Rental
As mentioned in my post ‘Roadtripping Around Iceland In Winter‘, I decided to rent a car during my time in Iceland with Go Iceland. What became apparent about Northern Lights tours was that they were not only quite expensive but they only went for a few hours. If you do not see the lights the company usually gives you a chance to rebook free of charge at a later date (so you would have to book the tour for your first night in Iceland to maximise your chances of seeing them). Unfortunately however, after reading many reviews and then meeting a couple in Turkey who confirmed the experience – on your search for the Northern Lights with a tour you may witness a dim green tinge to a patch of sky while driving (I saw this about three times before I saw the fully fledged bright green waves fill the sky). Because you have seen a dim green tinge (not a defined wave, and often barely visible) the company can classify this as ‘seeing the northern lights’ so refused the couple I met a chance to re-book the tour free of charge for a later date. Because of the price they paid for the tour they were really devastated and wrote a TripAdvisor review accordingly. The company then messaged them offering to refund them half of the price of the tour to take down the review – something that goes against TripAdvisor guidelines. Unfortunately, being a budget backpacking couple on a shoestring they took up the offer. I found the company’s practice, both in terms of their conditions and their response to the review a real disappointment to the travel industry and this fuelled my determination to seek out the Northern Lights independently.
So how did it go? First night was admittedly disappointing, I left at about 9pm and did not return home until 3am. Taking into consideration I had driven over 8 hours the previous day, came home, slept, hopped up and started driving again I was exhausted to say the least. Driving at night is also less enjoyable than during the day as you cannot see the amazing terrain around you. The second night however my long drive paid off. As soon as I saw the lights properly I pulled over and ended up staying for about 2 hours (cloud cover started to roll in). I liked the fact I was free to stop/start and drive anywhere I pleased. The online guide and weather predictions to find the lights (which I will elaborate on below) is really easy to navigate. The tour guides base their trip on the exact same website that you would be using when driving by yourself, so if you are confident driving and have the time to spend 5 minutes looking at the map predictions I would definitely recommend renting a car over going on a tour!
I spent hours trawling through the internet trying to find out when would be the best time to visit Iceland to see the Northern Lights and from this I was able to determine a few things.
- To see the Northern Lights there needs to be minimal light and minimal light pollution (from cities, towns etc). Consequently, you will probably not see the Northern Lights in summer in Iceland because it does not go dark.
- Winter is the obvious answer because you get maximum darkness however, unpredictable bad weather means that clouds may cover the aurora activity. There needs to be no clouds to see the Northern Lights. If you compare the picture at the beginning of the article to the one below you can see this exhibited. As the clouds come in from the left the Northern Lights are slowly covered.
- November is the tentative answer I would therefore give for the ‘best time’ to visit Iceland to see the Northern Lights because maximum darkness has started to fall over Iceland but the weather is not as snowy and cloudy as it would be in the middle of winter.
Despite all of this, I would recommend focusing more on the weather guides (found below) for your intended dates rather than generalisations about seasons. As a note – I visited Iceland during the first week of January.
The Iceland Met Office provides the absolute best website for aurora predictions (as recommended by locals!).
An extensive video tutorial on how to use the guide can be found here but personally, all you really need to know is drive toward the white spaces of the map on a night that has a rating (found on the top right corner of the page) of 4 or above! This means you a driving toward an area with no cloud cover (necessary for viewing the lights) on a night that is predicted to have active auroral activity.
Despite taking into account all these elements, the fact remains no one can guarantee viewing the Northern Lights. I was incredibly lucky to have been able to view them on my second try and I have met many travellers who have been to both Norway and Iceland in winter for weeks at a time and are still on the search for this once in a lifetime experience!
How to Photograph the Northern Lights
I am an absolute beginner when it comes to photography, let alone the technical skill and practice required to photograph the Northern Lights properly. I was disappointed with my photos from my first attempt but I do understand that it is something that requires time and practice (and the weather conditions at the time were less than favourable!). So as a beginner who tried (and failed) at photographing the northern lights successfully here is what I learnt –
- You need a tripod and a shutter release. To be able to capture a successful time lapse the camera needs to be absolutely still. I use a Manfrotto 732CY Carbon Fibre Tripod that I got second hand off Gumtree for $100 AUD and a Pro Wireless Shutter Release Remote Control off Ebay for £17. BUT, despite having all the right equipment, the weather dial in my car informed me that I was facing -22 degree celsius conditions and 40 km/hour winds. My lightweight tripod struggled under these windy conditions and even with multiple layers of weatherproof clothing I was struggling to stay outside to hold the tripod still. I don’t think I have ever been colder in my life!! So be prepared for adverse weather conditions and try and set up as much of the tripod and camera as possible in the car before you venture out into the elements.
- You will need a manual camera (to shoot in bulb mode and change ISO and f/ratio). I use a Canon 60D and during my research came across this table that I ended up using as a starting point to capture the lights.
The following table offers some very rough estimates to start out:
|f/ratio||400 ISO||800 ISO||1600 ISO|
Where my photography went wrong and what I learnt –
- A lot of my images were grainy, I needed to lower my ISO.
- I couldn’t tell the images were grainy at the time, I needed to be using the histogram!
- I was not happy with the composition of the photos. I was so excited about seeing the lights for the first time and was frustrated trying to capture them at all that I was not thinking about composition. This is something I will put more focus on in the future. For example, getting further off the road so the fence was not in the shot and driving further along so I could focus more on the mountain.
These are simple mistakes that I would be better prepared for when shooting the Northern Lights again.
- My biggest difficulty – Finding a focal point.
I spent ages trying to work out why my camera was not taking a photo. My ISO and f/ratio was right, my camera was still, I was in the right mode, my batteries were charged etc etc. About 15 mins after I left the car (and was freezing to death!) I realised I was having focal issues. I ended up focusing my camera on the houses in the distance that had their lights on (if you look below you will see them dotted below the mountain). After researching into focus points after having difficulty with them, many articles suggest looking for the moon, distant light pollution or like I did, houses or tower lights.
In my opinion this was the ultimate travel experience and I wish you the best of luck to find and photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland! Feel free to add any questions or comments below 🙂
Suitcase And I was not sponsored to write this article. As always, the opinions in this review are my own.