How to see and photograph northern lights in Iceland

What are the northern lights exactly?

Northern lights are caused by solar winds disturbed by the magnetosphere. The magnetosphere is the protection layer formed from both the North and the South Pole to protect Earth from those solar winds. That’s why you can see the northern lights from the region next to the Poles; the magnetosphere is less protective in those places.

Those solar winds are composed of atoms and ionized particles. Those are heated by the friction of entering the Atmosphere creating beautiful colors.

You can spot northern lights in Alaska, North of Norway, Sweden, Greenland, Finland, and Iceland.

At what time of the year are they visible?

In Iceland, they are visible from the end of August/beginning of September to April.

This year northern lights were visible from mid-August in Reykjavik.

Why some northern lights have different colors?

The variation of colors depends on the level of atomic oxygen and our eye sensitivity.

The most common ones are green. At highest altitudes, they appear redder (more atomic oxygen, less sensitivity of eyes). At very low altitude they tend to be blue (very low atomic oxygen). Sometimes they are purple. Purple northern lights are rarer: they are in fact hard to spot by humans and may require optical windows.

Some can be yellow or orange or pink but it’s basically a mix of red, green or blue.

How to spot them?

You need obscurity, clear skies, and no light pollution to spot them.

The Icelandic weather website is easy to navigate click here

This indicates the level of the sky clarity: the part where the map is white is where you can possibly spot them.

This indicates the level of intensity of the northern lights:

From level 3, the northern lights will be visibly strong.

But what you have to remember is that you can’t really predict in advance if there will be some and where. You have to check closely at the forecast a few hours before you plan on seeing them. It’s part of the magical event of spotting them: you also have to be lucky and patient.

Sometimes you have to wait for hours. The first time I spotted them, we had to wait until 1 am. We were about to give up (and we were freezing, it was in February) and all of a sudden we spotted a little white light like somebody was painting in the sky that it became more and more intense. People started to cheer, to shout, it was incredible and so beautiful.

Where is the best location to see them?

Although some tours are nice, you don’t have to book a tour to see them. Just watch the forecast above and see where it’s best. Of course, within Reykjavik, the lights can be a bit of an inconvenience. That’s why sometimes the city council of Reykjavik decides to turn off the city lights to make spotting northern lights easier.

First time I spot them was in Gardur, a lighthouse not too far from Reykjanes.  Going to a lighthouse is a good strategy: you have the water reflection, not much light and it looks nice. 

How to photograph northern lights?

Settings

  • Set your camera and your lens to Manual.
  • Turn your flash off
  • Use the highest ISO you can, but beware that the higher ISO you use the worst quality you’ll get so it’s about finding balance with your camera. ISO 800 is a good start.
  • Use the lower aperture you can: from f-2.8 to below (to get your camera the biggest opening)
  • Set the shutter speed to 20 seconds. A higher shutter speed is a higher exposure time. Use a longer one if the northern lights are not very strong, use a shorter one if the northern lights are more intense
  • Use a tripod and ideally a remote so you won’t touch your camera while capturing northern lights. I managed to photograph some without a tripod but you really need to stand really still and not breath or put your camera on a flat surface to be able to pull that off. If you move just a little for one second, your picture will be completely blurry. 
  • use an app: you can download an application for your phone with all the settings already set for you.

Lastly, Don’t forget to shoot the northern lights within an actual scenery: a building, a mountain…something in the background, to give some perspective to your picture. If not, you’ll end up with a stray of green light which won’t translate much.

I hope you have answered all your questions if you have more don’t hesitate to contact me or leave a comment below. I wish you to be lucky enough to spot the northern lights, it’s truly something special to witness.

See below the video of northern lights filmed with a drone by OZZO photography: his pics and videos of Iceland are amazing. 

for more info check out the Aurora Reykjavik.

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