The Northern Lights are easily one of the most spectacular wonders of Iceland, but they’re also one the most elusive and unpredictable attractions the country has, which makes photographing these marvels even trickier than spotting them.

Here, we’ll outline the what, when, where, why, and how of capturing Iceland’s Northern Lights.

What are the Northern Lights?

Photo by Ryan Cline

The Northern Lights are the result of electrically charged particles from the sun colliding with gaseous particles in the Earth’s atmosphere, which cause displays of bright, colorful lights that dance across the sky. They’re only visible in the magnetic polar regions of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, and their colors can range from white and green to blue, pink, and purple.

According to the Northern Lights Center in Canada, scientific studies have found that the northern and southern auroras (Northern Lights) often occur at the same time as mirror images. In the Northern Hemisphere, the lights are best seen from Iceland, Greenland, northern Norway, Siberia, the Canadian territories, and Alaska. Although seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland is a regular occurrence, they are still rather unpredictable.

When is the best time to see the Northern Lights?

During the autumn and winter months, your chances of catching the Norther Lights are very good, especially when periods of high pressure are present. Avoiding urban areas and coordinating your viewing during new moon cycles can improve your chances as well.

In order to see the Northern Lights, you’ll need a dark, clear night sky. Auroras are typically visible from late September to March between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. When looking for the Northern Lights, check weather and aurora forecasts (there’s even an aurora forecast app) to predict the aurora activity and visibility levels. But even so, some clear nights show high activity and no lights appear — and other times, cloudy nights show no activity but auroras are spotted in the night sky.

Photo by Darcy Watson

Another factor to note is that the weather in the Arctic can change in the blink of an eye. It’s not unusual to have sunshine, clouds, rain, sleet, hail, snow, and high winds all in the same day. Just because you wake up to crystal clear skies doesn’t mean that conditions will hold until your Northern Lights viewing time. But the reverse is also true. Even if it snows heavily and there is 100 percent cloud cover, it could easily clear up by the end of the day.

For example, for the best odds, we recommend staying in Iceland for a minimum of seven nights. The Northern Lights tend to be very active for two to three nights at a time and are then quiet for four to five nights, in ongoing cycles. So, if the catching the Northern Lights is on your bucket list, make sure to plan a longer trip, wherever you decide to go.

Because auroras are so unpredictable, it’s important that you don’t plan your trip solely for the Northern Lights — instead, go for a country’s culture, landscape, and other natural wonders, and try to think of Northern Lights sightings as an added bonus.

Photo by Mike Smith

Where is the best place to see the Northern Lights?

Just to reiterate, you have to put in quite a bit of effort to see and capture the Northern Lights.

It has to be dark. That means that you need to get out of the city and avoid light pollution. The Northern Lights are visible in cities like Reykjavík and Tromsø when they are at their strongest, but your best bet is to seek out spots in the Arctic countryside.

Many “Northern Lights hunters” choose to stay on farms where they can walk out of the front door at any given time to check for aurora sightings. If that’s not your cup of tea, look for small towns with countryside hotels and guesthouses, just steps from the wilderness. Another common practice is setting an alarm every hour between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. to check the skies — though this is only for the highly committed.

Is it worth booking a tour?

Although tours tend to get bit of a bad rap, the plus side of booking a Northern Lights tour is that tour operators have been chasing the Northern Lights for years and can easily find the best spots for potential viewing, even when there is low-hanging cloud coverage. Tour drivers also follow weather forecasts closely and have a keen understanding of the road conditions and terrain (which is a plus). And, most tour operators will even offer you a spot in the next tour if you don’t see anything the night you go.  

Tip: Some hotels (such as Hotel Berg in Keflavik and Hotel Ranga on Iceland’s south coast) offer an aurora wake-up call. So if you’re staying in a hotel or hostel, be sure to ask if they offer this amenity.

If you decide to venture out on your own, be aware of weather conditions and be safe. For best results, plan to stay in your chosen viewing area or build a driving itinerary in advance and do your research.

Photo by Martina Gebarovska

Why are the northern lights so difficult to photograph?

The Northern Lights are sporadic and completely dependent on the frequency and strength of solar flares that come in contact with Earth. For that reason, and the high probability of cloud coverage in the winter months, photographers must be ready every night and assume that their first encounter with the aurora may be their last. Aside from clouds, unwanted ambient light can affect your images as well, so it’s important to get out into the countryside. Additionally, if you don’t use a tripod or a shutter release mechanism, your chances of getting a good photo are slim.  

How do you photograph the northern lights?

Photo by Francesco Salvaggio 

Although there’s no perfect formula for capturing the Northern Lights, there are a few things you should know, pack, and be prepared for.

  1. Bring a sturdy tripod that will hold for 0 to 20 second exposures (at least).
  2. Understand your camera’s manual mode.
  3. Shoot with a full-frame, 35mm camera (it will ensure higher image quality with lower noise in low-light environments).
  4. Try using a wide-angle lens.
  5. Note that your exposure will largely depend on the light, so be ready to adjust accordingly.
  6. Utilize the “Live View” setting on your camera’s display to ensure you get a sharp focus at infinity (or slightly less, depending on the lens).
  7. Set your ISO between 800 and 3200.
  8. Set your aperture between f/2.8 and f/5.6.
  9. Set your shutter speed between 15 seconds and 30 seconds (but note that shutter speeds above 15 seconds will result in slight star movement).
  10. Compose your frame, and shoot.

If you end up with slightly overexposed or underexposed images, play with combinations of these camera settings until you get the exposure exactly where you want it.

Also remember that you don’t always have to get it right on your first try. If you spend a few nights shooting the Northern Lights, you will be able to determine the best way to focus and figure out what works for you.

At the end of the day, put your camera down and enjoy the natural wonder of the Northern Lights as they dance across the sky.

Photo by OhNo Production

Header image by Francesco Salvaggio