Magic In The Sky: Chasing Iceland’s Northern Lights

Northern Lights Iceland

Chasing Northern Lights in Iceland

Photography Tips

Iceland is one of the best places in the world to see colorful lights dancing in the night sky. Learn how to find & photograph the amazing Northern Lights in Iceland.

Northern Lights In Iceland

Before I visited Iceland, I’d only witnessed the Northern Lights one other time. They dazzled the sky one night in Montana back when I was in college. The lights transfixed me for hours, watching the eerie green glow of the Aurora Borealis dance over a high mountain range.

Chasing and photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland was a top priority for me — as it is for many visitors to the country.

However many people don’t realize that this incredible phenomenon is elusive and unpredictable. Yes, even in a place like Iceland.

So to help you improve your chances for finding the northern lights in Iceland, I wanted to share a few tips and photography techniques from my recent adventure there.

Aurora Borealis

Northern Lights Iceland

Light Trails – 13 Seconds, f/4.0, ISO2000

How To Find The Northern Lights

So why are the northern lights so difficult to see? Well, it’s because there are many different factors involved. For a perfect northern lights experience, you need a combination of dark skies, clear weather, and strong aurora activity.

Find Dark Skies

For the same reason star-gazing is better when it’s dark out, viewing the northern lights is best in the dark too. Light pollution from cities & towns hinders the experience. Yes, you can sometimes see the lights from Iceland’s capital city of Reykjavik. However you’ll have more luck in the countryside away from man-made light sources.

Find Clear Skies

If the sky is totally covered in clouds, you won’t be able to find the northern lights. So pay attention to the weather forecast, especially cloud cover (infrared satellite maps). While you can still see the lights if it’s partly cloudy, you’ll have the best chance when there are no clouds at all.

Check out cloud cover conditions around the world on MeteoStar.

Aurora Forecast

Because aurora activity comes from space, scientists are able to predict how strong it will be looking at our sun’s solar wind the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field. the KP-Index ranges from 0-9 with ratings of 5 or greater considered solar storms. There are a few websites that specifically track it.

Iceland has a great site that predicts both cloud cover & aurora activity.

For worldwide aurora predictions, check out Space Weather Ovation.

Self-Drive vs. Group Tour

With the information you’ll learn in this post, you should be able to go hunting for the northern lights on your own with a cheap rental car. Another option is renting a camper van. Experience driving in snow is helpful if you’re visiting in the winter as conditions can sometimes be harsh.

I prefer exploring on my own as it gives me the freedom to stay out all night or move locations on a whim. It’s really not that difficult.

However if you don’t feel comfortable driving around Iceland at night, there are plenty of organized northern lights tours available. I’ve joined a few adventure tours with Arctic Adventures and highly recommend them.

Northern Lights Over Iceland

Iceland Plane Crash – 15 Seconds, f/4.0, ISO2500

Best Time To See Them

The best season to see the northern lights in Iceland is from September to April. The darkest months in Iceland are between November & February, but these months also have the worst weather. Remember you need a combination of darkness, clear skies, and strong activity.

Witnessing Iceland’s northern lights during the summer is pretty rare, due to almost 20 hours of sunlight per day.

The more time you spend in Iceland, the better your chances are too. If you’re only visiting on a 2 day stopover, you’ll need a LOT of luck to see them. I recommend spending at least 7 days if you want to find the lights.

Even then it can be difficult. As an example, my photographer friend Ken Kaminesky has visited Iceland 5 times now and has never seen them.

You also won’t see the lights if you’re bar hopping in Reykjavik. A primary reason why I was able to capture such great photos of the aurora borealis is because I stayed outside all night, for multiple nights, searching for them!

What To Look For

Ok, a few more tips for finding the northern lights. While it may seem obvious, remember to look North! The lights dance along the magnetic bands of the arctic circle, so you need to keep your eyes North to see them.

Often the lights start off weak at first, slowly increasing in intensity. Weak aurora activity will look grey to the naked eye. Much like wispy clouds or fog moving in the wind. They can be easy to miss.

Aim your camera at the grey stuff and shoot a long-exposure photo (20 seconds or so). If those “clouds” come out green in your image, they aren’t clouds! You’re witnessing a weak version of the northern lights.

The stronger the activity, the brighter the colors will be.

The most common color you’ll see is green. However if you’re lucky, they can also be blue, red, and orange depending on atmospheric gasses.

Northern Lights Iceland

Driving the Ring Road – 13 Seconds, f/4.0, ISO2000

Photographing Northern Lights

Once you find the aurora, capturing decent images of it is a whole new challenge. Here are some tips to help you photograph the northern lights. Big shoutout to my friend Dave Morrow who helped me learn this stuff.

Photography Gear

In most photography situations, the quality of your gear doesn’t matter too much. However for northern lights & star photography it does. Here’s a list of recommended gear you’ll want to produce great shots.

  • Full Frame DSLR with Manual Mode & High ISO capability
  • Wide Angle Lens (24mm or wider) with Fast Aperture (2.8 – 4.0 minimum)
  • Sturdy Tripod
  • 2-3 Extra Batteries

See All My Photography Gear Here »

You’ll want a quality camera (brand doesn’t matter) with a large sensor for minimal noise at high ISO settings. A wide angle lens aids in photographing large landscapes with the night sky. A fast aperture allows the maximum amount of ambient light to enter your lens.

A sturdy tripod lets you shoot long exposures without producing camera shake. Extra batteries give you flexibility to stay out all night waiting for peak activity — plus cold weather drains them faster.

Focusing At Night

Even with the best camera gear and knowledge of the best settings, without proper focus, your northern lights photos won’t come out crisp/clear. There are a few different methods to for focusing your camera at night, but my favorite is to focus on a distant landmark (like mountains) on the horizon.

This is easier to do around sunset or blue hour with some light left in the sky.

Most cameras have an infinity focus setting (∞), but it’s not always accurate. Zoom in as much as possible and adjust the focus manually. Once you have it locked in, remember to keep “auto focus” off and don’t touch the focus ring.

Camera Settings

I’ve included my northern lights camera settings under each photo in this post to give you some examples. But generally, because the intensity of the light and amount of movement is constantly changing, you’ll have to experiment with settings throughout the night.

Your camera should be set in Manual Mode, giving you the power to change each particular setting on it’s own.

IMAGE FORMAT
Most professional photographers shoot in RAW format rather than JPG, as it provides the maximum amount of information allowing for greater flexibility with post processing later.

APERTURE (F-STOP)
You want to capture as much light as possible, so use the widest (fastest) aperture your lens has. I used F4.0 in these photos, but F2.8 is even better if you have it. To learn more about aperture, click here.

SHUTTER SPEED
Depending on how fast the lights are moving, or how bright they are, you’ll want to adjust your shutter speed (exposure) accordingly. Anything from 10 seconds to 25 seconds is a good guess. The faster the lights are moving, the shorter the shutter speed should be.

ISO
The last setting you should adjust for northern lights photos is ISO. Increasing ISO allows your sensor to capture more light. The downside is that the higher your ISO is, the more sensor noise you’ll get, resulting in a grainy image. Settings around 2000 – 4000 should work best.

Northern Lights

Before Processing

Northern Lights

After Processing

Post Processing

Once you have a decent image, you can enhance it with post processing software. I personally use Adobe Lightroom and Adobe Photoshop, but there are others. They all basically do the same things. How much processing you do is a matter of preference. Art is subjective.

Post processing is a huge topic though, so I’ll just give you a super quick overview of what I did to enhance these images and make them pop.

  • Adjust White Balance
  • Increase Exposure
  • Brighten Shadows
  • Brighten Whites
  • Darken Highlights
  • Increase Clarity, Vibrance, and Saturation
  • Adjust Curves
  • Noise Reduction
  • Sharpening

Happy Aurora Hunting!

My northern lights photography in this post was captured during late November over a 3 day window of clear skies and strong aurora activity as I drove around Iceland’s famous Ring Road. The lights would usually start off weak, increasing in intensity over the course of a few hours.

The best shots were captured at peak aurora activity, which only lasted for about 10-15 minutes. Patience & dedication is so important for northern lights photography… you need to stick around long enough for the good stuff.

With a little planning, a lot of waiting, and a dash of luck, you too can witness this amazing natural phenomenon in Iceland called the northern lights.

Seeing them in person is a magical experience — there’s nothing like it. ★

READ NEXT: Iceland Photography: Land Of Fire & Ice

Have any questions about the Northern Lights? What about other suggestions? Drop me a message in the comments below!

17 Comments

  1. I’m loving all your articles and tips! Carefully going through the Ring Road itinerary as we speak :)
    This is perhaps a dumb question but…can the Northern Lights be seen with a naked eye? I only have my phone to take pictures…

  2. Hey Matt! Awesome site! Im planning to go and using it as my primary source ?.
    I’ll be travelling in january or february, hoping to see the Aurora.
    Is there something that can’t be done (tours, sightseeing) during this time of the year?
    Thaks a lot!

  3. Wonderful post! Thank you for all this experienced information! The Northern Lights is high of my bucket list. I will definitely come back and refer to this article when I go.

  4. Great pictures, Matt! Northern lights were featured several times in local TV travel programme here in Japan. It took 3days for the host of that programme to finally see the northern light. It seems tough to find it, glad you could capture the beauty and share it with us.

  5. We got to see the Northern Lights for the first time this year in Sweden. I am now hooked and want to see the Northern Lights in every country they are visible. Mirrorless cameras also work really well in capturing the Northern Lights.

  6. Recently, after reading tons of articles about Iceland, this country is gradually climbing to take my top ranks. This article helps that too. The phenomenon in those photos looks breathtaking. With a great passion of traveling and astronomy, I wish I could see those Northern Lights once in my life. Thanks for the lovely article!

    1. Hey Stephen, that’s what happened for me as well. Seeing so many awesome photos from Iceland online finally convinced me to go and photograph the northern lights for myself. Hope you get to visit soon!

  7. I am thinking if you drink enough in Reykjavik, you might see some northern lights of some kind. Great tips. Have you used the GoPro at all to film? The Hero4 black has a night lapse option. That would be cool to capture on time lapse video.

  8. I’m taking a trip to my first Northern Lights so my night photography skills need some brushing up on. This was a nice refresher!

    I typically shoot with ISO 1200-2000 and opt for a prime with f/2. It takes me awhile to get the focusing right though when I shoot in the pitch dark. I normally experiment with a maximum 6400 ISO thus a much faster shutter speed. This allows a much faster test picture to analyze my sharpness because sometimes it takes at least 10 pictures to get the focus just right. Then I’ll drop the ISO back to 1200.

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