Iceland: Finding & Photographing the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights (or more scientifically aurora borealis) are one of those natural phenomena that doesn’t even seem possible. After seeing photos and video, they instantly moved near the top of our travel bucketlist. However, after more research it became apparent that they can be a bit elusive. Experiences range from just a glimpse to spectacular light show. We experienced both ends of the spectrum on our trip to Iceland. The bottom line is that they are a natural phenomena and there is no guarantee! For this reason, we picked Iceland as our country of choice. Even if we didn’t see them, we had lots of other activities planned and would have a great trip. Seeing the Northern Lights would just be a cherry on top. However to improve our chances, I put in a lot of research on how to find and photograph them. Hopefully this will help on your own Northern Lights adventures.

tips for traveling to iceland in the winter
The Northern Lights reflecting into a lake.

Step One. Finding the Northern Lights

So first and foremost, the Northern Lights occur all year round, but are only visible when the sky is dark. This means at night, during the winter, and away from light pollution. In Iceland this is around September through the end of March. Strong showings can be seen from the city. However, your best bet for viewing the Northern Lights is to get away from Reykjavik and into the countryside. You also need clear skies as cloud coverage will block even the most amazing lights show. In terms of cloud coverage, Iceland doesn’t have the clearest skies (Sweden and Norway have fewer cloudy days), but like I said, this trip wasn’t just about the lights, so we decided to take our chances.

The elusive Aurora Coronus aka when the sky explodes above you!

So now you know to plan your trip in wintertime and to get away from the city. But how do you find the lights once you are in Iceland? We used to apps to help us “hunt” for the lights while on our trip. These were the Iceland Vedur App and My Aurora Forecast. We used the Vedur app to find areas with low cloud coverage and then the Aurora app to find areas with a high KP index. The KP index estimates the strength of the aurora, the higher the number the more likely you will have a stronger aurora. KP index is not guarantee. I have heard of people getting awesome shows at a low KP index and seeing nothing even with a high KP index. However, for us it did correlate pretty well. Both apps also let your look into future forecasts which is really helpful for planning which nights you want to hunt the Northern Lights and which you want to sleep.

For a final breakdown: go in winter, get out of the city, find low cloud coverage via the Vedur App and an area with high KP index via the Aurora Forecast App. So there you have it. You now have the tools you need to find the Northern Lights and with a bit of luck you might get a spectacular showing.

Getting a glimpse of some purple coloring during this aurora show.

Step Two. Photographing the Northern Lights

Finding the Northern Lights is the hardest part, but photographing them will allow you to document and share your experience with others. I am by no means a professional and my photos have room for improvement, but these tips can help to improve your captures of the Northern Lights. Also, it isn’t a requirement, but for the best photography you need a camera that you can manipulate the settings. I recommend cameras with a manual mode (ie a dslr or mirrorless lens camera). Smart phones and point and shoot cameras will work but won’t capture the experience as well. A basic list includes:

-DSLR or Mirrorless Lens Camera


-Shutter Release

-Wide Angle, Low Aperture Lens (I bought this one just for this trip!)

-Hand warmers (silly, but it gets really cold out there and these saved my life)

One of the less intense showings we got on our first night. The aurora was barely visible to the naked eye, but turned out vibrant in the photos.

The reason you will want a tripod and shutter release is that you will be photographing with a very slow shutter speed. Using these reduces the shake from hand holding the camera. For those not familiar with a shutter release, it is handy little remote that clicks the shutter button remotely. I use this one, and am able to take a picture from about 20 feet away. A wide angle lens is also ideal, as it allows you to get more in your frame. While not a requirement it does make for nicer pictures. A low aperture will also allow more light to enter the camera. This gives your more room to work with when changing around your other settings.

A beautiful stream of aurora on the left and a less vibrant but bigger flow on the right.

Working in manual mode will give your much more control over your photography overall, but especially for the Northern Lights. In general, my recommended settings would be to shoot at the lowest aperture your lens has and to primarily manipulate the shutter speed and ISO. Depending on how quickly the Northern Lights are moving, your shutter speed could vary from 1/4 second to 10 seconds or more. Your ISO will vary greatly on your individual camera, but the higher the ISO, the more noise you create so try to keep it as low as possible and instead use a slower shutter speed. For a quick reference I suggest:

-Aperture: f1.8-4.0

-Shutter speed: 1/4 second to 10 seconds

-ISO: 400-8000

Your general work flow will look something like this: get to your spot, set up your tripod and shutter release, turn your camera onto manual mode and adjust your settings based on the guide above. Play around with your settings until you find a good balance and photograph away!

Hopefully this information will be useful for all those seeking out one of the worlds most incredible phenomena, the Northern Lights. It truly was one of the most amazing experiences of our life and I was so thankful that we got such a good showing on one of our last nights in Iceland.


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