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How To See The Northern Lights in Iceland

The Northern Lights in Iceland

The Northern Lights in Iceland Wow what a week! ….without any sleep!

This week has been a pretty special one with the Northern Lights in Iceland. I’ve had butterflies in my stomach during the day, a feeling that peaks when the sun starts to set. The reason for my uneasiness is that for 6 days straight now there have been strong Northern Lights over Iceland! Every night I have been driving outside of the city’s light-pollution to watch the spectacular show. northern-lights-iceland

The Northern Lights in Iceland

Last Wednesday Reykjavík City finally picked up on this unusual Northern Lights activity, so they decided to turn off all the street lights in the city to make them more visible. This resulted in an unforgettable night. At 21.00 all the lights in the city were turned off and even the biggest roads in the city went pitch black. I was actually driving the moment they shut of the lights, it must have confused a few tourists trying to navigate the city. As I drove the highway I met an Asian tourist who was driving the same street in the wrong direction!

HAHA….I could not help but laugh!

When the Northern Lights started to appear I was standing by the church among a group of tourists and a few locals. The green neon lights danced in the sky above the dark city. Everywhere around me I heard overwhelmed travellers: “woooow”, “Ohmy…”, probably witnessing this for the first time. It even sounded like some of them were literally crying out of amazement.

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After watching the show by the church I walked home, but then I realised the lights had only gotten stronger. So I managed to capture this photo of the lights dancing over our house.

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I think it’s my favourite photo of the northern lights so far. Quite unique to see them so brightly in the middle of the city above our house. As you can see the street lights are off.

When and where can I see the Northern Lights?

I get so many questions from travellers about the northern lights. I think the most common one is “what is the best time of year to see the northern lights?”.

Well, the truth is, the northern lights are active all year round, but because of the bright summer nights in Iceland they’re not clearly visible during the summer months. However as soon as the days get shorter and the nights darker you’re chances of seeing them get better. For example this year we had unusually strong lights in August (even though it’s not super common)! Most people are so surprised that you can see them during this time of year. So really, the bottom line, September to March is the best time to see the Northern Lights. With some possibilities in August and April.

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Another question I get quite frequently is “where is the best place to see them?”, “is North Iceland better then South?”. Again…there is no particular spot that is better then the other. BUT, the best recipe is proper darkness (far away from any light pollution) and clear skies, plus a promising activity according to the Aurora forecast. Between 10:00 pm to 3:00 am seems to be the time frame most conducive to aurora activity, so say the scientists, and my experience confirms that.

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Some good northern lights apps

When I’m planning to go out hunting for northern lights I always start by checking out the weather forecast. As I’m living in Iceland I always use the local weather forecast website. They are actually really good and accurate. You can check out the website here, it will both tell you the cloud density as well as the northern lights activity for the next days.

If you want more user-friendly ways to follow up on the activity I recommend these two apps.

Aurora Forecast

The Aurora Forecast app, lets you easily plan to see the Northern Lights. It has a list of locations where it’s good to view the lights. It sends notifications if auroral activity is expected to be high.

My Aurora Forecast – Northern Lights & Borealis

My Aurora Forecast is a really good app for seeing the Northern Lights. The app will tell you how likely you are to see the aurora borealis and also details about the solar winds. It has a map showing how strong the aurora is around the world. It has forecasts for the next hour, several hours and several weeks so you can plan your Northern Lights viewing long in advance.

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Should I join a Northern Light Tour? Is it worth it?

There are many tour companies in Iceland that operate Northern Lights tours. In fact Guide To Iceland gives you 68 options to choose from. So it can be a little bit overwhelming to find out which one’s are good.

I would say that the good thing about joining a tour is that you have experienced guides that are good at hunting down the northern lights. They’ve all been doing this for a long time and it might be easier to let them do the searching instead of trying to navigate on your own in the dark.

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Another positive thing about the tours is that they don’t run the tour if it’s unlikely to see the lights. Instead they will reschedule you for free for the next day when the forecast seems better. If you don’t have another day where you can go, you’ll get a full refund. Few of the companies had a 100% success rate last winter.

On top of that, when the northern lights appear it’s quite awesome to share those moments with a nice group, whooping and hollering! Even though I’m seeing the northern lights for the hundred time, I still can’t keep my mouth shut when they dance across the sky. It’s like you have a urge to scream “wow, will you look at that”, “shit, look left, look left…THEY ARE SO STRONG RIGHT NOW”. Haha, it just doesn’t get old. I guess it’s because they never look the same.

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Which tour should I choose?

If you are convinced on joining a tour, then it’s time to find the right one. All of the tours offer pickup from hotels in downtown Reykjavík.

For the backpacker

I personally like the tours that are operated in small groups. I’m not a big fan of big busses where you are in a group with 40+ others. If you agree with that, then I would recommend this minibus tour. This tour is operated with a maximum group of 15 people. The atmosphere is nice and relaxed. Later in the evening you will get a warm chocolate and some pastry.

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For the budget traveller

If you are REALLY on budget then the big bus tour is for you. They are the cheapest option available.

For the luxury traveller

If you are a luxury traveller and you would like to make a memorable evening out under the magical Icelandic winter sky. Then I would recommend this Super Jeep Tour with Lobster Dinner. You will be picked up from you hotel where your jeep-adventure will start. You will drive to a remote area of the South Coast of Iceland. Upon reaching the shores you will enjoy an Icelandic lobster feast at a cute little sea-side restaurant.

For the adventurers

If you are the adventures type and you don’t get sea-sick you should consider joining a northern light boat tour. The boats are running every night and the price is fair. However if you are a photo enthusiast I wouldn’t recommend joining the boat tour, as the surface isn’t steady, giving you only blurred photos.

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Do they really look like the photos?

I’ve met some travellers that have witnessed the northern lights and some of them were quite disappointed. It’s a fact that the photos exaggerate them quite a bit. Most of the photos are shot on DSLR cameras with a long shutter time. Which means the camera draws in all the light over a few seconds which makes them look brighter than they are in reality.

However the northern lights really vary in brightness. I’ve been observing the northern lights for a long time now and the strength of them varies from night to night. Sometimes they’ve been so strong that they light up the whole city and I could easily photograph them with my phone! Other nights they are less visible an not nearly as strong.

Like this night….

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How to photograph the Northern Lights?

To capture some nice images of the Northern Lights in Iceland you really don’t need much equipment. First of all you need a DSLR camera with a lens capable of a wide aperture, a fully charged battery and a tripod. I recently got a new camera, Canon 760d, at Nýherji our local camera store, which I use to shoot the Northern Lights.

All the photos in this post were taken with my 760d. I’m not saying they are perfect but they are about a 1000 times better than my first northern lights photos I was shooting with my old camera.

Photographing the northern lights always means that you will be in a quite dark environment which makes things a little bit more tricky. The two main struggles you will face is that the image will be too dark or the image will be out of focus.

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Before we go over the settings and technique make sure that you understand these three concepts:

ISO

ISO is the level of sensitivity of your camera to available light. The lower the ISO number, the less sensitive it is to the light, while a higher ISO number increases the sensitivity of your camera. If your camera has poor ISO capabilities your photo is going to become really grainy if you use a very high ISO. When shooting the northern lights you will need a little bit higher ISO then usual, but it might be better to increase the shutter speed, instead of the ISO.

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Shutter Speed

The shutter speed is simply the length of time when the digital sensor inside the camera is exposed to light. When photographing the northern lights you need a long shutter speed so the camera can sample the light visible and form a bright photo of the green lights. However a really long shutter speed can result in a green mist, since the lights are always moving. But by trying different settings you should get there eventually.

Aperture

Aperture is the part of the camera that either adds a dimension to a photograph by blurring the background, or magically brings everything in focus. Every lens has a limit on how large or how small the aperture can get.

When photographing the northern lights, simply open your aperture to f/2.8 or as wide as possible if it doesn’t go all the way to f/2.8. I don’t recommend opening your aperture any wider than f/2.8. With very wide apertures it becomes hard to focus at night.

Just remember that increasing ISO degrades image quality, adjusting aperture and shutter speed does not! Never increase ISO until you have “maxed out’ your aperture and shutter speed.

Processed with Snapseed.

The next step

When you’ve got the basics of how these three things work together it’s good to decide on a nice location.

A snowy landscape that reflects the light is a big help during a completely dark night. It can provide the necessary light for a foreground landscape that contributes composition to your frame. If you don’t have snow it might help to bring a flashlight and light up the foreground while you shoot the image with a longer shutter time.

Settings for the camera

1. Put ISO between 800 – 1200. If your photo isn’t bright enough you can increase it to 1600.

2. Keeping your shutter speed between 5-25 seconds will work well. If the northern lights are very bright and dancing across the sky put it at 5-7 second exposures. If it is moving slower try 10-25 seconds.

3. Put the aperture to f/2.8

4. Shoot in RAW if you want the opportunity to reduce noise in the photo later on.

Then finally keep the tripod steady. A good rule is to put the camera on a 2 sec timer, that decreases movement in the camera and makes the image sharper.

Processed with Snapseed.

Getting focus

I have found this to be my biggest dilemma when trying to photograph the northern lights. The best way to focus is either setting it before it gets dark on some point, like a mountain in distance.

Another way would be focusing after it gets dark, then the best way is to use some light to focus on. Like city lights in distance or a light house. If you don’t have any nearby lights you could bring with you a flash light and ask your buddy to stand somewhere holding the flash light.

My favourite Northern Lights spots close to Reykjavík

Straumsvík

Straumsvík is a nice photo location situated outside of Reykjavík in the direction of the airport. Simply drive the road towards the airport and Straumsvík is a right turn straight after the alminium factory.

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Þingvellir National Park

Þingvellir National Park is located approximately 45 km northeast of Reykjavík. Take road no. 1 heading north out of Reykjavík. There are many nice spots around the area to shoot some photos.

Kleifarvatn and surrounding

Kleifarvatn lake is situated at Reykjanes Peninsula and is a mere 30 min drive from Reykjavík. The lake is the largest of the peninsula and offers some great views.

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Grótta

Grótta is the site of a nice lighthouse and sits at the westernmost end of Reykjavik city. It’s a super popular spot for enjoying both the midnight sun and the northern lights. This place is very easy and cheap to get to. From downtown Reykjavik you can get there by following the shoreline. This will take 40 to 50 minutes at a slow pace. You might get the glimpse of the Northern Lights in Iceland

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Did you like the post? Have you seen the northern lights?
We would love to hear your comments! 🙂

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2 Comments

  • Reply
    James
    November 11, 2016 at 7:41 pm

    Wow… these are simply gorgeous… Breathtaking… I had Iceland on my bucket list for scuba diving but I think I might have to change my plans seeing your pictures and reading your blog! Thanks for sharing.
    James recently posted…Suunto Zoop Novo Dive Computer ReviewMy Profile

  • Reply
    Gunn K. Siri
    November 21, 2016 at 5:00 pm

    Love the blog, Instagram and Snapchat account. Really like the Iceland tips,
    I was in Iceland last month and fell in love with the country and the hospitality ?
    I will definately go back as soon as possible.

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