How to spot and photograph northern lights in Iceland?

Hello everyone, this past week has been so special because we were blessed with amazing weather thus amazing northern lights!

For those who don’t know it yet, I’ve been staying and working in Iceland since last June. I work in a tourist shop that is also a travel agency and I see people every day asking me about northern lights.

Everyone has been crazy about them! Post of pics are showing everywhere on my facebook feed so I thought I would write a post about it and try to answer the questions people ask me the most!

So wait a minute…what are northern lights exactly?A photo by Thomas Tucker. unsplash.com/photos/-HPhkZcJQNk

The northern lights are caused by solar winds disturbed by the magnetosphere. The magnetosphere is basically the 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 next to the Poles; the magnetosphere is less protective in those regions.

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

The Magnetosphere

Why have some northern lights different colors?A photo by Nelly Volkovich. unsplash.com/photos/ZSMgNjYrHRM

A photo of Northern Lights by Nelly Volkovich.

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

The most common northern lights 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

Purple northern lights are rarer (they are in fact hard to spot by humans and may require optical windows) but I have seen some this week !! 😀

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

In what part of the world can you spot Northern Lights?

Alaska, Norway, Sweden, Greenland, Finland and Iceland. Basically any place near the North Pole!

At what time of the year are the northern lights visible?

In Iceland, you can see them from the end of august/beginning of September to April.

This year the northern lights were visible on august 30th in Reykjavik!

How to spot northern lights?

You need obscurity, clear skies, and no light pollution to spot northern lights. The Icelandic weather website is great just click here!

It indicates the level of clarity (if there will be clouds or not).

The part where the map is white is where you can possibly spot them:Weather Iceland

 It also indicates the level of intensity of the northern lights:(on the right of the image)Weather Iceland 1

It needs to be at least 3 ! The level was very high last Wednesday as you can see!

So what you need is:

  • Obscurity

  • no light pollution

  • no clouds

But what you have to remember is that you can’t really predict in advance if there will be any northern lights and where they are going to appear.

You have to check closely at the forecast like a few hours before evening. It’s part of the magical event of spotting them! It’s not really predictable!

You also have to be lucky and patient! Because sometimes you have to wait for hours!

The first time I saw some, we had to wait until 1 am. We were about to give up (and we were freezing, it was last February) and all of a sudden we spotted a little white light, like somebody was painting in the sky! And it became more and more intense and green!

People started to cheer, to shout, it was an incredible feeling to witness something so rare and so beautiful!

Where is the best location to see northern lights?

A photo of Northern lights by Marcelo Quinan.
A photo of Northern lights by Marcelo Quinan.

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.

Actually this week, the city council of Reykjavik decided to turn off the city lights from 10 pm to 11 pm to make spotting northern lights easier! Told you it was something really special this week!

The first time I spotted northern lights, it was at the Gardur lighthouse next to Keflavik.

Seeing them next to a lighthouse is really nice: you have the water reflection, not much light and a nice scenery for your pics!2016-02-09-03-23-27-e1475862438396

By the Reykjavik Bay, it is also nice:

I took this photo of northern lights last Wednesday ;)
taken by Helene Travels All Right reserved

How to take the northern lights in pictures?2016-02-09-03-45-35-e1475862386553

Taking pics of them is hard in my opinion, especially if you don’t have a tripod (like me!!).

You need:

  • to set your camera on Manual

  • Set the exposure to about 20 seconds

  • Aperture from F2.8 to F4

  • Iso to 800

Since you need to stay very still a tripod would be nice and a remote control for your camera so you don’t have to push the button of your camera and move it ;). That’s also why going on a northern lights cruise is not great if you want to take pics: the boat shakes!

Also don’t forget to shoot the northern lights within an actual scenery (a building, a mountain…something in the background) to give some perspective or else you’ll end up with a stray of green light but it won’t translate much, see:

the colors are nice but it doesn't really translate that they are northern lights :D
taken by Helene Travels All Right reserved

I hope you have answered all your interrogations! If you have more don’t hesitate to contact me or leave a comment!

I hope you’ll be lucky enough to spot the northern lights at least once in your life, it’s truly something special!

Watch the video of northern lights filmed with a drone by OZZO photography! His pics and videos of Iceland are amazing:

Did you know? The northern lights’ other name is Aurora Borealis which comes from the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek name for the north wind, Boreas.

for more info check out the Aurora Reykjavik

Like it? Pin it!I had to chance to witness northern lights several times now so here's my tips to spot them in Iceland and take them in pictures!

24 Comments
  1. I grew up in Alaska and only recently started photographing them. It’s quite tricky and takes A LOT of patience in the cold. These are great tips and I will keep this for handy reference for the shutter stop, ios etc… Hopefully we can see some this winter!

    1. Thank you !! and yes so hard ! I can barely photograph them myself and I have to buy a tripod lol! One of my friends live in Alaska I want to visit the country so much!!!

  2. You are so lucky that you’re living and working in Iceland and that you saw purple northern lights. All the heart eye emojis!! I had no idea the colors of the northern lights varied based on altitude (honestly, I’m kind of embarrassed that I never thought to wonder…) And now I’ll need to add seeing different colored auroras to my bucket list, on top of – ya know – seeing them in the first place. I was in Reykjavík for a week last March but it was cloudy. Thank you for the great guide that I can use to track them down next time!

    1. you’re welcome!! I hope you’ll be able to come back and see some!! I’m living in Iceland right now but I will keep on travelling! I stay a bit more here and will come back more often because I now have an Icelandic boyfriend ^^ But Iceland was already one of my favorite countries and one where I could see myself settling down! So can’t wait for winter here and more northern lights to see 😉

  3. Great tips! I only saw a teeny bit of the Northern Lights when I went to Iceland because the weather was too cloudy, but I 100% want to go back! I better make it soon…

  4. This is one of the best northern lights posts I’ve read. It’s so thorough and helpful. I’ve been chasing the lights for years. They’re so beautiful, you’ve got some really nice photos of them here!

  5. Ahhh I love this post! It’s my dream to see the northern lights, which is obviously one of the main reasons I want to get to Iceland. All of these photos are awesome! I’ve just visited Greenland, but August definitely wasn’t the time of year for the northern lights with the sun out basically 24 hours a day! Haha

    1. Thanks!!! Oh my god How was Greenland? I dream to go but it s so expensive! So glad you liked the article!! You can come to Iceland fully prepared now 😉

  6. I loved visiting Iceland however we were there in July so no Northern Lights for us. It is definitely on my bucket list. Maybe it’s time to go back to Iceland but this time during the winter.

    1. Yes you should! I actually prefer Iceland in winter, the landscapes are more dramatic and it feels even more special! It’s also less crowded which is also nice! Some part are less accessible though! I’ll do a post on that 😉

  7. I couldn’t agree more, my first pics from Reykjavik are blurry as hell, but I can see now that tripod would’ve helped a great deal and your tips on settings. The idea of including scenery for perspective is really important too.

  8. Wow some awesome photos here! I love how clear and practical your tips are 🙂 Visited Iceland in February and wasn’t lucky enough to see the Northern Lights although we heard rumours that they were about while we were there, just not until 4am in the morning /sigh

  9. OMG! Your drone video is phenomenal. So well done!! Wow, so nice to see the incredible northern lights. Really need to get to Iceland and see this for myself. Very inspiring! Thank you.

  10. A lot of good memories come back when looking at the pictures near the lighthouse 🙂 So damn cold, but sooo worth it! I wanna go back to iceland this winter! So nice to read all your stories, though it makes me miss iceland even more 😛

  11. Wow – nature is amazing!! I didn’t know you could see the Northern Lights during all those months – I thought it was only once a year. The more I see of Iceland, the more I want to go – thanks for sharing!

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