5 Tips For Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland

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We just spent 5 days in Iceland, which was a pretty great trip.

We managed to get a photo of the Aurora Borealis, which is by NO MEANS a sure thing.

I'll post a full "Iceland Tips and Tricks", or "Traveling Iceland with Kids" article later this week.

But this post is all about the Northern Lights.

If you've ever wanted to visit Iceland and see the Northern Lights, here are five things to keep in mind:



Before we get to the list, let's cut to the chase and see my finished product.

We were staying at the Hotel Grimsborgir, which is inland, in the south-west part of the country, north of Sefloss. And even out in the country, we had a lot of ambient light from buildings.

So I sat on our back porch, being absolutely blasted by arctic winds, night after night.

Looking north, into a giant low cloud that would not move.

And then I saw a flicker. My iPhone camera showed NOTHING.

I ran inside for the Sony a6000 camera and got this, through pure luck:


Yes, our neighbors kept their lights on constantly. It was no big deal.

I kept snapping photos for at least an hour, trying out different techniques.

I managed to reduce blurriness, which provided some good photos even as the aurora became less visible:


Not the MOST impressive aurora photo - but it's the Northern Lights! Tick that off the bucket list.

So, I know you're probably thinking "How can I get similarly amateurish-but-acceptable Northern Lights photos like that on my Iceland trip?!"

Remember, The Lights May Not Happen During Your Trip.

The Northern Lights aren't visible every night. They only appear off and on, every few days.

It's possible - perhaps even likely - that your trip to Iceland will miss them entirely. It won't be your fault!

The aurora only appears in Iceland's winter months - it doesn't get dark enough during the summer.

Even in winter, you're going to have to be somewhere dark... if you're surrounded by city lights, your chances of seeing the aurora are much lower.

You're also going to need a clear night. (Or at least not a TERRIBLY cloudy night.) Low-lying clouds will obscure the aurora.

And some nights, the lights can be so faint, or subtle, that you may be looking right at it and not recognize it.

So how do we figure out if the Northern Lights will be visible?

First, Make Sure Your Cell Plan Covers International Travel.

We recently switched to T-Mobile ONE, which made this European trip a lot simpler.

This was our first trip abroad with working data plans - which meant that we were able to keep in touch with friends in the US and family members in the UK, without worrying too much.

(It also meant that my son was able to catch Mr. Mime in Pokemon Go, which was of crucial importance.)


(Seriously, this was a primary goal for the trip.)

Having a working data plan also made it a lot simpler to identify when we could see the Northern Lights.

It's incredibly difficult to predict when an aurora will be visible.

Obviously, it needs to be dark.

It also needs to be clear. Low clouds will mess up your view of the aurora.

And, we need solar wind activity.

The Northern Lights are caused by charged particles ejected from the sun, colliding with the earth's magnetosphere and funneled toward the poles.

In layman's terms, we need solar activity in order to have Northern Lights. So we can SORT OF predict when an aurora may appear, by watching how the sun behaved 30 minutes prior.

Vedur.Is is the Icelandic Aurora Prediction Website.  It provides a map with current and projected cloud cover at different altitudes.

An even more important page at vedur.is - the Space Weather Forecast.

Specifically, Figure 2. This provides an estimate of aurora activity in the next 30 minutes, based upon observed solar activity.



Tonight, January 8 2018, is going to be AWESOME for the Northern Lights in Iceland.

Again, in layman's terms, this is a scale from 0-9, with 9 meaning "most aurora ever" and 0 meaning "don't bother".

High values like 7-9 are extremely rare, and the aurora MAY appear even at lower KP values.

Tonight looks like KP values approaching six, which is WAY, WAY more than we ever saw in our 4 Iceland nights.

(In fact, the night we saw the Northern Lights was barely a 2.)

But wait - What does this have to do with international cell service?

Remember, you're going to be somewhere dark and remote, so it's extremely unlikely you'll have wi-fi.

If you want to follow the Vedur.is space weather prediction from your viewing spot, you'll need cell service.

(It also helps to have a Twitter search up for "Iceland Aurora". If it's visible, you can bet that a dozen other people will be talking about it and tweeting photos.)

Use Long Exposures

We weren't able to get a good photo of the aurora using our iPhone camera - but it's not impossible.

I've heard that other people utilized the Northern Lights Photo Taker app, with some success. That app will adjust your exposure and focus to maximize your chances of an acceptable picture.

If you're using a point-and-shoot or DSLR, you need to change the exposure time to 5-8 seconds at minimum.

That's because you're going to be shooting something extremely far away (and generally, pretty difficult to see) in extremely low light.

I used a Sony a6000 mirrorless point-and-shoot. It's a consumer-level camera, nothing that fancy.

Set the focus to "infinite". The long exposure will make sure you pick up aurora bursts that only last a moment, and it will make a faint aurora look brighter.

In fact, our photos of the aurora look more impressive than the aurora was in person.

But because you're using long exposures...

Use a Tripod

It's very difficult to hold a camera PERFECTLY STILL for 5-8 seconds.

It's even more difficult in sub-zero temperatures, in the third-windiest place on the planet.

And.... I didn't have a tripod.

Because of that, most of my photos were total failures - and even the successes were somewhat blurry.

The technique that worked best for me was to sit in a chair, position the camera on my chest, hold my breath, and hope for the best.

A tripod - and if it's heavy wind, an extremely weighted tripod - is crucial.

Bump Up the Contrast

One final tip - and one that all the pros use - is to increase the contrast a bit in post.

Shooting at long exposures has a tendency to make everything look brighter - including the night sky. Keep the aperture open long enough, and it will look like you were shooting the aurora before sunset.

Increasing the contrast won't make the aurora any more impressive in your photos - but it WILL make the sky look darker. You know, like a night sky.

Suddenly, you can see the stars,

It's simple to adjust contrast in Photos, or basically any photography application. In my photos, I increased contrast by about .24 - really, this is a matter of preference.

In Closing....

There are several "must see" attractions in Iceland. And you can get to most of them pretty easily.

You can guarantee that you'll see the Geysir area - and you'll see an eruption, becaus it happens every 8 minutes.

You'll see the Gulfoss waterfall. You MUST see the Blue Lagoon.

You'll see Reykjavik, and you'll see Thingvellir national park. If you want, you can see the glaciers, inside and out.

But you may not see the Northern Lights. So if you do, you're gonna want to prove it.

These tips should help you identify if and when the Lights will be visible, and help you to get you a usable photograph.

If you've recently been to Iceland - or have taken Northern Lights photos elsewhere in the past - feel free to add pointers in the comments.

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