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Finding and Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland

The Hítará, Iceland, Iceland


Added by Alyssa Gregory

Everyone hopes for a chance to see the aurora dancing across the sky. Iceland is a perfect place to see the northern lights, but make sure you know what to do with your camera when they come out!

The aurora borealis can be seen in Iceland during the months of September-April, when the skies are dark enough for the lights to appear. The nights are longer during the winter months of November-February and therefore you may have a greater chance of seeing them then, however it is also much colder during this time and the weather is likely to be bad. If you are trying to balance out reasonable weather with a decent chance of seeing the lights, you should visit Iceland in October or March. During these months, the days and nights are of about equal length and the weather is not as crazy as in the winter (although Icelandic weather is unpredictable and can be crazy any time).

Once you are in Iceland, you'll wonder, how do I know where to look for the lights? The best website for hunting for the lights in Iceland is: http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/#type=total

This is the Icelandic Meteorological website and has all the information you need as an amateur lights chaser. It will show you cloud cover throughout the country (you need clear skies - white on the map - to see the lights) and the forecast (upper right) for each day. I monitored this website all day each day we were there to see if it would be clear each night. This website is helpful but obviously does not update every second, so even if it says it's cloudy around you, take a look outside and if you don't see many clouds, go looking! There were nights where it said that the area we were in was dark green (very cloudy) and we didn't see a cloud in the sky. Icelandic weather changes so frequently, even their own weather sites can't keep up!

If you've never seen the lights before, you need to know what to look for. Of course, you will be looking due north. If the lights are not very bright, they will look like a bright greyish/white mist. As they become more active, they will start to look like a pale green color and may move around. Even if the activity level is only a 2 or 3, you should still be able to see them as long as you get to a dark enough area (far from Reykjavik) without clouds. We went looking about 40 minutes south of Reykjavik one night and it was still too bright to really see them. We had much better luck about 75 minutes north of Reykjavik outside of Borgarnes (this is where the above pictures were taken). Luckily, most of Iceland is remote so you should not have a hard time finding a dark place. Check this website for road conditions before you head out: http://www.road.is/travel-info/road-conditions-and-weather/

So now that you've found them... How to photograph them? Set up your camera on the tripod with the remote shutter connected and point it north. You will want your ISO to be at least 1000, or higher if the lights aren't very bright, and your aperture should be opened as far as your lens allows (the lowest number it will go to - e.g. 3.5 or 2.8). If the lights are faint, you'll want to start with a long shutter speed of 20-30 seconds. If the lights are bright or start to move quickly, you may be able to bring your shutter speed down to 15, 10, or 5 seconds. A couple of the pictures attached to this post were only 5 second exposures. If you're in a really crazy storm, you may even be able to just do 1 or 2 second exposures. It all depends on how bright the lights are and what you want your pictures to look like. If the lights are moving fast and you want them to look sharp, you will need a shorter exposure. If you want them to look smooth and blurred, you can use longer exposures. Lastly, MAKE SURE TO SHOOT IN RAW! This will help you immensely in post-processing. I accidentally shot a few of the above shots at ISO 100, but because they were RAW files, I was able to recover the images. This would not have been possible if they were JPEGs. If you're nervous about shooting in RAW, shoot in RAW + JPEG so you have both.

Experiment with your settings and enjoy the show!

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