Ten Tips for Viewing and Photographing Iceland’s Northern Lights

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northern lights
You can see how a wider angle lens would’ve helped

During my week in Iceland, I was fortunate to see the Northern Lights twice, and both times at a very reasonable hour without having to wait in the cold for them to arrive. They also made a spectacular appearance on my last night in Reykjavik, but I slept through my alarm and missed it. I have never slept through an alarm. I was so bummed.

But, the night of March 2nd I saw a spectacular show just .5km from where I was staying in Reykjavik. How did I know they were coming? I used a handy app called Aurora that quite accurately predicts when they can be seen in your location. I saw at 8:00 PM that there would be an excellent chance of seeing them at 8:30, so I put on my many layers, grabbed my camera which was already set up, and I drove the .5km to the lighthouse at the end of the Seltjarnarnes peninsula. My Airbnb host had already told me when I booked the apartment that I could see them from this point, and that’s one reason I booked this lovely apartment rather than a place downtown.

Here’s a website that is awesome for tracking the weather. Vedur

Here’s the Aurora app I used. Aurora

When using the app, when you see orange or red coming your way on the map, get ready and get to where you can see them.

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When I arrived, there weren’t too many people there yet. The night before I had gone there as well, but there were a lot of people, some who did not understand that they needed to turn off their car lights (Hello!), but on this night, I was one of the first people there. I got a great spot and waited.

I didn’t have to wait long. By 8:30 they were in full swing, glowing in green streaks across the sky and moving like shifting sand. If I focused on one particular streak and really watched the movement, it looked just like sand shifting and rolling. It was incredible.

northern lights
This was just spectacular and I just couldn’t capture it. I still don’t know what I did wrong. Something to do with infinity focus I think.

I’m not going to pretend to know how to photograph them, and I know I didn’t have the right lens, but I read a lot about how to get good shots of the Northern Lights. I will just share a bit of what I learned and some good websites that can help you a lot more than I can. It’s obvious I am an amateur, but I think for a first try, they came out pretty good!

Tips for Viewing and Photographing the

Northern Lights

by a total amateur!

These are basically just tips I got from these websites that I know will work, I just wasn’t able to implement them all.

northern lights

1) Use a sturdy tripod and a remote. I bought both of these before coming to Iceland, and they are the main reason I managed to get a few decent shots. These prevent the camera from shaking and prevents blurry photos.

2) Use a wide angle, powerful, and fast lens. I didn’t and I think this was my single biggest mistake. When I travel to see the Northern Lights again, I will invest in a better lens with a wider angle.

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3) Fix your camera settings and put your camera on the tripod before going out into the cold and possible windy conditions. It’s much easier to set up in the comfort of being inside.

4) Take a headlamp in case you need to change your camera settings or need to walk a bit to get away from the lights.

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5) Find the darkest place possible to reduce noise pollution in your photos. I didn’t, but it was pretty dark at the end of the peninsula.

6) Research camera settings that other people have used to get great pictures, preferably with the same type of camera you have. I’m not going to give advice on camera settings because I think some of my settings, along with my lens, were the reason mine were blurry, even though they didn’t appear blurry in Live View on my camera. Here are some websites that I found very useful.

Guide to Iceland Northern Lights Photography

tourradar Northern Lights Photography

Photography Life How to Photograph the Northern Lights

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7) Shoot in RAW mode. This was the first time I ever used RAW mode, and I did it simply because everything I read about photographing the Northern Lights said to use RAW. I didn’t really get why until I started editing in Lightroom. Then the “aha” moment came. Also, use the Live View. Actually, my camera wouldn’t even take photos of the Lights when I wasn’t in Live View.

8) Dress for the occasion so you can stay a while. It’s going to be very cold! I wore long underwear, jeans, fleece pants (purchased for Kilimanjaro and thought I would never need them again), undershirt, wool sweater, and a down jacket, a fleece hat and the hood on my jacket, and gloves. I was pretty toasty, actually, and I was able to stay over two hours watching the lights till they began to fade. A lot of people lasted about 30 minutes and left. What a shame. I heard they put on another great show later that same night around 2:00AM.

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9) Find a private place if you can. I must admit, all the chit chat, laughter and yelling, obnoxious selfie taking and group photos – with phones that can’t even capture the lights! – and smoking (WTH?), did detract from my overall experience. So did the Germans who grouped behind me and showed more interest in my photos on the screen than the actual lights in the sky. If you can get away from it all, do it.

Experience Reykjavik! Book tickets to the Blue Lagoon Spa, Northern Lights and more

10) Take photos, but also take time to just watch. This is another reason the remote comes in handy. The Lights move and shift and create incredible images and patterns. See them for real, not just in your photos.

northern lights

Mary Lyons
I have had incredible travel opportunities since moving overseas eleven years ago. I created this blog to share my experiences, what I've learned, and my mistakes and frustrations, in hopes of entertaining readers and helping people to create and plan their own travel opportunities.

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