We have just finished our 15 day trip in Iceland and want to share some of our experiences on how to find and take pictures of the Northern Lights. Spotting the Northern lights can be a little difficult if you have not seen one with your eyes before. Usually the Northern Light appears significantly different to our naked eyes compared to what can be captured on the camera.
No.1 When to see the Northern lights
Northern Light is technically always there in the Aurora Oval but requires darkness to be seen. The Northern countries in the Aurora Oval has no complete darkness throughout summer, so the Northern Light is impossible to be seen during then.
Iceland is dark enough at night to see the Northern lights between September and March. November and December will be the darkest and have the longest Nights, however we had enough darkness and saw plenty of Northern Lights in September during our 15 days in Iceland. September is quite a good time visit Iceland as most of the attraction is not yet closed for winter. We usually begin to spot the Northern Lights after Sunset around 9:30pm on a clear day. They usually remain quite visible constantly all night at various intensity.
No.2 How to Read the Aurora Forecast
There is a website that specifically forecast the Aurora for Iceland. (Aurora Forecast website)
Usually you can see the forecast for three days ahead. The following is a quick tutorial on how to read this website.
- When you enter Vedur Website, select English, then click “Aurora Forcast”. The webpage should appear with an Iceland Map and different colors of green.
- On the right side there is a box that says “Aurora Forecast” with numbers ranging 0-9. These numbers indicate the probability Northern Light. It does NOT indicate the intensity of the Northern Lights. The night we saw strongest Northern light was only “2” on the scale!
- You need darkness before you can see and take pictures of the Northern Lights. On the Right there is box that tells you when it is dark enough to see the Northern Lights.
- Essentially you need a clear sky to see the Northern Lights. There is a bar on the bottom that allows you to change to different times to see the movements of the cloud. Usually you can see the cloud movements up to 72 hours ahead.
- This is cloud map over Iceland. White means no cloud cover, light green means light cloud cover and dark green means thick cloud cover. You need to be in the area of white to have a clear sky to see the Northern Lights!
The clouds cover is usually the reason that stops us from seeing the Northern Lights. We have seen the Northern Light every night that we had a clear sky. You can always drive towards the white spots on this cloud map to find clear sky.
If you don’t have a car to get out of the city where it is dark enough, you can join a tour. Tours come with a free do-over if you don’t see any Northern Lights. On our first night we plan to join the Gray Line Northern Lights Tour (website),€45 per person. However it was canceled because of rain and they refunded our money. I would still recommend to join the Northern Light tour as they would teach you how to recognize the Northern Lights.
No.3 Recognizing Northern Lights
Many people imagine the Northern Lights as circles of dancing green light in the sky. In reality, rarely does the intensity of the Northern Light become this strong. Most of the Northern Lights we have seen appears to be a long white cloud like shape in the sky. We had a friend that was driving in Iceland looking for the Northern Lights for hours and thought the white Northern Lights were just clouds. We would only occasionally see some green colors in the light after observing it for a while.
Cameras can capture more light and colors than the human eyes. This is because the sensors in the camera are more sensitive than the human eye. If the sensors are large enough and you have exposure long enough, you can capture all the colors of the Northern Light. The grey patches in the sky will come out extremely green and beautiful in the camera. Hence this is why joining a tour is beneficial as they can help you recognize which white patches in sky is the Northern Light.
We did encounter a few days of more intense light where the color green does appear in the sky. One of the nights we were extremely lucky and captured an explosion of colors in the sky. Winny was simply shooting in Auto Mode on her camera with no exposure and took a few awesome pictures. In essence, you need some patience and luck to capture very beautiful photos of the Northern Light.
No.4 Picking the right camera
To properly take photos of the Northern light, you need a camera with the following criteria:
- A camera with a sensor that is larger than 1 inch
- Can adjust the aperture to a smaller number than F2.8
- Can use manual mode
The camera we used to take these pictures is a compact camera, so don’t feel that you need a DSLR or mirrorless to capture the Norther Lights. The reason why we are using a compact camera is because we are currently travelling for one year with an 8kg back pack and require something small and light. However many people thought that we were taking these photos with a DSLR when we shared them online.
Our current camera is Sony DSC-RX100M III. We started our trip with Sony DSC-RX100M IV, however we accidentally broke this camera in Bolivia only three months into our travel. We could only buy the previous generation of the same camera which is the Sony DSC-RX100M III. Besides not being able to take videos in HD quality, the two generations are quite similar in performance. This camera has been voted the best compacted camera for many years and it has a large sensor. However many new compact cameras now all have sensors greater than 1”. Of course most Mirrorless and DSLR camera would have larger sensors but we don’t want to be carrying extra lenses around during our lengthy trip. I am quite happy with the quality of the photos taken from our Sony DSC-RX100M III.
No.5 Get a tripod
To take pictures of the Northern Lights, you normally have to expose the picture for more than 10 seconds, therefore you can’t just hand hold your camera. You can’t just prop your camera on an object because it’s hard to make the camera point to the sky. This is why a tripod is necessity to take pictures of the Northern Lights. However you do not require a huge 1kg tripod. Any tripod that can help you point your camera into the sky is enough. My personal favorite is the GorillaPod Magnetic Tripod, because it’s legs is very easy change the angle of the camera. The end of the legs now have magnets which conveniently allows you to stick your camera to your car or a metal pole.
How to take pictures of the Northern Lights
The following is a series of pictures where we have not done any photo editing. These are JPEG photos where I directly taken out of our cameras. Normally with some simple editing, you can enhance the green in the photos more dramatically. Professional photographers will usually shoot in RAW and fix each photo with Photoshop so each photo will look even more stunning than JPEG. Naturally we are not professionals, so following is our experiences on how we adjust our camera to take pictures of the Northern Light
- On manual mode, you need to change the focus to “Infinity”.
- ISO Shooting at the night sky requires ISO 1000 – ISO 1600, The higher the ISO, the brighter the picture but at the same time you will have more “noise” which is the fuzziness in the picture.
- Apriture, which is “F”, needs to be the smallest possible number for your camera (eg. F.1.8 )
- white balance can be auto or adjust to your own liking.
- Exposure time usually requires between 10 to 20 seconds.
- Use a tripod for the exposure time, otherwise you will have a blurry picture.
- If you want to take pictures of the Northern lights with a person, you need to do your exposure (ie. 10-20 seconds) and then flash your person with light.
During our visit in Iceland, we were having a full moon which was a little annoying. The manual setting I used when taking pictures under the moon is quite different compared to no moon. I was mainly adjusting the ISO and the white balance and usually kept the exposure time to 10 seconds.
As the moon was too bright, the color of the sky changes color when I expose the picture. The photo can look significantly better after I adjust the photo with a photo editor.
The above is our experience at taking picture of the Northern lights. During our 7 days in northern Iceland, we had 4 days of clear nights. We were able to take pictures of the Northern Lights on every clear sky night. Unfortunately after we started travelling south we were getting clouds every night. Apparently Reykjavík commonly has a cloudy sky, so you may require to travel further North to increase your chances to see the Northern Lights.