The Northern Lights, otherwise known as the Aurora Borealis, are something that many people want to see at least once in their lifetime. Today, you’re going to learn about the best way to see the Northern Lights when visiting Iceland!
Also read my other posts about Driving Around Iceland’s Ring Road in Winter: Practicalities and Itinerary, Hiring a Car in Iceland: Practicalities & How to Get a Cheap One, the Secret of Travelling Iceland on a Budget and Driving Iceland’s Golden Circle.
Best Months to See the Northern Lights in Iceland
Although there is much discussion online about when exactly to see the northern lights, it all comes down to having enough darkness in the sky for the lights to actually be visible. This means that anything is summer is out because there is almost 24 hours of sun in Iceland in June/July.
So to increase your chances, you really want to be heading there between November and February when you have the most dark skies, although September/October and March/April are also worth it because the weather is often better than in deep winter.
Choosing a Spot to View the Northern Lights From
Once you’re in Iceland, you need to decide where to view them from. The first recommendation is to get out of Reykjavik as the city lights will lighten the sky and make the aurora less intense. This means you will need your own transport such as a hire car from Holiday Autos or take a tour.
Secondly, you need to have clear skies. This website –http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/ – is the official weather website for Iceland and it includes a page on aurora. You must look at this site. The most important aspect to seeing the aurora is to have no cloud cover — if there are no clouds, the aurora will appear, it’s as simple as that. The second most important aspect of this site is the KP or intensity level. Anything of 2 or more will look awesome. If you get 4 or 5, it’ll be mind-blowing.
So once you know where the clear skies will be, start driving to a place which is both out of Reykjavik and has clear skies. You may have to drive all night if the clouds are opening up on the other side of the country! Remember, the lights usually start around 10:30pm and last for a few hours. Sometimes longer, sometimes shorter.
Photographing the Northern Lights
Seeing the aurora with the naked eye is an almost spiritual experience. But most people want to capture it with their camera as well. Here is the gear you will need:
- Wide lense (20mm equivalent with a low F number – I used 12mm (18mm equiv) F2) so you can capture the vastness of the aurora.
- dSLR or mirrorless camera because you need to use manual controls and good low light performance.
Next, the settings. The settings on your camera really depend on how bright the aurora is and whether it is in intense lines or more spread out across the sky, so you will need to experiment a little bit. But this worked for me.
ISO 1600, 13 sec, F2.
I also tried longer exposures, but for me the sky ended up being a little washed out from there being too much residual light from the aurora. I found shorter exposures showed off the intensity of the bright spots of the aurora while keeping the sky relatively dark.
Chance of Seeing the Aurora in a Short Trip to Iceland
If you are simply stopping over in Iceland for a couple of nights on the way to Europe or the USA, you have to be really lucky to see the Aurora mainly because of weather. I was in Iceland for 7 nights and there were only 2 nights when it wasn’t cloudy. Even then, I have heard of some people heading just to Reykjavik for a week and not getting a break in the weather. So you really do need to be mobile and you need as much time as possible to get the best chance to see the Aurora Borealis.
So there you have it, my guide to seeing the northern lights in Iceland. I’d be happy to answer questions you might have!
One reply on “Chasing the Northern Lights in Iceland: A Practical Guide”
I’d love to go Iceland someday! I managed to catch aurora last month in Norway. It was an incredible experience, but came with a lot of hard work and perseverance. I arrived in Lofoten Islands and it began to snow heavily with clouds covering the sky. Knowing that my chance is really slim, I headed out anyway to find an open, clear skies and after two hour of hikes, I saw it! Really beautiful sight, especially as the setting was in a dramatic range of mountains rising from a fjord. =) Maybe I’ll get to see it again when I get to Iceland.