Iceland: home of the Huldufólk, lava moss, puffin hunting, fermented shark, entrances to hell, delicious skyr, and vikings. It is the youngest country on Earth (geologically speaking) and has the world’s purest gene pool (all accidental incest aside). Let’s face it though, you could care less about Egil and the saga he rode in on. And maybe you’ll party it up through 24-hours of sunlight, feel morally uncomfortable as you stuff whale meat into your mouth, or get awkwardly naked at the Blue Lagoon with some native Íslanders. But in the end, despite all the good times and wonderful oddities to be found in Iceland there’s only one reason why you’re really going, and that’s to have your Eyjafjallajökull blown by the Northern Lights.
Like all red-blooded humans, we love to look at flickering lights. That is why for quite some time it has been at the top of our bucket list to see the mother lode of all illuminations – the majestical dancing lights of the aureao borealis. And thanks to a whole bunch of pre-planning and luck, not to mention some very talented off-roading tour guides, we were able to do just that one cold evening, whilst standing atop the craggy Icelandic landscape.Since I had to scour the internets far and wide to get all the information I wanted to prepare for our trip, I thought I’d pool my findings together into one place and hopefully help any like-minded individuals in their search of the Polar Spirits. Welcome to Paradise Found Around’s Guide to finding the Northern Lights in Iceland.
- Best time of the year to go is late September or late March
- Best time of day for viewing is between 10pm and 2am
- They are visible during a full moon, but will probably be less bright
- Recommended Initial Camera Settings: 15 sec shutter speed, f2.8, ISO 1600
- Reykjavík is a popular starting off point, especially for quick trips
- Tours (especially one using a jeep) are highly recommended for first timers
What are the Northern Lights?
Ancients Greeks said they were the trail of a goddesses chariot as she rode across the sky to announce the coming of the sun. The ancient Chinese believed they were the fiery breath of a dragon. Soldiers of Medieval Europe thought their red colors meant the outbreak of war. For the Vikings they were reflections from the armor and shields of the Valkyries. Canadian Indians saw in them a celestial ball game using a walrus skull. In Iceland they eased the pain of childbirth, but if a woman looked at them while delivering her child would emerge cross-eyed. To this day some indigenous Sami believe they radiate from the souls of the dead, while the Japanese believe a child conceived beneath them will be blessed with good fortune. And many still warn that you should not wave, sing or whistle at them for risk of alerting spirits who will come down and take you away.
Boring scientists say the Northern Lights, known as aurora borealis (which was coined by Galileo combining the names for the Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, and the Greek god of the north wind, Boreas), are a natural phenomena caused by charged particles from the sun colliding with one another upon entering the Earth’s atmosphere resulting in the ionisation and excitation of atmospheric constituents, and consequent optical emissions.
Or in layman’s terms, the Northern Lights are caused by some scientific shit that makes pretty colors in the sky.
This phenomena results in two light shows above the magnetic poles of the northern and southern hemispheres, the latter known as aurora australis. The burning gases emitted by the impact of the sun’s particles produce the shows’ colors (oxygen produces red, green and yellow while nitrogen, blue).
But enough with the boring stuff that no one ever remembers.
When is the Best Time to See the Northern Lights?
For staters, when it is dark out.
Since most places one goes for the Northern Lights are found at high latitudes, darkness is not a given, notably from mid-April until mid-August when the Lights are barely visible to not visible at all. They can be better observed from late August to mid-April. The best time of the year to go is somewhere around late September or late March. These times are during the equinoxes, when it gets darker earlier and chances of seeing them are greatly increased. Of the two, late March is the slightly better.
The best time of day to see them is in the middle of the night, between 10pm and 2am. However, these times can fluctuate and it is possible in some instances for them to appear as early as 4am or 6pm. The Lights can stay visible for anywhere between 5 minutes to all-night, and have the possibility of reappearing in a single night, especially if the first sighting is early in the evening.
Trying to predict precipitation, even a day in advance, can be frustrating, but temperatures are a bit easier to know. To ensure you are not too frozen to enjoy yourself be sure to check the weather beforehand.
The Northern Lights can been seen during a full moon, but if it is too bright it could lessen their intensity. Then again it could also present some really awesome photos. Luckily, Iceland’s lunar cycles are easily predictable so if you want to plan your trip around them, there’s always that.
If you are thinking of seeing the Northern Lights there is no better time to go then right now. According to our old reliable friend Science, the solar activity that governs the Lights follows an 11-year cycle. It just so happens that 2013 was the peak of that cycle. This means that today you have the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights than at any other time over the next few years since this solar activity is only going to be decreasing until the middle of 2018.
All that said, forecasting whether the unpredictable Northern Lights will show up is a dangerous game. The Icelandic Meteorological Office offers an Aurora Forecast with a rating of likelihood, but I wouldn’t rely too much on it. Also, there’s an app for that.
Where is the Best Place to See the Northern Lights?
Alaska, northern parts of Canada, southern parts of Greenland, western parts of Russia, Sweden, Finland, even parts of Scotland and as far south as Illinois in the United States, have all seen the Northern Lights.1 The coasts of the Norwegian counties of Troms and Finnmark are where occurrences are the greatest.
Since we’re dealing specifically with Iceland (which is far cheaper to travel to than all those other places, especially the redonkulously expensive Norway), the best place to see the Lights would be along its northern coasts where there is less rain, such as the areas around Akureyri.
Reykjavík is probably the most popular destination not only considering how hard it is to travel around the island during Winter, but also because of how easy a starting point it is. Most visitors use Iceland’s capital as their home base. Also, the majority of tours leave from Reykjavík. Anywhere outside the city center, as far from lights as possible and up as high as possible, will increase the chance of seeing the Lights. Though it is possible to see the Lights from within the city center, it is far more difficult and rare, and I wouldn’t recommend counting on any spectacular shows there.
It is also important to note that “best place” is a bit arbitrary and the above deals primarily with ease and likelihood. Places such as the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and the highlands of Landmannalaugar are picturesque spots to view the Lights, but are not as easy to get to and/or have less frequent occurrences.
And one last thing to remember, if you are flying out of Keflavík International Airport and it is dark outside, keep an eye out the window because you can sometimes see the Northern Lights from the plane.
What is the Best Way to See the Northern Lights?
There is no right answer to this one. You can see the Lights by hiking, camping or renting a car, taking a tour or going it alone. All are an adventure worth experiencing.
When we were visiting time was an issue, as I imagine it will be for most, and we didn’t have enough of it to risk trying to overcome a learning curve and possibly miss our best chance of seeing the Lights. In the end we went with a guided tour company called Superjeep.is.
Of all the ways to see the Lights, opting for a tour is by far the easiest and most convenient. There is no shortage of these tour companies and no shortage of the packages they offer, including seeing the Lights by van, jeep, foot, or snowmobile. We went with the Superjeep.is jeep tour because of the price and the fact that super jeeps (and trust us, they are super) can cover more ground and rougher terrain than the other options.
If it wasn’t for Superjeep.is and our no-nonsense Northern Lights viking driver Jón, we would have never found as good a spot to see the lights, not to mention had celebratory hot chocolate with vodka, which they passed out to everyone taking the tour.
Side Trip: These tours are also great for experiencing other parts of Iceland, such as the Golden Circle, which includes seeing the Gulfoss waterfall, original Geysir and World Heritage Site, Þingvellir. A quick search on Google for “Iceland tours” and you’ll have no trouble finding one to suite your needs. Reykjavík Excursions is one of the most popular. For our Golden Circle tour we went with Iceland Horizon.
What Are the Best Camera Settings for the Northern Lights?
Below is a checklist for preparing your camera to take pictures of the Northern Lights.
- Use a tripod
- Set your camera to Manual mode
- Set your Focus to manual and then to infinity
- Remove lens filters, if you have any
- Shoot in RAW when possible
- Set ISO between 800 and 1600
- Set aperture to f2.8 or higher
- Set shutter Speed between 15 and 30 seconds
This checklist isn’t set in stone and your settings will depend largely on circumstance.
Normal exposure settings for photographing the Northern Lights with a decent DSLR camera range from approximately 30 seconds shutter speed at f2.8, ISO 6400 for faint aurora on a darker night, to 4 seconds at f4, ISO 800 for bright aurora on a bright night. At times the Lights can be barely visible to the naked eye, but will show up in photographs, especially when the camera is set to the former of the two settings just mentioned.
No matter what type of camera you have, you will need a tripod. It is usually a good idea to also set the timer on your camera to ensure you don’t stir it while trying to capture the photo. Shooting in RAW allows for more control over your photos during editing. For DSLRs use a wide-angle lens to show as much of the sky as possible. If you are using a point and shoot you will most likely not be using a lens filter, but they are common with DSLRs so be sure to remove them beforehand.
To properly adjust your camera’s exposure settings be sure it is in Manual mode. Also be sure to set your Focus to manual and then either to infinity, or one notch behind infinity. This ensures as much of the scene is in focus as possible.
Setting ISO depends on how bright the Lights are and how much light is around your position. I would recommend starting at around 1600. Be aware that the higher the ISO goes the more noise will show. If your camera is top-of-the-line and creates less noise, going as high as 6400 will work.
You will want a lens aperture of f2.8. The lower the f-stop, the more light let in by the lens. Remember f2.8 is a higher aperture and will let more light in then f/22.
Set the shutter speed to somewhere around 15 seconds and adjust depending on how your pictures look on the LCD screen. If the image is too bright lower the shutter speed and if it is too dark increase it. Remember that in a dark setting where the only light is the LCD, images will appear brighter than they will on your computer.
A Note on Taking Your Head Out of Your Butt: Yes, the magical dancing Northern Lights are crazy and you must photograph them. But don’t forget to take a moment from your frenzied picture taking to actually look at the amazing display of lights in front of you, especially if it is your first time. I am a culprit of this traveling sin and trust me, there is nothing sadder than realizing later on that you never actually saw the Northern Lights except through the LCD screen of your camera. Search on Google and you will be able to view all the amazing Northern Light pictures you could ever hope for. What you won’t find there? Seeing the Lights in person.
For our trip to see the Northern Lights we went the last week of March 2013 during a crescent moon and were fortunate enough to see an amazing display at around 1am that lasted around 20 minutes. We made a point to go on our first night in Reykjavík since we would be there several more days and would have several other chances to see them if our first try didn’t pan out. Luckily it did and that meant we could try other things, like seeing the Nothern Lights a second time.2
Of course, if you don’t end up having your mind blown by the Northern Lights remember, Iceland is an awesome country even without them and still well worth a visit. The Land of Fire and Ice has so many other fun things to occupy your time, like visiting the world’s only phallus museum or going for a nice relaxing walk to kill a Puffin, and then eat it.
However, if you are lucky enough to see the Northern Lights, rest assured your life will never be the same.3
Gangi þér vel.
Though they occur in those last two countries far less frequently.↩
We actually didn’t see them a second time. We booked a tour to do so, but it got cancelled due to bad weather.↩
Actually, your life will still be exactly the same, only now you will have seen some pretty lights in Iceland. And maybe even gotten some blurry pictures of them.↩