How to Photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland

It’s truly not a challenging thing to learn how to photograph the northern lights in Iceland. By the end of this article, you are going to know exactly what to do to get that dramatic photo of the lights you have always dreamed of.

The thing I was most excited about when visiting Iceland was the Northern Lights, second only to the Blue Lagoon!  While Iceland contains heaps of gorgeous landscape to capture, there is something truly so magical about the Northern Lights.  But how to capture the northern lights in a photo to bring home and remember forever?  That’s a bit of a different challenge.  I took the hard road learning how to photograph the northern lights in Iceland, so I’m going to help you not make all the same mistakes that I did!

Always Be Prepared for the Northern Lights

The biggest tip I can give you is to get outside and be prepared.  Before you leave the house to have your camera settings ready to go, the last thing you want to be doing when the northern lights pop up is messing around with your camera settings. Get your tripod prepared, and dress prepared!  It will be cold, wherever you are, and you will want to have the clothing on to sit the night out.

A few things you will want to bring with you on your adventure:

  • A warm thermos of hot tea
  • Snacks
  • Blanket
  • Headlamp

how to photograph the northern lights in iceland

Camera Equipment You Will Need to Photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland

DSLR

I have seen people film and take photos of the northern lights with their iPhones, but that was on a highly active night, and it’s not a guarantee that it will come out.

You will want a DSLR camera, full-framed is better- however also more expensive, and if you’re a beginner you probably won’t want to shell out that much when you are just starting.  A crop sensor camera will work just fine.

I personally use the Canon Rebel T6, and was able to capture some amazing photos of the northern lights on it.


 

Wide Angle Camera Lens

With the northern lights, you want to capture as much of the sky and the landscape as possible, which is why I recommend investing in a wide-angle lens.

I bought a new lens for my trip to Iceland and landed on the Tokina 11-16mm f2.4 and I loved it.  I used this lens exclusively for the last year until I purchased the Sigma Art Lens 18-35mm f 1.8 and I now travel with both and my nifty 50.

The Tokina is a great lens for its price, and I have taken some beautiful photos on it.  If you are wanting to capture spectacular photos of the northern lights, this lens will serve you well.


Tripod

I don’t care how steady your hand is, it’s not steady enough to hold a camera and lens for 20 seconds without even moving a fraction of an inch.  A tripod is ESSENTIAL when photographing the northern lights.  You need a tripod, and you need a strong, sturdy tripod.  These come at a price that appears high for what they are, but you don’t want to skimp.

I recently attempted to order a new tripod off of Amazon when I forgot mine on a trip, and just went for the medium-priced $35 tripod.  It wasn’t strong enough to hold my camera up vertically.  Make sure you know the poundage your tripod is tested for, and don’t skimp when it comes to tripod buying.  You’ve got all the other equipment, it would suck if you set everything up and couldn’t take your photograph of the northern lights in Iceland because you decided on being cheap when it came to the tripod.


Timer

If your camera has wifi capabilities, download the app for the camera and learn how to set it up to take remote photos.  it may seem dramatic, but even the slight movement of clicking the shutter on your camera can shake it enough to affect the photo.

If your camera does not have this feature, see if it has Bluetooth capabilities, you can always purchase a remote shutter button and connect it to your camera via Bluetooth.

and if THAT doesn’t work, you can always just set the timer on your camera, almost all cameras have 3/10-second shutter delays built into them.  This may be a more annoying process, but I did it when taking photos of the northern lights and didn’t want to expose my fingers to the cold!

Warm Clothing

While not photography equipment, it is ESSENTIAL to stay warm while you are attempting to photograph the northern lights in Iceland!  It is cold, often windy, and weather conditions in Iceland are fickle and can change at any minute. Scarves, gloves, hats, socks, and a good jacket are all necessary components of successfully taking northern lights photos!

 

Camera Settings – How to Photograph the Northern Lights

First and foremost, make sure your camera is set to MANUAL and make sure you are taking your photos in RAW.

ISO: For northern lights photography, I like to start my ISO out at 800.  Then if the photo is still too dark, I will bump it up a little bit.  Remember, the higher your ISO, the more “grainy” and lower quality your photo will be.

SHUTTER:  Your shutter speed depends on the particular northern lights that day. But, your shutter speed is going to be anywhere from 5-20 seconds.  I’ve even taken photos of the aurora at 30 seconds when they were very slow and vague.  The faster the aurora moves the slower your shutter should be, and vice versa.

F-STOP/APERTURE:  You want your aperture to be as wide as possible.  If your lens is a 1.4 set it to 1.4.  If your lens is a 5.4 set it to 5.4.

Lens Focus: Infinity

how to photograph the northern lights in icelandWhere You Will See the Northern Lights

The darkest nights are the best times to find the Northern Lights, but you never know when they will pop up! If you’re wondering the best nights on how to photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland, it’s on nights when there is little moon out and there is little cloud cover. Even if it is a night of high activity, you will not be able to see the northern lights if it is cloudy.

Typically the lights come from the north. Using the compass on your phone or car are a great tool to make sure you are facing the right direction.  This may not always matter, as sometimes the lights are so incredible they seem to encumber the entire sky.

Tours you can Take to Find the Northern Lights

If you’re short on time or hesitant on how to photograph the northern lights in Iceland and find them yourself, you can always go with a tour company!  These are great options because they take you to spots that you are almost sure to catch a glimpse.  Plus, almost all northern lights tour companies guarantee you see the lights. If you don’t, you get a refund or can reschedule for another night on them.

HERE ARE A LIST OF NORTHERN LIGHTS TOURS OUT OF REYKJAVIK

How to Find the Lights on Your Own

My first recommendation is to ask the locals.  They will give you the best tips about the area you are staying in, and the typical patterns they have noticed.

My second recommendation is to GET OUTSIDE!  Do not wait in your hotel room for guest services to wake you up to come to see the northern lights.  Sometimes the Borealis may only last for a few short minutes. You missed it because you couldn’t put your boots on fast enough.

A good way to get outside and stay warm while not needing to sit around in your car?  Choose a hotel with an outdoor hot tub in the open ground and set up your tripod near there.  You can relax in the warm tub while you wait for the Borealis to appear! Then when it does, throw on your boots and robe, add the final touches to your set up, crawl back in the hot tub, and use the remote shutter to do the work for you. Pop on out of the tub every now and then to check on things, and enjoy the northern lights from a nice warm bath.  Romantic, right?

If you attempt to capture the lights on your own, try and find a lake, a waterfall, or some other structure to take your northern lights photos to the next level.

Make sure you keep an eye on the weather, and try and pick a clear night with a high forecasted chance of solar activity.  Once you arrive in the spot you would like to capture the lights, be sure to face toward the north and get your tripod in a place you

Useful Aurora Apps and Websites

My Aurora Forecast and Alerts – My personal favorite and most user friendly.  Free, and sends you push notifications about how likely of a chance to see the lights are at any given time. IOS & Android
Aurora Borealis Forecast & Alerts – This one is a little more complicated, but still a great resource. IOS & Android
Aurora Forecast & Alerts – Super simple.  Only available on IOS.

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