How to Photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland

This week’s photo challenge is about being experimental.

Seeing the northern lights (aurora borealis) in the Northern hemisphere, or the southern lights (aurora australis) in the Southern hemisphere, and photographing it, has been a dream for a long time.

This phenomenon is created by charged particles from the sun, interacting with gaseous particles (oxygen and nitrogen) in our atmosphere, creating colourful and spectacular images, depending on the strength of the aurora.

The predicted strengths of the aurora go from Kp= 0 (no chance) to Kp=9 (high chance) and the best time of the year to photograph the northern lights goes from September to March.  All one needs is darkness, partly clear sky and high aurora activity. Really? Not only, as you will soon find out.

Last week I headed to Iceland to celebrate my husband’s birthday. We were excited to see and experiment with shooting the lights, dreaming even more that this could be the best gift he could get from the Universe.

These are no ordinary night photography sessions, for two main reasons: the aurora may not show up for the spectacle, and if it does, you need to be well equipped and to know where and how to capture it. As I haven’t ever done it before, I searched for instructions, tips and lessons from those who had succeeded in doing so.

Besides booking flight tickets, rental car and hotel, we organised for what we would need to prepare to photograph her majesty the Aurora.

Checklist:

  • Any camera (DSLR or Mirrorless) that can handle manual settings.
    • Don’t shy away if you don’t have a full frame sensor, as you will still make great shots with the right lens and manual settings. Weather sealed camera is a must though, as it may freeze if you are at minus temps. And it will!
  • A wide-angle lens that can start with 7mm up to 28 mm to capture the expansive lights and that can render an aperture of f/2.8 to f/4.0 for they can yield higher quality images at night.
  • Remote control or use an app on your phone to mimic that.
    • Using a remote avoids that you accidentally touch the camera and blur the photo, as well as it makes easier to change settings in the dark.
  • Rent or buy a stable, carbon or aluminium, tripod which can bear the wind force.
    • You need one for long exposure shots, as you don’t want to get blurred photos.
  • Buy an extra set of batteries, as you will need them; they die fast because of the cold weather. You don’t want to miss the action.
  • If you are not experienced with photographing using manual settings, practice it before your trip.
    • Read all you can find about night photography, long exposure shots and the northern lights. There are good tutorials out there.  Shooting the lights is difficult because you may not see them but if you make a tryout shot, you will notice that they are there already. Or when you see it, that they may move very fast. You need to know in advance which settings to use in both situations.
  • Book a package with a local photographer as your guide, instead of a touristic package with crowds in a bus.
    • If you are serious about ‘hunting’ the aurora borealis, consider that you may never see it, even if the prognosis is good, just because you don’t know where to go and where the best places are. A local expert will know and will have a 4×4 jeep to drive you through narrow and snowy roads. If you’re unlucky, they will do re-runs, depending on your flexibility. If something goes wrong with your camera, they share their shots with you, including you in the photo.
  • Bring ‘Viking-weather proof’ well-insulated winter gear.
    • Use at least three layers (woollen undies, fleece and a water and windproof jacket). Bring knee-length woollen socks, mittens, gloves and scarf. Special gloves for winter photography will go a long way. You will need them to not remove your gloves while shooting and exposing only two fingers to the cold.
  • Hand warmers are your friends.
    • After 3-4 hours outdoors, there is no way to avoid freezing cold hands. Use the warmers for your feet as well. They can also be attached to your lens with rubber bands to prevent them from fogging out.
  • Flashlights are a must, too.
    • You use them to find your way in the dark but also to illuminate the foreground of your photos. You can shoot at under any condition, from full moon to total darkness. The aurora lights will be brighter under no moon, and the foreground will be a silhouette. That’s when the flashlights become handy. Under a full moon, the aurora will be fainter and the foreground illuminated.
  • Set the site Verdur (the local weather station) on your browser to check the aurora forecast. Dark skies and no cloud cover is what you are looking for.

The Trip

We flew on a Friday afternoon. By the time we landed, we had found a message from Siggi, our outstanding Aurora guide, asking if we could be ready at 6:30 pm as the chances were good. Besides that, there had been a magnetic storm. Luck was on our side!

We only had time to get to the hotel, grab a sandwich and off we went. We couldn’t believe that it was really happening. Before leaving the hotel, we didn’t forget to check the manual setting in the camera.

Manual setting:

  • Aperture f2.8
  • ISO 3200. You may change it later between min 800 (for very light aurora) to max 6400 (if it is indeed a dark night). Be aware that the higher the ISO, the more grainy your photo will be.
  • White balance: Kelvin 3200. You can adjust it later to 4000.
  • Manual focus. Set the lenses’ focus to infinity (use tape to keep it locked), during the day, or, while you still could see the city lights or a star, focus on the farthest point.
  • Set the shutter speed for 10 sec as a rule of thumb. You will change it later if the aurora moves slowly, to 12-20 second exposure. For very light auroras you might even need 20-25 seconds. If the aurora moves fast, you will start with 2,5 to 5-10 seconds.

We headed to Mosfellsheidi mountain to get to the national park Thingvellir, away from city lights. The skies were pretty clear with only a few clouds. We made our first stop to try the camera settings and make last adjustments.

I used a mirrorless Olympus OMD EM-5 mark II, and my husband the OMD EM-1; we shared 8 batteries. Here are my first shots.

First shot

10 sec at f/2.8 ISO 3200 WB K3200

Second shot

13 sec at f/2.8 ISO 3200 WB K3200

Third shot

15 sec at f/2.8 ISO 3200 WB K3200

Fourth shot

20 sec at f/2.8 ISO 3200 WB K3200

As you may know, if the aurora is faint, it is only after shooting that you see the lights on your camera’s screen. When I looked at my tryouts, I was so excited that I missed noticing that neither my husband nor Julie, a Canadian who joined the party, had not yet succeeded. It was a magic moment, and I felt elated to witness so much beauty.

We had the first event of the night, though. My husband’s camera shutter didn’t work correctly. Siggi made a few phone calls to his partner to figure out a solution. Meanwhile, he lent his camera to my husband so he wouldn’t miss the opportunity to photograph.

We moved to the next place while finding out a solution so that my husband could use his camera again. The issue was simple. He needed to turn off the silent shutter mode from his camera, the reason for the problem.

In the next place, we stood in front of a lake (see featured image) and could get reflections of the lights on the frozen lake in front of a bridge.

All went fine until I dropped my iPhone on the lake. It was a significant fall, but we could still see the lights on the phone blinking. Again, Siggi wasted no time. He jumped to the external side of the bridge, used one hand to hold in it, and the other to grab two tripods connected to each other and dragged the phone to the margin of the lake, guided by our flashlights.

(This is the fourth iPhone that I drop into the water. But that is a story for another blog post.)

8 sec at f/2.8 ISO 3200 WB K3200

We moved to our last scene at another lake. It was minus 9 C. All worth it as we got the most explosive aurora dance of the night.

2,5 sec at f/2.8 ISO 3200 WB K3200

With Siggi, we not only got expert advice from a pro photographer but spend a great time with him. He is fun and friendly and treated us to hot chocolate, cookies, shots of Brennivín, a local schnapps and national drink of Iceland (that we needed when temps reached minus 9 C for 3-4 hours). He also offered us blankets and hand warmers.  He kept the car engine running so we could restore and warm up anytime inside the car (It is essential to leave your camera outside though, to avoid that differences of temperature fog out the lens).

Before we headed back to the hotel after midnight, we celebrated my husband’s birthday and a successful expedition hunting the lights. We learnt a lot from our experimentation with this kind of photography and my husband got his best gift ever. What else could one wish for?

Siggi operates Arctic Shots and here is his Facebook page. And this is a free shoutout, just because he is an outstanding photographer and guide.

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Sharing sights & insights captured with diverse angles. Ex-corporate slave, now my own boss. Cycling, hiking, cooking, reading, yoga, writing and photography, are no longer only hobbies listed on my resume. It's what I do, when I want.

51 thoughts on “How to Photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland

  1. Wow, Lucile. I did not realize all that needed to be done to get a photo of the Northern Lights. Not that I will ever be going to Iceland, but this makes your photos even more intriguing. Happy Birthday to your husband!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Draco. Without his knowledge we wouldn’t have found the place and would have missed a few details that were essential. The hand warmers saved me as I had forgotten it. It’s unbearably cold.
      He surely was the hero of the night, after the lights!
      We didn’t acclimatise the lenses but kept the cameras mounted on tripods outside the whole time, and only brought to the car when moving to a new place. It wasn’t warm in the car anyway. The batteries had to be close to our bodies, inside pockets, to keep warm. I changed battery twice in a period of 4 hours.

      Like

  2. Wonderful photos. I’ve managed a pale one from Helsinki harbour once, where the weather was less extreme. But to get anything like the ones you got, I guess one has to really get out into the cold.

    I love the later photos where you got the magenta colour. One would think that with nitrogen being such a large fraction of the atmosphere, one would get magenta more often, but it is much less common. And the one over water has come out really well.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for the lovely comment.
      When I hear stories like yours, I become more grateful and appreciative of how lucky we were to see the lights only a few hours upon our arrival.
      Indeed it is necessary to get out of town and away from light pollution to get the best shots.
      The magenta color became more visible after the lights ‘danced’ faster and we could even see some colours instead of just the green. Of course the post processing reveals much more than what our eyes could see.
      To be close to the lake was a great choice from our guide because we could get beautiful reflections.
      Thanks again. I really appreciate your comment.

      Like

  3. Wow, I had no idea how much preparation went into shooting the Northern lights—and, given that you went out almost as soon as you arrived, you needed to be prepared. Beautiful photos! Beautiful is really an inadequate word. I’m amazed that Siggi retrieved your phone. Please write that post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sandi, I have never been so prepared for a trip as I did this time. And I am still in awe that everything went according to plan (except for my phone, of course!). Siggi is a wonderful person and a great guide and astro photographer. If I ever come back there, I will book time to see other places with him.
      That post may come up soon. After 4 iphones, perhaps it is time to confess my ‘crimes’! LOL

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I fear I would not have the patience (or the photography skills) to capture that so magnificently. What a beautiful sight you saw (as you said, a perfect gift from the universe!), and I’m glad you shared it with us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was such an amazing night, Terri. I was so much looking forward to it but kept my expectations under control because it’s not certain that one can see it. I have never been so perfectly organised for a trip like this time. I even packed my suitcase one week in advance. Everything worked so much as planned that was almost scary.
      It’s a special moment and I stopped to watch and enjoy the moment instead of only photographing it. The only distraction was my phone fall, but that added some spice to the adventure.
      Thanks for the shoutout. I hope it helps others who share the same interest. I wanted to make it as easy but complete as possible but I think I made it too long.
      Have a wonderful weekend! 😘

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Leya, you reminded me once more how lucky we were to see it just a few hours after our arrival, when so many people have the same experience you had. It makes me appreciate and be even more grateful.
      It had to be because of his birthday, as that was what I had ‘planned’ and bought nothing else for him. LOL.
      I am happy that you appreciated the photos. I am still going through the many photos I made as they need careful post processing, so I may still post some in the future as I am in love with them.
      Have a lovely Sunday!

      Like

      1. Yes, I’ve been taking some time off from social media lately, which has been nice. Having a beautiful autmun in DC so trying my best to enjoy it before winter comes. Good to hear that you are well, too.

        Liked by 1 person

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