Photographing the Northern Lights

In How-to, Iceland, Photography by GaryLeave a Comment

Advice from an amateur photographer.

Yep,  I'm just an amateur.  I have made some money from my photography, but it has, and will always be an enjoyable hobby.  Sure, I understand my way around a camera, and I have spent some money over the years so have some nice kit.

However, this post is not about how you need to spends £££'s to capture the Northern Lights.  It's about how I captured the Northern Lights on our Icelandic Road trip in 2018 and if lady luck is on your side, how you can maximise the experience.

I'll also share something I learnt that will perhaps show you how to capture something not seen with the naked eye.

The Northern Lights in the air at Reykjahlíð, Eastern Iceland

ISO: 200 Aperture: f/4.5 Shutter: 20s

I will say that experiencing the Northern Lights is a wonderful feeling especially if it's only something you'd normally see on the TV.  So, don't sacrifice the experience to get the perfect shot.  Experience the moment, and hopefully with my help you'll also capture it.

Finally, when we set out on our Icelandic road trip seeing the Northern Lights was hope, but not a given. We had a superb time in Iceland, and if we hadn't seen the Aurora Borealis, (look who's getting all flash), it will would have still been an amazing trip. However, lady luck shinned on us…

A useful guide to Iceland

If you're tempted to tour the Land of Fire and Ice and would love to discover the whole country, then take a look at this  DK Eyewitness book. This Top 10 Pocket Travel Guide is invaluable, I find them extremely informative, easy to follow and the pictures and maps tempt you into searching for more.

You can now grab the revised copy.

Understanding the signs

This post is written about our experience in Iceland.  Unfortunately I have zero experience outside the country, but these are the tools I used.

Northern Lights trailing across the sky at Reykjahlíð, Eastern Iceland

ISO: 200 Aperture: f/4.0 Shutter: 30s

The Northern Lights are visible at night  - right, you knew that.  However, every day we checked the following;

  • Sunset & darkness times
  • The Icelandic weather forecast
  • The KP-index
  • The Icelandic Aurora forecast

As I said it needs to be dark to see the Northern Lights, however, you will want to find your ideal location to capture the experience, so you may want to go out whilst it's still light to find your ideal spot.

Now let me take you through each of the items.

Sunset & darkness times

I used to check the times and it provides a little more than just sunset.  You know that when the sun sets it doesn't suddenly get dark there's a period where there's still light in the sky, you know twilight.

Well gives you the following

  • Daylight
  • Civil Twilight
  • Nautical Twilight
  • Astronomical Twilight
  • Night

It's the latter two we're interested in.

The Icelandic weather forecast

If it's raining or completely cloudy you're not gonna see the Northern Lights. (And the prize for stating the obvious goes to …)

So if you've checked and drilled into your area and you're outta luck then tuck into that good book and let's hope tomorrow's a better day.

The KP Index

So this is the magic number and is provided by Iceland's Meteoric Service and ranges from 0-9.

KP Index scale ranges from 0 to 9;

  • 0-2: Low
  • 2-3: Moderate
  • 4-6: A big solar storm is coming
  • 7-9: Highly unusual

We downloaded the Iceland Aurora Alert app, but be aware although it does forecast our a number of days don't get too excited. It's updated every 3 hours, and we saw it drop from a 5/6 to below 2 on a number of occasions.

The Icelandic Aurora forecast

So once again back to the Icelandic Met Office to check out the Aurora map

So this is really a repeat of checking the KP Index, but I like a belt 'n' braces approach, however, if you drag the slider along at the bottom you get a better picture of the probability.  So if the weather's okay, it may be worth setting the alarm for 3:00am.

Capturing the Northern Lights

As I said this post is based on experience. We were on day 6 of our 13 day Iceland Road Trip around the country and we were heading from Egilsstaðir to Reykjahlíð.

The signs didn't look good though, we had an index of 2 in the late afternoon but weather was forecast to be clear for the evening.

We checked into the Fosshotel Myvatn, boy was it nice so we booked our table for the evening in the restaurant.

ISO: 200 Aperture: f/4.0 Shutter: 30s

One fab meal later and we stepped outside and wow - we had a display. So wasting no time we headed back to the room to grab the camera bag, tripod, coats, hats & scarves and headed outside.

The equipment

To capture the Northern Lights you're going to need a long exposure, and for that you'll need a good tripod. Standing on the icy, uneven ground I relied on my trusty Manfrotto Carbon Fibre tripod with a 3-way head. Now these things don't come cheap, but again if you spend well, you'll only spend once.

The dancing sky of Northern Lights at Reykjahlíð, Eastern Iceland

ISO: 320 Aperture: f/4.0 Shutter: 30s

Once the camera is clipped into the quick release head it's just matter of attaching a remote release for the shutter, you want to reduce the chance of camera shake. In the UK I would use Wex, in the USA I'd use B&H Photo.

The green hues of the Northern Lights at Reykjahlíð, Eastern Iceland

ISO: 800 Aperture: f/4.0 Shutter: 30s

I use a Canon DSLR, but anything where you can control the exposure will be ideal. Now it's all about the settings…

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The settings

I've been a keen photography for years - if you're interested, or you're having trouble sleeping you can read more in my photo stories.

The Northern Lights at Reykjahlíð, Eastern Iceland

ISO: 800 Aperture: f/11 Shutter: 30s

One of the lessons I have learnt is to understand the correct exposure. You see photography is very simple and relies on some very basic principles. Light being recorded by a sensor. The trick for the photographer is getting that balance right.

The tools we have at our disposal depend from camera to camera. Normally to control the amount of light we let in we have the shutter speed & the aperture. This is then recorded on the sensor and the sensitivity of that is controlled by the ISO settings.

The dancing sky of Northern Lights at Reykjahlíð, Eastern Iceland

ISO: 200 Aperture: f/4.0 Shutter: 30s

Let's start with the ISO settings. You are going to want to keep this as low as possible to keep the digital noise to a minimum, and this will vary from camera to camera, but I would recommend ISO 200-800.

Next it's the aperture: You want to control the amount of light hitting the sensor so ideally you want to open the lens up to allow as much light as possible. For my EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM. I opened the lens up to f/4.

Shutter speed: Even with the aperture that wide open I need to have a long exposure - 30 seconds on average.

Finally it's focus. The secret here is turn off autofocus, in the low light the camera will probably struggle to find a suitable focus point so set one manually. As the aperture is wide open, you'll have a shallow depth of field so you'll want to set a reasonable mid-point.

The bright Northern Lights at Reykjahlíð, Eastern Iceland

ISO: 320 Aperture: f/4.0 Shutter: 30s

I always shoot in RAW format.  I explain more about the reasons why in 'Shooting Raw'.

Something I noticed

Our display of the Northern Lights seemed to fade after about 20 minutes, however I noticed something unusual about the sky.  It was obviously dark, and it seemed a little cloudy.

The many colours of the Northern Lights at Reykjahlíð, Eastern Iceland

ISO: 800 Aperture: f/4.0 Shutter: 30s

But when I looked at the clouds I noticed they didn't move like clouds but seemed to pulse very faintly.  I tried a little experiment and increased the exposure but a couple of stops and wow.  Although not visible to the naked eye.  So I captured these.

The Northern Lights not visible to the human eye at Reykjahlíð, Eastern Iceland

ISO: 800 Aperture: f/4.0 Shutter: 30s

Then the luck run out

This was our one and only encounter with the phenomenon, and to be fair I would have preferred a more interesting foreground in the shots, but hey - them's ya breaks

The Northern Lights over Reykjahlíð, Eastern Iceland

ISO: 800 Aperture: f/4.0 Shutter: 30s

A few good ideas for your Icelandic trip

Here's a few things we picked up ahead of our trip to make things a little smoother for us.

From the low tech traditional foldout paper map, a cigarette USB charger, and a USB chargeable torch.  

All simple stuff that may be helpful on your travels.

  • Fold-out paper map

  • Mini Dual USB Car Adapter

  • USB rechargeable LED Flashlight


I hope this post has been helpful to you, if there's any specific questions then please feel to pop a question in the comments.

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Inspired to visit Iceland?

The chances of seeing the Northern Lights range from Late August to Early March.

However as the weather plays an important part in whether you get to see the spectacle then it's best to avoid the deepest winter.

These shots were captured on the 18th March 2018

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Photographing the Northern Lights

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