by Gary / 0 comments - Orginally published:2nd November 2018

The challenges you may face

And tips on how to overcome them

Yep, I'm just an amateur. I have made some money from my photography, but it has been, 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 I have some nice kit.

However, this post is not about how you need to spend £££'s to capture the Northern Lights. It's about how I caught 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.

Experiencing the Northern Lights is a wonderful feeling, especially if it's only something you'd typically see on TV. So, don't sacrifice the experience to get the perfect shot. Experience the moment; hopefully, with my help, you'll also be able to capture it.

The Pin image to our post - 'Photographing the Northern Lights
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Finally, when we set out on our Icelandic road trip, seeing the Northern Lights was hope but not a given. We had a wonderful time in Iceland, and if we hadn't seen the Aurora Borealis, (look who's getting all flash), it will would have still been a fantastic trip. However, lady luck shined on us…

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Tips for photographing the Northern lights

The kit bag
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
Two streaks of pale green and purple light of the Northern lights over the landscape of Reykjahlíð in Eastern Iceland
ISO: 200 - Aperture: f/4.0 - Shutter: 30s - Focal Length: 24mm
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 perfect spot.
Now let me take you through each of the items.

Planning your trip to Iceland

So you're planning a trip to the Land of Fire and Ice? There is so much to see and do in Iceland that you'll wish you were staying longer. To ensure you make the most out of your visit, head over to the official website of Visit Iceland for a little help and guidance.

Have fun!

Understanding the Northern lights

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

Civil Twilight
Nautical Twilight
Astronomical Twilight
It's the latter two we're interested in.

When you won't see the Northern Lights

The Icelandic weather forecast

If it's raining or completely cloudy, you're not going to 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 out of luck, then tuck into that good book and let's hope tomorrow's a better day.

The Northern Lights key metric

The KP Index

So this is the magic number provided by Iceland's Meteoric Service.

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 that although it does forecast a number of days, don't get too excited. It's updated every 3 hours, and we saw it drop from a five or six to below two on several occasions.

Another check for the Northern Lights

The Icelandic Aurora forecast
So once again, back to the Icelandic Met Office to check out the Aurora map.
The Aurora forecast
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. If the weather's okay, it may be worth setting the alarm for 3:00 am.

Capturing the Northern Lights

Based on our experience

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 the 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.

The Northern Lights outside Reykjahlíð
A band of green lights of the Northern Lights over the mountains just outside Reykjahlíð in Eastern Iceland
ISO: 200 - Aperture: f/4.0 - Shutter: 30s - Focal Length: 24mm
One fab meal later, and we stepped outside, and wow - we had a display. So, wasting no time, we returned to the room to grab the camera bag, tripod, coats, hats & scarves and headed back outside.

Picking your accommodation in Iceland

When choosing where to stay in Iceland, we had a few basic requirements.
Breakfast included or available nearby.
Scooby snacks along the way can be expensive.
Parking is a requirement, as this is a road trip after all.
Nearby cafés/eateries, or onsite restaurant for the evening.
Preferably a close-by fuel station; they can be few and far between en route.

Photographing the Northern Lights

The equipment
To capture the Northern Lights you are going to need a long exposure, and for that, you'll need a good tripod. Standing on the icy uneven ground outside the hotel 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
The blue/green sky of the dancing Northern Lights display at Reykjahlíð,
ISO: 320 - Aperture: f/4 - Shutter: 30s - Focal Length: 24mm
Once the camera is clipped into the quick-release head, it's just a 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
The Northern lights in full display on a star-filled night over the landscape of Reykjahlíð in Iceland
ISO: 800 - Aperture: f/4.0 - Shutter: 30s - Focal Length: 24mm
I use a Canon DSLR, but anything, where you can control the exposure, will be ideal. Now it's all about the settings…

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.

How to photograph the Northern Lights

The settings
I've been a keen photographer for years: if you're interested or you are having trouble sleeping, you can read more in my photo stories.
The Northern Lights at Reykjahlíð
Streaks of pale green light of the Northern lights over the baron landscape of Reykjahlíð in Eastern Iceland
ISO: 800 - Aperture: f/11 - Shutter: 30s - Focal Length: 24mm

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 is 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. Usually, to control the amount of light we let in we have the shutter speed and the aperture. This is then recorded on the sensor. The ISO settings control the sensitivity of the sensor.

Swirling Northern Lights at Reykjahlíð
The swirling green colours of the Northern Lights over the mountains just outside Reykjahlíð in Eastern Iceland
ISO: 200 - Aperture: f/4 - Shutter: 30s - Focal Length: 24mm

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

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 the focus. The secret here is to 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
The sky at Reykjahlíð is filled with the blue/green hues of the Northern Lights.
ISO: 200 - Aperture: f/11 - Shutter: 1/80s - Focal Length: 24mm
I always shoot in RAW format. I explain more about the reasons why in 'Shooting Raw'.

A few good ideas for your Icelandic trip

Here are a few things we picked up ahead of our trip to make things a little smoother for us.  Simple stuff that may be helpful on your travels.  All from Amazon.
A good old paper map
A USB car charger
A USB rechargable tourch
A USB power bank
A water bottle

    Photographing what you don't see

    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
    The result of a long exposure shot over Reykjahlíð that captured colours in the sky that was barely noticable to the human eye.
    ISO: 800 - Aperture: f/4.0 - Shutter: 30s - Focal Length: 24mm
    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
    A long exposure shot over Reykjahlíð that captured colours in the sky that was barely noticable to the human eye.
    ISO: 800 - Aperture: f/4.0 - Shutter: 30s - Focal Length: 24mm

    Finding the right car for your Icelandic Road Trip

    Discover Iceland’s enchanting Ring Road with its rugged landscape or the waterfalls and geysers around the Golden Circle for yourself.

    If you want to explore Iceland's F-Roads, you must have a 4x4, but we'd recommend one anyway for the improved driving position, and if the weather turns, you have a touch of added protection.

    We recommend Rental Cars as they search multiple well-known car hire brands and discovers the deals that suit you the best.

    Then the luck run out

    But at least we did get to see nature's magic.
    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
    The Northern lights in full display on a star-filled night over the landscape of Reykjahlíð in Eastern Iceland, sights to see in iceland, places to visit in iceland, visit eastern iceland, visit iceland
    ISO: 800 - Aperture: f/4.0 - Shutter: 30s - Focal Length: 24mm


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

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