The Northern Lights in Iceland
Aurora borealis, or more commonly known as the Northern Lights, are the magical dancing lights that are seen above the north pole. The lights impress onlookers with beautiful colors of green, pink, yellow, and purple. They often look like currents waving across the night sky. Although they look magical, they are simply a beautiful testament of nature’s abilities. The lights are a result of collisions between the Earth’s atmosphere’s gaseous particles with the sun’s charged particles. The lights’ activity peaks every 11 years, with the most recent peak being in 2013. They can still be seen in between the peaks, especially in areas such as Iceland.
Icelanders have the advantage of the Northern Lights being visible for most of the year, from late August until the end of April. The lights are unpredictable and rely on clear skies, but those who spend at least a week in Iceland during the winter are likely to see them. Due to much of the country being uninhabited, onlookers in many areas do not have to be burdened by artificial light coming from buildings.
There are a variety of guided tours available throughout Iceland. They are often led by experts who have learned how to carefully read and understand forecasts to know when and where will be the best for viewing the lights. Guided tours have an advantage over self-drive tours because the tour guides know the terrain and are comfortable driving on Iceland’s difficult winter roads. Guided tours come in the form of mini busses, busses, and jeeps. For something a little different, there are also a few Northern Lights tours available by boat and even quad bikes. Some tours are included in 2-day to week-long tours that are available throughout the country.
Some travel agencies also offer Northern Lights holiday packages. The packages are often available during Iceland’s wintertime, prime time for seeing the lights. They usually include flights, lodging, activities, and one of the many tours available. While they are available during peak times for the lights, they cannot guarantee a light sighting will occur. The Northern lights can never be perfectly predicted, but they can be planned to the best of the forecasts’ abilities.
While tours are available in almost any populated area in Iceland, most of them are located in Reykjavík. For those who are in Reykjavík and do not want to go on a tour, a quick drive or walk to the boarder of the city is all that is needed to spot these magnificent lights.
Planning for the Lights
Begin by doing a quick internet search for an Aurora forecast. These forecasts are similar to weather forecasts, except they predict aurora activity. They’ll let you know whether the activity is expected to be high or low for a specific time period.
Next, check the actual weather forecast. It’s extremely important to choose a night that will have clear skies. Don’t be alarmed at the temperature, because clearer skies tend to be on those very chilly nights.
Decide whether you want to attempt to find the lights on your own or go on a guided tour. Going on a guided tour has its advantage of having an expert help you find the perfect viewing area. However, finding the lights on your own is very possible for those who are comfortable driving on Iceland’s roads. But guided tour will always been recommended if you are not sure about driving and know very well where are safe places to park the cars. Can´t be stressed enough.
Finally, choose an area. The best places to see the lights will be where there are no lights coming from street lamps or buildings. The further you get from a town or large city, the darker the sky will be and the better you’ll be able to enjoy the amazing lights. While the lights can still sometimes be seen in cities such as Reykjavík, they will appear brighter away from artificial lighting.
As a reminder, make sure to pack extra warm clothing for your Northern Lights adventure. Iceland is quite cold in the winter, and will be even colder on those clear winter nights. Take advantage of the traditional Icelandic clothing that is available for purchase throughout the country. Icelanders have lived for years in frigid weather and know how to stay warm. They can set you up with some nice natural fiber clothing that will keep you healthy and safe from frostbite.
For many, the Northern Lights is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. They are especially active and bright in Iceland, making it the perfect place to capture the memories on camera.
For those excited to photograph the lights, it is especially important to find a location away from artificial lighting. Take a drive into the country, away from towns and cities. The least populated the area, the better the chance to get a clear view.
The lights will not show up correctly on a common camera setting. Photographers should manually adjust their settings to obtain clearer pictures. The settings may need to be readjusted several times before the perfect image is captured, but photographers should generally set ISO between 200 and 800, aperture between 1.4 and 4.0, and shutter speed between 10-30 seconds. Make sure to bring a tripod to capture clear pictures at such a low shutter speed. It will also be helpful to switch the camera’s focus settings off of auto-focus and to manual. The lights move too much for cameras to be able to successfully auto-focus, so manual focus allows the photographer to take control.
While it is not necessary, a wide angle lens is a great investment and will enhance the pictures of the lights and their surroundings. Iceland has beautiful, natural backdrops that make photos of the lights stand out from others.
There are also Northern Lights photo tours, which include pick-up and drop-off, transportation, and a private photo guide. These tours are especially unique because the guides are not only experienced in finding the perfect locations, but also in capturing the beautiful phenomena on camera. The guides are available to assist photographers with camera settings, tripod setup, and everything in between.
Have you seen the Northern Lights? Would you like to see it in Iceland? Please share with us in the comments.