How To Take Great Photos Of The Northern Lights

Northern Lights in Iceland
Viewing the Northern Lights is on many people’s bucket lists.  To be honest, it wasn’t really on mine.

I certainly wouldn’t have made a special trip to Iceland just to see them, that’s for sure.  But since I was there for work anyway, and had the opportunity, I thought ‘Oh well, may as well…’  So I took my tripod, and made sure to read a few articles about how best to capture them.  You know, just in case…

As you can see, this advice turned out to be pretty handy. If you want to skip straight to that part, scroll down to the bottom for my top tips. Otherwise, read on…

Northern Lights in Iceland

The first time the opportunity to see the Aurora raised its head was two days into the trip, and it happened to be my birthday.  I’d had a great but tiring day filming in a glacier ice cave and my lovely colleague had fed me just one G&T in the hotel as a birthday treat.  It made me incredibly sleepy.   Then the news went round the hotel: “Northern Lights!”

Northern Lights in Iceland

I reluctantly followed the other guests across an icy car park and up a hill behind the hotel.  No coat, no camera.  Little wonder then that I only stayed for about 15 minutes before going to bed.  ‘There’ll be another chance,’ I thought.  Later, my colleague came back, breathless with excitement.  He’d seen them!  I was too tired to care.

But in the days that followed I wondered if I’d missed my only chance.  Shame to have come all this way and not seen them.  I began to hope I would.

Northern Lights in Iceland
And as you can probably guess from the photos, I did.   I was on a tour bus heading back to Reykjavik when they appeared.  The driver pretty much pulled over by the side of a field and we all piled out.  And this is what we got.  Lucky, hey?

A lot of people are disappointed when they experience the Lights after having seen other people’s photos.  And I can see why.  They are nowhere near as bright to the naked eye as they are in a photograph with a long exposure.   All these photos were taken with between 3 and 10 second exposures. That’s up to 10 seconds worth all added together.  No wonder they look so vivid.

Northern Lights in Iceland

But out there in the cold and dark, with a coachload of tourists going a bit nuts about ten meters from me, I was still blown away.  I’m not one for talking to myself, but even I couldn’t stop myself from breathing ‘Holy Cr*p!’ under my breath every time I took another shot!

Northern Lights in Iceland
The next morning I saw on the news that the Lights had been visible in parts of the UK, so I guess I really did get lucky.

A few nights later, flushed with success, I thought I’d try again.  This time I booked onto a specific tour that included time in the evening to stop and view the Lights.  Of course there are no guarantees, but the skies were clear and the forecast looked good.

Hvalfjörður fjord

As soon as it started to get dark, we pulled over into a parking area by the beautiful Hvalfjörður fjord, and while we waited I took a few photos of this gorgeous traditional wooden church, illuminated against the inky sky.

Iceland church at night

As the evening progressed, the stars started to come out.  It was perfectly cold, crisp and still, and incredibly atmospheric.   The Lights hadn’t even arrived, and I couldn’t stop taking photos!

Hvalfjörður fjord at night

There were two or three other photographers in the group, and we got a bit competitive, seeing who could take the best picture.  I think the other members of the group might have found us a bit annoying, but that wasn’t going to stop me!

Iceland fjord at night with stars

Impossibly stunning.  You could see all the constellations.  I even recognised one or two: you can make out Orion’s belt and sword in the bottom left of this photo.  But no Lights.

Starry night sky over Iceland

Still I didn’t really mind.  I’d seen just about the best display they’d had all winter on my first (well, second!) go.  And it turns out no Lights is pretty stunning too.  Although we didn’t get a theatrical display like the last time, we did get a gentle green glow.  Though this was barely visible to the naked eye: this photo required a 20 second exposure.

Green Northern Lights over Iceland

How To Photograph The Northern Lights

If you want to maximise your chances of getting great shots, here are my top tips:

1/ Familiarise yourself with your camera before you go.  The most important thing is that you have full manual control over your camera.  You don’t need a super fancy SLR, but if you only have a smartphone, then I’m sorry, you’re not going to get the kind of images you see in the travel guides.

2/ Check the forecast.  You’ll need clear skies AND Aurora activity to be able to see the lights.  In Iceland everyone uses the Aurora forecast here.

3/ Get a tripod. If you don’t have one, you can possibly put the camera on a bag, gatepost, or the floor, but if you’re really serious about getting good photos, you’ll need a tripod.  Without one, you’ll definitely get camera shake and your photos will be blurry.

Green Northern Lights over Iceland

4/ To be doubly sure you don’t get camera shake, it’s also a good idea to use the mirror lockup function (check how to do this in your camera’s manual if you don’t already know).  You should also use a remote shutter release, or use the self-timer function with a 2-second delay to avoid shaking the camera when you press the button.

5/ Be prepared!  Have your camera, coat, tripod and spare battery close to hand.  You don’t want to miss them, like I did, because you’ve left the tripod in the car and your coat in your hotel room…

6/ Put your camera on full manual setting.

Green Northern Lights over Iceland

7/ Set your focus to manual. If you leave it on auto, the focus will be hunting in the dark for something to lock onto, but in the black of night it simply won’t be able to.  You’ll need to set the focus to infinity, or, if you can, focus on the brightest star in the sky.

8/ Set your ISO to as high as it can go without introducing too much noise into your shot.  On most good cameras these days ISO 1600 is a good place to start.

9/ A wide aperture is fine.  You don’t need much depth of field for this.  These were all shot on between f/2.8 and f.4.

10/ Now you have your ISO and aperture set, play with shutter speeds till you get it right. These photos were taken with shutter speeds of between 5 and 30 seconds.

Green Northern Lights over Iceland

Now get out there and enjoy!

If you liked this, why not try my other guides:

How To Take Great Photos Of Wildlife

How To Take Great Photos Of Markets

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4 Comments

  1. perrinevautour
    2nd March 2018 / 8:39 pm

    Seeing the lights is my bucket list, but I didn’t know they didn’t look like the photos… might have to check out what they really look like not to be disappointed when I do ^^

    Perrine
    http://www.ola-banana.com

    • passportandpixels
      Author
      2nd March 2018 / 8:46 pm

      Yes they are definitely not as bright as in the photos you see, because as I explained in the post, photographers use long exposure times so you see maybe 10-30 seconds worth of ‘lights’ all in one photo. They are much paler in real life, but it’s still an impressive and moving experience, a bit like the feeling of being small and insignificant that you get when you look up at the stars on a clear night. So don’t be put off!

  2. 31st July 2018 / 10:19 am

    This is amazing! I’ve been to Iceland twice and still haven’t managed to see them. I’m hopefully heading back for New Year, so third time lucky? Will be employing some of your tips!

    • passportandpixels
      Author
      4th August 2018 / 2:08 pm

      Iceland at New Year will be amazing! How frustrating for you though that you’ve been twice and not seen them – I guess I got really lucky! Hopefully it will be third time lucky for you too – and of course do shout if you want any more advice 🙂

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