Oct 28, 2020

Northern Lights in Iceland

Northern lights Iceland

In different cultures, the Northern Lights have represented different mythological characters, animals or spirits; but even nowadays the Northern Lights are a phenomenon that amazes us. In this post, we will talk specifically about all the information you need to know for spotting the Northern Lights in Iceland.

[ Northern Lights in Iceland ] What are they, where, when & how?

What are the Northern Lights?

The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are a natural phenomenon. In the old mythology, the Northern Lights in Iceland were believed to be the spirits of Valkyries descending from Valhalla to take the souls of the warriors dead in battle to join the Gods. But now we have a better comprehension about the Northern Lights. This natural phenomenon is created when a cloud of gas (coronal mass ejection) is ejected from the surface of the sun. After 2-3 days, it reaches Earth & collides with its magnetic field. This collision causes complex changes to happen to the magnetic tail region, creating currents of charged particles that are boosted in the upper atmosphere where they crash against the gases atoms.

The Northern Lights can have different colors & patterns too, and this came because of the types of atoms energized. The colors depend on the altitude: blue & red tones occur below 60 miles in the Earth’s atmosphere, bright green between 60-150 miles.

Where can I see the Northern Lights?

Is it true that I can only see the Northern Lights in the Arctic? Not exactly. What you can see is the Aurora Polaris, that can be Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) or the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights). They are more frequent at higher latitudes and places close to the Earth’s polar regions. But, as we are talking about Northern Lights in Iceland, let’s clarify where you can see them:

  • Find a place without light pollution (no need to drive hundred of miles from the city, Kleifarvatn lake in the Reykjanes Peninsula or even the Grótta Lighthouse are good options if you are in Reykjavík).
  • Better in the south or in the north? Some people say that it’s better to go North, it actually doesn’t matter. If the solar storm prediction is good, just make sure to have clear skies, low light pollution & a lot of patience.
northern lights in the highlands
Weak Northern Light. Parameters: f2.8, 10 secs, ISO 3200

When is the best season to see the Aurora Borealis?

Some people claim that the Northern Lights are only visible during the winter months. Well, this phenomenon doesn’t understand what the seasons are. But as it is a light phenomenon, as much dark hours we have, better chances of being surprised by them. We’ve seen Northern Lights in the Highlands during the first week of September, but our favorite season is from early November to March, when we have more night hours.

Despite is not a phenomenon you can predict with exactitude, you can check the Northern Lights status in several websites: our chosen ones are Vedur & Aurora Forecast. Have you ever considered joining any of our winter tours? We offer from 8-days winter adventure to 3-days winter experience where you have high chances of spotting the Northern Lights.

How can I see them?

Following this rule you will be successful:

  • Sky clarity: make sure there are no clouds, you should be able to see the stars perfectly.
  • Solar storm intensity: if you’re in Iceland, a level 3-4 over 9 is normally enough to see them.
  • Light pollution: try to find a place with no city lights and also, if it’s possible, without moonlight.
  • Patience: it’s the key to this rule. Be patient. There’s no Aurora waiting for you, you need to wait to her to appear 🙂

But hey! I know the Northern Lights are quite unreal, they can only be seen through a long-exposure photo“. Not true. Northern Lights have been observed since ancient times (and the Vikings didn’t have photo cameras), you just need to be lucky to enjoy them in complete darkness. Even some people claim to hear noises associated with the northern lights, our guide Alberto is one of them.

How can I take a photo of the Northern Lights?

Well, a few years ago we would say that you can only take a shot of the Northern Lights with a professional camera. Nowadays it’s even possible to take them with your smartphone. Anyway! If you want to take a really awesome shot of the Northern Lights, here are our favorite parameters for your camera:

  • Use a tripod for bringing stability to your camera.
  • Shoot in RAW format. Depends on your camera, it will generate a file called .CR2, .ARW, .NEF,…
  • In the White balance, select White Balance Manual.
  • In case you are doing a photo without landscape, only stars & the northern light, adjust the manual focus to infinite (∞).
  • If you want to include some landscape element or person in the photo, try to focus a distant light.
  • Use the widest aperture on your lens, from f2.8 to f5.6 to get a better result.
  • Shutter speed, what a mystery! Depending on the type of Northern Light, you can use from 10 to 30 seconds (almost not visible Northern Lights) or from 1 to 7 seconds (super vivid & strong Northern Lights).
  • ISO adjustment. Depends of course on the camera, but we do not recommend using a higher ISO than 3200, as you would find a lot of noise in the photo.

Our recommended parameters are: f2.8, 2.5 seconds & ISO 3200

Northern Lights over Reykjavík
Strong Northern Lights over Reykjavík. Parameters: f2.8, 2 secs, ISO 3200
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