It’s love at first sight! Seeing Northern Lights in Iceland was my first magical moment with these dancing elves in the sky. No pictures or words can do the justice. It made me addicted and a Northern Lights chaser forever. This rare beauty has a naughty sense and requires her admirers’ precise planning, determination, and a lot of serendipity to meet. The determination and serendipity parts are all on you. But I can share with you how I planned to maximize our chance to see her. I will also share some tips on how to catch the moments with your camera to take her home.
In one sentence: be at the right place at the right time. Sounds simple but hard to do.
Where to See?
Often, people use “Northern Lights” and “Aurora Borealis” interchangeably. Actually, Northern Lights can be seen in the northern or southern hemisphere. Aurora is the name of the goddess of dawn in Roman myths. Living in the opposite magnetic poles, the two Aurora sisters are called “Aurora Borealis” (dawn of the north) and “Aurora Australis” (dawn of the south). Therefore, “Aurora Borealis” and “Northern Lights” refer to the same thing in the northern hemisphere. In this article, we are talking about just Aurora Borealis in the northern hemisphere.
- Europe: Iceland; southern tips of Greenland; northern coast of Norway;
- North America: Alaska; Yukon, Nunavut, Northwest Territories of northwestern Canada;
- Northern coast of Siberia;
Iceland is our top choice because it is easily accessible from the US east coast and offers many interesting winter activities besides the Northern Lights. (Don’t miss snorkeling in Silfra when you are in Iceland. Read my post on this.) In this article, I will focus on viewing from Iceland because that’s what we experienced.
Just in case you are curious, we saw the Northern Lights one night between Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon and Jokulsarlon, and another night from the Umi Hotel facing Eyjafjallajokull.
When to See?
- Auroral activity is on an 11-year cycle. The last peak was in 2013. But don’t be discouraged by the non-peak years. What we saw was absolutely vivid in 2018 which is near the valley of this cycle.
- Winter in the north where there is a long period of darkness and higher chance of clear nights. In Iceland, it is between October and March. March is a great month to visit Iceland because it offers enough daylight to do outdoor activities while offering dark nights (after 9-10PM).
- Within the month, crescent moons offer less “light pollution”. I think it is a good-to-have but not a must-have.
- Within the day, the best time is roughly between 10PM-midnight. Based on our limited Icelandic experience, our best viewings occurred between 10:30 to 11:30PM. Some hotels offer wake-up/alert call service for the Northern Lights. Make sure to ask.
“Trust” the Forecasts
Just like all forecasts, take the Icelandic forecasts with a grain of salt (or maybe a few grains). I can imagine the Icelandic weather is very unpredictable and hard to forecast due to their location and topography. But, do follow the forecasts which are your best bet in general. Here are a few good sites and mobile apps can assist you:
- University of Alaska’s Geophysical Institute offers the longest-term forecast of the best viewing locations globally as I could find. It looks out around 22 days for five regions.
- Icelandic Met Office site. A comprehensive forecast for aurora activity level, sun rise/set times, cloud coverage, and moon phase. We think it is fairly accurate for a three-day horizon.
- We used three iPhone apps: Aurora, Aurora Tonight, and Aurora Now. They are all free and offer some helpful information. By using them jointly, you can see near-term forecast of a specific location, cloud coverage, and the best viewing time.
To maximize your chance of viewing, these factors are more and less important:
- A magnetic level of the sun (Kp) above 3;
- Good weather and clear sky is a must-have;
- Drive a little to get as far away from city light pollution and clouds as you can;
- Trust your near-term forecasts for the particular location and time;
- Crescent moon is good to have but not a must-have;
Bonus: Capture Your Own Best Photos
Equipment you will need:
- A camera with manual shooting mode;
- A wide-angle lens. The wider, the better;
- A steady tripod to stand up the potential wind in Iceland;
- A remote control for your camera to prevent blurs to your long-exposure photos;
- An LED headlamp you can use in the dark to set your camera. We found the red light is less intrusive and blinding to yourself and maybe others sharing the dark environment around you;
- Dress warmly. You will spend at least 1-2 hours outside to wait for it to happen.
I set my camera lens to 18mm /ISO to 6400 /aperture to f3.5, and shot in manual mode with 6-second exposure for most photos. When the lights are super active and bright, 6 seconds may be a little too long. But I didn’t have time to change the exposure every time because the lights changed in brightness, shape and position frequently and quickly. The hardest thing to take these photos was to position the camera to the right direction and height in the sky at the right time. Every camera is different and find your right setting combination for your camera. If you are not used to night photography, I suggest you practice at night prior to get familiar with the settings.
Last but not the least: don’t sweat and only focus on trying to take the perfect photos. After all, it is what you see with your eyes burns into your memory for life. ENJOY!