How to Experience the Northern Lights in Iceland
Let’s start off by saying this: no matter how many photos or videos you see of the northern lights, nothing can ever do them justice. Aurora Borealis seems like something out of a fairytale, but this dream trip can come true. So you’ve read up on the things you need to consider before booking your Icelandic trip. Now it’s time for contributor Adriana Pickering to share her real-life experience (and a list of tips!) upon seeing the northern lights in Iceland.
My infatuation with the northern lights
There was a year I was visiting family friends in Canada; I was perhaps 15 years old. It was the first time that I ever saw the northern lights. We were outside at a birthday party and you could barely see them. They were a very light wispy white that somewhat lingered in certain parts of the sky. I don’t know why I vividly remember this moment, but I do. I’ve been obsessed with the night sky for a long time, probably because my parents gave me a love for the stars and meteor showers.
Every year when I visit Canada with my family, our trip happens to line up with the Perseid meteor shower. It has created the funniest of family traditions: every year on the night that the meteor shower peaks, we layer up. We put on hotel robes, jackets, knee high socks (anything to keep us warm, because we live in San Diego and think anything below 60 is freezing) and we lay out to watch the stars. Let me paint you a picture: a family of five, in the most ridiculous outfits with towels and blankets, walking around cabins late at night trying to find the darkest area possible to lay down and watch the stars. I love it. As embarrassing as we are, it’s a moment I live for every year.
Image by Adriana Pickering
Keep in mind that Jasper is a National park with wild animals, so you can’t wander into the woods at night. So, we set up near walking paths where people can see us all laying in a row in our hotel robes and high socks staring up at the sky. It’s ridiculous, and I love every second of it. Jasper is a dark sky preserve making it one of the most amazing places to view the stars.
I wish that there was some way for me to describe the way the night sky looks there. It’s this massive span of sky, and no matter where you look there are thousands of stars. You can see the milky way, and as the meteors shoot across the sky and leave light trails behind them, you’re at a loss for words. The world slips away and you forget that people are walking past, staring at you and your family laying in robes in the middle of the grass at midnight. You get a sense for what a small place you occupy in the universe and it’s brilliant.
Off to experience the northern lights
I think that my affinity for the stars started with this tradition. It would be safe to say that the northern lights in Iceland were high on my bucket list. During the week we were in Iceland, the WHOLE island was socked in with clouds. I’m talking dense clouds so low to the ground I felt like I could jump up and touch them. The whole week there was nothing but clouds and rain. It was almost funny: off to Iceland to see the sky and all you get are clouds.
Luckily, I learned that you could track the clouds and solar flares online the whole time we were there. It’s great having websites you can use now to track all of this essential information, such as vedur.is or road.is.
Image by Adriana Pickering
After about five days of exploring during the day we were getting a little nervous that seeing the lights might not be in the cards. The second to last night of our trip the solar flares were extremely high. This means that if the sky were to have no clouds, we would have a 100% chance of seeing the lights. There was only a tiny part of the island that had clear skies. So, we did what any rational people would do, and drove five hours to the only clear part of the island.
The magic moment of seeing Aurora Borealis
After a few hours of driving on this two-lane highway in the pitch black, the clouds broke and there they were… the northern lights in Iceland. It was instantaneous; you got past the cloud layer and you had to do a double take because it felt like perhaps you were seeing things. We ended up pulling over onto the side of the road because we were so excited.
It’s funny that people describe them as ‘dancing across the sky’, but there really isn’t any other way to describe them. These brilliant colors start to appear out of nowhere and then quickly shoot across the sky, slow down and swirl around. It’s like watching someone paint a canvas. The brush strokes don’t seem to have any method to them, but when the painting is done it’s a beautiful piece of art. They went in waves like the ocean quickly and in rhythm, and then start to slowly form into these curves that would take a long time to form and afterwards disappear.
We ended up staying up until three in the morning watching them. The weather being cloudy only made our midnight drive even more fulfilling. We left knowing that we truly did all we could to see the lights and there was something special in that.
Image by Adriana Pickering
Key tips before chasing the lights:
- Go see the Northern Lights in Iceland. Period. Make it happen. You will NOT regret it.
- Be prepared and flexible. Below are the links to the websites that show you solar flares and weather.
- Spaceweatherlive.com. This website is super user friendly. It explains what the Kp Index is and what the Auroral oval is looking like.
- The Icelandic Met Office has a great radar of the weather over the island. It helps you find the best area to get clear skies.
- Bring good gear. Iceland is extremely cold, especially at night time. With weather dropping below freezing, you want to be warm and safe when you’re outdoors.
- Make it comfortable. Bring a flash light so you aren’t fumbling in the dark. Bring a thermos with a warm drink, some snacks and foldable chairs and post up.
- Know your camera settings in advance. Unless you have a camera that has settings for long exposure photos, don’t waste the moment trying to get photos on your mobile phone. Enjoy the moment for what it is. However, if you do have a camera that you can manipulate the settings, below are the settings that I used to capture my photos.
- Make sure that you have a tripod with you. The shutter will be open for a long time on these photos so if your camera is not stable you won’t be able to take a focused photo.
- Take your camera off auto focus. Switch it to manual and attempt to focus on a large landmark or a very bright star.
- Open your aperture to the lowest setting. Mine was on a f/4.
- Play with the shutter speed a bit. I found that 25 seconds was the sweet spot for my camera and the area where I was taking the photos.
- Play around with the ISO. Ideally a lower ISO will help reduce noise in your photos but if you need more exposure you can always bump it up. Try 200 to start.
As said, nothing anyone shares with you can do the experience any justice. It’s the story that you try and retell, but you know you simply “had to be there” to understand how great that moment was. There is one thing I can promise: if you are lucky enough to see this natural phenomenon, you too will be saying “I wish I could put into words what that moment was like“.
About the author
San Diego born Adriana Pickering is a flight attendant by day and a photography enthusiast by night. With a job that feeds a love for travel, Adriana set up her own website so you can visualise those distant destinations through her eyes.