They're used in almost every promotional material for Icelandic tourism, and for good reason. They are stunning, seeming almost magical and they often appear when you least expect them. I'm, of course, talking about the Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis.
The Aurora Borealis, meaning 'Dawn of the North', is without any doubt the single greatest attraction Iceland has to offer.
Not that Iceland is the only place in which you can find them, but thanks to the vast, untamed wilderness we have here and our fortunate location in the upper northern hemisphere you might have better luck looking up at the dancing Northern Lights here than anywhere else in the world.
Did you know that there are also Aurora Lights in the Southern hemisphere? They're called Aurora Australis and you can see them in places such as New Zealand, Falkland Islands, Antarctica and even far south in Argentina.
There were a lot of theories and superstitions surrounding the Aurora lights all throughout history. The Crees in America called them the Dance of Spirits, associating them to the afterlife.
Throughout medieval Europe, they were believed to be signs from the Christian God and in Norse mythology, they were believed to be the shimmering lights that flashed from the shields of the Valkyrie as they swooped down to the battlefields to claim the souls of the fallen.
In ancient Roman mythology, Aurora was the name for the goddess of the dawn, the herald that announced the arrival of the sun.
Aurora, together with the Greek god of the north wind Borea, inspired the astronomer Galileo Galilei when he formally coined the term Aurora Borealis in 1619 AD.
You will not definitely see them, if that makes sense. The northern lights are elusive and you may get lucky one night to find them showing off right above your head but usually, it takes a bit of planning and consideration.
Make sure you monitor their activity using the local Weather Reports. The white areas represent clear skies and you'll see the expected Auroral activity in the upper right corner.
Just make sure not to plan your entire holiday around seeing the northern lights. They should be considered an extra bonus to your trip and if you come to Iceland with high expectations you may be propping yourself up for disappointment.
People say that the peak months for auroral activity are from September to the end of February, but you can easily see them during the other months as well as long as its dark.
Obviously not in July, where daylight spans the entire day cycle but a trip in March, April or August might carry an auroral display waiting to surprise you.
They are most likely to bee seen between 10pm and 12AM
Since these are the darkest hours in Iceland, this is the time to witness their great dancing moves. Most Northern Lights tours set off on this time of day as well, to maximize the likelihood of catching them. This is also the best time, as it won't compromise the plans you have set for the day, as well as the next.
Remember, it's usually VERY cold at this hour so remember to wear something warm.
Avoid light pollution
Light pollution will affect your view of the Northern Lights. If you are staying in the capital, or any other urban area, get in your rental vehicle and drive towards where it's noticeably dark. It's best then to park your car, turn it off and walk for a bit until you are in complete darkness. This is the practice of most guided tours.
Plan for success
If you only plan to stay two or three nights, you might find yourself unsuccessful in your hunt for the Northern Lights. If it is your bucket list item and you truly want to see them, we recommend you plan your stay a bit longer (if possible) because the weather can work against you with cloudy rainy skies with no chance of seeing them.
They might be forecast to be very strong the same evening as the weather forecast is dreadful. The longer you stay, the better your chances are.
Travel away from the city
The best way to see the Northern Lights is by traveling the beautiful Icelandic country side. As previously mentioned you can use the local Weather Aurora Forecast to try and be on point when they are showing.
Traveling also insures that you have less light pollution as you might be putting together some tent gear in the middle of nowhere and you are away from most rural areas. This is the ideal scenario for all Northern Lights seekers. Straying away from the city and driving toward, mostly nothing, to be able to witness the greatest show on earth.
Look up to the stars
No matter where you are, make sure you look up on dark nights as some high rises might be in the way and you can just see the tail of the lights. I know we walk about traveling away from the lights, but even Reykjavík isn't so heavily polluted by light as other cities may be so there's even a chance you might see them on one casual evening stroll through downtown.
The biggest show of lights I've seen happened right in the middle of Reykjavík and it was spectacular!
This is a tip that sometimes goes unmentioned but the Northern Lights are very visible while flying above the clouds. Sometimes, they feel like they are just floating right next to you. If you are flying during the night on your way to / from Iceland, ask the air stewards to let you know when they are strong.
They are usually most visible while flying over Greenland, make a note of that.
This comes down to few important things coming together to make the ultimate Northern Light viewing experience.
This might be the most important one as even though the solar activity is strong the clouds will cover the beautiful lights. When skies are clear the Northern Lights are unobstructed and in-sight for your enjoyment.
The Northern Lights, or Aurora Borealis, are created by strong solar winds that are interacting with the earths magnetosphere, the same sphere that protects us from the unforgiving forces of space. Solar activity is driven by the suns magnetic field where the suns gases are constantly moving. When the solar activity is facing the earth it will affect us the most, and make the Northern Lights more visible.
Again, can't state this enough, but keep a watchful eye on Icelandic Met Office's Aurora Forecast The optimal level is above three.
The darker, the better. This has been stated before but just in case you missed it, light has a negative effect on your viewing experience. Soon as you see the forecast states clear skies and the Aurora strength is above 4+, you are golden.
What is an equinox? Astronomers define the equinox as the moment the Earth's Equator on its axis passes the same plane of the Sun's equator.
Indeed, the Aurora Borealis are often strongest around the time of the equinoxes, when the sun is directly above the earths equator and day and night are about the same length. This usually occurs somewhere between March 20th and September 23rd.
Rent a Car
This goes without saying, but renting a car while in Iceland is pretty important if you want to witness the Northern Lights. You can always book a Northern Light tour and not see them at all but you could also just follow the forecast and just drive into the darkness. Hours of darkness increase the further north you drive which increases your chances of witness the almighty dance of the lights.
Finally, just be patient. If you start out your adventure, the forecast is strong but you are not able to see them. Wait a while. Give it a minute and more. The weather changes fairly quickly in Iceland and before you know it, the clouds might have shot past and the lights are there for you to enjoy. You've made it all this way, good things come to those who wait.
Great question! The obvious answer is, of course, where it's dark, but thankfully if you're here in winter then darkness pretty much covers the entire country.
Even Reykjavík isn't so heavily polluted by light as other cities may be so there's even a chance you might see them on one casual evening stroll through downtown.
The biggest show of lights I've seen happened right in the middle of Reykjavík and it was spectacular!
But seriously, use your imagination. If you're going out of Reykjavík then find a black sand beach and watch the lights dance above the ocean or even climb a small mountain or hill to get some amazing overview shots with your camera.
Glacier Lagoon (Jokulsarlon)
You get to visit one of the most beautiful and stunning regions in Iceland, while (hopefully) witnessing the Northern Lights at the same time. That is just, tremendous, and a double tick of the bucket list.
The Glacier Lagoon has no light pollution and is considered one of the best spots to see the Borealis.
On intense nights the Northern Lights will dance of the lagoon water making it a spectacular photographic moment.
Thingvellir National Park
Thingvellir National Park is located roughly 35 miles northeast of the capital along route 1. This makes roughly a 40 minute drive and is included in the Golden Circle (which we recommend highly).
The great thing about Thingvellir is that it is not effected by light pollution and is completely dark at night. It makes for great Northern Light gazing. Another great thing is that the roads are paved and if it snows, the road maintenance crew takes care of plowing the route so it won't be as hazardous on snowy conditions.
Road.is can give you insight into road conditions and limitations if you are not certain before heading on your Auroran Adventure.
Kirkjufell looks man made as it sits in beautiful landscape in the shape of the perfect cylinder. It's on route 54 towards Snæfellsnes, a roughly 2 hour drive from the capital Reykjavik.
There have been beautiful photographs of the Northern Lights captured there throughout the years which makes it an ideal place to gaze and be amazed.
Asbyrgi Canyon, also known as the Shelter of the Gods, is a horse-shoe shaped cliff just north of the town Husavik. If you are on your way to drive the Diamond Circle, this is a must stop.
The cliffs are about 100m (328ft) high and have a vast woodland surrounding it. It is far away from populated area and one of the top spots for the Northern Lights spotting.
The great thing about camping grounds in Iceland is that most of them are rural and light pollution will be minimum. The thing is, you can only camp in Iceland between April and September due to cold weather, but September can offer some beautiful and strong Northern Lights. Just something to think about.
This is a glass-dome accommodation in Iceland and is just an awesome experience overall. There is a comfortable bed with heated sheets inside the dome where you can just lay your head and look up at the sky without interruption. Of course, the conditions have to be favorable and you will have to book in advance, but even though you don't get to see the Northern Lights, you can still brag that you slept in a dome under the Icelandic sky.
Gardskagaviti (Gardskagi Lighthouse)
This would be a secret place not many visit. This is a lighthouse just a few minutes from Keflavik International Airport. At night, the lighthouse adds a great feature to the northern lights that would be illuminating the ocean.
If you are staying your last night in Keflavik before heading to your flight in the morning and notice that the northern lights forecast is strong, make your way toward the lighthouse and be amazed.
You really don't want to find yourself in a situation where you are just unable to capture the Northern Lights on your phone or your camera. I just want to touch on a few settings on your phone and camera that will allow you to capture this wonder of a lifetime.
Just hoping that you have a newer phone and a decent camera, most will be OKAY.
The better the exposure capabilities, the better the photo.
Some cameras offer a large varieties of preset settings that you can use, fx. Northern Light Settings that will also work just fine. If you camera does not offer this than you can use the settings bellow
Aperture of f/2.8 or the widest in your lens
This allows you to capture as much light as possible. This helps with all digital noise on the photograph and you will have to have a great lens.
Example of lenses
1. Sony 20 mm f/1.8
2. Sigma 14mm f/1.8 DG HSM
3. Rokinon 14mm f/2.8
4. Venus Laowa 15mm f/2
ISO between 3200 to 6400
Having the correct ISO setting is crucial as you are able to have the right exposure while using a shorter shutter speed.
Having a higher-end camera will allow you to have higher ISO setting so if you have a entry-level camera we recommend having ISO 3200 or lower.
Moonlight can also affect the ISO setting. It can work like a great light source and allow you to have a lower ISO setting.
Shutter Speed between 1-15 seconds
As the Northern Lights like to dance it can be hard to figure out your shutter speed to capture the greatness of the Aurora. This is something you will have to play with a little.
As a general rule; The Stronger and brighter the Northern Lights, the fast the shutter speed.
White Balance 3500k
To be able to capture the more natural color of the Northern Lights you will have to manually set your white balance. We recommend a setting around 3500 Kelvin. If you like to have fun with different colors of the Aurora then you can play with the white balance setting.
Manually Focus on a Distant Light Source
It can be hard to focus on the sky so you will have to try and focus on a light source, or perhaps a distant subject (mountain..). It's good to check on your photos between takes and zoom to make sure you won't notice blurry stars.
Some cameras can focus automatically at night, which is fine. Just make sure that it works the way you like it by checking the captured image every now and then.
Shutter Delay of 2 Seconds
You will have to have a steady tripod so that your images are the sharpest. Also, setting the shutter delay to 2 seconds will avoid any vibration, but if it's windy, set it to 5 seconds.
Disclamer: Not everyone likes the same settings and this all comes down to preference.
There are some great apps that you can download to enhance the chances for capturing the Northern Lights.
Apps for Android and IOS
Some gear can enhance the capture, even though most of the above apps will take care of most of the hardwork.
Gear for Capturing the Northern Lights on your Smartphone
- Remote Shutter
Settings for your Smartphone to capture the Northern Lights
- Landscape Mode
- Focus to Manual
- Turn off the flash
- White balance changed to Night Mode or Cloudy
- Highest Picture Quality as Possible
Hope this helps.
The lights are the result of collisions between electrically charged solar particles and atoms and molecules in earth's atmosphere.
The atoms get all jittery and excited, lighting up into the northern lights for all to enjoy. They're not always green, though. The color in the lights is determined by the type of molecules that are colliding at the given time.
The green color is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above earth while red lights are produced by oxygen considerably higher, or about 200 miles above the earth.
A rarer type, the purple or blue lights are produced when nitrogen enters the equation.
Yes, and no. They do not produce a sound as scientists have tried recording audio before but without any luck. But, there have been instances that those gazing at the Northern Lights at high altitude have heard a ghostly sound.
Nothing is impossible, there are theories about sound from the Northern Lights but they have never been recorded.
Yes, it can. If the Northern Lights are subtle and low in activity and the moon is in full brightness it can pollute your view. Don't worry, if the Northern Lights are in full strength then the moonlight will not affect it at all.
No, since the Northern Lights occur so high up in the atmosphere they do not pose any threat to those gazing at the night sky. They could have some potential negative effect to large infrastructure and technology.