To see the Northern Lights, also known as the Aurora Borealis, is one of those life-long dreams that’s on almost everyone’s bucket list – it’s definitely been on mine for as long as I can remember! Those mystical, ethereal bright dancing lights seem like something straight out of a trippy dream.
Before my trip to Iceland in September, I googled “how to photograph the Northern Lights” up a storm. In an all-consuming, borderline obsessive way. It was my first time dabbling into night photography with zero prior experience and I was kicking myself for not being able to get out there and practise shooting the night sky before leaving for Europe – but THANK THE STARS my photos turned out way better than I expected!
I had timed and planned my trip to Iceland to coincide with the start of aurora season, but what I discovered later on was that whether you’re able to see the Northern Lights while you are there came down to one simple thing.
While I’m certainly no expert at night photography, I’d love to share with you my little guide on how to photograph the Northern Lights, what camera settings worked for me, and what it was like to experience the awe-inspiring Northern Lights for the first time. It’ll be something I remember for the rest of my life.
But first, what exactly are the Northern Lights?
The aurora appears most commonly at the northern or southern poles of our planet, and is called Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights in the northern regions, and Aurora Australis or Southern Lights in the south.
Apart from sunlight, the sun emits a wind of charged particles that move at several hundred kilometres per second also known as solar wind. When this solar wind reaches our planet, it interacts and collides with the atoms and molecules in earth’s upper atmosphere, creating an electrical phenomenon we know as the aurora. Little bursts of light called photons are emitted in these collisions which we perceive as beautiful, dancing lights.
The particles are drawn by magnetism to earth’s poles, making the aurora visible only in areas near the North and South Pole.
Just like stars, the aurora is present during the day and the night, though during the day it is overwhelmed by the brightness of the sky making it invisible to our eyes.
The best places to witness the Northern Lights are Alaska, Canada and Scandinavia, while the Southern Lights are only visible from high southern latitudes in Antartica, Australia (especially Tasmania), New Zealand and South America.
When is the best time to see the Northern Lights?
Winter in the north between mid-September to late March/early April is generally a good season to view the lights. The long periods of darkness plus the frequency of clear nights mean better opportunities to watch the aurora. Usually the best time of the night to watch for the Northern Lights is around 10pm – 3am. Sleep can wait!
What it was like to see the Northern Lights for the first time
It was my first day in Iceland and that evening I wandered absentmindedly around the surroundings of the breathtaking Hallgrímskirkja church in search of a restaurant my Airbnb host Björgvin had pointed out just a few hours earlier. With no data coverage (and no Google Maps to save me), I spent 20 minutes pacing up and down unfamiliar streets until I finally found Þrír Frakkar. I ordered the fiskisúpa (fish soup), which although was lusciously creamy and delicious, took forever to come out. It was 8pm, I hadn’t had dinner, and still had to navigate my way back home and pack for the Northern Lights tour I had booked for 9pm. Between the anxious checking of my watch every 30 seconds, glancing at the busy kitchen, and stickybeaking at the horse steak enjoyed at the table next to mine – I was getting close to losing my mind.
As soon as my fish soup arrived (at about 8:20pm), I scoffed it all down in 5 minutes flat, paid, and rushed home. Thanks to my type-A personality (which came out in full swing while I was solo travelling), I had pre-compiled a list of items to pack for the Northern Lights tour (you can find this list further down in this post). After 10 minutes of intense scrambling to pack my camera gear, wrapping myself up like a dumpling underneath multiple layers of thermals and zipping in the duck down layer of my Patagonia parka, I sprinted out the door to the location where the tour operator was picking me up.
As I stood at my pick up spot at 8:58pm panting, it dawned on me. Oh my god. I’m in freakin’ Iceland. And if I’m lucky I might actually be seeing the Northern Lights with my own eyes very soon. Cue a mini internal freak out and insane grinning.
We drove out to the National Park which was about 45 minutes away from Reykjavík. I put on my beanie and gloves in nervous excitement, stepped out into the darkness and started setting up my tripod and camera. The tour guide then called out, “Look! Over there!” while pointing skyward at what appeared to my untrained eyes to be a stream of grey clouds.
What? Is this it?
And then I saw it. A green glow. But it looked like clouds.
Thinking nothing of it, I took a test shot with my camera to make sure my initial settings were okay – 15 seconds exposure, ISO 800, f2.0. When the camera shutter clicked shut after 15 seconds, I glanced down at the LCD screen and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The sky was lit up in the most stunning green haze. I was completely stunned.
It was then I began to realise the human eye wasn’t capable of picking up and absorbing all the vivid colours as a camera would, like the aurora photos I had seen and was expecting to see. I gazed up at the sky and started to understand what I was seeing. That wasn’t a cloud at all, and it certainly didn’t move like a cloud.
The lights became stronger and brighter, fading in and out as it stretched and danced across the night sky. A green shimmer intensified as it wafted over the tops of our heads, stretching from one horizon to the other. The rest of the group cooed and cheered in delight. I was struck speechless as tears welled up in my eyes.
Seeing the Northern Lights for the first time gives you a sense of amazement that there’s something bigger out there. That our planet is just a minuscule cog in the vast workings of the universe. It was such a thrilling, mind blowing experience. It was magic, and it’s a moment I’ll never forget.
Before you venture out to see the Northern Lights
So you’re in the north, it’s winter, and you’re ready to head out in search of the Northern Lights. There are so many elements that come into play when it comes to trying to see aurora activity. There needs to be clear and fully dark skies (which usually equates to cold weather), low/minimal cloud coverage and lots of sun activity. And even when all the conditions appear to be favourable, a sighting is still never guaranteed.
But really, whether you’re able to see the Northern Lights comes down to one – simple yet not so simple – thing.
Luck. Pure, dumb, luck.
I was EXTREMELY lucky to be able to see the Northern Lights on my first two nights in Iceland, yet I’ve heard countless tales from others who have stayed in Iceland or Northern Finland for weeks yet were not able to witness the aurora.
Tip 1: Stay longer – If you’re hoping to see the Northern Lights, stay as long as possible (like at least a week) to increase your chances of seeing them. And pray for lots of sun activity and clear skies!
Tip 2: Join a tour – If you’re not keen on driving, join a small Northern Lights tour group. Tour operators have been chasing the Northern Lights for years and they can find the best spots for potential viewing, even when there’s low hanging cloud cover. I chose and highly recommend Gateway to Iceland who were professional, experienced and wonderful to deal with. Their tours only go ahead if they think there’s a good chance of seeing the lights. Book your tour for the very start of your trip so that you’ll have a few more days to try your luck if they’re not visible on the first night.
Keep an eye on aurora forecast sites – the higher the Kp the better
Basic camera gear
Digital camera – Choose a digital camera that has high ISO capabilities and handles long exposures (most cameras should). I used my Olympus OMD EM5 which is a mirrorless Micro four thirds model and one of my all-time favourite cameras to shoot with. Whilst it’s not impossible to photograph the aurora with a little compact point and shoot camera, it’s generally not recommended as it can be challenging. If you’re travelling to see the Northern Lights, why not bring a good camera with you to make the best of it? (Get friendly and familiar with your camera before the trip though!)
Lens – To photograph the aurora, choose a lens that’s wide angle, fast (large aperture of f2.8 or wider) and sharp. I used the fantastic Olympus 12mm f2.0 lens for all my aurora photos.
Use a tripod and a cable release or remote shutter release to trigger long exposure shots.
Before you head out aurora hunting, make sure you’ve packed these must-have items
- Camera and lens
- Tripod – I use the MeFoto Backpacker
- Cable or remote shutter release – I use the Pixel RW-221 wireless shutter remote control for Olympus
- Extra batteries – Keep 2 on you inside your jacket to keep them warm. The cold and long exposures deplete battery life very quickly
- A spare memory card
- A large zip lock bag for your camera
- Warm clothing, especially thermals, gloves, a beanie and a scarf – You’re going to be out in the cold for a while, potentially even hours. Make sure you dress warmly with a few layers so you won’t be cold and miserable
- Hot hands – These take at least 30 mins to fully warm up so if you’d like to use them don’t leave it too late
- A flask of hot tea to keep you warm, or better yet, a hot toddy 🙂
Tip: Practise with gloves – With your gloves on, practise operating your camera and extending and shortening your tripod. It may be trickier than you think!
While you’re out aurora hunting
Get as far away from the city lights as possible for darker skies and less light pollution. Once you’ve settled on a good viewing spot with clear skies, get your tripod and camera gear set up. Keep your eyes peeled to the sky and be patient.
Tip: Get your camera settings ready – Try to have your camera settings all set up and ready to go before you leave. It’s much easier done indoors without gloves on compared to fumbling around and punching camera buttons in the dark!
- Manual mode
- Shoot in RAW format
- Lowest aperture possible to let the most light in, f2.8 or better
- Shutter speed – Long exposure of 15-30 seconds
- Turn Auto Focus off; Manual Focus set to infinity
- High ISO 640 – 1250
Take a few test shots and check that the stars are in focus. Then take a few more test shots – the aurora may be present but too faint for our naked eyes to see, but the camera’s sensors will be able to capture it coupled with long exposure times and high ISO settings.
Adjust your shutter speed as you go to see what works best for you:
- Weak aurora – 10 to 30 seconds
- Moderate/Active aurora – 5 to 10 seconds
- Very active aurora – 1 to 5 seconds
Tip 1: Think about composition – Try to include some foreground in your shots to add composition and context to your frame, be it trees or mountains
Tip 2: Condensation is your camera’s enemy – To prevent condensation, put your camera into a zip lock bag outside before coming inside. In extreme coldness, your breath can condensate on the camera. In such conditions – inhale, frame the shot, and don’t exhale until you pull away from the camera.
To sum it up
- Check the aurora forecast for dark, clear skies, the higher the Kp-index the better
- Have your camera gear ready
- Have a tripod, remote shutter release, spare batteries and memory cards, and a large zip lock bag
- Dress warmly and don’t forget thermals, your gloves, beanie and scarf
- Camera settings – MF on infinity, largest aperture (f2.8 – f4), 15″ – 30″, ISO 640 – 1250
- Try to include foreground and trees in your frame
- Be patient and persistent, don’t give up too early
- Stay warm
- Relax! Don’t be so fixated on getting the perfect shot that you miss out on watching the incredible phenomenon in front of you. Take a deep breath and enjoy the show.
All the very best of luck and have fun with hunting and photographing the Northern Lights! I would LOVE to hear about your aurora sighting adventures – please leave a comment below if you have more tips to add!
All photos by Sammie Teng; shot with my Olympus OMD-EM5