How to Photograph the Northern Lights

How to Photograph the Northern Lights

Aurora Borealis light shows are out of this world and leave you with the feeling of being on a planet. The Northern Lights are formed by the burning of atmospheric gases high above the earth as a result of solar winds from the sun. You stand on this planet and realise how small and insignificant we really are, how short our lives are and how beautiful the Nature is. Northern lights photography will create stunning pictures for your portfolio, so investing in the right gear and right trips can reap exciting rewards.

Photographer’s guide to Northern Lights

Photographing Auroras successfully means learning some Night Photography basics, but once you have it, it becomes as easy as taking any regular photograph.  Northern lights photography is so much about being in the right place at the right time.  Nt many people live in good Aurora Borealis zones, so it means travel for most people.  Browse through our selection of Iceland photo tours for plenty of great opportunities to photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland.

Northern lights over glacier lagoon


Aurora Photography Equipment

This article discusses the use of digital SLRs (DSRLs) or modern Mirror-less bridge cameras, but a film camera is equally good and in some respects better. Whatever your camera, you need the ability to open the shutter for at least 10-30 seconds. If you have a bulb setting (B) and you have a shutter release cable, then you will have much more control. I have seen people use a two second exposure on a compact camera and they got a result, but not the kind of result we are going to try and achieve. For good control choose a DSLR with good high iso settings. This is more about dates, than makes. The powerful sensors that are good for night photography started appearing on high end cameras around 2010 and got much better again around 2014 and slightly better again 2016. Choose a full frame camera to get the most out of a wide angle lens.

A good lens is important. If you can choose your lens, go for a fairly wide angle (17mm – 24mm) and one with a large aperture f/2.8 is preferable. I always manage to capture a decent amount of the display with a 24mm on a full frame, but sometimes, I wish I had wider. 17mm is easily wide enough to capture a big light show without too much distortion of the landscape.

Next you will need a tripod or a way of keeping the camera perfectly still for long periods. I once forgot my tripod head and successfully shot with my camera resting on my camera bag. Choose a tripod carefully, not too heavy, but not too light. You don’t want to struggle carrying it over icy landscapes and you don’t want the wind to be able to jog the camera. Try and choose one where it is easy to set up with your gloves on. You certainly don’t want to be handling bare metal without gloves in Arctic conditions.

A spare battery is very important. The cold zaps your battery and on average you battery life will be cut in half. In cold climates, I would recommend not using a battery pack because this is keeping your spare battery out in the cold with little insulation. It is far better to have one battery in the camera and one battery in an inside pocket, so it keeps warm with you. When you swap your dead one over, you could restore some life by warming the dead battery. Remember to take plenty of memory or film, it is not nice to run out.

Aurora Conditions

The second consideration is the weather. If you are far north enough to see them, then you will probably have very changeable weather. The ideal conditions are very very clear skies. The moon plays an important role. It is a matter of taste, but I prefer not to have the moon in the shot. Having the moon behind you can really help to expose the landscape, but a full moon makes your shot look like a day time photograph. This is enhanced further if the landscape is covered in snow. The wind can be a challenge… the less wind, the better.

The most important weather consideration is space weather and you can check the Northern Lights Forecast on this site. If this site says it is good, then it will be good. The thing to look for (if you can’t see anything yet) is a feint green streak across the sky, this is a good sign that it is worth waiting around for an hour or so.

How high in the sky are the Northern Lights?

All that energy is going on 70-90 KM up where atomic gas particles glow.

Fjallsarlon Northern Lights

Fjallsarlon Glacier lagoon and a Northern Lights display.

Northern Lights Exposure Guide

OK, you have perfect weather and you have all the equipment. What do you do next? If you have a digital camera you can take many exposures and judge from your viewer. Use these exposure times as a rough guide. They will give you a result in most Aurora conditions. Then adjust accordingly.

ISO800
ISO1600
F stop f/1.4
4 sec
2 sec
f/2
6 sec
3 sec
f/2.8
12 sec
6 sec
f/4
20 sec
10 sec

Thanks for Reading!!

Aurora Composition

Composition can be challenging if this is your first time photographing the Aurora. Because it covers such a large part of the sky and can move around, photographers might pay very little attention to the landscape and their composition. While having some green on your sensor might be the priority, it is good to consider composition if you have the opportunity. I say “have the opportunity” because some people are on short trips and might only have one single chance to take photos. Having the right focal length is an important part of composition and being able to include a large part of the sky plus some interest in the landscape will serve you well. The aurora might be in a different part of the sky when you find a decent composition, but remembering the composition for future reference can be beneficial if the Northern Lights position changes again. With a wide angle lens, I might use the rule of thirds to capture a third landscape and two thirds sky. If there is a great reflection, I might put the horizon dead centre and shoot with the rule of Symmetry.

Moon Phases

Photographing Northern Lights is possible during all moon phases. The moon is a source of light pollution which means that the sky wont be properly dark with a full moon. A successful aurora picture would require a very strong aurora display. Most pictures in anything more than a half moon will capture only green auroras because it is not dark enough to define the other colours. A half moon in the opposite sky to the Norther lights can be useful to expose the foreground without any tricks. A new moon is difficult to expose and process but gives a much fuller spectrum of Northern Lights colour.

 

Very dark moonless night meant using higher iso and destructive processing, but the colours are rare.

A half moon was useful to light up the glacier ice. The colours are mostly green with hints of red.

Can you photograph the Northern Lights from a boat?

You can photograph the Northern lights from a moving car, so long as you are travelling in a straight line and keep the camera pointed in the same direction. The landscape will be a blur and there will be no stars, but the aurora will be in your photo. I have seen one photo from a ship with good stars and this was taken with a tripod on a very very calm ship. If the sea is rough, the tripod will at least give you a sharp boat and aurora borealis.

Wide Angles

For successful Northern Lights photography, the sky is going to be a major part of your image. Use a focal length which will allow the shape of the Northern Lights to dominate the frame. I have usually managed with a 24mm prime lens, but sometimes I wished I had something wider such as a 17mm because the Aurora can really fill the whole sky sometimes. Often the shape of the aurora will determine your composition, for example, when the light streaks straight up, you have to capture some vertical frames. It is perfectly sufficient to follow some of the basic rules of composition while you are following the Northern Lights around the sky.

Carefully composing some of the land will help give you image a sense of perspective. Favourites of mine are perfectly still water… this can be rare in Iceland, but a reflection shot is a real prize winner. If it is very dark, then look for some interesting shapes on the horizon. You might have to wait a while for the lights to appear, but if you spend this time taking some long night landscapes, you will have a better idea of composition when they arrive.

Northern Lights photography

An HDR image from Hafravatn lake

HDR Northern lights Photography

Go for it if you have the patience. The image above was from two exposures: 30 seconds to capture the sky and 6 minutes to capture the foreground.

The downside is that you will miss out on a lot of Northern Lights exposures while you are exposing your foreground shot. For post-processing it is best to bring the original sky back into the image for natural looking stars (see comment below).

Magic Cloth Technique

You can apply the Magic Cloth Technique in a similar way. As soon as you know the right exposure for the sky, just cover the sky and allow another 3 times the exposure for the landscape. More info here:
Tony’s Magic Cloth Technique This has the same downside that you will miss shots while exposing the foreground, but because it is a single exposure, you do save a bit of time over the HDR 2 exposure method.


Ice Beach Aurora

Ice Beach Aurora
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
EF24mm f/1.4L II USM
ƒ/2.8 – 24.0 mm – 30sec – iso1600

Northern lights photo tours

Witnessing the Northern Lights in Iceland will give you a deep sensation in your stomach, like being on a gentle roller-coaster or your first time in love. It is easy to fall under the Aurora spell and an amazing Northern Lights photo tour is something you will never forget. Photographing the Northern lights in the Icelandic Nature will take your relationship with the Northern lights to a deeper level.

 

Spikes on Earth

Aurora Colours

The colours of the Aurora Borealis are a geomagnetic phenomenon that occurs as a result of solar energy from the sun entering earth’s outer atmosphere. Electrons collide with different gases in the atmosphere to give a range of different colours. Oxygen emits a green/yellow colour during this violent energy event.  Reds, Blues and violets are caused by Nitrogen (the most abundant gas) although the colour depends if it is atomic or particle nitrogen.

Superstition

The vikings believed that the dancing lights were the souls of the war-dead on their journey to Valhalla.  Many other cultures have seen them as omens of war.  In medieval Iceland, a pregnant woman was not allowed to whistle for fear of being whisked away by the lights.  In nearby Greenland, the aurora was thought to be a giant walrus in the sky.

 

When is the best time to see Auroras?

In Iceland, Northern lights can be seen from the end of August to the beginning of April.  It is impossible to see them in the Icelandic Summer because the sky is too bright. During the Winter months the Northern lights can appear at anytime that it is dark. The strongest Northern light shows are usually between 10PM and 2AM.

Iceland Northern Lights photo tour

Earth Weather

The perfect Northern lights weather is zero clouds although a few clouds can help to add depth to the photo. The trouble is that clouds love Iceland.  It rains every other day here. If it is raining, the chances of seeing Northern lights are very slim because rain clouds are very deep and this also means very big.  If you go out in the rain, you could get a window in the clouds which could let you see the aurora, but going out expecting this is close to madness.

Iceland aurora workshop

Wind is fine, but you have to be careful with your camera tripod because it is not fun when that blows over. A steady camera is crucial for a successful long exposure.The trouble with Arctic winds is that it feels 10 degrees colder. The other problem with severe weather is that it makes travel very difficult. Those clear skies can bring black ice conditions. Even a careful driver can get into a mess very quickly and especially an in-experienced driver with a large 4X4 who is not used to Winter Driving.

Grotta lighthouse northern lights

Multi-day tours and workshops

The best Northern lights photography experience is on our multi-day photo tours and workshops. Having many nights in great locations is the only way to maximise your chances of success. Our Scheduled photo tours run during new moon phases for enhanced aurora viewing. These are the best value. The workshops are for people who want to learn.

Evening photo tours from Reykjavik

Join one of these Northern Lights photo tours in South West Iceland, but only when there is a strong possibility of catching the Northern Lights. The following tours are run by our regular photo guides, Pall Jokull and Bragi Kort. Tripod rental is possible – see the extra info for more details about this.

Please note:These small group northern lights photo tours only go out with good aurora possibilities, so bear in mind they may cancel when the bus tours will still go out. If the conditions are not good for the evening you booked, they will try to offer a tour the following evening, but this depends on availability. If the weather is not good and your tour is cancelled, we will send you a full refund.

There are times when the weather and aurora forecast are really good, but the aurora doesn’t appear when you are out on a tour. Nobody wants this and your guide could offer a another tour, but there is no policy on this and again depends on availability. There is not normally a refund for a bad luck tour, but if you feel that your guide didn’t do everything in their power, you can write to request one. We have a 95% success rate.

Option 1

Small group!!

Northern lights photo tour

Landscape Photography Iceland

A northern light photo tour in the winter nights in Iceland with our photo guide Pall.

These aurora photo tours are run by our local, pro photographer, Pall. He will take you to beautiful photo spots in South West Iceland. These locations are chosen carefully with cloud cover photography in mind. Sometimes weather forecasts are wrong and the tour has to keep flexible to help the chances of photographing the Northern lights. Sometimes, Pall will offer a tour the next evening if the evening you booked is not very good. You get the experience like a private photo tour because it is a small group n a large SUV.

  • 4 pax max
  • Assistance with your photography
  • Photos of you with the Northern Lights
  • Please note: Tours need minimum 2 people to run.
  • EXTRA INFO

    Option 2

    Larger group!!

    Northern lights photo tour

    Photo infused Northern Lights

    These northern lights photo tours are managed by our photo guide Bragi. Bragi runs these tours with pro photographers and small groups to ensure a great photographic experience with the Northern lights. These tours will take you to expertly chosen South Iceland photo locations. The guides are happy to take photos of you with the Aurora Borealis. If you want to photograph the Northern lights, they will give you help with your photography so you can capture fantastic aurora photos. The pro photographer guides could even help you with Milky way photography, steel wool and light painting.

    • 10 pax max
    • Assistance with your photography
    • Photos of you with the Aurora.

    EXTRA INFO


    Looking for something else?

    If you already know how to control your camera at night, you can get great Aurora photos on a Northern lights adventure.

    Northern Lights Mountain

    Aurora Forecast links

    Forecasting the Northern lights has become as accurate as forecasting Earth weather. The more sophisticated tools that scientists use to observe the Sun’s activity give us valuable warnings about sun spots and approaching solar flares. The Northern lights forecast is the first thing we check if clear skies on earth look likely. It s useful to be able to check the real-time aurora activity as well as the Northern lights forecast.

    Is it possible to hear the Northern Lights?

    Electronic Music

    Yes, but it is incredibly rare. The sound is like someone gently folding tinfoil, but the experience is everywhere overhead. Maybe more like an electronic round of applause in a heavenly auditorium. It was thought that the sound was coming from pine needles popping in the highly charged air, but Finnish scientists have recently found that the sound is coming from 70 miles above the pine trees. Charged particles that are trapped in an atmospheric layer are released with a pop when the are hit by strong surges of electron from the sun’s surface.

    Best Locations

    On a still, clear night with no clouds and big icebergs, Jokusarlon Glacier lagoon is not only the best place in Iceland to experience the heavenly light show, but the bet place in the World. Only the view from the space station could top the experience. Generally the lagoon works better than the ice beach because the electric action is in the Northern part of the sky. East and Westfjords can both give an uninterrupted view to the Northern Sky, if you manage to find a good coastal feature at the ends of the fjords. The Southern waterfalls could be good, it is possible to experience Northern lights at Skogafoss and Seljalandsfoss except that there are 2 bright spotlights at Seljalandsfoss waterfall. This not to everyone’s taste and can ruin a long exposure. The Goðafoss waterfall in North Iceland is a rare, but worthwhile experience. Travelling to North Iceland in the Winter can be a challenge with chances of getting stranded. If you do get there on a clear night, be on the East side and hope that the light show extends to the West. The world famous Kirkjufell Mountain is a superb location in West Iceland. Including the Kirkjufellsfoss waterfall can create a very dynamic night landscape photo.

    Mirror mountain

    Mirror mountain

    This beautiful Iceland Landscape features a mountain called Hofell which is an ancient volcano in the South Eastern part of Iceland.

    VestraHorn Wash

    VestraHorn Wash

    The black sand beach has a very shallow gradient, so although the sea can appear calm and non-threatening you can be caught in a large surge that creeps slowly up the beach.

    High Key Night Photography

    High Key Night Photography

    This extraordinary photo was taken in the middle of the night in South Iceland. It was taken on a full moon night in October just before 1 a.m. Believe it or not, the post processing challenge was to darken the image to make it look a little bit more like a night photo. The moon was behind me…

    Sightseeing Aurora tours

    Adventure vs Bus tours

    Below we offer 2 type of Aurora tour. The adventure tours run small group tours and only go out with good chances of seeing the Northern Lights, they may be able to offer a different evening if conditions aren’t good on your dates. The bus tours offer repeat tours if you don’t see them, but they will go out in all sorts of weather.

    Auroras can only be seen in Iceland between late August and Early April.

    Iceland Northern Lights

    Northern Lights Adventures

    Reykjavik Departure

    Aurora Adventures are small group tours. Just like our photo tours they offer a more personal experience away from the crowds. These Aurora tours are flexible with Reykjavik pick up and will only run if conditions for Northern lights viewing is very good.

    Arranged in order of most expensive first.

    Reykjavik Departures

    Experience Northern Lights in Iceland

    Experience Northern Lights

    Happy World

    Small group tours

    This evening tour escapes the city lights to where the best Northern lights sightings can be expected according to cloud and aurora forecasts. We always try to get away from the other tourists to enjoy the Northern Lights properly. While we wait for the lights at our chosen location, we use our powerful telescope to look at the planets in our solar system. It can be possible to see these planet’s moons far far away.*

    Chances of Catching the Northern Lights

    The Northern Light shows can never be guaranteed because they depend on many factors to see them. To increase our chances, we need three things to be good: solar storm from the sun, a dark sky and a cloudless sky. On any clear night, your chances are about 50/50, so we only go out when Northern Light activity and cloud forecasts are good. Our viewing rate is 90%.

    Optional extras

  • Tripod Rental: check if your camera has a tripod mount?
  • Hand Warmers: gives you extra warmth for the tour.

  • Aurora Tour Schedule

    18:30: Confirmation decision based on the latest weather forecast. If we need to cancel due to weather we send you an e-mail.
    20:00-20:30 is pick up time (could be later in September or April.
    We drive to the best locations according to weather forecasts.
    At the location we assess the conditions and decide to stay or move.
    While we wait, we observe the heavens through our powerful telescope.*
    If the Northern lights do appear, we take photos of you under the aurora.
    Once you get cold, we serve hot chocolate and Icelandic donut.
    We stay out until midnight, if no lights are seen we extend 30-60 minutes.
    We drive back to Reykjavík (30-45 minutes).

  • Tour duration: 3-5 hours
  • Group size: min pax 2, max pax 14
  • Location: Our Northern lights location is decided by weather forecasts.
  • Included: Pick-up, guided tour, stargazing*, hot chocolate & donut, photos of you.
  • Clothing: You need to be prepared to be standing still in sub-zero temperatures. Winter undergarments. Warm, thick sweater (fleece or wool). Thick winter coat and trousers (ski outfit maybe). Winter boots and thick woollen socks. Warm hat and thick mittens. Hand warmers.
    Photography: We take pictures of everyone for free. We can assist with your camera but you need to know your controls and menu.

    *Please note: The Northern Lights, can’t be guaranteed. Stargazing success depends on cloudiness and wind. Some planets depend on Earth’s position in relation to the Sun.

    Cancellation policy

    • Fee of 100% if booking is cancelled a day or less before event
    • Fee of 75% if booking is cancelled 3 days or less before event
    • Fee of 50% if booking is cancelled 14 days or less before event
    • Fee of 10% if booking is cancelled a year or less before event
    Northern lights photo tour

    Happy World

    Small group tours

    These Northern lights tours are run with well trained staff who are knowledgeable about Northern Lights and are able to help you with your photography a little and are happy to take photos of you with the Auroras. They run small groups (max 14 pax) to give you a Great Northern Lights Experience. Happy World will only run these Northern lights tours if the weather and aurora forecast are favourable. They have 90% success.

    For photographers, they offer tripod hire and can help with your settings if you know your own camera. This would work for anyone wanting to photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland, but who doesn’t need so much help.

    Locations are decided based on where the forecast predicts the best aurora experiences are most likely. The driver/guides are locals with good knowledge of this part of Iceland.


    Aurora Tour Schedule

    18:30: Confirmation decision based on the latest weather forecast. If we need to cancel due to weather we send you an e-mail.
    20:00-20:30 is pick up time (could be later in September or April.
    We drive to the best locations according to weather forecasts.
    At the location we assess the conditions and decide to stay or move.
    While we wait, we observe the heavens through our powerful telescope.*
    If the Northern lights do appear, we take photos of you under the aurora.
    Once you get cold, we serve hot chocolate and Icelandic donut.
    We stay out until midnight, if no lights are seen we extend 30-60 minutes.
    We drive back to Reykjavík (30-45 minutes).

  • Tour duration: 3-5 hours
  • Group size: min pax 2, max pax 14
  • Location: Our Northern lights location is decided by weather forecasts.
  • Included: Pick-up, guided tour, stargazing*, hot chocolate & donut, photos of you.
  • Clothing: You need to be prepared to be standing still in sub-zero temperatures. Winter undergarments. Warm, thick sweater (fleece or wool). Thick winter coat and trousers (ski outfit maybe). Winter boots and thick woollen socks. Warm hat and thick mittens. Hand warmers.
    Photography: We take pictures of everyone for free. We can assist with your camera but you need to know your controls and menu.

    *Please note: The Northern Lights, can’t be guaranteed. Stargazing success depends on cloudiness and wind. Some planets depend on Earth’s position in relation to the Sun.

    Private Northern lights on a superjeep

    Northern Lights on superjeep

    Super Jeep

    Our ancestors said that the tighter the grip of the night‘s frost, the Northern lights will have more vibrant colour. Winding and dancing over our heads, Auroras are usually lime but white, red and pink lights can also be seen.

    The Northern Lights tour in Iceland depends on the weather conditions and clear sky and we reserve the right to cancel. If the Northern Lights tour goes ahead and Auroras are not seen, you can try the next time for free!

    Book your Northern Lights tour for the first night to get the best chances of seeing the northern lights. Please note that the group can grow if we’ve had to cancel several nights before. We try to find Northern Lights for everyone!

    Reykjavik pick-up

    Pick-up is from Reykjavik Hotels. This tour lasts 3-4 hours. Free pick-up from your hotel in the capital area begins at 20:00.

    From 15/09 – 31/09 and 15/03 – 15/04. The pick up starts 21:00 due to a longer day.

    Duration:3-4 hours


    Book your Northern Lights tour for your first night to improve your chances of catching Northern Lights.

    We make a decision around 17:00 before the tour if the tour is confirmed or cancelled.

    Tour includes
    Pick up and Drop off at your Reykjavík Hotel.

    You need to bring
    Warm clothes and sturdy shoes.

    Cancellation policy
    Fee of 100% if booking is cancelled 2 days or less before event

    Northern Lights Bus tours

    Reykjavik Departure

    Enjoy cheaper ways to see the Aurora by bus (or boat). Many of these bus tours offer a free second tour if they are unsuccessful. This could be your best option if you have limited time and limited budget.

    Reykjavik Departures

    North Iceland Bus tours

    Akureyri Departure

    East Iceland Getaway

    Departure: from Hótel Staðarborg
    765 Breiðdalsvík, Iceland

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