It’s love at first sight! Seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland was my first magical moment with these dancing elves in the sky. No pictures or words can do 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.
Simply said but hard to do: be at the right place at the right time.
Where to see the northern lights?
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.
The best latitudes to see the northern lights are between 68 degrees north to 74 degrees north near the Arctic Circle.
- Southern tips of Greenland
- Northern coast of Norway
- 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.
When is the best time to see northern lights in Iceland?
- Auroral activity is on an 11-year cycle. The last peak was in 2013. So, we are coming closer to the next peak (thinking 2022 to 2024)! The stronger the aurora activity, the brighter the colors will be. But, our 2018 viewing was incredible even during an aurora activity valley window.
- 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. In my opinion, March is the best month to see the northern lights in Iceland because it offers enough daylight to do outdoor activities during the day while offering dark skys to hunt for the northern lights at night.
- Within a month, nights with crescent moons offer darker sky therefore better viewing. 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 my own Icelandic experience, the 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.
Where to stay in Iceland for the northern lights?
Because the best time to see the northern lights is in winter months, your best bet is along the southern coast of Iceland where the roads are most likely to stay open. You can stay in Reykjavik or stay in one of the small towns along the southern coast.
If you stay in Reykjavik, you will have to drive or take a tour to get out of the city where light pollution will limit your chance to see the northern lights. We will discuss guided options below.
If you stay outside of Reykjavik, you can be a lot more flexible and spontaneous when the weather and northern lights forecast tell you where the northern lights may be observed. “Catching” is the word for the northern lights. These hotels have high demand so make sure to book them months ahead.
Follow a guided tour or self-guide for the northern lights?
Wondering whether to follow a tour or chase the northern lights by yourself? It depends on how much time you have and how comfortable you feel driving at night possibly on snow.
If you have a short visit and base yourself in Reykjavik, we recommend you follow a tour who will take you outside of the city at night to see the northern lights. The light pollution in Reykjavik is not ideal for seeing the northern lights.
If you feel uncomfortable driving at night in Iceland’s wilderness or on snow, a guided tour is also your best bet. You can take a highly-rated tour from Reykjavik or join a small group for a less rushed experience to take photos.
If you decide to do the self-guided northern lights adventure as we did, read on. We will give you tips to help you chase the northern lights like a pro.
How accurate is the northern lights forecast in Iceland?
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 its location and topography. But, do follow the forecasts which are your best bet in general. Here are a few good sites and mobile apps that 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.
The most important factors and tips for seeing the northern lights
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;
- A dash of luck!
How to take the best photos of the northern lights?
You will need more than a phone to take photos of the northern lights. Even though the latest iPhones have advanced with night mode, you best bet is still a DSLR camera with tripod for long exposure plus preferably a wide-angle lens. Here is a list of equipments we used (or similar) to take the photos in this article:
- Camera with manual shooting mode;
- Wide-angle lens (24mm or wider);
- 2-3 extra batteries (batteries deplete much more quickly in cold conditions);
- Steady tripod to stand up the potential wind in Iceland;
- Remote control for your camera to prevent blurs to your long-exposure photos;
- 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. Keep your ears warm with these fleece ears warmers headband. We recommend these fleece flip top mittens so you can switch back and forth quickly between operating your camera and keeping your fingers covered. You will spend at least 1-2 hours outside to wait for it to happen.
I set my Sony compact DSLR 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 in the right direction and height in the sky at the right time. Every camera is different though. Play with the settings in the dark to find the right 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 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.
Happy Northern Lights Hunting!
We recommend this Iceland travel guide if you look for further reading. Or, check out more Iceland articles from our trips.