The Northern Lights in Iceland are one of the many magical natural phenomena this European country has to offer. But not all year round, not every day and not everywhere. We’ll tell you exactly how to see the unique green lights of the aurora borealis on your Iceland tour. Where to spot the northern lights in Iceland? When? And how to photograph them? Keep on reading!
What are the Northern Lights?
The Northern Lights are brightly colored nebulae against a dark sky. It is also called aurora borealis, or aurora, because it is mainly visible around the poles. Northern countries like Iceland are the main places for the unique opportunity to see this natural phenomenon with your own eyes.
The northern lights are a physical phenomenon that can occur when charged particles from the sun are thrown into the universe. Specifically, around the poles, the particles are deflected and enter the atmosphere at high speed. In the atmosphere, they collide with particles in our air, releasing the energy of those solar particles. The result is the beautiful color phenomena we call the Northern Lights.
In our home country (the Netherlands), you rarely (or: never) see the northern lights. Most countries are just too far from the poles. But Iceland is close enough and one of the few travel destinations to observe the aurora.
To join a tour or not?
When traveling in Iceland, the question will arise whether you want to spot the Northern Lights yourself or rather book an organized excursion. If you want to spot the Northern Lights yourself, you should prepare yourself for this night excursion. You will have to read up, find the best place and head out alone at night. Which is also making this a more adventurous and unique experience.
If you prefer to rely on the professionals and locals, you do well to book a night excursion. You don’t have to keep an eye on the weather conditions – or even find out what the optimal conditions are at all. Most excursions are organized from the capital Reykjavik, so you can even join a tour during a short Icelandic city trip.
The best places for the Northern Lights in Iceland
You can enjoy the Northern Lights everywhere in Iceland, as long as you are outside an urban environment without light pollution. It is difficult to predict whether the Northern Lights will be visible though, but keep in mind that at least you need a cloudless sky. Keep an eye on the Iceland Aurora Forcast during your trip. It shows you where you have the best chances to spot the lights (and where there are no clouds).
On your own at southern Vik
Travel blogger Geena decided to hit the road herself and saw the green skies in the southern town of Vik.
“If you’re planning on visiting Iceland during the dark snowy winter months, you’re probably hoping to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. With little daylight, your odds of seeing the dancing green colors are much higher.
When I flew to Iceland for an 11-day road trip in February I had two goals. See the Northern Lights and walk atop the Vatnajokull Glacier. I was fortunate enough to accomplish both. As a budget traveler, I planned on seeking out the lights on my own. Tours in Iceland are expensive (even food in Iceland is expensive) and I had to shell out the cash for a tour during the glacier hike. I also wanted to experience the beauty of nature in the dark skies by myself, without another large crowd of onlookers. Luckily finding the lights in Iceland is relatively simple. But you’ll need a vehicle to get you outside the city.
For prime viewing, you’ll want completely dark skies. Typically the lights are at their best after Midnight. You should check out the forecast on Iceland Aurora Forcast and drive where the map is glowing green. These spots will have the best chance of showing the Northern Lights in all their glory. Nights where the Aurora activity forecast is high or nights without a full moon are your best bet.
During my visit in February, I set out with a small cup of hot cocoa and perched on a hill in Southern Iceland near the little town of Vik. Once my eyes had adjusted to the deep darkness I could see them dancing above me. At first, they were a faint pale green glow only detectable with my camera. Then slowly but surely they began to increase in intensity radiating green and violet as they danced across the starry sky. Iceland in the winter is isolated and you’ll be missing out on a lot of daylight. But it undoubtedly has it’s own perks.”
With a guide at the West Fjords
Katja did opt for an excursion and combined the northern lights with exploring the off the beaten track Westfjords.
“It was late August when I travelled to the Westfjords with two friends. Our guide was Ryan, the co-founder of a small independent tour agency, Hidden Iceland.
We had already spent several days exploring this remote region, learning about Vikings, seeing the oldest bookstore in Iceland and being spellbound by the breath-taking landscape. We had visited Ísafjarðardjúp, the unofficial capital of the region, and travelled to the remote island of Vigur. We saw countless waterfalls, drove across endless lunar-looking landscapes and around deep fjord waters the colour of slate. But we still hadn’t seen the Northern Lights.
On the final day of our Westfjords road trip, Ryan kept looking at his Aurora Forecast app. The forecast, he said, looked promising. After dinner that night in the town of Patreksfjörðu, we set off in search of the aurora borealis. Surprisingly, for a small town in the Westfjords, the town was home to dozens of street lights. We headed to the outskirts, however, and there above our heads appeared the soft, ethereal and magical green strands of light. We stayed there for close to one hour as the patterns of light shifted and changed in the night sky before eventually fading away. It was the perfect end to the perfect trip.”
Spotting the northern lights with children
Such a nighttime adventure in the cold Icelandic winters might scare you off. Especially if you are traveling with young children. Travel blogger Bec says it’s perfectly fine to head out at night with children, although she advises you to book an organized Northern Lights tour:
“Everyone wants to spend a night roaming Iceland in search of the sometimes elusive Northern lights. But when happens when you are visiting Iceland with 2 small kids in tow? Spending a night traversing the countryside was not something we wanted to so on our own. We were worried about driving at night, slippery ice, finding the perfect location and avoiding any other accidents that could happen with two kids in a car and tired but excited parents.
We decide to try and see the Northern Lights with Grayline Iceland. They had a policy that if you didn’t get to see them on the first night or if the sighting was not deemed to be the best quality they would give you the chance to see them again.
For us, this seemed like the perfect solution for seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland with kids. We boarded a small bus at our apartment and we were taken to the bus station where we got on a larger bus to start our journey. We had snacks for the kids and they also had a blanket and a pillow if they got tired. We had big comfy seats and the excitement was radiating through the bus.
We spent nearly 7 hours on the bus going from location to location. sometimes the kids got out to see them and sometimes they stayed on the bus snuggled up especially towards the end of the night. We were lucky that our bus driver was happy to stay on the bus with them and make sure they were fine as we tried to get some pictures. We tried for 2 nights to get some pictures but unfortunately, you can never guarantee what Mother Nature has install for you but both times our daughters were happy and safe on the bus.
You could see many cars following the buses all over the place and there was even an accident that delayed our bus. A woman had gone off in another direction where we were told not to go and had fallen in one of the rocky lava fields and was seriously injured. For me, this was the reason why we had decided to go with a tour company and not risk being out in the countryside in Iceland by ourselves.”
The Icelandic Northern Lights in summer
For the northern lights you need long, dark nights without clouds, no full moon and no light pollution. In short: the chances are best in winter. But that doesn’t mean the Northern Lights in Iceland will appear in summer! Blogster Alexandra was lucky:
I traveled to Iceland in August, which is considered not the best time to see the Northern Lights. So, I was prepared for the fact that I would not see the northern lights during my trip to Iceland and stopped thinking about it.
I enjoyed our trip to the most remote corners of Iceland in the Highlands. We discovered Iceland’s hidden gems and visited uncharted waterfalls, an active volcano, colorful mountains of Landmannalaugar place, and wild thermal springs. After driving for 8 hours in the lava fields, we reached the Askja volcano. And then Iceland made me a surprise.
We hiked for the whole day and, in the evening, my friends were barbecuing outside while I was cooking dinner in the guesthouse kitchen.
And, suddenly, everyone in the yard started screaming. I got scared and ran out into the street: the sky blazed green and danced. This was it. Northern Lights.
So if you’re looking for the northern lights in August, go to a very remote location and wait for a miracle. And keep your camera ready. I was so unprepared and amazed at the same time to see the northern lights, that I didn’t even take a picture. Now I regret it. Also, if you want to get good quality photos of northern lights, practice night photography before. My friends did take some photos of the northern lights, but they look crap.”
Photographing the Northern Lights
Night photography can be quite hard, so if you want to photograph the beautiful aurora in Iceland in the dark winter nights, you need to know how. We asked travel blogger and photographer Regan for tips:
“Photographing the Northern Lights will involve a little experimentation, which is part of the fun. Remember no aurora is the same, so you will need to do a little bit of tweaking to get the best results. I took this photo in the Thingvellir park with these settings: 5 secs, ISO 2000, F3.5 with Sony Alpha 7ii and the Kit lens 28-70mm.”
According to Regan, you don’t need a professional camera with specific night settings to capture the northern lights. “Don’t be disheartened if you don’t have a camera with manual settings, we managed to capture the aurora over the Blue Lagoon using our old go pro hero 3. You should still be able to capture them using a phone. You need to ensure that you have a tripod or steady surface to allow you to take the photo for longer. Then you will need to adjust the camera settings in your phone. They will be very similar to the settings in a digital camera, you should find ISO, shutter settings, and timer delay options.”
Some other tips from Regan:
- Use a digital camera with manual settings
- Use a tripod or place your camera on a firm surface
- Shoot in RAW, so that you can edit your photos afterwards using lightroom or a free app on your phone, such as Snapseed or Photoshop express.
- Use your fastest widest lens (I only had a kit lens, so you don’t have to buy another expensive lens).
- Open the lens wide – use the lowest F-stop possible. I used F3.5 on my kit lens.
- Focus on a star or object in the distance. Use manual rather than autofocus, if you are struggling to find a focus point you can try infinity ∞.
- Start with a low ISO and increase this as needed. As you increase the ISO you will capture more light, but the image will also become more grainy and need more post-editing
- Use a cable release or the timer setting on 2/5 sec delay to reduce the camera shake when you press the shutter button
- The Northern lights dance in the sky. If they are bright and dancing quite fast, you will find a shorter shutter speed works better try starting around 1/4 sec.
- If the aurora is moving slowly or if it’s hidden by some cloud cover, you can increase the shutter speed up to 30 secs.
- Over 30 secs, you will find that the stars begin to move in the sky and you will start to get star trails.
But you can also have bad luck, even when being well prepared
Nature cannot be planned, so don’t assume a Northern Lights guarantee in the winter. Even on the most beautiful winter evenings with clear skies, the northern lights are not always visible. Travel blogger Derek traveled to Iceland especially for the aurora, but had no luck:
Iceland is a wonderful place to visit and offers a great opportunity to see the Northern Lights. But given the island’s maritime climate, the weather does not always cooperate with your travel itinerary. But there is no need to worry as tour companies recognize this fact, and most tour companies have guarantees. They will cancel trips before you depart if the weather looks poor, offering the opportunity to reschedule for another evening. And most will also offer you a free second tour if you go out and cannot see the lights.
This happened to me when I visited in March several years ago. I booked a tour immediately after arriving, as this would ensure the most opportunities to see the lights. For the first few nights, the tour was canceled before departure. This was nice because I was able to choose alternate plans. On one evening I went to the municipal pool to enjoy the hot tubs and sauna. On another evening I went to a restaurant and had Icelanding tapas, sampling small plates of local delicacies.
On the last night in Iceland, the tour actually went out, but unfortunately, the cloud cover was too heavy to see anything. We toured around the southeastern part of Iceland for several hours trying to find a break in the clouds, but it was all in vain. The tour company compensated us with a voucher to join another tour, but unfortunately, it was my last night in Iceland.
Fortunately, Iceland has so much more to offer, including the incredible natural sights of the Golden Circle, the unworldly experience of the Blue Lagoon, and the unique culture that is Reykjavik. So if you want to add the Northern Lights to that list, be sure to book your tour early and be flexible!”
Summarizing the best tips for the Iceland northern lights
- The northern lights occur more often in winter, so if this natural phenomenon is on your bucket list, book a winter trip to Iceland.
- But be sure to keep an eye on the sky in the other months too, if the aurora forecasts are good.
- You need an area without any light pollution, so get out of town.
- The full moon is also a disruptive factor.
- Keep a close eye on the aurora forecasts via the Iceland Aurora Forcast.
- Don’t wait for your last night in Iceland, but hit the road the first evening or book your guided night tour directly.
- Be careful in the pitch dark, when driving out of town and when walking through the Icelandic countryside at night.
- Read up on night photography and more specifically photographing the northern lights, as you will rarely be able to take good photos spontaneously.