Aurora Borealis: Iceland’s Northern Lights

Updated August 14, 2020.

This Motivation Monday is all about the beautiful, mysterious, often elusive Aurora Borealis: the Northern Lights. Iceland is not the best place in the world to see them, but we saw them two out of four nights there! Here is your guide to seeing them, photographing them, and enjoying them!

Finding the Northern Lights

The Northern Lights can be seen when there is a lot of solar activity, little to no light pollution, and few clouds. For more on the science and specifics, check out this website. Where is the best place to see the Northern Lights? Here is a quick list:

From the Airplane

As long as there is enough solar activity, you’re almost guaranteed to see the Northern Lights out the left side of your airplane when traveling from the U.S. and Canada. You will be above the clouds, so they won’t be in your way! The only lights will be from your airplane, and it’s not enough to diminish the visibility of the Northern Lights, so that’s not a problem either. Just hope for solar activity!

The View from the Window Seat!
Get all my flying tips on my Air Travel Page!

Outside the City Limits

What is “light pollution,” you ask? It’s not really pollution, it’s just a lot of light. It’s possible to see the Northern Lights from a larger city like Reykjavik, but you are more likely to see them (even with less solar activity) if you get out of the city and away from the city lights!

Get outta town!
More here: Ultimate Guide to Road Tripping South Iceland

During a New Moon

A full moon will cast too much light on your night, so try to plan your visit for a new moon, or as close to one as you can get. We were there on a full moon–whoops!

With a Professional

Companies all over Iceland, but especially in Reykjavik, offer Northern Lights Tours. Their advice is to schedule that for your first night in the country, and if you don’t see them, you can go back free of charge. Or you can do what Steve and I did and stay at a hotel like Hotel Ranga that offers a wake-up service when their Northern Lights professional spots them in the sky! You can sleep easy knowing you will be called if they Northern Lights show up, and you will be well-rested the next day if they don’t.

Northern Lights view from Hotel Ranga in Hella, Iceland
More here: The Ultimate Travel Bucket List

Photographing the Northern Lights

There’s just one problem with taking pictures of the Northern Lights… it has to be dark for you to see them! If you have a really great camera with all kinds of settings for darkness, exposure, etc., you will have great pictures. If you’re like me and your best camera is your smartphone, your best bet is to use the Northern Lights Photo Taker app. It’s just 99 cents, and it was literally the only way I was going to get a decent shot. Here is a comparison:

Regular Camera
Same shot taken with the Northern Lights Photo Taker App
More here: What to Know Before You Visit Iceland

They are a little blurry because a long exposure means any small movement (such as happens with a heartbeat) will make the photo blurry. I will probably get a small tripod if we go Northern Lights watching again. Bear that in mind for your own photos as well!

Additionally, you might be as surprised as we were to learn that the Northern Lights can appear gray to the naked eye unless there is high solar activity. Only when we took a picture with the long exposure did we see the green! On very high solar activity nights, they can even appear red or purple. Don’t be disappointed if you see the gray lights that sort of look like clouds. We are glad we had someone there to point them out for us.

Northern Lights Photography Checklist:

  • Great camera or Smartphone with Northern Lights Photo Taker App
  • Tripod
  • Someone to tell you what to look for, at least the first time

Don’t Forget to Take in the Moment!

Most importantly, don’t get too caught up in getting the best shot or dwelling on the misery of being in the cold. Enjoy the moment and be thrilled that you’re seeing it all for yourself–even the gray stuff! Many people come to Iceland with hopes of seeing the Northern Lights even for a moment, but they leave disappointed because the nights were too overcast or the solar activity was too low or any other number of factors prevented them from seeing them. So snuggle up, bring a thermos of coffee, tea, or hot cocoa, and enjoy the moment!

More here: Tips for How to Savor Your Travels

Are you ready to see the Northern Lights for yourself? Do you have plans to see them soon? Tell me in the comments below! And don’t forget to check out my Iceland Page.

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4 responses to “Aurora Borealis: Iceland’s Northern Lights”

  1. What a dream place to go. Amazing!! I would love to ‘wake up’ to the Northern Lights.

    1. It is pretty epic!

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