Northern Lights Iceland: best tips for beginners

Watching the northern lights in Iceland, also known as the aurora borealis, dancing in the sky is something special. With this step by step guide you know how, when and where to see the northern lights in Iceland. Go prepared and be amazed! This guide includes useful information for beginners about how to photograph the Northern Lights Iceland with your smartphone. Be prepared and make good pictures with your (cheap) smartphone even with cold weather conditions and low aurora activity! The picture below was taken with aurora activity 2 which is very low!

northern lights iceland
northern lights Iceland

In this blog all frequently asked questions are bundled together for you. As the northern lights are unpredictable, knowledge of how and where to see them is crucial. Visit Iceland in the winter months from September to April and you will have a chance of seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland.

The pictures of the Northern Lights we made, were taken with a Samsung Galaxy A71. We tried also very quick with an iPhone but for some reason these pictures were all shady and blurry so we moved on with the Samsung Galaxy A71. Given the fact that aurora activity was very low and not optimal weather conditions to take pictures of aurora this was the best result so far.

What month is best to see Northern Lights in Iceland?

The Northern Lights in Iceland can be seen in Iceland in the months of September to April. The months of mid-September to mid-October and February to March are very popular for chasing the Northern Lights. This is due to the darkening and brightening days. However, if you want to see the northern lights during winter, you need to stay prepared for the cold and snowy conditions. Of course your chances to see aurora will increase if you go to the North of Iceland because aurora is stronger there.

Good place to see the Northern Lights
Good place to see the Northern Lights

We went in February and were very lucky to see the Northern Lights in the south of Iceland thanks to the northern lights forecast and the aurora app. A great benefit of coming during winter time is also that the prices of your entire journey are much lower than in summer time. You can read all about saving money during your trip in winter time in this blog.

Tip: in winter a lot of roads to the North of Iceland are closed due to the bad weather conditions. So if you want to go to the North of Iceland in wintertime to see the Northern Lights check the road and travel conditions first. An experienced ‘Aurora hunter’ in Iceland told me the Northern Lights are often very strong in October. A benefit of visiting Iceland around this time is that the main roads to the North of Iceland are mostly still open. Check the travel and road conditions at road.is. On the picture below you can see it is all snow everywhere even in the south of Iceland.

Pingvellir National park=good spot for Northern Lights
Pingvellir National park =good spot for Northern Lights

How do I know if I will see Aurora Borealis?

It’s a lot of luck and a bit of science to see the northern lights of Iceland. As mentioned before it is important to visit Iceland in winter (September-April). The northern light is active 95% of the time but the chances of catching a glimpse depend on the

  • weather conditions; bad weather makes it harder to see the Northern Lights;
  • cloud coverage: if there are almost no clouds you have a better chance to see the Northern Lights. Although if aurora is very strong you might even see it through the clouds. But no or partly clouds will help to see aurora better.
  • level of darkness: the darker the better. In summer season it won’t get dark enough in the evening to see the aurora.
  • light pollution: in a big city like Reykjavik the changes are less to see aurora because of all the lights in the city;
  • full Moon: a full Moon can have a negative impact on your pictures.
  • the level of aurora activity: if aurora activity is high you chance will increase to see the Northern Lights. The activity is measured from 0-9. With a level of 4-5 you have already a good chance to see aurora. However, even with a low activity of 2-3 it is possible to see aurora if the other conditions I mentioned before are in place.

Check out this northern lights forecast prediction to find out if northern lights are in the forecast. Clouds, light pollution and the full Moon make it difficult to see the aurora. Look all around you, not only north: auroras may appear anywhere in the sky. If the conditions are right you have a chance to see the northern light everywhere in Iceland.

Are Northern Lights guaranteed in Iceland?

Your chance to see the northern lights in Iceland will increase if you go outside of the cities. The reason is that you don’t have a lot of light pollution outside of the cities. If you don’t want to spend much time checking for the northern light yourself, you can book a tour with an operator. In that way, these guides will do all the preparations for you regarding ‘aurora hunting’. Here you can book an Aurora tour with GetYourGuide. A benefit is that they have a flexible cancellation service and a great customer service support. If you book a tour you don’t need to spend time looking on the northern lights forecast Iceland all day and night or just waiting in your car all night.

Organized tour

Tip: if you want to book an organized Northern light tour it is best to book it on one of your first days in Iceland. Why? because if you don’t see the Northern Light during the first days of your stay in Iceland, some tours offer a free retry. You can reschedule for another night and get a second chance without extra costs.

You can choose between bus tours, mini-bus tours, luxury bus tours and a boat tour. The bus tour is the cheapest option. Second cheapest option is to book a mini-bus tour if you want to aurora hunt with a small group. Both bus tour and mini-bus tour offer a free re-try if you were not able to see the Northern Lights the first time. If you want to have an even more exclusive experience a luxury bus-tour with a glass roof might be an option for you. Last but not least you can book a boat tour. A tour on a boat to see Aurora can be amazing. However, if you are planning to make pictures on the boat, the movement of the boat can be challenging to make good pictures of aurora.

Do the Northern Lights happen every night?

Not every night, but you can increase your chances by learning when to visit and where to go. The best time of year to see the Northern Lights in Iceland is usually late September to April. During this time frame, the nights are long enough for darkness to settle in and create optimal viewing conditions, but the weather tends to be too cold for people to stick around outside for hours at a time. So, if you have a choice between summer or winter, I recommend winter!

What’s the best time of night to see northern lights?

The best time of night to see it is usually around midnight, although the northern lights are visible any time it’s dark enough and there is a minimum of clouds. You can see the aurora borealis in Iceland whenever the sky is dark. However, due to the Earth’s rotation, atmosphere, and magnetosphere in relation to Iceland’s position on the globe, they are most likely to be seen between 9.30 p.m. to 1 a.m. We started to check at 10.30 p.m ourselves and were lucky around 00.30 a.m. We stayed in the car for 2 hours which we parked at this hostel we stayed that night. It was very cold even in the car so we were happy to put on a lot of layers with clothing. We had a thermos with hot tea in the car to survive the cold hours in the car;).

Where is the best place to see the Northern Lights in Iceland?

The further north you go in Iceland, the better your chance to see the Northern Light. However, during winter time some main roads to the north can be closed due to the bad weather conditions. So this means the only options to see the northern lights remain in the south of Iceland.

If you want to have a good chance to see the Northern lights in the south of Iceland these places below are the best places:

  • Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon. This beautiful lagoon is located in the south of Iceland. You find this location by driving along the Ring Road from Vik. For lodging I recommend these places to stay:

Hali Country Hotel: this hotel is only 7,5 miles away from Jokulsarlon and has private bathrooms where they serve breakfast as well.

Dalshofdi Guesthouse: this is a nice budget-friendly modern guesthouse/ hostel with shared bathrooms in Kalfafell. At almost a coincidence w saw aurora on this location.

Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon: this is a very fancy and modern hotel to stay. This is a more expensive option to consider.

Jokulsarlon black beach
Jokulsarlon black beach
  • Black sand beaches. These beaches are located near Vik as well. Here are some places that are nice to stay:

Glacier View Guesthouse: the guesthouse is 27 miles away from Vik.

Adventure hotel Geirland: this is a 50 minutes drive from Vik.

church Vik
church Vik

Pingvellir National Park. This park offers clear night skies necessary to see the aurora as well.

Borealis hotel: this hotel is a relative budget-friendly option and a 10 minutes drive to national park Pingvellir.

ION Adventure Hotel: if you want to have luxury stay this is the place to be. This is not a low-budget option but a beautiful location. Only 11 miles away from Pingvellir National park.

Staying in one of these locations will not be a guarantee to see the Northern Lights. However, under the right circumstances the chances will improve to see aurora.

What is the cheapest way to see Aurora Borealis?

If you are in Reykjavik you might have a chance to see the Northern light. Several people we have spoken to have seen aurora while they were there. So if you are lucky you can see Aurora during a late night walk. If you don’t want an organized tour, the cheapest way to see the Northern lights is driving by car to a location nearby with a clear and dark sky away from the city. If you check the Northern light forecast you see where you have the best chance to see the northern light. As I mentioned before we were at a hostel located in Kalfafell when we saw the Northern Lights. We had quite the view at the public space of the hostel. So no need to book a very expensive hotel because you can’t predict where the Northern Lights exactly will appear.

How do you photograph Aurora Borealis?

Especially the first time you want to make pictures of the Northern Lights with your smartphone this can be challenging and very disappointing if it didn’t worked out. Why?

  • Because it can be very cold outside when you want to take pictures. For example if you don’t have a tripod and want to take a picture with your hands with shivering hands your pictures will fail. In order to see aurora your hands need to be entirely still. And trust me, if it is very cold and windy this is not do-able. We have experienced this ourselves and the first pictures failed.
  • If you don’t install certain settings on your smartphone you will not capture aurora properly.

Therefore, it is essential to make some preparations regarding the settings of your phone. With the below simple settings for your smartphone you will increase your chance for a few good shots.

Northern Lights in Iceland
Northern Lights in Iceland

When aurora can be seen?

Step 1: know the best conditions when to see aurora

  • come to Iceland in winter time;
  • looking for aurora during the evening/ night;
  • go or drive to a place with less light pollution;
  • know these 3 basics factors to see Aurora: no clouds and clear sky, darkness and Northern Lights activity is high.

Step 2: know the importance of time and place

To photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland, importance is time and place. To know the correct place and time it is important to use both the Northern light forecast of Iceland and the aurora app on your smartphone. For android go to the Google Play Store and type ‘aurora’.

Step 3: how to use the Northern Light forecast

Know how to use the Northern Light forecast.Check on the Northern light forecast to look for low, mid and high clouds and find a spot on the map that is white on all of them. This might be confusing since the white spots presents the spots where you have the best chance of seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland. So the white spots are not clouds! The first image with the green color is the most important one to check. The white spots represents the areas where the sky quality is the best to see aurora. So with no or partly clouds. On this website they mention also the level of aurora activity. However, this level is for entire Iceland and not for a certain area of Iceland. That is why it is important to use the aurora app as well.

Northern Lights forecast Iceland

Step 4: how to use the aurora app

In addition check on the aurora app for the strongest aurora activity. If you click on the aurora map, you see the aurora wave position and the direction depending on the color. 1-3 is hard to see and 4 up to higher is best. Below you see print-screens of how the app looks. If you want to know the aurora activity you click on the Aurora map which is the first screen of the app for more information.

Northern Lights aurora app first screen
Northern Lights Aurora app first screen
Northern Lights aurora app aurora activity
Northern Lights aurora app aurora activity

Grey = 1% -9% chance to see aurora. This means almost not visible.

Green = 10% -29% chance to see aurora. Very hard to see with the naked eye.

Orange = 30% -49% chance to see aurora. Visible with the naked eye.

Red = 50%+ chance to see aurora. Well visible with the possibility for multiple colors.

Smartphone equipment to photograph Northern Lights

Step 5: take these smartphone equipment with you

Take a tripod with you. This is very important since the camera may not move while taking a picture of the Northern Lights. Make sure you have one or two spare phone batteries aka power banks with you (because of the cold you run out of battery very fast) and have an extra memory card with you.

Smartphone settings to make pictures of the Northern Lights

Make sure you already know the settings you want to adjust so if aurora will show , you don’t lose time by figuring out the picture settings. Secondly, if you have a car, drive to a nice place outside of the city where you have a good chance to spot the Northern Lights. Both the Northern Light forecast and the aurora app will guide you at what spot you have the best chance.

Step 6: check below smartphone settings in advance

  • Night mode: if your smartphone has a night mode you switch on this option. This is the easiest way of taking picture of the Northern Lights. It depends on the brightness of aurora if only the night mode is enough to use. Just start taking pictures if you see of aurora and see the results. Go to ‘picture’- ‘more’ and click on ‘night mode’.
  • Pro mode: if the night mode doesn’t give you the best results it is time for a more advanced setting. Within this pro-mode you can adjust a few settings in order to get the best pictures. Go to ‘picture’- ‘more’ and click on ‘Pro’.

Within this setting click on ‘ISO’. If aurora is already visible with the naked eye you can adjust the ‘ISO’ between 50-80 until 800 if auror is very bright. if the aurora is not very bright and it is very dark, increase the ‘ISO’ between 1600-3200.

Click on ‘shutter’ option. This option is right next to the ‘ISO’ option. Adjust the shutter to the maximum. In this case to 10. The shutter means the exposure time. If you see a very fast and bright Northern Light two seconds are enough.

Adjust the ‘WB’ option. WB means White Balance. You can adjust the ‘WB’ around 3000k.

Use the ‘timer’ function.You can find the timer option on top of your screen. The icon looks like a watch. Set the timer between to to more (depending how much time you need).

You can adjust the ‘MF’ function. ‘MF’ is also known as the ‘infinity’ option on regular cameras. This means taking pictures of things that are far away. Adjust the ‘MF’ by swiping from left to the right. So on the left you see a flower icon. Make sure you swipe entirely to the right where you see the mountain icon.

Northern Lights aurora picture
Northern Lights aurora picture taken from inside against a window

Tip: if you are outside and it is almost too cold for you to take pictures this tip will save your pictures! When we tried to take pictures it was so cold we couldn’t take proper pictures because our hands and bodies were shaking. We didn’t had a tripod with us so not well prepared. And the aurora was not strong that night. But we found out this method that saved our pictures!

If you are with two persons and at a location in a house, apartment, hotel or hostel and you see aurora from outside your window, place your smartphone against a window and windowsill. If you see aurora through your smartphone, let the other person that wants to be on the picture , go outside where you have the best view. Simply take the picture with your smartphone pressed entirely against the window. Because it is nice and warm inside you will not move your phone and it is easy to make adjustments inside instead of changing some settings in the cold. You can also try this in your car if the window is straight.

Install an app taking pictures of the Northern Light with your smartphone.

This is for the iPhone users. Did you know you can install an app on your smartphone (iPhone) in order to make pictures of aurora that captures the green of aurora very well? The settings can be compared to a DSLR camera. With this Northern Lights Photo taker app it is possible to share your pictures right away on social media. I haven’t discovered an app for Android smartphone.

What steps can I take to have the best chance of seeing Aurora?

  • Visit Iceland in winter time. This means between September and April;
  • Extend your holiday. One weekend can be too short to see the Northern Lights. Like I mentioned before, there are several factors you need to take into consideration in order to see aurora. Bad weather, not enough darkness, light pollution, clouds can influence the aurora activity. Having a few days extra in Iceland will increase your luck!
  • Explore different places in Iceland during winter time using the Northern Lights forecast. So if the roads to the North of Iceland are open during winter time, it is worth to explore this area as well.
  • Find places out of town to stay during the night. Book a hostel, guesthouse, AirBnb or hotel out of town located in nature and far away from popular tourist stops. The lights of the tourist buses can harm your pictures as well:(.
  • Be patient and check very night. If the aurora level is 3 or more go outside and look for it. Yes, you might skip some sleeping hours but it is really worth it once you have seen the Northern Lights in Iceland yourself.
  • Book an organized tour. In that way you don’t have to worry about all conditions and factors that will influence the aurora activity. The guides from the tours will drive you to the places where the Northern Lights are predicted according to the forecast.
organized Northern Lights tour
Organized Northern Lights tour

Northern Lights Aurora Show in case you missed the real thing!

If you missed the real Northern Lights and you are so frustrated by it, this might be a good alternative for you. In Reykjavik you can see an Aurora Light show in the Perlan Museum. At least you skip the cold nights looking for aurora and all preparations! Just sit on your chair, relax and enjoy the beautiful lights.

FAQ

Can you see Northern Lights in January Iceland?

Yes! During winter time which includes January, you have a great chance to see the Northern lights. There is less hours of sunlight which makes the chance even better.

Can you see Northern Lights from Reykjavik?

Yes, you can see the Northern Lights from Reykjavik if the aurora activity is very high.

What are the Northern Lights in Iceland called?

It is mainly called Northern Lights. However, the scientific name is Aurora Borealis. The Icelandic people call it Norðurljós (Dawn of the North).

How long can the Northern Lights last?

The Northern Lights are most of the times only visible for about 15-30 minutes at a time. If it is your lucky day, the Northern light could even last for a few hours.

Can the Northern Lights be white?

Yes, the Northern Lights can be seen as white-gray sometimes. For example on a cloudy night you see a white-gray aurora. But in general, the usual color most people will recognize the Northern Lights is green.

Do the Northern Lights have color?

Yes, the Northern Lights can have different colors. The main color is green. If the Northern Lights are showing on a top night you might even see a combination of red, blue and purple colors.

How do Northern Lights work?

You see Northern Lights because of charged particles like electrons and protons collide with gas in the atmosphere. Tiny flashes are the result of collisions between the particles with the gas and that is why we see the Northern Lights with beautiful colors.

Do northern lights make noise?

Yes. Others have witnessed that the Northern Lights do make noise. The noise is described as quiet and almost imperceptible crackling, whooshing or whizzing noise. We haven’t heard the sound ourselves unfortunately but we hope to see and hear aurora another time again.

How likely are you to see the northern lights?

The best time to see the Northern Lights is during the winter months between September and April. If you book an organized tour in winter, the guides will do their best to drive to the best places to see the Northern Lights. Are you willing to go aurora hunting yourself, the best is to check the aurora app or northern lights forecast. And of course to look for aurora during the evening or night.

What percentage of people see Northern Lights?

The percentage of people or visitors to experience the Northern Lights during a vacation in winter time lays around 80%.

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