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The Aurora Borealis can be a magical once-in-a-lifetime experience and a true highlight on your trip to Iceland.
You may be lucky and see it when you get to Iceland, but most people will not be that fortunate. With a little bit of planning you can greatly increase your chances of seeing the Northern Lights make your Iceland trip magical experience.
My Aurora Borealis guide gives you the details you need for a successful Aurora Borealis hunt.
Some people will tell you that you can only see the Northern Lights in winter. That is not true. In theory, you can see the Aurora Borealis every month of the year in Iceland except for June, when it does not get dark enough.
In practical terms, the best months are those close to the fall and spring equinoxes: September, October, February, March and April. However, the months of September and October have a high chance of cloudy skies and rain and you need clear skies to see the Northern Lights, so you will have a higher likelihood to see the Aurora Borealis in February, March and April.
Iceland has a funny climate. It may be raining where you are, but just 20 miles away you may have clear skies. Also, if you wait for an hour, the wind may blow the clouds away.
Check out the cloud cover on this website.
Easy. This website has most of the information you need.
a) It shows the cloud cover - if you have cloudy skies then you will not be able to see the Aurora Borealis. It is important to note, that sometimes the sky looks clear, but you have thin high altitude clouds that may weaken the Aurora or even make it impossible to see. So, if you can see the gazillions of stars and the milky way, then you are good to go.
b) It shows the "Aurora Forecast", which is the "KP Index" in the upper right had side corner of the page. The higher the number, the better your chance of seeing the Northern Lights. A good kp index that gives you a realistic chance, if you are patient is 3. If the number is 6 or even higher then you should see a spectacular Aurora.
In case that you wonder in which other parts of the planet you can see the Aurora, check out the US NOAA website.
Generally, the farther North you are and the darker it is the better. Also, if you can go to higher elevations, you have a slightly higher chance to see more intense lights as there is less fog, humidity and haze from particulates in the air between you and the Aurora.
The Northern Lights start appearing as soon as it gets dark. The best time is typically 10pm to 3am.
There is a good reason why the Aurora Borealis is also called the "Northern Lights". That is, because they come from the North. So, your chances of seeing the lights are highest when you look North and lowest when you look South. Don't forget about West and East, though.
a) The Northern Lights look best on a moon-less night. The darker it is the better; every light from cities or buildings or passing cars will disturb your viewing pleasure. However, if you want to take photos of the Aurora, they may actually look better if there is a little light from the moon (half-moon or less) or individual buildings as this will illuminate the landscape better.
Check the moon calendar to understand when the next moon-less night is: https://www.moongiant.com/calendar/
b) When you get to your viewing spot, turn the car, your camera and every light source off. Your eyes will need at least 5min (better 10-15min) of absolute darkness to adjust to the low light conditions. Turning on the camera display or cell phone, even if it is only for a second, will destroy the rhodopsin (low light vision chemical) in your eyes and you will need to re-adjust. Your eyes will thank you with incredible views of the milky way and, hopefully, of the Aurora Borealis.
c) If you get out at a KP Index of 3, you may be lucky to see the Northern Lights immediately, but more likely it will take hours of you constantly watching the sky before you see the Northern Lights. Get some music or other source of entertainment. The KP Index is updated every 30min. So, you may want to check the KP Index every once in a while - turn the brightness of your cell phone display way down so that your eyes don't need another 15min to readjust after each time you check your phone. Also, make sure that you have a phone plan that works in the middle of nowhere in Iceland.
d) You will likely watch the Aurora Borealis in winter. So, make sure that you bring warm clothes and blankets and warm drinks with you. If you rely on your car heater, be aware that your car displays will likely light up and you will need 5-15min in complete darkness to re-adjust your night vision.
When seeing the Aurora Borealis for the first time, you may be disappointed as it did not look as vibrant and flashy as on the photos you have seen. Please keep in mind that the intensity of the Aurora constantly changes. So, you may want to watch the Aurora for an extended period of time.
Those photos are often taken with very high ISO speed, long exposure times and sometimes they are digitally enhanced. Often, those photos are also taken at times of a very high KP Index. So, please don't expect to see nature putting up a super vibrant Aurora just for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy what you see. It may be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
There is not one set of settings that gives you the best photos of the Northern Lights. It is always a compromise of ISO speed (=graininess of the picture) and exposure time.
Before I go into the settings, I need to make you of two other important facts:
a) use a mirror reflex camera (SLR, DSLR) for best results; your mirrorless point and shoot camera may not be able to take any photos in complete darkness
b) Make sure to fully charge your camera and possibly take a spare battery with you in case you stay up taking photos for hours on end.
c) use a tripod, there is absolutely no way that you can hold the camera still for the long exposure times that you will need
d) If you go in winter, ensure your camera can take the temperatures.
e) If you go after a day of rain, ensure that your camera is protected from water; remember: wind can blow over your tripod and your camera can land in a puddle of water.
f) check if your camera has an "NF function", which is a noise reduction function and make sure you know how to use it.
g) try the different settings at night at home or wherever you are before you go Aurora hunting. The longer you mess with the settings during your Aurora hunt, the longer your eyes will need to re-adjust afterwards, the higher is the chance that you miss the best parts of the Aurora and the higher your frustration will be.
h) If your camera supports RAW mode. Find out how to use it. The file size of these pictures will be huge and not every graphics program can handle RAW files, but it allows you the most control over the photos and for extra noise reduction in some graphics programs.
Good settings to start are for a good camera:
Moon-less night: ISO 12,800, 30 second exposure, aperture f4 to f2.8
Quarter moon: ISO 1,600, 30 second exposure, aperture f4 to f2.8
Half-moon night: ISO 800, 30 second exposure, aperture f4 to f2.8
If your pictures get too grainy at ISO speeds of 1,600 and above, then you may want to increase the exposure time to 60 seconds or even 120 seconds, if your camera allows you to do that.
Such long exposure times, may lead to unnatural looking photos.
Focus: To focus on the Aurora, you should manually focus on infinity; there is a good chance that autofocus in your camera will have a hard time deciding on what to focus. If you want to focus on an object and have the Aurora in the background, try illuminating it with a laser pointer or flashlight and then manually focus on the object.
Lens: It will be dark, so your camera will appreciate every bit of light and it may not allow you to shoot at all if too little light falls into the camera. My proposal is to use a wide angle lens, 28mm or higher.
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