Let me just start by saying once more that this is a guide to photographing the Northern Lights for amateurs. Professional photographers with professional lenses and years of experience will have their own insights and tips, but I’m writing for amateurs, by an amateur, to help you get at least one half-decent picture of the Northern Lights.
I’m all for for iPhone photos and actually only got my first proper camera at the end of 2015, but if you’re travelling all the way to Iceland (or Norway, or Finland) and you want to photograph the Northern Lights, you’re going to need three things; a proper camera, a tripod and a pair of gloves. I’m not a professional photographer, but I’m interested in taking nice photos, and I know there are millions of people just like me out there!
There’s just no way you’re going to be able to photograph the Aurora Borealis on an iPhone, so if ever you were looking for an excuse to buy yourself that camera you’ve been dreaming of, this is it. I used to shoot on a Canon 700D, but after talking to my friend Kiersten from The Blonde Abroad, I decided to trade in what I had and invest in a Fujifilm X-T10.
Here’s why I love the Fujifilm X-T10
- It’s mirrorless, which means it’s super compact to travel with
- The image quality and colour are next level (if you’re looking for technical specs read this)
- It shoots AMAZING images on auto, which is super useful even if you do know how to shoot on full manual. And what I love is that while focus, white balance, ISO and F-stop are on auto, you can still make some manual adjustments if you need more light, etc
- It can take quite a beating (I know because I dropped mine in the street in Reykjavik and it survived)
How to photograph the Northern Lights
The official season for the Northern Lights in Iceland is October till March, however, this is no guarantee that you’ll see them. We were in Iceland for 9 days and only had one opportunity to see them!
Check the Northern Lights Forecast
First of all, you’ll need to know when and where they are going to be. You can check on your chances of seeing them on the vedur.is website at en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora.
- The sky should be clear, with just a little cloud cover
- If it’s too clear, the lights have nothing to bounce off, and if it’s too cloudy, well, you obviously won’t be able to see them
- The map of Iceland on vedur.is shows the forecast of cloud cover
- Green areas are cloudy and white areas are clear skies
- You can move the slider below the cloud cover map, or click directly on a day or time to check the forecast
Understanding the Northern Lights Forecast
- Basically, dark green areas have too much cloud cover, white areas have too little cloud cover, and light green areas have just the right amount of cloud cover
- If it’s 6pm and you’re looking at the forecast for midnight, you should aim to be where the map shows the ideal conditions (light green) at midnight
- The forecast of auroral activity at midnight, scale 0 to 9, is shown in the upper-right box, 1 being the lowest and 9 being the highest
- If it hits 6, you’re pretty much guaranteed to see them if you head out
- It was a 7 the night we saw them. We hopped in the car with a Czech Republican who drove like a demon to a spot that looked like it would have ideal conditions in 20 minutes time and arrived as they broke out above us.
Get the right camera settings
- First of all, set up your tripod
- Use your widest lens
- Set your camera to full manual and adjust it to its lowest F-stop, ISO 200, focus to infinity, and leave the lens open for 10 or more seconds per shot
- Then look up and don’t fiddle with your camera. The only thing more heartbreaking than not getting a good shot of the lights is not seeing them with your own eyes because you were messing with your camera.
This is what I did, and I managed to get a few good shots, even as an amateur, and enjoy the lights too.
If you’re not driving or you would prefer to hunt the lights with a pro, there are a number of tours you can join in Iceland.