I had been wanting to visit Iceland for years. Some time ago I was flying from London to Baltimore during the winter on IcelandAir and had to make a stopover in Reykjavik. It looked like the North Pole down below with all the snow, and I’ve wanted to return ever since. Fast forward to Xmas of 2013 and Julie and I went to see the Ben Stiller remake of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.” About half the movie was filmed in Iceland. When we walked out of the theater I announced, “that’s it. We’re going to Iceland.” I booked our tickets the following week and we left at the end of February, 2014.
I did some research and found that the best time to view the northern lights is when there is little to no moon. The darker the skies the brighter the lights. There was going to be no moon on Feb. 27, so I planned to arrive that morning. For photography preparation I bought a great e-book by Patrick Endes:Alaska Photographics.
One of the book’s recommendations was that I would need a fast lens with a wide aperture. For this I rented a Canon 16-35mm at f/2.8. I already had the 17-40 f/4,but 2.8 is twice as fast as 4. The book explained that the lights can change quickly and you want your photos to be taken as fast as possible. Not only can you adjust for mistakes faster but you’ll also end up with more pictures. If you want to come back with great northern lights photos you’ll need a good camera in addition to a good lens, plus a tripod. The camera I was using was the Canon 5D Mark III, and I have a Gitzo tripod. I’ve read many stories of people trying to take photos of the lights with their iPhones or a point and shoot. That just won’t do it. You’re going to be taking long exposures of at least 30 seconds in the dark. If you’re going to travel a long way in the middle of winter, you should be prepared.
Another important tip about photographing the northern lights is to make sure you DO NOT OVEREXPOSE the lights! If you overexpose any part of the lights in your photo you will wind up with a distracting white glare in the picture. You must learn how to use the histogram in your camera. I’ve always found the histogram to be the greatest invention with dSLR’s as you can always end up with properly exposed photos. It’s important to keep the histogram as far to the right as possible without touching the right edge. When taking photos of the lights you will need to keep looking at that histogram. The intensity of the lights will keep changing and what have been a properly exposed photo one minute can have some over-exposure the next. If you look at the first photo I posted of the northern lights over Reykjavik you can see that part of the city lights are overexposed. It was very difficult to properly expose this type of photo as I had to deal with the northern lights, the city lights, freezing cold temperatures and whipping winds. This was one of the only photos I took that night that had any over exposure.
I also researched what tour company to use in Reykjavik. Since Julie and I knew next to nothing about driving around the city I felt it was best to do a tour. I didn’t want to go on a big bus tour where they herd hundreds of people around like cattle. For photography I wanted something small and intimate. For this reason I chose SuperJeep. The jeep arrived at our hotel right on time at 6. Julie and I waited outside in the parking lot before it arrived to see if we could find the lights. Before the sky was even completely black we found some grayish-white streaks in the sky. The streaks turned bright green once the sky turned black. Soon after our jeep tour arrived. We had a guide and 3 other passengers. The first stop on our tour was to the top of a mountain overlooking Reyjjavik. On the way up the mountain our guide casually pointed out, “if you look out your window to the left you’ll see the northern lights.” Once at the top of the mountain we were met by a few other jeeps. Although the views were spectacular from here, it was absolutely freezing! There were huge winds toppling over tripods. I weighted mine down with my camera bag. The lights were absolutely spectacular. They were glowing green and red over the city below and extended from horizon to horizon. It was difficult to choose where to photograph. The lights were dancing in front of me, connected straight above my head and continued on the other side.
We stayed on top of the mountain for about half an hour before the guides decided to take us to a frozen lake. Our guide said they always start at the mountain to get a high enough vantage point in an attempt to find the lights. But being that they were already out there was no point in staying any longer. I think everyone was thankful about that decision!
The lake was at a much lower altitude and not nearly as bad. It was still pretty cold, but at least there was no wind.
I have to admit that Julie and I lucked out on our first attempt to see the northern lights. It turns out that there was a big solar event two days before we arrived in Iceland, and that was the reason for the spectacular display. Our guide told us it was one of the top three displays he had ever seen. I believe that only about 30% of the northern lights tours in Iceland are successful. They get a lot of cloud cover over there. I briefly thought about going to Fairbanks, Alaska since they have a higher percentage of seeing the lights. But I couldn’t think about what I would do in Fairbanks if the lights didn’t come out. Iceland was full of waterfalls and volcanoes and it was a place I’d always wanted to visit. So I figured that if I didn’t get to see the lights that at least I’d see Iceland.
I’ve read on-line where people have stated that the northern lights were a sham because they only got to see whitish-gray streaks in the sky and that brilliant greens and reds only come out with a camera. That is simply not true. If all you saw were whitish-gray streaks then you just didn’t see a very bright display of the lights. I saw bright green and red. The purple only came out on the camera. And two nights after this display i happened to briefly see the lights again, and they were bright green streaks in the sky. Unfortunately, they disappeared by the time I got my camera ready. If you go to see the lights just remember that this is nature and it is unpredictable. And come prepared if you want to come away with some memorable photographs.
Tips for photographing Northern Lights in Iceland: