If you’ve never seen the northern lights, also known as the aurora borealis, then chances are your expectations for your first sighting are pretty high. I know mine were. I’ve seen the incredible shots on Instagram and rather naively, I expected to arrive in Iceland, look up and see the same view. Sadly that’s rarely the case.
To help you leave any unrealistic expectations at home and have the best chance of spotting mother nature’s beautiful light show during your trip, here’s everything you need to know before you go.
You’re picturing glowing blues, greens and pinks flowing through the air above you, a bit like in these photos, right? So was I. Little did I know that you have to be extremely lucky to see an aurora like that just by the naked eye. Instead, the aurora looks a bit like white wispy clouds. So they’re easy to miss if you’re not concentrating.
The reason they look different in the photos is because a correct camera lens can pick up far more than your eyes can, and the photos have often been enhanced or edited so they looks their best. Especially those for editorial use.
That said, you might get lucky and spot and aurora with colour, or better still one that dances across the sky above you if it’s a strong one. We were fortunate enough to see this on the last night of our trip, and it was the most emotional and magical experience ever.
We booked onto a tour with Reykjavik Excursions on day one of our trip. The reason for this is because if you don’t see them on the tour, most tour operators will take you back out a second time for free, and this is redeemable for 12 months. Tours are great for amateurs (like us) as they take you to a good spot and tell you what to look for. That said, even on small group tours you tend to be out there with several other bus loads of people, so getting ‘the shot’ might be tricky due to lights from other people’s phones and cameras.
Reykjavik Excursions kindly gifted us admission to this tour in exchange for a mention on my blog. This is not sponsored or paid.
Despite not seeing the lights on our tour due to cloud, I certainly don’t regret doing it, but I’d also recommend exploring yourself if you have a car. You don’t have to go far out of Reykjavik to find total darkness, which is what you’ll need to be able to spot them. On our third night, we drove about 10-minutes out to the Reykjavik Lighthouse and managed to see them in the distance. Wherever you are in Iceland, you just need to find darkness and look North.
My dad introduced me to the free Glendale App, which gives you scientific measurements for all active auroras in Europe. It might look intimidating at first glance, but just focus on the map for aurora sightings near you and the Substorm nT number. The lower the number (it needs to be a minus nT), the more visible and active the aurora. When we spotted it on our third night, it was between -200nT and -400nT. A mega aurora will be closer to -2000nT – 4500nT.
There are other apps you can use, but I found this one to be extremely accurate. You can also set up Twitter notifications to be alerted to any active substorm.
Don’t forget to check the local cloud coverage via a weather app too!
Your eyes take 20-minutes to adjust after looking at light, which makes spotting the aurora far more difficult. Avoid looking at your phone if you can, but if you’re using an app, just remember to turn the brightness right down, but even this can stop your eyes from seeing the actual aurora.
Unfortunately the northern lights don’t switch on at a set time every night. Sometimes they can appear daily, sometimes it can be weeks without a visible display. Sometimes they come out early, sometimes they come out in the middle of the night. Sometimes they last for hours, sometimes they last for minutes.
To put it into perspective, we were aurora hunting from sunset at 7pm to about 2am every single night and only saw them once, on and off between 11pm and 2am. We were thrilled with this and managed to get some great photos, but our flight neighbours on the way home overheard us and said they hadn’t seen them. It turns out they were only out looking until 9pm each night. Unfortunately they didn’t really put the effort in, which is absolutely key for spotting them.
I thought I knew my camera well enough to get incredible photos. Especially because my dad is really experienced with shooting them, and he’d given me some great advice before our trip. Unfortunately I didn’t give myself enough time to put his advice to practice and ended up having a meltdown on the tour when my camera wasn’t able to get good shots of them. I also didn’t invest in a tripod, so picture me, shivering, camera rested on a rock on the ground, getting rubbish photos. I was so annoyed at myself. Thankfully, by night three I’d learned from my mistakes on night one!
You’ll need to play around with these settings on the night as every aurora is different and light levels can change quickly. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ with shooting an aurora unfortunately. Darryl and I use different cameras, so used different settings to get our photos.
As you can see, spotting the aurora (let alone shooting it) is no joke! I don’t want to put you off, but I wish I’d read a post with this information before my trip. I had far too many unrealistic expectations and definitely wasn’t prepared for the amount of effort that you need to put in.
That said, when you see them, it’s like nothing you’ve ever felt before. I cried, stood in awe, jumped around. And the beauty of spotting them was so unexpected, as we were just travelling home from another tour with Reykjavik Excursions. I’m forever grateful to the tour guide for pulling over the coach and letting us all stand beneath the dancing lights in that random self-service petrol station.
If you have any other questions, please don’t hesitate to ask me! I would have been lost without the tips from my dad, the hours that he put into helping me track them down and the hundred of Whatsapp messages that he sent me throughout the trip. I just hope that this post helps more people see them.
Have you seen the aurora before? Has this inspired you to go northern lights hunting in Iceland?