Aurora Borealis Iceland = WOW - This is clearly one of the best experiences to have on your trip! Those dancing lights are mesmerizing. So here is a guide to help you find out how to see and photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland including best time, forecast... and options of Iceland Northern Lights tours.
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WHAT are Aurora Borealis a.k.a. Northern Lights?
Visually, aurora borealis are lights (often green but with hints of blue, purple, and sometimes red) that can be seen from places in the far North including Iceland, Norway, Finland, Alaska, Canada… they look like they are flowing in the sky (some call it dancing)
Scientifically, when solar flares or solar wind happen on the sun, particles from the sun enter Earth’s atmosphere and collide violently with gas atoms generating the auroras.
Culturally, in China and Japan, it is believed that a child conceived under the Northern Lights will be blessed with good fortunes. So you can imagine what some night tours with Japanese tourists can become lol.
About their Colors...
Most Aurora Borealis you can see are green for 2 main reasons:
- Green is the color best detected by the eye (that's why photos of auroras show sometimes more color when you can only see green yourself)
- The colors is determined by the Altitude where the particules collide with our atmosphere and with the various gaz. Green is created by collisions at low altitude
Red is rarely produced, when collisions happen at high altitude, and pink when the solar particules meet Nitrogen molecules at 100km above the Earth.
VIDEO - Iceland Northern Lights
I have not filmed myself my own Northern Lights experiences in Iceland. But I found you a video where activity is medium. This video shows quite well the reality with the clouds even though seeing them right above Reykjavik is not that frequent.
Watch the video
INTRO - How to see the Northern Ligths in Iceland
The following guide about finding when and where to go to see the aurora borealis Iceland has been created base don my own experience, the wisdom and knowledge of my Iceland guides and the experience of 3 professional photographers in love with Iceland.
But if you don't want to chase them by yourself, you can just book Northern Lights Tours from Reykjavik where you just seat back, relax and let the experience drive find them for you! Check out great options on land or on water
WHEN - Best time to see Northern Lights in Iceland
If you are wondering when to travel to see Northern Lights in Iceland, 3 main factors are to be considered. You need:
- A very dark night
- Un cloud-free sky
- A high intensity of solar eruption
In Iceland you can't really control the weather. So you have to mainly focus on having a dark night. So you should travel to Iceland:
- Between September and Mars when the nights are long enough - this does not change from year to year - those are the best time to see the northern lights in 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020....
- Outside of the full moon period as it hinders visibility - however a little moon would help photographing the foreground...
North Iceland is often considered better to see the Northern Lights in Iceland because generally less cloudy and even more to the North.
HOW - Iceland Northern Lights Tours
The first option is to chase the Northern Lights with your rental cars. You have to chase areas where the cloud cover disappears and where you are away from lights.
But driving at night looking at the sky is not easy especially when you don't know the country. See in a following sections advice on planning your chase.
Northern Lights Tours Iceland from Reykjavik
The easiest option is to get on an organized tours. There you are with professionals who are used to chasing the lights and know where to go. Plus they communicate to help each other find spots for their group.
Several options of tours are possible to see the Northern Lights from Reykjavik:
- BUS TOUR - One of the cheapest options is to go on a bus tour. You leave from Reykjavik and the driver takes you to the best spots he knows depending on the forecast - Check out Program, availability and Price
- SMALL GROUP TOUR - This is my favorite options, it is easier to go from one spot to another chasing the northern lights because you can gather everyone more quickly and you can go off the beaten tracks - Check out options
- NORTHERN LIGHTS CRUISE - A more original option is to go on a boat off the coast of Reykjavik to find the dark and hopefully see the Norther Lights - Check out options
Note that all northern lights tours will have negative reviews from people who have not seen any. This is nature... nothing is guaranteed. But most offer to take the tour another day if you have not seen them the first time.
Iceland Northern Lights Trips - Full experience
Another options if the Northern Lights are essential for you, is to book a full trip around Iceland which includes Northern Lights hunting whenever possible.
This way during the day the guide takes you to the best spots in Iceland, and in the evening, the guide assesses the possibilities of seeing the lights and take you hunting.
For example this tour is Aurora Hunters will take you to the Golden Circle, the South Coast with the amazing Jokulsarlon Lagoon, Ice Cave, and to the North with the fascinating Lake Myvatn
REALITY - Northern Lights Tours Iceland: what to expect
Before telling you more about how to hunt the northern lights in Iceland, let's clarify a few points.
Yes it is worth it, but beware that hunting auroras means:
- Lots of waiting and driving and frustration when the sky is not clearing
- Cold, cold and cold as you wait outside for the auroras to show up
- The constant conflict between admiring them and taking the time to set up to photograph them
What you will see
To be completely honest, mos tof the times they are not covering the whole sky like we can see on the beautiful photos on the Internet.
Sometimes they are like the one below, almost not visible by the naked eye...
But even if you don't see much, it is already exceptionnel to see those colors in the sky. And if you are lucky, you might see and unforgettable show, you never know!
Need to rent a car for your road trip in Iceland?
You can choose from some great local companies!
- I selected Route 1 car rental (and paid entirely for it). I really enjoyed their service to drop and pick up the car, as well as all their advice before going on the road - Check out prices and car availabilities
- Otherwise you can compare the vehicles and prices from local companies on this practical website
PLANNING - Iceland Northern Lights Forecast
Northern Lights are unpredictable. Hunting is part of the fun and there are conditions that give you better odds at seeing them. Here is the ‘formula’ to increase your chances of seeing them:
+ The more intense the darkness
+ The higher the aurora activity forecast
+ The clearer the sky
= The Higher the chances at sighting auroras
However some people have seen beautiful display on a forecast at 0 and nothing at a forecast of 4… So be ready for anything!
1. Darkness: check the dates of your trip
First you have to plan your trip at the right time.
- Night length: Mid September through March is the good time frame for auroras as you get longer nights.
- Moon phase: A partial moon can help illuminate the foreground whereas a full moon can wash out the aurora. In planning your trip, consider the moon phases.
2. Activity: Check the aurora forecast
Then you have to determine if it is going to be a good night for magnetic activity. Those are only forecasts based on solar activity so it can be best to check several of them:
- Icelandic met office aurora forecast (check the number on the right side)
- Soft Serve short term forecast
- Alaska geophysical Institute daily aurora forecast
The higher the number, the more activity is forecasted
3. Clear Sky: Check the weather forecast
If there are clouds you will not see anything.
So you should check the could cover on the Icelandic met office website where white means clear sky – you can slide the time at the bottom to see progression through the night.
However remember that Icelandic weather is unpredictable so you should check out several times outside before deciding to go to bed.
PHOTO - How to Photograph Auroras Borealis Iceland
And once you found them, what to do?
1. Take the time to admire the lights. I understand you want a souvenir to show people. Personally I regret not having spend more time watching them directly rather than through my camera.
2. Now, if you want to capture them, let's discuss equipment and settings
- TRIPOD - You have to set long exposure so a sturdy Tripod (it is windy) is a must have and a release cable is very useful especially with the cold when you don't want to remove your gloves
- LENSES - I have only one lens 18-200. It did the job but not at the best quality. To best capture the dancing effect you need a wide angle. And it will also allow you to take the landscapes are a foreground
- RED LIGHT - To be able to adapt the settings on your camera without impacting the images of other photographers around you
- Focus: it depends on your foreground. If you are just taking the aurora, then infinity
- Aperture: large apertures f/2.8 to f/5.6
- ISO: between 800 and 3200 depending on the noise generated by your equipment
- Shutter Speed: between 15 and 30 seconds (remember with wide-angle keep it short enough to keep stars static) - play with the speed
- Depending on the quality of your camera and lenses you can play with those settings for noise management. Keep changing until you get what you need and be ready to change again as the aurora moves and gets brighter.
- Learn more with this guide by a photographer
The best photos are with a nice foreground. Although not a golden rule, you will increase you chance of a nice shot with a feature facing North. Check out Elia locardi’s amazing aurora shot. He was one of my tour leader.
OTHER TIPS - Waiting for auroras
One of the thing you need on a quest to find and photograph northern lights is Patience… and warm clothes.
It will be challenging. Iceland is windy and rainy and cold so wear a lot of layers, good gloves and hat.
And stay awake you never know when they might appear!
OTHER FAQs - Iceland Northern Lights
Can you see Northern Lights in Iceland in August?
That's a frequent question since many people have their vacations in that period. Towards the en of August, nights are getting longer so it theory it is possible, but not that frequent. That's why organized tours to see the auroras only start on the 1st of September.
Can you see Northern Lights in Reykjavik?
In theory yes. But with the Light pollution you won't see it as well. And if they are visible from te city, that means they are exceptional from outside!
If you are in the city and notice something, head to the waterfront near the sun voyager sculpture to get away from the lights.
What is the best Northern Lights tour operators out of Reykjavik?
There are no clear winner here, no best company to see the northern lights in Iceland. I have read tons of reviews and it depends on your guide, and your conditions... So many things can impact the experience.
When choosing a tour, just make sure that there are not many complaints about rescheduling when not seeing any lights on your first tour. One complaint is OK because you always have that person who is difficult and want a special thing. But if you see the issue repeated in several reviews, better to select another one.
Does it have to be cold to see the northern lights?
There is no relation between temperature and the auroras. It is often cold because the best months are in Winter...
How long do the northern lights last?
There are no patterns. You can see them only 10minutes or have a whole night show. It depends on the magnitude of the solar wind.
Should I search for higher ground to better see the auroras?
The altitude does not impact your viewing experience unless it helps you get away from a light source.
Want to see more of Iceland's beauty?
Discover more things to do and places to see in Iceland in my online Iceland Destination Guide.
Good luck! Come back and let me know how it went