Note: If you are considering photographing the aurora in Iceland, you might be interested in our e-book, Forever Light: The Landscape Photographer’s Guide to Iceland. In addition to extensive travel and photography advice, we include a section on photographing the aurora, including some more tips, a few specific location ideas, and links to our favorite weather and aurora resources.
It is past one o’clock in the morning and we are sitting at a Walgreens waiting on a prescription that an urgent care doctor was supposed to phone in for me more than an hour ago. I am still hoping to get in a few hours of sleep before heading to the airport for our flight to Reykjavík, but it never really happens. I spend the seven-hour flight playing Tetris and Solitaire on my phone, unable to sleep and feeling miserable overall. Once we arrive in Reykjavík, we pick up our campervan, stop to get a few days of groceries, and head out for the five hour drive to the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon. We stop to take a two hour nap along the way, arriving in time for sunset. We photograph sunset, heat up a dehydrated meal for dinner, and get ready for a long night. We are now approaching a day and a half with almost no sleep and, not surprisingly, all this traveling has only made me feel even worse.
It is March and we are going to be in Iceland for three weeks. Our primary goal is to see and photograph the aurora borealis (also known as the Northern Lights). Based on advice from some friends who traveled to Norway for the aurora and only saw it once, on the last day of their trip, we decide that we cannot miss an opportunity (opportunity = clear skies+interesting landscape+good aurora forecast+right amount of moonlight). Starting a long trip sick with a growing sleep deficit is a less than brilliant plan, but at about 11:00 pm, we see a faint green glow on the horizon. This is what we had come thousands of miles to see! It all instantly feels worth it.
We get out of the cozy campervan and walk about a half-mile to a spot along the partially frozen glacial lagoon that we had scouted earlier in the day. It is below freezing and windy, making the cold even more uninviting. The ground, which we will be standing on for the next four to five hours, is frozen solid. Still, the sky is completely clear and the short-term aurora forecast for the next few hours is looking very good. Despite the insanely cold weather conditions and my miserable physical condition, we are thrilled to be there and feel incredibly fortunate to have such good prospects for our first night.
Soon, the faint glow on the horizon turns into moving bands of green that form a low arch over the distant mountains. As we start photographing, vertical pillars of light start appearing from behind the mountains. Over time, the arch and pillars turn into moving ribbons and curtains of green with occasional hints of purple and blue, stretching overhead from horizon to horizon filling the sky with rippling color. As the display becomes more active, the light intensifies and moves much more quickly. After about two hours of watching what already seems like an incredible display, we experienced an auroral corona which essentially looks like waves of light emanating from a central point, with the dancing waves raining down towards earth (the photo below shows the waves of light after the peak had passed).
I am in awe of almost every natural place I visit but seeing the aurora was an intensely different and powerful experience. Seeing a dark, star-filled sky fill with vibrant light is a humbling and potent reminder of just how incredible nature is. All of this is almost too overwhelming to take in, as photographs of the aurora capture so little of the experience of seeing it and I was fully unprepared for what it would feel like to see these dancing lights. Even a wide-angle photograph of the aurora that captures a large section of the sky leaves out the sense of perspective that you actually feel when experiencing the phenomenon in person. Thus, the spectacle of it all adds to the photographic difficulty. I would imagine that experienced aurora photographers eventually get used to the phenomenon but I almost always found myself more interested in watching the light display than actually photographing it.
During this three-week trip, we saw five aurora displays. Two of the five were successful for photography (the best display happened on a cloudy night and while the aurora was beautiful to watch, the clouds made it difficult to photograph). The other two displays were faint, too low on the horizon, or drowned out by too much moonlight. The second-best display turned out to be that first night, the night when we were miserably sleep-deprived and wanted to do little more than rest until we saw that faint green glow on the horizon. It feels like an incredible privilege to experience something as stunning as the aurora and even more so to photograph it. If you get the chance to see and photograph the aurora, take that opportunity and do so without hesitation. You will be in for the experience of a lifetime.
Some Basic Tips for Photographing the Aurora Borealis
If you would like to photograph the aurora, here are a few basic things to consider to help make the trip more pleasant and successful.
• Learn about the aurora before you leave for your trip. Understanding the mechanics of this phenomenon and how to interpret the aurora forecast will help increase your success of actually seeing a display. In my case, doing some extensive reading on the aurora before leaving helped me have a much deeper appreciation for what I ended up seeing (understanding why different colors appear, for example).
• Do not let a poor aurora forecast discourage you from watching the sky, especially if you have limited time. The best aurora display we saw happened on a day with a poor advance forecast (Kp=2). Since we were in a camper van and could be very mobile, we actively sought out areas with a clear cloud forecast and once we arrived, we set our alarm for regular intervals to check on conditions. With limited time, taking every opportunity you have will increase your odds of seeing and being able to successfully photograph a good display.
• Know your gear well so you can adapt quickly to changing conditions. Unlike typical night photography, the aurora is very dynamic. Bands of light move and intensify quickly. Seeing this spectacle in person is overwhelming. All of this makes knowing your equipment essential. Fumbling around with correctly focusing your lens or having difficulty in adapting your exposure settings to changing conditions means that you are missing an opportunity to watch or photograph a fleeting scene. Also, understanding how your camera behaves at high ISOs, especially for underexposed photos, can help you make good decisions in the field (for example, tending toward a higher ISO and shorter shutter speed to keep detail in the aurora if your camera handles high ISOs well).
• Spend time pre-scouting a location and have ideas in mind for different directions. Since you will be photographing at night, it is hard to adapt to the aurora conditions if you are not familiar with the area. Spend some time pre-scouting so you can have options ready if conditions change. Although the aurora is often most dominant facing north (when photographing the aurora from a location in the northern hemisphere), color can fill the sky in all directions. Be prepared to take advantage of the changing conditions! The photo above is an example of how this paid off, as the scene I had planned on photographing is directly behind where I was standing when I took the photo above.
• Be prepared for long stretches in cold weather. Standing on ice or in snow for hours in the middle of the night can create miserable conditions if you are not prepared with the right equipment. Some recommendations: thin glove liners (to allow for quick camera adjustments) and thick mitten-style gloves, lots of clothing layers (clothing made specifically for the outdoors), a heavy parka, very warm socks and boots, a large supply of handwarmers, and access to warm drinks. Also, your camera's battery function will decline so be prepared with extra batteries.
• If you are interested in photographing the aurora over a variety of interesting landscapes, choose a place that is accessible during the late fall and winter. Iceland and Norway are two examples of locations that have a variety of scenery that is relatively accessible during the best parts of the year to view the aurora. In Iceland, for example, the ring road helps make a wide variety of locations accessible, which is helpful when the southern part of the country is covered in clouds but the northern region has a clear forecast.
• Being mobile is a big advantage. We decided on a campervan because we did not want to be stuck in a single place that was clouded over for an entire week. We found this to be a convenient and comfortable way to travel.
• Photographing the aurora is challenging! With such a dynamic subject, all the difficulties of night photography (technical and otherwise), the cold weather, the need for both a clear weather forecast and a good aurora forecast, and the spectacle of it all, a lot of factors have to come together to come home with decent aurora photographs. Set reasonable expectations and prepare to adapt your approach along the way to increase your success.
If you have photographed the aurora, do you have any advice to add?