Out of all of my travels over the years, this post may reflect one of my ultimate favorites – a moment when I was literally stomping around a car park like a five year old on Christmas morning, obviously to the chill in the air or the late night hour. This was my experience chasing the elusive northern lights in Iceland last week.
If you have done any researching online there are some general tips that hold true for this chase. For example:
- Darkness – you need it. Any lights from the city or car headlights, anything, can make it hard to see the aurora. However, sometimes you have to make due with what you’ve got. Our first time seeing the northern lights was in our hotel parking lot in Húsafell completely by chance. This did mean that I had to navigate the large street lights in the lot, but as you can see, it didn’t stop me from getting some shots.
- Manual mode camera – this one is a non negotiable. See, with the naked eye those brightly colored lights look more like grey-ish clouds. The way we reveal all of their magic is by doing an extended exposure on the camera, and that requires the ability to manually keep your shutter open. For most of my shots I played around with an exposure time of 15-20 seconds.
- A tripod – another non negotiable. Because of those extended exposure times any little bit of movement will cause crazy blur in your shots. Trust me, get a tripod and it will be your best friend.
- Luck – it’s mother nature after all. And here is the thing, our second time seeing the northern lights we weren’t supposed to see them. Sometimes you just have to go with your gut and be willing to wait for the clouds to part and the lights to appear. It will be well worth the wait.
Our first time catching the northern lights was completely by accident. We happened to be walking into our hotel and I saw a strangely shaped cloud in the sky going horizontally above the hotel. So I ran to grab my camera.
- If you aren’t sure if a cloud is actually the northern lights, take a test shot with your camera. If the resulting picture is grey then you have clouds. However, if it is green then the chase is on!
It isn’t all blind luck though. Have no fear! There are some helpful apps and websites to make the chase a little bit more in your favor. Here is a list of what my husband and I used to help track down the northern lights:
- Iceland Aurora Forecast – this one was cool because it showed you the cloud cover by hour and day as well as the expected activity level (a scale that goes from 0 to 9 – greater the number, greater the activity).
- Aurora Alerts Northern Lights App – I used this app alot. It will automatically pick up your location and then give you the likelihood that you will be able to see the lights in your location. It will also notify you if northern light activity suddenly pics up, and what the predicted cloud cover is in the near future. Just a super handy way to gauge what might be coming up.
And sometimes you just have to roll the dice and wait to see what happens. Our second time out looking for the lights we just stood out in the dark waiting for clouds to clear. In my test shots we could see that the lights were active – the clouds were a crazy green tint. The waiting was rewarded ten fold when an amazing plume of northern lights popped up from the horizon and snaked vertically across the sky above us. Do you remember those morphing cube Windows screen savers from the 90s? That is the closest thing I can compare it to for you. The lights were dancing fast across the sky. It almost seemed supernatural. A group from Taiwan had pulled into the same back road parking lot as us. We all cheered together in awe watching it unfold in front of us.