It was 10:00 pm. I was freezing, even inside the bus. I had been cold since I arrived to Iceland and it didn’t go away, despite the heating. The bus was full. I was uncomfortably sitting next to an overly chatty English guy with a strong accent hard to understand.
There wasn’t even a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights that night. The sky was cloudy and there was a snow storm on the way. Just my luck.
The tour guide was also talking, maybe a bit too enthusiastically. She was trying to make a joke, but she forgot the punch line. I hated tours.
Don’t get me wrong, I had always wanted to go to Iceland. Iceland was, in fact, one of the countries that inspired my whole trip. I just did not want to be in Iceland right now. When I could still be in Ireland instead.
I have been doing this for a while now and never, not even when I left Mexico, I had the desire to stay. But after months and months in Ireland and leaving behind a boyfriend, a few friends and a mini life I had built, Conor had to practically push me through the security gates at Dublin airport. I must have been the shittiest traveller in the world. One that did not want to travel.
When I started the journey I promised I wouldn’t visit a place twice, that I wouldn’t root anywhere and that I wouldn’t fall in love with anyone (romantically or fraternally). I broke them all.
Anyways, now I found myself in the middle of nowhere, below zero degrees, with every piece of clothing I owned and still freezing my ass to death and I still had three more days to go.
The Prelude to the Northern Lights
The guide announced that we had finally arrived to our destination. Since they weren’t sure if we were going to see the lights or not, we would have to wait inside a small, overpriced B&B and at the first sight of them, we would have to rush out.
“Ok, my hunters” Yeah, she called us hunters, “Off we go! There is a little snow out there, but just imagine our friend, Queen Elsa, from Frozen, sent it for us”.
I jumped off the bus, without enthusiasm. The snow was up to my knees. I could have kicked Queen Elsa in the nuts.
At least the B&B was warm enough. Most of the group queued to get a cup of hot chocolate or tea, but I did not. People told me the prices in Iceland were outrageous, but I never imagined that the price of a cup of Icelandic tea could buy you a three-course meal everywhere else in the world.
Grumpy, with a tea abstinence syndrome and… Did I mention I was also PMSing? I waited hopelessly in a corner. I changed the settings of my camera, just in case and lazily watched through the window (BTW, if you want to know which settings I used to capture the lights, you can go to the end of the article).
Then I saw it.
A green, moving glow in the sky. I hesitated, but someone else screamed in the other side of the room and the whole B&B rushed like the pack that killed Mufasa.
The Northern Lights were shining in the sky.
How it really is to capture the Northern Lights
It is never like in the pictures. Let me break it to you right away. That shiny, bright green and pink you see on a photograph can’t be seen with the naked eye. However, it doesn’t mean it is less impressive.
When I went outside the show was barely starting. A subtle glow was shining in the sky and not quite dancing and moving yet. But it was growing.
I was a bit hesitant. I had not brought a tripod with me, which is pretty much a must when you try to photograph the Northern Lights, but since I was already there I decided to give it ago anyways.
Luckily, I found a rudimentary fence in the other side of the field. Not the most elegant, of course, but it did the trick. With frozen fingers turned on the camera and started taking the shots.
It’s a patient, delicate process because you need long exposure and firm pulse. But, at the same time you are shaking uncontrollably while your body tries to prevent you from dying of hypothermia and you are not really helping because you are half-buried in the snow AND also gloveless. But hey, Carpe Diem, right?
However, once I managed to focus on the infinity, everything went smoothly. It was almost as watching two shows simultaneously. One through my human eyes and another through the lens.
The colours, in real life, are much more subtle, but the movement is greater. The camera, though, brings out details you simply cannot see in real life. The most challenging part was to decided where to focus most of my attention, in the real deal or in the screen. That and prevent my fingers from freezing and falling off. I think I managed well.
The lights started to fade off a little bit and the guide told us that it was normal, so we were free to go inside again if we wanted to warm up.
With my boots soaked in the snow, I almost ran back to the B&B. I was hyped, I was excited, I was bursting with energy, I was cold… I went straight back to the restaurant and ordered the overpriced cup of hot chocolate. Calories and all. However, I must confess I did refill it a few times afterwards behind the staff’s back, instead of buying a new cup. I was not that excited.
With all that adrenaline and sugar, my bad humour was quickly dissipated and I even mingled with some of the other members of the tour. I don´t know if it was the diabetic comma I was in, but Iceland made so much more sense after the Northern Lights.
I thought I had been lucky enough and I was happy with my shots, when a new stampede took place and the B&B emptied again. The Northern Lights were back and they were super strong!
The Northern Lights in Iceland 2.0
I followed the crowd outside with my camera ready. The Northern Lights have moved places and now they were at the front of the B&B and they had evolved. The green had mixed with yellow and pink and the shiny glow in the sky was moving and dancing like a light ribbon.
The Aurora was stronger than ever and we could see it perfectly without the help of a camera. Every time the Northern Lights twirled around, people would cheer and even clap (not me, I promise).
By then, the cold was ridiculous, but I was so numb and hyperactive that I didn’t feel it anymore. The second appearance of the Northern Lights lasted longer than the first, but, eventually, the big glow faded a little bit and we had to head back to Reykjavik. However, we did not really regret it, because we were worn off by then and ready to get to bed. The trip lasted until 1:00 am, after all.
How to Capture the Northern Lights with a DSLR
One of the main appeals of the Northern Lights is to take Instagram-Perfect pictures to brag online.
They do say you can do it with an IPhone, but I would really recommend getting a DSLR or at least a mirror-less camera. As you might recall, my camera died in the Croatian sea last summer, but my mega-super-awesome boyfriend and my former bosses/almost-foster Irish parents decided to help me a bit and partly pay for this amazing Canon 1300D!
If you still decide to go with your phone, then you don’t need much more.There is an app you can use in case you have an iPhone. It costs $0.99 USD, but according to some people in the bus, it is pretty neat.
However, if you opt for your camera instead, a tripod would be ideal. If not, you will have to improvise and find a flat surface (or an old fence), to steady the camera. Otherwise, you’ll end up with a blurry mess. Trust me.
I’m sure there are plenty of ways to capture the Northern Lights. Also, the moon and the place where you are influence the way to shoot them, but these are the settings that worked particularly for me:
- Try with a high (but not ridiculously high) ISO. My camera goes all the way to 6400, but I decided to set it only to 1600 to prevent an incredibly grainy picture. You can still see some grain in my pictures, but since I still had to hold the camera in place with shaking hands, I opted for a higher ISO and a faster shutter speed. If you do have a tripod, I’d definitely recommend a lower ISO and a slower shutter speed.
- Set the shutter speed between 15-25 seconds (depending on how bright was the aurora and how steady I held the camera on the fence). But you can experiment with this range and adjust accordingly.
- And finally, I set the aperture to 4.5. With these, and the generous moonlight, I managed to capture some of the beauty of the Northern Light of Iceland!
*If you are still not sure and you are with a tour, don’t hesitate to ask the tour guide, they are happy to help you set your camera for better results.
A few more tips to see the Northern Lights in Iceland
- The best time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland is between November and the beginning of March. I went during December and practically every night I was there people were able to see the Aurora.
- Bring tons of warm clothes. Imagine the worst cold you have ever felt. Done? Well, in Iceland is even colder. Layer up as much as you can and if you can bring hand warmers even better. Believe me, your finger will go numb.
- Prepare for the tourists. Especially if you decide to go with a tour. Even though you are in the middle of nowhere, there are popular spots to watch the lights, so don’t hope to get shots with nobody on them unless you decide to separate from the group.
- Bring your own coffee/tea. My overly chatty English companion was super smart and brought his own travel mug to keep him warm. After he finished his drink he was able to ask for hot water at the B&B and refill for no extra charge! I wish I had thought about that…
- Plan your budget ahead. People told me Iceland was expensive, but I never imagine it was THAT expensive. The tour itself was not that bad (about $38.00 usd), but as I said, the chocolate, the snacks and other extras can really mess up with your finances. You can check out this super complete Iceland Travel Budget to learn more about how to save some money in activities, food and even flights and accommodation!
Was it worth it to see the Northern Lights in Iceland?
Definitely! I know I seemed cranky and a bit of a douche at the beginning, but the experience really grew into me. Besides, it is one of those things you absolutely must do once in a lifetime. It definitely made it to the list of highlights of my trip.
Also, if you want to book a tour instead of driving, I would recommend the Grey Line Company. They are well-organised, they picked me up on time and made sure we were comfortable and warm while we waited. It was a bit overcrowded, yes, and, as many things in Iceland, it was on the pricey side (it cost me around $48.00 USD for a 5-hour experience). But I think it was much better to the hassle of renting a car and finding a suitable spot myself in the middle of the night.
Would I do it again? 100% yes. Let’s see if I have the chance again.
In the meantime… I guess I’ll see you on the road.