How I did not want to go to see the Northern Lights in Iceland, but I did anyways and loved it!

Northern Lights Iceland

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.

what to do in Galway
How can you not love this place?

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.

Northern Lights Iceland
No, I won’t let it go.

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.

Northern Lights Iceland
Grumpiness aside, the place was kind of cute.

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.

Lion king gif simba
Too soon?

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.

Northern Lights Iceland
Seeing the Northern Lights: Another thing to cross out of my bucket list.

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.

Northern lights in Iceland
Magical, huh?

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 Interlude

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.

Northern Lights Iceland
Best overpriced hot chocolate ever!

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.

Northern Lights Iceland
Seriously. how can Icelandic people not believe in magic with a show like that?

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).

Northern Lights Iceland
Breath-freaking-taking, right?

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!

canon 1300 shooting Northern Lights
It’s like my new Technology crush <3

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.

Northern Lights in Iceland
I also found a roof to use like a tripod.

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.


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26 comments on “How I did not want to go to see the Northern Lights in Iceland, but I did anyways and loved it!

  1. So awesome that you got to see these! I did in Norway last January and it was so magical! I can’t see them with my eyes either (my friend could moreso), but my pics turned out great! Would love to visit Iceland!

    1. Thanks so much! I would love to go to Norway! I’ve heard the Northern Lights there are amazing as well. Yes, it’s hard to see them with naked eyes, the guide told us the lights around us affected our night vision as well, so the lamps from the B&B and people’s flashes also interfere with your ability to see them. Thanks for stopping by!
      Dann Castillo recently posted…How I did not want to go to see the Northern Lights in Iceland, but I did anyways and loved it!My Profile

  2. Haha love the reference to Elsa! I work with kids and could also punch Elsa in the nuts sometimes aha. Beautiful shots though! Northern Lights is a dream of mine!

  3. Love your honesty! haha I could imagine my experience going EXACTLY the same way! I’m basically miserable in the cold but of course the northern lights are on my bucket list so I’m going to have to suck it up someday! Thanks for sharing. Pinned for the DSLR intel!

  4. I LOVED this post. First, I totally relate. I am the sort of traveler that gets lost in places and have to tear myself away. I’ve stayed in some small towns for up to 2 months because I form a little life there. It’s so hard to leave. And a piece of my heart always stays behind in places like this. But amazingly, there’s always something else incredible around the corner…
    Next, I appreciate what you said about the Northern lights not being like it is in photos. I saw them once, in Alaska – and it was NOTHING like the photos. But I also thought maybe it was a weak night? I like when people talk about the reality vs. the fantasy of travel.
    And last, I love that you gave camera tips. Photographing the Northern lights must be an art. I just upgraded to a more professional camera… you know the photographers curse, every few years you need something better. And one of the reasons is because I want to be able to take better night shots. So I love this! I am still learning my new camera. Thanks for the tips.
    Really great post!

    1. Thanks so much for reading, Rach! You are completely right, one of the hardest things I encounter whn I travel is saying goodbye to places I bonded with. But it is true that there’s always something amazing around the corner. I’m also glad you enjoyed the tips. The first time I photograph them I was in Northern Ireland and it took me a while to figure it out. The challenging part is the focus, but that’s mainly trial and error. If you have any questions, I’d be happy to help. I’m sure you’ll take amazing shots with your new camera and can’t wait to see them in your blog!
      Dann Castillo recently posted…How I did not want to go to see the Northern Lights in Iceland, but I did anyways and loved it!My Profile

  5. I love your sarcasm. The photos are awesome but freezing not so awesome. We froze in Finland last year doing snow angels on a lake trying to spot the NL. No avail, they were not to be seen and my seven year old neice was much more interested in Santa than those dancing lights anyway

  6. I really appreciate your honesty, Dann. It must have taken so much patience and frozen fingers to get those awesome shots. However, I think you are right to say that the lights must be much more impressive in real life because of the subtleties that can’t be picked up by a camera.

    1. Thanks, Suzanne! It was very cold indeed, but now that I can look back and contemplate the experience, I think it was totally worth it. I think seeing them in real life and capturing the shots are two very different experiences. The subtleties and the movements in real life are something that can’t be seen with a camera, but the colours are brighter with the lense, so it’s good to have both =)
      Dann Castillo recently posted…Best libraries and bookshops I visited in 2017My Profile

  7. I love your style of writing and how you really made me feel like I was right there with you as I was reading your post. I’ve been to Iceland twice now – both times in the winter – and haven’t seen the northern lights. The first time I went, it was too cloudy to see on the night when we decided to take a northern lights tour, and the second time I went I think I was kind of just over it, like you were in the beginning of your trip. But it’s nice to hear that it ended up being worth it, so next time I go back to Iceland or that region in the winter months, I’ll have to make more of an effort to see the lights!

    1. Thanks so much, Diana! I definitely understand the feeling of being over it. If you get the chance, I would suggest to give it another go, I do think that Iceland has a lot to offer besides the Northern Lights, but if you have been there twice already and explored the country, maybe it would be a nice extra thing to do. I was there for only a short season, so I would like to explore more of the country if I get to go a second time.
      Dann Castillo recently posted…Best libraries and bookshops I visited in 2017My Profile

    1. Thanks, Sara! I am glad that someone else finds my writing sarcastic (besides me, that is). It is a very romantic experience indeed and so does the blue lagoon. I think that contributed to my bad mood, because I was far away from my boyfriend. I am glad you liked the tips and I hope you get the chance to see the lights sometime soon =)
      Dann Castillo recently posted…Best libraries and bookshops I visited in 2017My Profile

  8. Hahaha… love your little story! It is well written and very funny. Visiting Iceland and seeing the Northern Lights has been on my bucket list for quite a while now. I hope to get to do it this year, so… fingers crossed! Hope you enjoy the rest of your journey! Safe travels!

  9. I love your writing style 😀 – It made me laugh because I know exactly how what you mean about leaving a place when you’re not ready to and when you arrive in the new one (especially if it’s that cold) you just don’t want to do anything (I call it a country come-down, much worse than a hangover :P) but I’ve been there. However in saying that I would love to travel to Iceland, I know being English I will probably moan everyday about how cold it is but I would love to see it and especially the northern lights. I will definitely have to get better at using a camera (newbie blogger here, only a few months in) I just returned from the Sahara desert and used an actual camera for the first time and well the pictures I took on my phone came out much better but great advice on finding something sturdy ‘or a fence’ and great tip of taking my own coffee flask 😀
    amit recently posted…Budget traveling againMy Profile

    1. Country come-down is the best term ever! It’s great when other travellers understand the feeling. I’ve met some long-term travellers who can just hop from one place to another without hesitating, but for me it has always been a struggle. Howeverm Iceland was a truly incredible experience, so if you get the chance, I’d say go for it! I am Mexican, so I don’t get along with the cold either haha, but if you pack accordingly (I was not ready at all) I think it would be easier to cope with the weather. I am sure you will get the chance to practice with your brand new camera and capture some awesome shots! Thanks for reading!
      Dann Castillo recently posted…Best libraries and bookshops I visited in 2017My Profile

  10. Wow, I really like how this trip turned into such a success and your pictures are amazing, even without the tripod. Being hesitant to leave a beautiful place in order to visit another one is also sometimes a challenge for me but usually it always turns out to be amazing. Seeing the Northern lights has always been a dream of mine and your article definitely confirms it to me that the trip is absolutely worth it. Thank you for hsaring your experience, love your pictures!

  11. This was an absolutely real post. I am glad you talked about how we feel about things and not every time we are not pepped up as travelers. I am glad you talked about the the cold, the outrageous cost of the coffee and the way to capture Northern Lights. I am sure you enjoyed it more after all that was going inside you. I have a 1300D too. This is definitely something I want to do as I had missed it when I was in Oslo a few years ago.

    1. Thanks so much for understanding, Manjulika! Yes, in the end, it was a great and cathartic experience. So bad you missed them in Oslo, but that means you have some reasosn to visit other nordic countries. Yay, we have the same camera! I am just starting to get used to mine, but it has turned out to work great for my trips. How about you?
      Dann Castillo recently posted…Best libraries and bookshops I visited in 2017My Profile

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