How to photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland (2023)


This article may contain affiliate links where we receive a small commission for purchases you make via links you click on in this article. Read the for more detailsdisclosure page.

The Northern Lights is something we all chase when we think of Iceland. It's the Nordic dream, so to speak. It blows, it dances and it shines.

The thing is, it glows a lot less than you imagine. All the photos you see out there show the Northern Lights as this wildly glowing green glowing mystically in the sky. I'm here to tell you personally (and I hope I'm not breaking anyone's dreams here) that to the naked eye, the Northern Lights look more like patches or scattered clouds of light. It may even look like a cloud, but through a camera lens you can see the truth behind these fast-dancing clouds.

So how do you photograph the Northern Lights? It's a question I had to research before going to ours8 days trip to Iceland. It sounds complicated, but the truth is, as long as you have the right gear and setup, all you have to do is literally take the shot.

Read more about Iceland

  • Guide to renting a car in Iceland(discount codes inside!)
  • 8 days Iceland itinerary
  • Top 5 hotels in Rekyjavik on a budget
  • The 12 best things to do in Iceland
  • Reasons to go to Iceland

Our favorite stay in Iceland?

  • Of all the places we've stayed, we really appreciated the ability to check in earlyHilton Island Nordica. They were under absolutely no obligation to allow us to check in early in the morning after our early flight to Iceland but they did and boy was it nice to shower and freshen up before the start of Day 1.

Here's what we cover:

(Video) HOW TO Photograph the Northern Lights / Auroras 2022

  • When to catch the Northern Lights
  • equipment you need
  • Step by step to photograph the Northern Lights
    • 1. Look at the sky
    • 2. Composing
    • 3. Camera settings
    • 4. Focus
    • 5. Shoot and test
    • 6. Post-processing
  • Bonus: record a time-lapse video

When to catch the Northern Lights

But first things first: It is not everyday that you can see the Northern Lights in Iceland. In order for the show to start at all, certain conditions must be met:

  1. It doesn't have to be clouds– This makes sense because when there are clouds, they obscure activity in the sky
  2. It must be dark– This excludes the summer when you get midnight sun. Because of this, the winter season is the best time to see the lights, as it is dark most of the day
  3. You need to get away from light pollution– Get out of the city and into the wilderness. The darker it is, the more clearly you can see the Northern Lights.
How to photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland (1)

equipment you need

Next, you need the right gear to capture the moment. The central theme here is that you need to stabilize your shot. Here are some high-level recommendations:

  • Tripod- It is a must-have. Whether it's something simple like aGorilla Podor a good carbon fiber tripod like mineandrui, this keeps your camera steady as it captures that long exposure
  • Advanced camera– For serious photos of the Northern Lights, you need a top-of-the-line camera (I'm not sure what else to call it). Whether DSLR or aMirrorless camera, look for one that has a full M mode (manual).
  • Go far– The sky is huge and you want the widest lens possible. In DSLR parlance, it means something like thatCanon 16-35mm. Speaking in micro four-thirds, that's theOlympus 7-14mm. In my case, I got my hands on one8mm fisheyeLens that worked beautifully.
  • Warm clothing- It's getting cold out there, so pack up! This includes gloves as your fingers will freeze first
  • batteries– With the cold, it means your batteries will die very quickly. Make sure you have a few extra batteries ready and better yet keep those batteries in a warm place or use oneheat packto keep them warm.
  • headlight– If you look at these photos of the Bubble Hotel, you will see that it is quite well lit. I was able to do this by pointing my headlamp upwards. Also helpful if you get lost in the dark ;)
How to photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland (2)

Most popular car rental in Iceland

We used Blue Car Rental when we made ours8 days Iceland itineraryand would definitely rent from them again. They are one of the best known brands on the island and have competitive prices.

Check out Blue Car Rental

Step by step to photograph the Northern Lights

1. Look at the sky

The first step is to locate the Northern Lights. It may be too early or the conditions are not right, but if you are lucky you will see clouds in the sky resembling bright steamers, arches, shooting rays or rippling curtains. They will look like wispy gray clouds, but unusually brighter and changing.

2. Composing

Once you figure it out, get yourself in a position where you want to photograph the Northern Lights. The key to a good shot is having something interesting in the foreground to balance out the northern lights. It could be a road, trees, mountains, or in my case a cliffBubble-Hotelto give context to where you are rather than just photographing the lights.

This will be more of an experiment than anything and depends on what you have to work with. For me the Bubble Hotel was perfect, but so was the road leading into the farm. Also, since you're on a tripod, if you stay still, you could put yourself in the picture. Have fun with it!

(Video) BEST Settings for Northern Lights lights Photography | Beginners Guide

Once in position, set up your tripod and mount your camera on it. A tripod with a proper ball head helps as it gives you a lot of freedom of movement.

How to photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland (3)

Continue reading:Don't forget theseIcelandic souvenirsbefore you go home

3. Camera settings

This is perhaps the most important part. Here are a few basics you should understand.

Timed coordination:The longer you expose the shot, the more light gets in, which is crucial when there's not much of it at night. This has to be balanced with the fact that the longer you expose a shot, the more likely you are to start picking up artifacts and general graininess. The other thing to think about is the fact that the Northern Lights move pretty fast. So if you set your exposure TOO long you will end up with a large blur instead of capturing it in more of an instantaneous form.

Quietly:Since the photo is exposed for so long, the camera needs to be as still as possible, otherwise it will be blurry. However, you don't have all that much control over things like waving branches when they're in your shot.

ISO:This is the light sensitivity of your camera's sensor. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive but also more noisy and grainy. The lower the ISO, the cleaner the image, but it will take longer to get the right exposure for your photo. It's a bit of a balancing act, because if you lower the ISO, the exposure time becomes too long.

Opening:This is your camera's aperture setting. Simply put, the lower the aperture (i.e. f/2.8), the more light gets in, but the shallower the depth of field. That means at f/2.8 you get that blur effect where your focal point is in focus but quickly blurs in front of and behind your focal point. The higher your aperture (i.e. f/8), the less light gets in, but the greater the depth of field. This means you get a photo that is more evenly focused front and back from your focal point. This will be counter-intuitive on this basis, but for the Northern Lights you want to shoot as flat as possible. This is because with larger apertures (>f/2.8) it becomes difficult to focus at night.

Okay, getting back to my point, what settings should your camera be set to? There's no exact answer to this, but as a starting point I ended up with the following for most of my photos in Iceland:

Optimal settings for Northern Lights

  • Opening:f/1.8 (or as you can go)
  • shutter speed:6 seconds (6″) (recommended to keep this between 5-7 seconds)
  • ISO:1600 (I landed here, but typically you want to be in the 400-1600 range)

4. Focus

This is going to be difficult. Problem is, how do you focus on the sky when it's mostly pitch black outside?

(Video) 5 Rookie Mistakes and How to Avoid Them - Northern Lights Photography Tips

There are two ways to do this.

The autofocus method:

  1. For most people, I would have your camera lens set to auto focus.
  2. Look for something bright in the sky to focus on. The moon is excellent for this, as are very bright stars.
  3. Point your camera at this subject and let your autofocus work.
  4. When you're done finding the right focus, put the lens in manual focus and don't touch it.

The manual focus method:

  1. Switch your camera lens to manual focus.
  2. Look for something bright in the sky.
  3. Use the manual focus cylinder and look through your viewfinder, adjusting your focus until the bright subject is in focus.
  4. Don't touch the focus at all during your shoot.

The lazy method:

While this may not be the most accurate focus method, this can be an easy alternative to the above. Your lens should have an indicator of what distance it is focusing at. Set this to infinity and don't change anything while you're shooting.

How to photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland (4)

5. Shoot and test

The rest is all up to you. Take a few test shots and see the result. Does it look properly exposed? Is it well focused?

From there, make the appropriate adjustments to the settings and snap a few more shots. Keep iterating until you are happy with the results.

6. Post-processing

What really brings the photos to life is the poset processing. You don't want to overdo it, but this is your chance to clean things up, add a little punch, and boost the pop of color.

The best way to show you this is just an example of the settings I'm usingLightroomfor a Northern Lights shot I took in Iceland.

How to photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland (5)

Bonus: record a time-lapse video

Many modern cameras these days have a built-in time-lapse feature. myOlympus OM-D E-M1has this mode and essentially takes a photo every X seconds. The camera, or post-processing, stitches all these photos together into a video.

(Video) Northern lights: what they don't tell, but you need to know!

Time Lapse is exactly what you need because it takes so long for the lights in the sky to evolve and transform. In an hour,

This is an example of what I shot right when I went to bed. Yes, I literally left my camera on the tripod, set it to 999 photos and went to bed. I fully expected the camera to die long before then.

Time-lapse settings used

  • Frame:999
  • time interval:5 seconds
  • Film settings:15 frames per second

Are you traveling to Iceland soon? See the 8 day itinerary for the full details of this trip and everything I learned.

8 days Iceland itinerary

What to read next

  • Ultimate 8 Day Iceland Itinerary - A road trip guide to Iceland
  • The Peru Packing List - What to Pack for the Inca Trail and the Amazon Jungle
  • 9 Northern Ontario Getaways in the Summer
  • Island Bubble Hotel Review – Unique Stays
How to photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland (6)


1. How to PHOTOGRAPH the NORTHERN LIGHTS in Iceland ✨💫🌟
(Adrian Alford Photography)
2. How & Where to See the Northern Lights in Iceland – Best Time to Visit, Capture Great Photos & More
(All Things Iceland)
3. How To Find The Northern Lights In Iceland | Northern Lights Camera Settings
(Grounded Life Travel)
(Nigel Danson)
5. Photograph the Northern Lights using Iphone and Sony RX100 + Where in Iceland
(Redge Rosario)
6. Photographing the Northern Lights from Iceland (2021):
(Josh Dury Photo-Media)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Delena Feil

Last Updated: 01/16/2023

Views: 5646

Rating: 4.4 / 5 (65 voted)

Reviews: 88% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Delena Feil

Birthday: 1998-08-29

Address: 747 Lubowitz Run, Sidmouth, HI 90646-5543

Phone: +99513241752844

Job: Design Supervisor

Hobby: Digital arts, Lacemaking, Air sports, Running, Scouting, Shooting, Puzzles

Introduction: My name is Delena Feil, I am a clean, splendid, calm, fancy, jolly, bright, faithful person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.