How to See the Northern Lights | Expectations Vs Reality

Ever wondered what seeing the Northern Lights in reality is like? Seeing the aurora borealis has become one of the top, bucket list-worthy adventures for all travel lovers, wander folk and intrepid-at-heart alike. This most spectacular wonder of the natural world can be seen across the most northern reaches of our planet and is fast becoming a more and more accessible experience for the ‘everyday adventurer’.

how to see northern lights aurora borealis iceland reykjavik

Where to See the Northern Lights

Iceland, in particular, is a great destination for spotting the Northern Lights (the geysirs, glaciers, volcanoes and waterfalls aren’t so bad either!); it’s easy to reach from Europe (roughly a 4 hour flight from the UK) and, thanks to the creation of their low-cost airline, WOW Air, Iceland has become a more budget-friendly option for the USA and Canada too. This rise in popularity has led to a visitor boom over the past couple of years with Iceland becoming one of the hottest destinations (albeit in popularity rather than temperature) to try to catch a glimpse of the Aurora Borealis.

Back in January of this year, I took a trip to Iceland with friends and we managed to hit the travel jackpot and witnessed the beauty of the Northern Lights on our first night of hunting for them outside of Reykjavik. Whilst, for me, the experience was unforgettable and certainly surpassed my expectations of what I would see; I got the distinct impression it didn’t live up to the expectations of everyone that we shared our trip with.

Expectations vs Reality

The Northern Lights reality is that there are many factors that will impact their visibility and, unless you have plenty of time on your trip to go out each night and wait for the optimum conditions, it’s the luck of the draw as to what you’ll experience; if you’re expecting something akin to a laser display across the night’s sky then you could be left feeling sorely disappointed.

The other thing to be realistic with is the technology that you have with you; Gopros and smartphones are brilliant for varying types of travel photography, however, if your ‘night out’ selfie is as grainy as your memory of it the next day, that’s a clear indicator that you’re never going to get a decent shot of anything in low light conditions (sadly not everything can be photographed on a camera phone).

The Northern lights can be more tricky to see, and snap, than all of those amazing travel photos would have you believe but if you do your research and know what to expect (even in less than ideal conditions), hopefully, your trip to spot them can still be as magical as mine.

Yesihaveablog | Northern Lights & The Auroras | Northern Lights Reality | Honest Travel | Winterlust

The Best Conditions For Northern Lights Visibility

As I’ve already mentioned, like with any natural phenomena, there are many factors that will affect whether you will be able to see the Auroras or not and this is important to be aware of whilst planning your trip – nature does what nature wants and you may end up not being able to see them at all.

However if the Gods, the universe or anything else almighty is ever in your favour then the best conditions for ultimate visibility will include:

  • Periods of high solar activity.
  • A clear, cloudless night sky.
  • No light pollution.
  • A ‘new moon’ (i.e. as little moonlight as possible).

How to See the Northern Lights in Difficult Conditions.

I think it’s really important at this point to note that, even if the conditions you are setting out in do tick all of the boxes for optimum visibility, seeing the Northern Lights with the naked eye can still be tricky, or different, compared to seeing them through a highly sensitive camera lens (as cameras can pick up more light from the Auroras than our eyes can).

Even if you’re not a pro photographer (amateur would probably be a generous title for my own photography skills), if you have access to a decent camera, I would consider taking it with you whilst trying to spot the Northern Lights because this may help you to see them during periods of low visibility and cloud cover – our guide in Iceland told us that, when it’s very overcast, they use a camera to check for activity behind the clouds to give them an idea of whether it’s worth hanging around/ bringing a group back if there’s a chance of the sky clearing later on.

Yesihaveablog | Northern Lights Iceland | Northern Lights Reality | Honest Travel | Winterlust

During my own trip to see the Northern Lights, there was an (almost) full moon in a virtually cloudless sky; this is why the sky in my photos is not as dark/ black as others you may have seen and why the Auroras themselves may appear milky/ less vibrant in colour.

The bright moonlight also meant that the Lights were quite faint to the naked eye and could almost be mistaken for clouds if you weren’t focusing on them. However, if you take a moment, pause, and observe the sky you will see a faint wash of green that sets them apart from the clouds.

The other beauty of the Northern Lights, something which a photograph can’t capture, is how they move; look out for the delicate swirls, flutters and changes in pattern that are happening before your eyes – blink and you’ll miss them.

Tips for Photographing the Northern Lights

I borrowed my dad’s Fuji x100 camera for my trip to Iceland; he gave me a crash course in ‘how to use a camera when it’s not set to auto’ and sent me off with an iPhone note of instructions to remind how to use everything once I’d reached my destination.

A real top-tip for photographing the Northern Lights, if you’re a complete photography novice, is to familiarise yourself with the camera before your trip. This may sound a little obvious but the likelihood is that you’ll be seeing the Northern Lights somewhere that is very cold and trust me, trying to capture a decent picture in near Arctic conditions is no walk in the park.

Along with a DSLR camera, I highly recommend:

  • A tripod – this is essential to prevent blurring when using the long exposure and low light settings on your camera.
  • A cable release – this is a bit like a hands-free cable, allowing you to take your picture without having to touch the camera (further decreasing the opportunity to blur your picture).
  • A wide-angle lens (and a wide aperture).

You’ll also want to be able to set a high ISO on your camera with a minimum of 1600 (my camera wouldn’t go any higher than this but I think newer models can). Experiment with shutter speeds of 20 seconds+ and, if your camera has an ‘infinity’ setting for its focus, I heard lots of advice about using this too. I personally switched between manually adjusting the settings of my camera and using the ‘bulb’ mode which is a specific function for low light conditions.

Yesihaveablog | How to Photograph the Northern Lights | Northern Lights Reality | Honest Travel | Winterlust

With all that being said the only thing left to do is keep your fingers crossed that conditions will be perfect on your own trip and you’ll be fortunate enough to see the Northern Lights – good luck!

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Yesihaveablog | How to See the Northern Lights | Northern Lights Reality | Honest Travel | Winterlust

If you would like to read more about my wintertime adventures then visit my Winterlust category for all things seasonal.

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23 Comments

  1. 1st April 2017 / 2:08 pm

    This is really helpful information! I feel like so many times people talk about how you will definitely see them – it is not always a guarantee. Your photos are beautiful even with the full moon!

  2. 1st April 2017 / 2:59 pm

    Besides being a traveller I am also an amateur astronomer. Great post and the solar activity is very important. Unfortunately the sun cycle has a quiet period right now. Still, being so far up north as in Iceland there should be plenty of opportunities to see it. One site where you can check your chances is: http://www.aurora-service.eu/aurora-forecast/

  3. 1st April 2017 / 6:30 pm

    Amazing photos!! i really love to visit Iceland!!!!! The Northern lights dream!

  4. 1st April 2017 / 11:36 pm

    The Northern Lights definitely look much more vibrant and green in photos than in real life, so some people who don’t know that may be disappointed. People may also be surprised that the lights can dance for hours…or only stick around for a few minutes. Every Northern Lights experience is unique! 🙂

  5. 2nd April 2017 / 1:59 am

    This is incredibly helpful information! I am pinning for my reference! Hoping to plan a trip sooner than later 🙂

  6. 2nd April 2017 / 2:09 am

    Great tips there for beginners! I was lucky to see the Northern Lights in Iceland myself but it wasn’t until the end of my trip. Bad / unstable weather like in December is probably not a great month to go Iceland, this I can say for sure! Loved the background of your photos, must have seen them out in the ‘wild’ 🙂

  7. 2nd April 2017 / 3:03 pm

    I had no idea the Northern Lights were so tough to photograph! Definitely keeping these tips in mind for when I eventually do get to see them – thanks for sharing! 🙂

  8. 2nd April 2017 / 6:01 pm

    It’s definitely something I’d like to see as well. I visited Iceland in May the other year so the Northern Lights weren’t really an option but I’ll certainly be returning to go on an aurora hunt at some point!

  9. 2nd April 2017 / 10:18 pm

    This is a really great guide for photographing the northern lights – thanks for sharing! I was also recently in Iceland and was lucky enough to see the lights most nights of our trip. We were sleeping in our car and literally watching the lights dance across the sky from the back & side windows – it was so cool!

  10. Vrithi Pushkar
    4th April 2017 / 4:19 am

    Such an informative post. Iceland is high on my bucketlist. I am saving this post for when i go.

  11. 11th October 2017 / 6:30 pm

    This is such an awesome post – thank you so much for taking the time to share your tips and tricks! I’ve been dying to see the Northern Lights for a while now, it’s definitely on my bucket list but it sounds like I need to do some preparation. I had no idea that conditions had to be so ideal. Definitely saving this for a future trip!

    • 11th October 2017 / 11:21 pm

      I heard a lot of people around me feeling very disappointed with the visibility that we got on the night which I just thought was a shame because to me it was still spectacular, beautiful and like nothing I’d ever seen before.

      I went in thinking I probably wasn’t going to be lucky enough to see them at all whereas I think everyone else was expecting the ‘dancing auroras’ which are what do the rounds on social media a lot; it’s all about the expectations haha.

  12. 11th October 2017 / 9:41 pm

    I’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights, they look magical! This is some really useful information, great post!!

  13. 11th October 2017 / 10:29 pm

    I would love to see the northern lights some day but being a total sissy while it comes to handling the cold, not sure if this dream will be fulfilled ever. These tips are super helpful, specially the tripod use!

    • 11th October 2017 / 11:16 pm

      The cold is definitely extreme; the coldest I’ve ever experienced but if you’ve got a nice warm coach or hire car waiting nearby it makes it a lot more bearable 😀

  14. 11th October 2017 / 11:54 pm

    Really interesting post! I honestly had never thought about my expectations for the Northern Lights, but its true I expected them to be like a vibrant laser show across the sky. Thanks for writing this. They must have been incredible to experience in person, whatever conditions you had.

  15. 12th October 2017 / 7:47 am

    This is definitely on my bucket list, though I’m hoping to see the Northern Lights somewhere closer to home. I do hope to make it to Iceland one day, too. Good idea to not have unreasonable expectations, especially with my (lack of) night time photo skills 🙂

  16. 12th October 2017 / 4:26 pm

    I’ve been dreaming about Iceland and seeing the northern lights for some time and I am thankful about any information I can find about it. I hope I will visit Iceland soon. Thanks for sharing this.

  17. 12th October 2017 / 6:43 pm

    Thank you for being honest about this. I have always thought it is a guarantee that one gets to see the Northern light! Nice pics.

  18. 12th October 2017 / 9:02 pm

    I’m heading to Iceland the second week of February so this is super helpful!

  19. 13th October 2017 / 10:14 am

    although I think that they are a beautiful natural phenomena, you won’t see me chasing these lights anytime soon. Life for me isn’t about the chase. Hope those chasing them get something REAL out of the moment.

  20. monica
    14th October 2017 / 5:48 pm

    Your post came at the right time. I have been wanting to see Northern lights and read a lot of posts on it. Your post is quite descriptive and I will be using tips for my upcoming Iceland visit

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