What do the Northern Lights Look Like – Expectations Vs Reality | yesihaveablog

What do the Northern Lights Really Look Like?

The northern lights can appear as vibrant colours streaking across the sky or a delicate, wispy haze on the horizon that is difficult to pick out with the naked eye. Sometimes they may not be visible at all to the naked eye and may require a high spec camera to be seen.

If you’ve been wondering what the northern lights look like in reality, the truth is, there are many factors that will impact their visibility and so the experience you get could be different to what you expect.

My experience of seeing them outside of Reykjavik, Iceland in early January was that they looked like a hazy cloud with a green tinge. What distinguished them from an actual cloud was their mysterious movement, something which a photograph couldn’t capture.

Look out for the delicate swirls, flutters and changes in pattern that are happening before your eyes – they’re truly otherworldly.

My advice for planning a trip to see the northern lights would be to plan your trip for the destination, not the lights as you may not get to experience them at all. I chose a trip to Iceland with friends in the hope of seeing the lights, but we saw so many other incredible things there too.

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


What colour are the northern lights and can you see them?

The northern lights often appear as green or yellow in colour, but other colours like violet, blue, pink, orange and even white can also be seen. The different colours are created by the particles that cause the northern lights reacting in the atmosphere with atoms and molecules. Most typically, reactions with oxygen molecules result in the yellow and green colours that are most often seen.

You are able to see the colours of the northern lights with the naked eye, but just how visible they are will be dependant on the conditions at the time that you go out hunting for them.

The night I saw the northern lights, the sky was crystal clear and there was definite aurora activity, however, there was also an almost full moon which meant that the moonlight caused the lights to appear quite milky.


What happens if you can’t see them with the naked eye?

If you’re planning a trip to see the northern lights, you should also prepare for not being able to see them at all. This could be because there is no aurora activity that night, or it could also be because the conditions are too poor to pick them up with the naked eye.

If you’re able to, I would highly recommend taking a high-spec camera with you in case the lights are not visible by the naked eye that night (be warned that smartphones and cameras without long exposures and low-light settings are unlikely to be able to pick anything up – I took a Fuji x100).

Our northern lights tour guide actually told us that, on nights when there is cloud cover preventing the northern lights from being seen, they use a camera to detect whether there is any activity going on behind the clouds. If they do see activity then they can prepare to come back later if the skies clear.


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


What are the best conditions for seeing the northern lights with the naked eye?

From my experience, the best conditions for seeing the northern lights 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).

Something else you can do whilst planning your trip is to check the Aurora Forecast site to give you an idea of the current activity – although, of course, it won’t be able to predict the activity of a future trip.


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


What’s the best time of year to see the auroras?

The best time to try and see the northern lights in Iceland is between September and around mid-April as this is when the country experiences the longest hours of darkness.

The northern lights actually occur throughout the year, but due to the light in the summer months, it’s usually pretty impossible to see them.

What’s the best place to go and see the northern lights?

Unsurprisingly, the best place to see the northern lights is in the most northern reaches of the northern hemisphere. Places like Norway, Sweden, Canada, Alaska and Greenland offer the best opportunity for aurora spotting.

As I said before, it’s best to pick a destination because of the different things it has to offer, rather than just the potential for seeing the northern lights.

I chose Iceland because I also wanted to see the geysers, glaciers, volcanoes, black sand beaches and waterfalls that the country has to offer – I definitely wasn’t disappointed!

Where to stay in Iceland

As my visit to Iceland was only short, I chose to stay in Reykjavik as I found it well located for the different activities and trips I wanted to go on during my time there. From Reykjavik, it was easy enough to go hunting for the northern lights, go on the Golden Circle tour, visit the Blue Lagoon and even take a day trip to the beautiful south of Iceland.

I stayed in the Skuggi hotel which was the perfect (and very snug) retreat after days adventuring in the bitter winter weather of Iceland. It was also well located for eating out and exploring everything that Laugavegur street has to offer.

Tips for Photographing the Northern Lights

I took a Fuji x100 camera for my trip to Iceland and gave myself a crash course in ‘how to use a camera when it’s not set to auto’.

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 auroras 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.


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















  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!

    • Phoebe
      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!

    • Phoebe
      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

  21. 1st April 2018 / 1:31 pm

    I’ve managed to take some adequate photos (and cool videos) using my gopro! I set the shutter time to 5 seconds for bright/active lights, or 10 seconds for quieter lights, with one image every 15 seconds! The time lapse videos of the lights dancing across the sky are magical!

    • Phoebe
      2nd April 2018 / 9:41 pm

      That’s really great to hear that you managed to capture them with your GoPro, which model were you using?

      I wish I’d been able to capture a video when I saw them but I was very exposed to the wind where I was viewing them from and even with a tripod I think it would have been too shaky to capture anything decent.

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