How to hunt the Northern Lights?
Seeing the Northern Lights was my once-in-a-lifetime experience and here are the tools I found helpful in maximizing our chance to see it when we spent the Thanksgiving week in Iceland. Three factors contribute to the chance of seeing the Aurora:
- Cloud coverage – clouds are photographers’ favorite to make photos more dramatic but it’s Northern Lights’ biggest enemy! You can check the cloud coverage forecast from: http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/. It’s only a forecast though! We even asked our Ice Cave tour guide on rather Iceland has a live radar, unfortunately, NO! He recommended this website where it uploads a satellite photo of the entire Europe every 15 minutes so you can see the pattern of how clouds are moving at least: https://www.yr.no/.
- Solar activity – same website as Iceland’s cloud coverage website for predictions on solar activity for the next 3 days: http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/. I joked to my friend that if I have the money and time flexibility, if I see clear sky and high solar activity, I would buy the ticket and fly to Iceland right away LOL! The scale on the website is chance of seeing the Northern Lights, not the intensity. We saw spectacular light displays when the forecast was only a “3”. Another useful website is the animated model so you can see the rotating Northern Lights belt to determine the time interval on when the activity is the strongest over in Iceland. During winter, the night is extremely long (sunset at 4:30 pm and sunrise at 10:00 am at end of November), the Northern Lights usually don’t appear throughout the whole night so pick the right time to go out to hunt! Look at the model to see what time interval the Aurora is passing over Iceland. We went out to hunt at 9 pm based on the model and saw it 🙂 The link to the model is here: http://www.swpc.noaa.gov/node/114
- Darkness – you need a dark sky to see the Aurora so not only to stay away from light pollution, also the moon phase plays a role. Avoid full moon dates as possible to plan your trip; if the solar activity is low and full moon, chances are you won’t be able to see it! You can check the moon phase here: https://www.timeanddate.com/moon/phases/iceland/reykjavik. Do not get fooled by thinking after sunset will be dark…due to the low position of the sun during winter time, the “blue hour” lasted like 2 hours to be completely dark! You can also use the same website to see when will be complete darkness: https://www.timeanddate.com/astronomy/iceland/reykjavik.
- Where to look? As the name “Northern” Lights…..start by looking toward the north. When the solar activity is low, your naked eyes might not be able to see it at first. Point your camera toward the north and expose for 10-20 seconds, see if there’s anything.
- Dress warmly, we found the heating pouches worked perfectly especially our hands were exposed out to press the camera button.
- Plan your stay at places that make a good backdrop for Northern Lights photos. It’ll make more interesting photos as well as a nearer subject to focus on.
- A good steady tripod, Iceland is known for its wind (the rental company wasn’t kidding when they warned to hold on to your doors otherwise would blow off by the winds).
How to photograph the Northern Lights?
First, you definitely need a DSLR camera or a camera where you can set the settings: ISO, aperture, and shutter speed manually. Second, you need a sturdy tripod (remember, Iceland is known for its wind!). With those two, you have the ingredients needed to capture the Northern Lights. An extra plus is having a wide angle lens…as wide as you can get! I was using the Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 full manual lens.
Depending on the activity level (visibility), it determines the amount of light in the sky thus affecting the settings. Aperture always the widest opening to let the greatest amount of light in….f/2.8 in my case. Shutter speed depends on how fast the lights “dance”…..due to the rapid movement of the Northern Lights, having a 30 seconds exposure would blur the lights so mostly I was on 8 – 13 seconds. Then, the ISO to compensate the shutter speed to achieve the right amount of light. I was on 1000-2500 ISO. It was a trial and error activity and the lights’ brightness change constantly so you’ll need to readjust accordingly!
Focusing at night is always challenging so nevermind focusing on the Auroras which are charged gas particles in the Earth’s atmosphere! That is another reason why you need a good backdrop for your camera to focus on. I was using a fully manual lens so can’t utilize the camera’s autofocus either. I use the live view to zoom in the backdrop (for example the church or the iceberg) and manually turn the focus ring to get as sharp as I can manually. Another tips is to have a flashlight so you can light up the backdrop to focus 🙂
Good luck hunting and capturing and do not get upset if you don’t see it on your first trip as all those three factors need to be aligned to see it! Out of our 7 nights in Iceland, we saw the Northern Lights in 3 nights; 1 was completely clear sky while the 2 had some clouds. Don’t give up, we went back the 2nd time in order to see it!