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The Star of the Show - The Northern Lights

What can you say about the northern lights? Well, for starters, they’re the most wonderful thing in the world. They vary in scope, vibrancy, and color but with the northern lights in the picture, there’s never a dull moment.

They are one of Iceland’s most spectacular natural phenomena and a very popular attraction. Even jaded locals will stop what they’re doing and gaze up at them dancing in the dark when they appear in the winter sky. So, what are the northern lights, when can you see them and what do you need to do to experience this light show? Read on for our guide to the northern lights and check out flights to IcelandLink opens in a new tab once you’re done.  

What are the northern lights?

The northern lights, also known as auroras, aurora borealis and polar lights are electrically charged particles from the sun interacting with Earth’s magnetosphere. They are only visible around the Arctic and Antarctic as these charged particles hit the geomagnetic poles in the north and south. They are silent, harmless but oh so beautiful. Most people don’t realize how vivid and vibrant they can be but while they sometimes slide slowly across the sky, they can also look like an intense laser show in purple, green, blue and pink. The classic awe-inspiring display is of vibrant neon lights that span the entire night sky, swaying and swirling, like long curtains by an open window. They are impossible to describe but we did our best!

The Northern Lights in Iceland

When is the best time to see the northern lights in Iceland?

Northern lights are technically not a seasonal phenomenon, they are there all year round. However, due to the midnight sun in the northern hemisphere in summer, they are only visible to the human eye once it gets darker, roughly between September and April. Aurora forecastsLink opens in a new tab predict their strength a few days ahead of time but keep in mind that you need the sun to set and clear skies to enjoy them to their fullest.

What is the best month to see the northern lights in Iceland?

Northern lights can be seen as long as it’s dark enough so while they’re out of the question during our brightest summer months, there’s always a chance to see them from late August until end of April. If you twist our arm to pick one month that might be best suited for a northern lights’ excursion, we’re going to go with December. It’s simply the darkest month in Iceland, with December 21 being the darkest day of the year in Iceland with a whopping 20 hours of darkness or 4 hours, 7 minutes and 54 seconds of daylight to be exact. December also comes with its own charm of lights in the form of Christmas lights and fireworks, both of which are taken very seriously by Icelanders.

What is the best time of day to see the northern lights in Iceland?

That question doesn’t really apply to Iceland or the rest of the northern hemisphere because of extreme daylight fluctuations. The sun sets at half past 3 in the afternoon on December 21 so you’re good to go once it gets fully dark. We highly recommend sun/moon apps, nowhere more useful than in high-latitude regions such as Iceland where night and day sway in the extremes. These apps will show you exactly when the sun sets, what time to expect golden hour/blue hour/nautical twilight and astronomical twilight, all giving you an exact idea of the darkness to expect and when to expect it. Another factor to look out for is the moon. A full moon will obviously reduce the dark of the darkest hour and thus effect your northern lights visibility. The absolute best conditions are a dark, moonless night with clear skies.

Where is the best place to see the northern lights in Iceland?

There are many excellent viewpoints for northern lights excursions in Iceland since Iceland is mostly unbuilt and uninhabited territory with no lights whatsoever. Tour operators in Reykjavik have perfected the art of “hunting” for the northern lights and have a selection of locations where the chances of clear skies in certain weather conditions is good and lights pollution is zero or very, very minimal.

What are the best conditions to see northern lights in Iceland?

Prime conditions for northern lights excursions are dark, clear skies and it wouldn’t hurt if it wasn’t windy. That’s just for your comfort though and has nothing to do with visibility. The darkest months in Iceland are undeniably cold and nobody needs that added windchill when standing perfectly still for long stretches of time on a cold winter night, gazing up at the sky. Just remember that a full moon will reduce your visibility so try to aim for that time of month where the moon is new or waning. That being said, a full moon will never override a full-on aurora display and if the northern lights are bright enough, it might actually make for the most amazing light display. Professional photographers looking for a great photo opportunity of the northern lights will always give the full moon nights a chance since you can only imagine that magic of those two light elements in visible conversation.

Planning to see the northern lights: apps and tools

For your northern lights plans we recommend two tools. A sun/moon app that gives you detailed information about the level of darkness on any given day of the year in whatever region you choose. Keep in mind that the sun doesn’t set on the same minute in the south of Iceland as it does in the north and if you’re making detailed long-term plans the difference can be substantial (1 hour+). An aurora forecast is also a useful tool, albeit for short-term planning. The Icelandic Met Office has a great aurora forecast on their websiteLink opens in a new tab, but apps are also available that can notify you when conditions are great in your area. These forecasts are based on expected activity on one hand and cloud coverage on the other, but necessary for your chance to see this light phenomenon.

How to photograph the northern lights in Iceland?

Seeing the northern lights is one thing. Photographing them is an entirely different venture. Capturing these moving lights and doing them justice is no easy feat, so we asked a professional photographer for some pro tips when photographing the aurora borealis. Icelandic photographer OZZO, whose camera has had many successful encounters with the northern lights, shared the following tips for anyone hunting for that perfect shot of the aurora borealis.

EQUIPMENT

The following settings and tips are written for a digital camera but don’t fret if you’ve only got your phone since most cellphones now offer a variety of settings such as long exposure. Whatever you use, a tripod definitely won’t hurt.

SHUTTER SPEED

The lights are moving, so keeping the shutter speed as fast as possible means the lights won’t get as blurry. An optimal setting would be in the range of 5-10” seconds.

ISO

The camera should be as light sensitive as possible for the aurora borealis so a very high ISO setting is recommended, somewhere between 1600 and 6400.

APERTURE

Trying to capture a moving ray of light in the pitch-black night sky will require large aperture, in the range of F1.4 – F2.8, or as low as possible.

How to see the northern lights in Iceland?

Northern lights tours are widely available from Reykjavik from various tour companies. We highly recommend a guided tour where a knowledgeable guide will take you to the best place given the weather conditions and aurora forecast each time and will be able to answer all of your questions, and believe us, you will have questions. That said, you don’t need a guide or a tour or even a car to see the northern lights. They can be spotted from Reykjavik so keep an eye on the sky and if you see a glimpse of something, try to find a dark spot in the city to get a closer look. Keeping an eye on the aurora forecast is a must when you’re staying in Iceland in winter, so you’ll know if there’s a good chance of a sighting. If you’re in downtown Reykjavik, dark spots can be found near the shoreline on either side of the downtown area, the harbor, Ægissíða, Skerjafjörður and if you’re in the mood for a longer walk, Grótta on the far end of the Seltjarnarnes-peninsula is a great spot.

 

What do I need to do to see the northern lights in Iceland?

Just look up. You obviously can’t stand directly underneath a light post in downtown Reykjavik but if you’re in the city you won’t have to go far to find a dark enough spot to enjoy them in the sky. However, to enjoy a full sky of northern lights playing above your head, try joining a guided tour or rent a car and drive away from the city lights. As we’ve covered in this article, the northern lights are a natural phenomenon and never guaranteed but planning ahead and perfecting your timing will greatly enhance your odds. Finally, we encourage you to dress warm, bring hot drinks and be prepared to be humbled in the best possible way when you enjoy nature’s most amazing show.

Start planning this experience of a lifetime today before booking cheap flights to IcelandLink opens in a new tab.

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