Iceland: The Northern Lights

I’ve always loved the serenity of the sky. As a kid, I had pajamas with the cliché fluffy cloud print on a background of shade of blue that was somehow neon and pastel all at the same time. I even had matching slippers. And, even though it was very much a no no to hang anything on the walls of my bedroom in my grandparents house, at one point I snuck in some cloud poster board with a very similar print.

I was completely obsessed and ready to pack my bags for space camp…until I went on my first plane ride and asked my mom why it was always bumpy when the clouds were around. Finding out that clouds cause turbulence was like learning we were never going to hear Britney Spears-Justin Timberlake wedding bells. Anyway…

One of the reasons I was excited to go to Iceland was the possibility to see the Northern Lights. While I was fully aware there’s no guarantee when it comes to a natural phenomenon, I was hoping that going during a time of decreased day light would only up my chances. So this became my top priority in planning my trip.

Planning the tour

In my preliminary research, I learned a lot of tour companies will themselves give a guarantee. Meaning, if you don’t see Northern Lights on your tour, they’ll let you go again the next night. (Obviously do your research before you book and don’t just rely on this statement.) I wanted to book my tour as early in my trip as possible so I would give myself plenty of opportunities to see them if the first night didn’t pan out.

I booked my tour with East West. It was recommended to me by a woman that worked at my hotel. She liked it because the tour is on a mini bus (max 15 people) and they provide hot chocolate and pastries for the guests. I was sold.

what to wear

The forecast was saying temperatures would be in the 30s that night. And while I’ve certainly been in colder temps than that, I wasn’t sure how long we’d be outside for and knowing we’d be going to more remote locations I was also factoring in wind.

I wore my warmest winter coat which is from LL Bean and similar to this one. As someone that grew up in Boston, let me give you some advice on buying a winter coat. I ONLY buy winter coats that provide a temperature rating. And yes, that’s a thing. My winter coat from LL Bean says it will keep me warm in temperatures up to -40 degrees. MINUS. Land’s End is the only other company that I know that does the same thing. I’m sure there are more. But please don’t just buy any old coat and think it will keep you warm.

Under my winter coat, I wore a cozy cable-knit sweater over a long sleeve shirt. I had purchased fleeced-line leggings from Athleta just for this occasion. My friend let me borrow her collection of wool hiking socks so I selected the longest pair to cover as much of my legs as possible. Over the socks I had full on waterproof snow boots that I purchased when I moved back to Massachusetts over 5 years ago (similar to these). I also packed a wool scarf, a hat to cover my ears, winter gloves, and my fingerless gloves (for taking pictures).

My jacket kept me very warm and the fleece leggings were amazing. At one point I sat down next to my camera on it’s tripod, as I was tired of crouching down. The tour guide came over and said “Isn’t the ground wet?” I said “I don’t think so.”. And he knelt down and touched the ground and said “It’s wet!”. The leggings kept me completely dry and even when I stood up they were dry. So I would 100% recommend them.

I also had an extra battery pack for my phone and my camera after reading warnings that extreme cold temperatures can cause batteries to lose power. I’m glad I had both with me, but I didn’t end up needing either.

Of course, I also had my phone, camera, a tripod for the camera (though definitely wish I had one for my phone too), a water bottle, a granola bar, and my inhaler all carried in my backpack.

The tour begins

This was my first experience with East West and I was impressed. The bus was indeed a mini-bus that picked me up right at my hotel. It was very clean and there were wool blankets on each seat to keep us warm as needed. Each seat had a plug to charge electronics and there was even wi-fi.

Apparently, the tour guide saw my name and was very excited to practice his German. So after he met me at the hotel and very quickly heard my American accent, he then ushered me on to the pretty full bus and introduced me announcing “This is Heidi. She is not from Germany.” And even though there’s always one smarty pants that likes to point out that Heidi is typically a Swiss name and not a German name, we all had a good laugh.

The one thing I will say for this tour company is that we were well on our way when the tour guide received a phone call. Apparently, two people were waiting at their hotel claiming that the bus never arrived to pick them up. Even though there were people on the bus from the same hotel, so clearly it did show up, we then had to go back to get them as all the other buses were completely full. Everyone on the bus was fuming. I was a little irritated but I figured I’d let the others make the fuss. Obviously the tour guide had his orders from his boss. But it all worked out because there was one woman who was not going to let this short change our experience. “I paid for a four hour tour and I’m going to get a four hour tour.”

So after we went all the way back to Reykjavik we were then on our way again.

the northern lights

So long story short…did I see the northern lights?! YES! It wasn’t long before the tour guide pulled the bus off the road into an open valley. We all piled out and sure enough we saw them! It was only later that I would learn this is the first time they’d been seen since about two weeks prior. Also, the night after I went there were no Northern lights and the forecast did not look good the following night either. So I am really glad that I was lucky to see them.

But…

The Northern Lights are not as vivid and intense in person as the pictures you’ve most likely seen. The camera can capture so much more light than the human eye. Plus a LOT of those photos are processed/edited to enhance the colors even more.

Once I got my camera working and was able to take pictures, I actually lost the ability to see the Northern Lights at all with my eyes. At the beginning I was very much able to physically see the light green dancing clouds, but soon I only saw grey clouds indistinguishable from actual clouds. I was basically just taking pictures every 60 seconds or so based on seeing movement but not the colors themselves. It was a weird phenomenon I was not expecting as my eyes adjusted to the vivid colors the camera was seeing and then could not make out the colors on their own.

Now don’t get me wrong. This is my one experience with Northern Lights. I spoke to a guy who had been to Iceland 6 times and said one time he was visiting and walked out his front door in Reykjavik and the Northern Lights were unmistakably right there in the sky. Clearly they would have to be very intense to be seen over all the city lights.

But I think all of us on the tour were expecting to see those neon green and purple Northern Lights and that is not what we experienced nor do I think is that the norm. I don’t know if my experience is the norm either but I think it’s really important to have realistic expectations.

The tour guide was great. We went to another spot that overlooked a body of water and were treated to even more Northern Lights. Those eventually faded and the tour guide brought us to a 3rd spot by the ocean with two lighthouses. While there weren’t any Northern Lights there, the lighthouses were beautiful under an almost completely full moon.

Oh! And there was hot chocolate and Icelandic donuts but I was too focused on getting my pictures that I did politely take what was offered but then just shoved it in my mouth so I could get back to work. It is amazing when I am really able to focus!

photography tips

First - Get out there and practice! I hadn’t done much night photography but I was pretty confident in managing my camera. I had memorized the recommended settings and even preset my camera so I thought I was ready. But the recommended settings were not the right ones, at least for my camera and I spent too much time trying to get to the right settings. And trying to adjust your camera in the dark is a whole other challenge. I couldn’t see the buttons!

Second - Invest in a good quality tripod. I purchased a cheap one off of Amazon as I knew I was going to need one but did not realize how much the quality mattered. It is so windy out there that even though the camera was on a tripod there are still visible shakes in my photos. There are other photography tricks to help with this but I still wish I spent more money on the tripod itself.

Also, practice with the tripod! Again, I had read the manual and watched a video and practiced attaching my camera to the tripod a few times in my hotel room. I should have practiced with the lights out. Trying to recreate the setup in the dark with the pressure of trying to get the perfect shot is a whole different experience.

(I also wish I had brought a tripod for my phone. There are apps you can get to help take Northern Lights photos but a tripod would have really helped.)

Third - Even though you may have your camera on manual mode there are still other options that may keep your camera on automatic. The tour guide (thank god for him) helped me realize that even though I was on the manual setting, the focus was still set to auto focus. So once I took that off things got a lot better (you’ll definitely want to remember to turn it back on!).

Fourth - Be kind to yourself. Don’t judge yourself based on every photo. Instead, learn from it and take another photo. We’re talking about taking a picture of a natural phenomenon. You only have so much control. I learned a lot of the photos you see are “stacked” meaning they take one photo of the northern lights, layer that on to a photo of a perfect starry night sky, and layer on a skyline on the horizon. So don’t compare your shots in the field to the ones you see on instagram.

is it worth it?

Definitely a yes for the mini-bus. We were able to go places the bigger busses could not and with a smaller group it felt like it was a more intimate tour and not just the same route the same bus driver does every night regardless of the forecast.

The Northern Lights themselves were a tad disappointing but I did a get a thrill out of the adventure of trying to find them and then trying to capture them with my camera. My story may be different if I hadn’t seen them the first night and went out a different night but for now, I would 100% go back out again.

my photos

Below are some of my photos. You should be able to scroll through using the left or right arrows or clicking the thumbnails below. If the descriptions are blocking the image you should be able to click on the image and just the image will appear.

If you’re reading this on a mobile device, I don’t think the descriptions will appear so you should still be able to see the pictures.

If you have any questions please let them in the comments below!

Cover photo by PicJumbo