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09/14/2023 | 9:00 AM

How to photograph the northern lights in Iceland

The northern lights are one of the world’s most famous natural wonders, and Iceland is the perfect place to go looking for them. Seeing the aurora is a spectacle in itself, but it’s also incredibly rewarding to capture the magic of the moment. Some of the most striking photos of the northern lights have been taken in Iceland thanks to its abundance of breathtaking natural features and otherworldly landscapes.

With this said, the lights are as unpredictable and elusive as they are beautiful. There are specific conditions required for a sighting, and there are also challenges and technicalities involved with adjusting your camera or mobile device, too.

While it can be tricky to get a perfect shot of the aurora, it’s certainly not impossible when you know what to do! In this guide, we share our top tips for photographing the northern lights in Iceland to give you the best chance at getting the ultimate vacation souvenir.

In this guide:

Can you photograph the northern lights in Iceland?

Iceland is located in the northern hemisphere near the Arctic Circle, making it one of the prime spots for viewing the northern lights. Despite this, though, the lights are not always guaranteed. There are a number of conditions that have to be just right in order for the aurora borealis to make an appearance. These include dark, clear skies and a good KP index score (based on geomagnetic activity), which you can learn more about in our northern lights trip-planning guide.

When they do appear, it’s also often only for a few minutes at a time, making photographing the northern lights an even more difficult task. However, there are a number of things you can do to increase your chances of getting your perfect aurora shot. The first is to make sure you book your northern lights vacation during the aurora season (September to March), when longer, darker nights bring more promise of the dancing lights.

Although the lights can sometimes appear outside of this window, the chances are significantly lower. Traveling to Iceland in winter is therefore our first tip for photographing the northern lights.


How to take the best pictures of the northern lights

So, you’ve arrived in Iceland. There are clear skies, the aurora forecast looks good for the evening, and your camera is charged. The next step is to decide where to go to find the lights, and whether to head out solo or on a group tour.

Top locations for aurora photography in Iceland

As we explained above, the darker the skies, the brighter the lights will be, which means they’ll show up better on camera. Luckily for you, Iceland has a plethora of fantastic spots to search for the aurora which are much-loved by northern lights photographers. Selecting a location with an interesting point of focus and as little light pollution as possible will allow you to capture the most striking images of the aurora.

Here are some of our favorites:

Reykjavik: Grótta lighthouse at Seltjarnarnes can be found just outside the city center. It’s the perfect spot to capture a dramatic photo of the northern lights without venturing too far out, as the lighthouse can contrast nicely with the dancing aurora.

Around Reykjavík: On the Golden Circle, Gullfoss waterfall and Þingvellir National Park are outstanding spots for photography.

South Iceland: The south boasts some stunning natural landscapes, which are ideal for photographing the aurora. Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and Skógafoss waterfall are among the top northern lights photography spots in the world, let alone Iceland.

West Iceland: On Snæfellsnes peninsula, you’ll find majestic Kirkjufell, which is the most famously photographed mountain in the country (see image below). Its trademark pointed arrow appearance provides an excellent point of contrast against the night sky.

North Iceland: Around 8 miles from central Akureyri is the old trading port of Gásir, which is said to be one of the best places to photograph the northern lights in the region. A little further afield is Ásbyrgi Canyon, a beautiful and peaceful place with virtually no light pollution, making it perfect for those pictures!

East Iceland: For dramatic landscape shots in East Iceland, we’d recommend Stapavík Beach. This vast beach with a huge rock in the middle is complemented by marvelous mountains in the background for the ultimate aesthetic shot.


The best ways to see the lights

Renting a car and heading out into the Icelandic countryside is an exciting way to make your vacation a one-of-a-kind experience. This way, you can find a spot that’s entirely unique to you, adding a more personal touch to your pictures. However, if you’re not confident behind the wheel or want to stay closer to Reykjavik, there are a number of tailored northern lights tours and excursions you can book.

Our tours are run by expert local guides who know exactly where to look for the aurora. Often, they’ll be able to help you with handling your camera and taking a good photo of the lights, too.

Choose a smaller group tour for an intimate viewing experience that takes you deep into the countryside for a better opportunity to photograph the northern lights. A northern lights boat tour can provide magnificent views of the aurora, but makes taking pictures a little more tricky. But with good balance (and perhaps a tripod), you might be able to capture a beautiful reflection of the aurora on the water.


Tips for photographing the northern lights

Whether you’re a professional photographer, amateur camera user, or just relying on your smartphone, adjusting your device to specific settings can help you to capture an amazing photo of the northern lights in Iceland.


How to photograph the northern lights with a digital camera

Using a good quality professional camera is your best shot (literally), at taking a good picture of the aurora.

Here are some of our top tips for photographing the northern lights using a camera:

  • Bring a DLSR camera with a wide-angle lens to help you capture as much of the sky as possible in your picture.
  • Use the long exposure on your camera to find the aurora – the camera sees better than eyes do and may pick it up even if it’s not visible to the naked eye.
  • Don't use filters on your lens as they can cause interference and the best aurora pictures are taken without filters.
  • If you're using a lens with a f/2.8 aperture (which is recommended), try an ISO of around 400-800 to get you started. Keep in mind that your settings will vary depending on the strength of the lights.
  • Use the moon or a bright star to check the focus of your camera and adjust it as needed.

How to take pictures of the northern lights with a smartphone

If you’re not equipped with a digital camera, there’s no need to worry. You can still get a great photo of the aurora borealis on your mobile phone. Below are some top tips for how to take pictures of the northern lights with iPhone or Android.

With an iPhone

  1. Enable night mode on your device (this usually appears in a low-lit setting as an icon in the top left corner next to the flash).
  2. Turn off the flash setting.
  3. Tap the arrow at the top of the screen to open the settings menu which will appear at the bottom. Here, you’ll find the exposure setting, represented by the night mode icon. Enable max. exposure by sliding the scale.
  4. Tap the +/- icon in the same menu to adjust the exposure level to a negative value. Finding the correct setting will take some trial and error, but -0.7 is a good starting point.
  5. Rotate your iPhone horizontally to capture a wider image. Try to keep your hands as still as possible or consider using a tripod to avoid any blurry images.

With an Android

  1. Enable night mode on your Android’s camera app.
  2. Set your camera to ‘Professional’ or ‘Manual’ mode.
  3. Toggle the ‘MF’ icon to focus the camera.
  4. Turn off the flash setting.
  5. Adjust your ISO setting to 1600 and above (better for low light environments). Ensure the white balance is set to around 3200K, which will help your image look more natural.
  6. Enable a longer shutter speed and adjust it in accordance with aurora brightness. Set the shutter speed to 1-5 seconds if the lights are bright and colorful, and lengthen it to 20-30s if the lights are dimmer.
  7. Rotate your device horizontally to capture a wider image. Try to keep your hands as still as possible or consider using a tripod to avoid any blurry images.

Best apps for taking pictures of the northern lights

Adjusting your camera settings can take some time, especially if it’s your first attempt. Fortunately, there are lots of apps that are designed specifically for taking pictures of the northern lights on your smartphone.

The Northern Lights Photo Taker app for iOS does exactly what it says, enabling iPhone users to take better photos of the aurora borealis without the need for manual adjustment.

One of the best apps to take pictures of the northern lights is the NightCap Camera app. Not only does it allow you to capture amazing low light photos, but it also lets you take videos and 4K timelapse footage.

For Android users, we’d recommend ProCam X Lite. This free app is ideal for getting more control over your camera settings and taking high quality photos in low light.

These are just a few of the many northern lights photography apps available, and you may need to play around with different programs to find the best one for your device.


What to pack for photographing the northern lights

Wondering what to bring along on your northern lights photo tour? This checklist should help you out:

  • A stable tripod to keep your camera still while the photograph is captured. You could also bring tripod weights with you if it’s windy.
  • A remote shutter – to remove the possibility that you knock the camera while the photo is being captured.
  • A portable charger or spare batteries to ensure that your device has enough charge.
  • Spare memory cards – so that you avoid running out of space on your camera right as the show kicks off.
  • A waterproof camera bag/phone case is also recommended given the volatile Icelandic weather.
  • Warm clothing (including gloves) is recommended. If you’re using a mobile device, it may be worth investing in touch-screen compatible gloves.

Check out our packing tips for more advice on what to bring on a northern lights adventure in Iceland.

Come and visit Iceland!

Photographing the northern lights in Iceland can be a challenge, but hopefully one you feel more prepared for after reading our tips. We wish you the best of luck for searching and capturing the magical aurora borealis!

Thinking about booking a northern lights vacation in Iceland? Icelandair offers regular direct flights to Reykjavik, as well as readymade vacation packages that include flight tickets, accommodation, and your choice of excursions. Book with Icelandair today and start looking forward to the trip of a lifetime.