Seeing the Aurora Borealis, also know as the Northern Lights, is on most peoples wish lists and it should be because they are spectacular. I haven’t seen a photo that really does them justice and you truly feel like the skies are putting on a show just for you. You will see the wisps and curls creating arches and circles that envelope you and very quickly, you understand why they are known as the dancing lights.
We were lucky enough to see the lights in Iceland and here are my top five tips to bear in mind for your first Northern Lights experience, wherever that may be, to ensure you are prepared and have the best chance of experiencing them in all their glory.
1. Make the effort to go somewhere dark away from the city
You don’t have to drive for miles but make sure you go somewhere where there is minimal light pollution. I promise it makes the difference – we drove just 20 minutes outside the city of Akureyri, Iceland and had the most wonderful light show put on for us with vivid greens and pinks visible to the naked eye. As we drove back into the city, they could still be seen but so faintly and only light white and very pale green. They still looked beautiful but nowhere near as exciting as in the pitch dark.
If you don’t have a car, there are many tour operators that provide cheap pick up services from your hotel to a great location. Remember, they do this every night so they actually know the best spots and have aurora hunters on speed dial!
2. Wrap up warm
This may sound like a given but it gets cold at night in Iceland. Although due to the Gulf Stream their winters aren’t actually as cold as places like New York and Toronto, when you are standing in a remote location, in the middle of the night, for potentially an hour or more, it gets cold! A saying I remember from a man in Copenhagen, “there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing choices”! So, embrace it and wrap up in layers, a nice warm jacket, woolly socks and some good shoes.
3. Don’t expect great photos first time
If you are gifted with clear skies and the Northern Lights make an appearance, after you’ve squealed in excitement (which you will, trust me) your first instinct will probably be to want to take photos and capture this awe inspiring moment for the rest of time. Snap away, take videos and revel in the colours that appear on your LCD display.
When you get back home you will be on such a high you won’t want to go to sleep and will most likely start going through your photos trying to see what you captured. Perhaps you just got a couple of green wisps which look a bit blurred or perhaps you got a clearly defined image of your foreground object, crystal bright stars and beautifully smooth colourful auroras. Either way, don’t expect that the first time you take photographs of the lights for them to come out perfectly. Photographers spend years perfecting the art of capturing the Northern Lights and are still continuously learning with each time they see them. Which takes me onto number 4…
4. Enjoy the lights away from the camera
Yes, we all want to have photos to remember this special moment and show all our friends and family back home but don’t forget why you were standing out in the cold in the middle of the night To see a natural phenomenon in one of only a few places in the world is truly a special experience. So please go ahead and take as many photos as possible but also step away from the camera and just soak up how special it is that you get to witness this. We get so caught up with looking at the world behind a camera or phone that for a moment, it is good to take a step back and really look at what is happening around us.
5. Do you research beforehand
Finally, it is super important to ensure you are fully prepared before heading out. The last thing you want to be doing is googling what camera settings to try whist the lights are dancing above you. There are plenty of resources online that provide suggestions on different camera settings to start off on which you can then make slight adjustments to as you see them.
Also ensure you have all the equipment you need before leaving. A tripod is necessary if you want good photos. We didn’t have one and the photos were average and blurry but then a kind person nearby lent us theirs and the images were significantly better – it also allowed us to move around with the lights whilst still ensuring the camera was completely still.
Lastly, make sure you know where you are driving to. Maybe have one or two different spots in case one doesn’t work out but there is no point in driving with no end destination hoping to just pull over. Roads are busy even at night and it is dangerous to just pull over onto the side of the road when you spot the lights. Ask the locals where they would suggest or search online for popular viewing spots.
Oh and one last thing to remember – look North! This might sound like common sense but I didn’t think about it until someone mentioned it. The lights almost always start in the North so when you are looking up into the night sky hoping to see that first wisp of green white light, remember to look North. If you’re not sure if it’s clouds or auroras at first, try taking a quick photograph – if it has a green tinge, you’re in luck – you’re about to witness your first Aurora Borealis!