Photographing the northern lights is a lot of fun, and where better to capture them than in Iceland?   The land of waterfalls, extreme conditions and some pretty spectacular aurora borealis night shows.  In this post, I’ll explain my process for capturing the northern lights, share how I got on and what I learnt from the experience

One week in Iceland goes fast.  Especially in winter, when the daylight only lasts for about 6 hours!  Luckily, we got 3 nights with good views of northern lights.  We’d rented a house through Airbnb with a hot-tub northeast of Selfoss.  As fate would have it we finally got it filled up on the same day as the skies cleared and we could just about see a green band forming above us.  The biggest decision at this point was, should I lie down in the tub and enjoy the aurora show or get dressed for the cold night and head for the hills?

Hills first – followed immediately by hot-tub was the compromise.

Camera Settings

I’d only tried to capture the northern lights once in Norway the previous year and I felt a bit more prepared this time around.

Checklist:

DSLR: Canon 7D mark II

Sturdy tripod – Mefoto Globetrotter Travel Tripod

Fast lens – Canon f2.8, 16-35mm L-series

Warm Clothes and gloves

For my first go, I climbed the hill behind our accommodation where I could get away from the immediate lights coming from the nearby houses. 

Manual settings:

Aperture f2.8

Shutterspeed 13 sec

ISO 1600

I set my lens to manual focus and used my LCD screen zoomed in 10x to focus on some far away lights on the horizon.  Then I set a 2-second timer to avoid camera shake when I pressed the shutter button.  Cha-Ching I had my first image of the northern lights!

Composition

It didn’t look amazing though as I had only shot the lights, with nothing exciting in the foreground.  After a few more goes I had shots with a barn in the foreground, some of far away hills and even a few shots with myself in them.  For the portrait shots, I set the self-release timer for 10 seconds and ran over to roughly where I thought I should stand and tried to stand still for the duration.  Looking like a tool is all part of the experience, I prefer to take these shots away from people 😉

The hot-tub was all the more fun and relaxing after I knew I had some aurora shots in the bag.  Time for some champagne and celebrate our friend’s birthday!

For the second and third evening of northern lights we got a bit more inventive and took a drive to find some interesting subjects to include in the frame. 

My camera settings rarely changed much, though I found that when there was really fast moving lights it was better to reduce the shutter speed as the green lights would diffuse across the sky with little to no definition. Reducing the shutter speed would freeze the action a bit more, but that meant that I had to increase the ISO further for the foreground to be visible. 

I’ve read that the moonlight can help illuminate the ground on good nights, but the moon was absent on most nights and on the last one we only had a small sliver of the moon.

Lesson Learnt

All in all I had an amazing time photographing the northern lights in Iceland.  My few regrets are that I didn’t go further afield to get even more interesting foregrounds in my composition.  I can imagine waterfalls, lakes and ice on the beach to make for some cracking shots.

Let me know in the comments if you have, or are going to photograph the Aurora, would love to hear how you get on.

My recommendation for this post is the MeFoto Globetrotter Travel Tripod. I’ve used it for about a year now and I really like how small it packs away so I can easily bring it with me while travelling.  I went with the carbon legs to keep the weight down for flights.  It can get a bit unsteady in heavy winds, but hanging my camera bag from it usually does the trick.