How to photograph the aurora borealis in Iceland

If you’re travelling to Iceland, knowing how to photography the aurora borealis is, in my mind, as essential as remembering your thermals and crampons! Seeing the aurora borealis or northern lights is something that has to be part of everyone’s bucket list! I have travelled to Iceland six times and have been so incredibly lucky to have seen them on several nights on five out of six trips. When I shared our recent trip on my Instagram and Facebook page, I got a lot of questions about how to spot them and how to photograph them and I taught a few folk in coffee shops and at guest houses while en route! A lot of people also said they had travelled to Iceland at the same time as me and didn’t see the aurora, so I will share more about what you need to look for as the untrained eye might miss them. So, with all of this in mind, I promised I’d write a post to answer these questions, so hold on tight as we’re about to walk through some hints and tips on hunting, seeing and photographing the aurora.

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What causes the aurora borealis?

The glorious sun that brings us so much light also gives us the aurora borealis. When charged particles from the sun strike atoms in Earth’s atmosphere, they cause electrons in the atoms to move to a higher-energy state. When the electrons drop back to a lower energy state, they release a photon: light. Things get exciting when Geomagnetic Storms happen, and a coronal hole opens up on the sun and belches out a Coronal Mass Ejection (CME) and the aurora activity goes crazy! My husband did his PhD about CMEs and so he gets very excited about the sun’s activity!

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What causes the different colours?

As you’ll see from some of the shows I have captured in Iceland, there are different colours of aurora and these are dependent on which gas becomes charged in the atmosphere. The most common colour is a yellow-green, and it is produced by oxygen molecules located about 60 miles above the earth’s surface. Much more rarely observed are the all-red auroras which are produced by high-altitude oxygen, at heights of up to 200 miles above the Earth’s surface and finally, nitrogen produces blue or purplish-red aurora. The Mother’s Day aurora on Sun 6th March 2016 was an incredible display, as the earth’s atmosphere took a direct hit from a significant solar flare and over the evening it showed all of the colours and even painted them in a heart shape and the bottom one in this section is a little like a rabbit….

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How to predict the aurora borealis.

One of the joys and crushing disappointments with the aurora is trying to predict where to watch them but there are a number of websites and apps that when used together can give you the best chance of seeing some aurora. You may find an amazing forecast for aurora activity and pesky cloud cover scuppers any chance of seeing them.

There are a number of websites and their associated social media that are really good to follow. First up is Aurora Service Europe: http://www.aurora-service.eu, who share data about the current activity levels and the predicted levels for the next hour as well as more long range forecasts.

You’ll see that the aurora is measured on something called a KP scale, ranging from 1 – 9. KP1 being the weakest and KP9 being a very rare, very strong event. Whilst we were in Iceland we witnessed the epicness of a KP7 event or a G2 solar storm on Sun 6th March 2016, which happens approximately 200 times every 11 year cycle of the sun.

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What apps do you use to predict the aurora?

In Iceland specifically, I use the Icelandic Met Office site and the following apps:

  • Iceland Met Office
  • Aurora Iceland – rates using a 5* system where best to see them that evening
  • Aurora Now

I also use one called Star Walk 2, which is the most beautiful app, allowing you to hold it up to the night sky and it will use GPS to locate you and plot the stars you can see in the sky, which is just wonderful for identifying things and getting your bearings.

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How to see them with your eyes….

Seeing the aurora is something that is a totally unforgettable experience. I remember the first time I saw them, I screamed and rejoiced so much I lost my voice! We’d photographed them on a couple of evenings but couldn’t really make them out with our eyes.  On my travels in Iceland I have spoken to a lot of people who haven’t seen the aurora but we were all out on the same night and that got me thinking. Photos of aurora really do show off the display, but its important to remember that a camera is far more light-sensitive than your eyes and so what it picks up and shows is a lot more vivid that what you see with the naked eye. Here you can see the green glow and to the left of the frame, the Milky Way….

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In order to spot them in Iceland, there are a few steps I always follow:

  1. Darkness: Get to the darkest spot you can find. Your eyes will adjust to see more of the night sky with less light pollution around. I always try and book accommodation that is remote so I can see them without having to drive anywhere.
  2. Look north: The aurora starts at the north (and south!) pole as all of the earth’s magnetic fields converge there. The stronger the flare from the sun, the further towards the Equator it pushes. Get your bearings and know where north is in relation to where you’re viewing from. If it is a majorly active event, then they could be overhead or even south of Iceland.
  3. Cycle of the moon: knowing the cycle of the moon is helpful as in very dark place a full moon will offer a lot of light at night, thus making it slightly harder to see the aurora because of the pollution and for photography, it can lead to over-exposed foregrounds.
  4. Arc: most of the aurora I have seen start in the north and a low arc appears on the horizon and then starts to build in intensity. It may look white to the eye and then photographs will prove its green and that you’re looking at the aurora.
  5. Ripples and movement: as the strength grows, you’ll start to see the aurora dance, it literally starts to flick upwards and then ripple around. This is when you will really know you have seen it!
  6. Colour saturation: as the strength of the display grows, the aurora’s colour saturates and becomes more vivid and intense.
  7. Time: I’ve found the peak activity has been between 9.30pm and 2am. However, the night we saw a solar storm hit, the aurora was visibly active at dusk, around 8pm and became mind-blowingly visible as it became totally dark.

As you can see in these images, the arc is very, very feint here and is most akin to what it looks like to the eye on a night of low activity.

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Even with cloud cover, you can se the aurora shimmering through, so always approach an aurora hunt with an optimistic approach:

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When is the best time to see the aurora?

Generally speaking, it is best to travel to Iceland between October and March, when winter is in full swing and long nights are in abundance! Its not impossible to see them outside of these times, but the longer evenings mean there is less available darkness to witness. The sun follows an 11 year cycle of activity with the solar maximum or peak activity occurring in June 2014 and then the 2-3 years either side of this will have a greater amount of activity, before things reach a dipping out of activity. Although this implies the aurora are inactive at this point, this simply isn’t true, its just less likely to be as frequently active at the trough of the cycle. It is also good to work out what the phase of the moon is. On my first trip to Iceland there was a full moon and it is amazing when you are in a ‘dark’ spot, how much light the moon gives, so I have tried to book my subsequent trips when the moon is a new moon or small so the foreground is dark and less light from the moon to interfere with seeing aurora.

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How do you photograph aurora?

There are a few tips to follow to ensure you get your camera set to capture the aurora

  1. Tripod: so your camera has time to get a lot of the light onto its sensor, you’re going to need your shutter to be open for a few seconds, taking a long exposure. Hand held would lead to blurring, so you need a tripod to offer a stable surface and allow you to angle and choose the direction you’re shooting.
  2. Remote shutter trigger: when shooting long exposures, pressing the shutter on a tripod can induce enough movement to create blur in the final image.
  3. Wide lens: the wider your lens the better as you’ll get more of the dancing skies in frame. I shoot with the Tamron 15-35mm f2.8
  4. Fast lens: the wider the aperture the better as it allows you to collect more light, again a lens that has f1.4-2.8 is idea. A lot of entry level SLRs come with a 18-55mm f3.5, so you will want to use this lens.
  5. Manual mode: being in control of all of your settings is vital for capturing the aurora and I suggest the following settings
    1. Shutter – 8 seconds
    2. Aperture – lowest possible, I shoot at f2.8 with my Tamron at 15mm
    3. ISO – 2500 – 5000 – depending on how your camera performs at high ISO depends on how far you will push this, too high and you’ll see grain in the image
  6. Manual focus: if your camera has live view, select it, compose your shot, find the brightest star in the sky and use it to focus on, making sure it is sharp
  7. Infinity focus: if you haven’t got much to focus on, use the infinity focus on your lens and you can read here about how to do this. http://www.slrphotographyguide.com/camera/settings/focus-infinity.shtml
  8. Take a shot: look for a green glow or if your lucky red or purple/blue and keep snapping
  9. Remember to watch it with your eyes! I use a remote trigger so once I know my camera is set and it is all manually set and focused I can just keep pressing the trigger while I watch it with my adoring eyes!

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If the forecast is low, is it worth going out to try and see them?

Yes. Yes. Yes. If you’re only there for a limited amount of time and you have a clear sky it is so worth looking to see if there is any activity. One night, the aurora was forecast to be Low, KP2 and so we didn’t expect to see anything. I never accept that as a fact and so popped outside and saw that it was hotting up and then the display really kicked off. We ended up watching it for two hours, rippling away, changing shape and intensity, all of it weaving with The Milky Way too. It was such a crisp, clear night you could see so much!
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As amazing as the Aurora are, it is always worth looking away from them too as the night skies on a clear night are overwhelming and very humbling and you really do reflect on a lot as you take it all in.
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It was around minus 11 deg c on this night and there was only so much dancing to Coldplay ‘Magic’ and ‘Sky full of stars’ that could keep us from feeling the cold. how to photography aurora borealis northern lights-41

But as I walked down the driveway back into our airbnb, I stopped for one more…..how to photography aurora borealis northern lights-42

And then on the doorstep, still enchanted by the display, just one more but the cold was really starting to bite too much!how to photography aurora borealis northern lights-43

On our last night in Iceland in March, a storm arrived and we were forecast full cloud cover and at about 1am when we were going to bed for a few hours before our trip to the airport, the clouds parted and we were treated to one more show:

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I hope this post has really helped to relay some of the key elements to being able to see and capture the aurora borealis and I wish you all the luck in the world on your trip and I hope that you get to see them.

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