We went to Iceland in late November and sometime during our trip, we found the Northern Lights ONCE out of the 6 days we were there Below these photos are of the Northern Lights from that one Monday night.
Understand the weather science of the Northern Lights. You see, the Northern Lights depend on multiple factors. Most people think the Northern Lights would appear in the Fall and Winter season near the North Pole. That is correct, but the Northern Lights depends on the weather in Earth and the weather in space. Also did any solar flares and sun storms occur in space? If so, then it would take 40 hours for the solar winds to reach earth. But…what if it’s cloudy and/or rainy on earth? You won’t be able to see the Northern Lights anyways with the clouds blocking it. Overall, your chances of seeing the Northern Lights are fairly slim.
*Hint: It is mostly rainy, cloudy, and/or snowy in Iceland in November.*
If you don’t see the Northern Lights — that’s ok! A tip when travelling to Iceland is to not place “see the Northern Lights” in the top of your itinerary otherwise you’d be extremely disappointed. Don’t let the fact that you did not see the Northern Lights define your trip — there’s so many cool sites in Iceland to explore.
What you did not study the science of the Northern Lights before planning your Iceland trip? Then at least cram it in by going to the Northern Lights Center. Before seeing the Northern Lights, it is important to go to the Northern Lights Center in Reykjavik. It is a free exhibition on the history and science of the Northern Lights. Also there is a Northern Lights simulator you can test your manual settings on your SLR camera when you do see. Seeing the Northern Lights live is a real test for your camera skills. In real life the Northern Lights is not a green dancing blob in the sky. Instead it was…how should I describe it? It was like a grey wave. It was faint to the naked eye, but the camera captures it differently especially if you manipulate the ISO settings and exposure times.
When reviewing the science of the Northern Lights, the “duh” moment hit me. Of course, it’s basically a gas in the sky. In real life, we cannot see gases like oxygen, hydrogen, or nitrogen in our air with the naked eye. I’m not sure why we expect it to appear any differently. Just like oxygen and nitrogen, your camera’s “smart focus” settings won’t be able to identify the Northern Lights as an object!
Keep your camera steady. It is important to place your camera on a tripod since it needs to stay in one place for an unusually longer period of time than a typical point a shoot. Once you figure your settings sweet spot — keep taking pictures! These only appear for as long or as little as it wants before it disappears. (Check out Petapixel “The Truth and Lies of Those Aurora Photos you see” for reference.)
The camera we use was the Sony NEX-3NL (no longer available by Sony). This is a beginner’s DSLR and it’s less than 500 dollars. We were able to take mostly acceptable photos of the Northern Lights. This is a good example of how $1000+ SLRs won’t buy you skills. The people who came with us that night had far more expensive cameras than us, they were upset and frustrated that they could not get a single clear photo of the Northern Lights. Again, this opportunity is a test of your photography skills.