Photo Tip – Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) in Iceland

Northen Lights in Iceland, (photo by Lucy Johnston)
Northen Lights in Iceland

As one of natures most breathtaking displays it’s tough to rival the spectacle of the Northern Lights.

These auroras (‘Aurora Borealis’ in the northern hemisphere and ‘Aurora Australis’ in the southern) have drawn travellers to the furthest latitudes, and amid the coldest and darkest of nights, to seek out their beauty.

The curtain-like swashes of luminescence are created when solar radiation is drawn to the earth's magnetic poles and interacts with the high atmosphere, but it is not difficult to believe how the folklore and mythology surrounding these natural phenomena have arisen. 

Norway, Canada, Finland and Iceland have all seen beautiful evening skies over the past few months and, although rarely visible during the summer months, they are likely to reappear in November. Many expeditions, cruises and hikes exist to get you to the best places to see the lights – opportunities during which you will surely be wishing to capture with a photograph. However, photographing an aurora is quite tricky. You are trying to capture a delicate, shifting light in a dark sky – and somewhere very cold. So here are some travel photography tips to help you out.

Where to go

As with most night- and astro-photography, the biggest hindrance to a great photograph is light pollution. Fortunately, the further north (or south) you travel, the less inhabited the environment and the less this becomes a problem. You should set up for the photographs as far from streetlights or car headlights as possible. Try to position yourself to the north of any towns, as the displays will usually be found to the northwest (or southeast in the Southern Hemisphere). Airports and airline flight paths may also cause unwanted lights in the sky.

Taking a photo showing only the lights by themselves can result in some abstractly beautiful images, but you will miss the opportunity to give scale to the event. Try and ensure you have an effective foreground that works well. A lake, dark cabin, mountains, or even trees, will give a great perspective. If you are willing to put in the hard work, then seeking out a spot during any daylight available is always a good move. 

Photographic Equipment

Cameras and Lens

The ‘go-to kit’ would be a good quality DSLR with a very fast and wide-angle lens. Typically, professionals are using Canon and Nikon bodies with dedicated fast (f/2.8 or faster) 14-32mm lenses – even full fisheyes can produce staggering results. With such a wide lens you will be able to set focus to infinity with total confidence. Try and shoot RAW if possible – there is so much more you can do to an image later if all the data is still maintained in the file.

Sturdy Tripod

This is essential for a long exposure, and if you are looking up to the sky, the taller the tripod the better so you will not have to repeatedly bend down to use the viewfinder or screen.

Remote release or timer

With all long exposures it is important that you don’t let the camera move when the shutter is released. One way is to set a timer for a few seconds, but a more effective way is to use a shutter-release cable or remote.

Camera Settings

To gauge an exposure time you are battling against a number of factors. The lights themselves are moving, stars are moving, and noise will begin to accrue on the image the longer your exposure time.

You can of course experiment with settings, but being stuck in the cold and dark make this easier said than done. Try an exposure of around 20-30 seconds around f2.8 with a high-ish ISO level. The higher the ISO, the more risk you will run into camera noise, so try and keep as low as possible (this is where a fast, wide open lens helps). If possible, test out the ISO limits of your camera shooting night scenes before you venture into the cold.

Of course, the brightness of the display, and the presence of moonlight and/or snow cover, will all play a role in the exposure length.

Wrap up warm

Don’t forget, it will be cold! You need to protect yourself, as you will be staying in the same place for some time and will soon find difficulty even operating the camera! Don’t take any risks out there!


The aurora cries out to be captured in motion, and time-lapse photography is a perfect medium to explore the ripples and pulses of light. We will discuss time-lapse in a photo tip in the near future, but the technique is basically to capture many images at a set interval, which can then be combined to make a video. The quality of the images can be drastically less than for standard photography, as they are only seen for 1/30 of a second, but the camera needs to remain in place and undisturbed for a long period of time.

Compact Digital Cameras

As great as it is to go out with thousands of dollars/pounds worth of equipment, it is still possible to get a shot with a compact camera. You will need to make a few alterations to your settings. Ensure you are at the widest lens setting (no zoom at all), and keep the camera on a solid object such as a wall or even a well-covered pile of snow. Try and set the exposure to as long as possible – some cameras have modes such as “night sky", and always trigger from a timer. This means you won’t accidentally shift the camera as you press the shutter release.

There are some wonderful websites out there that really go into fantastic detail about how to make the most of your Northern Lights photographic experience.

Here is a great starting point.

And here you will find some majestic time-lapse footage of the lights.

The image above was captured by Lucy Johnston was using a Canon EOS 5D Mark II when visiting Iceland in 2012.


To accompany you in your quest for the lights we have just published out latest edition of Insight Guide Iceland. It’s an in-depth and beautiful guide to the land of volcanoes, folklore, exhilarating wildernesses and of course Aurora Borealis.  Find out more about Insight Guide Iceland...