“Northern lights? I thought those were clouds…”
I kid you not, those were the first words I uttered after realizing the subtle haze in the night sky was an aurora. One of the biggest reasons why we were willing to brave the Iceland winter was because we thought we had a better chance of seeing northern lights. And objectively speaking, we did. With 20 hours of darkness every day, you’re much better off trying to catch the lights in the winter vs. summer. Unfortunately, I don’t think we realized just how perfect conditions had to be. There’s a website where you can check the aurora forecast (http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/). Not only does the strength of the aurora have to be significant, the sky also has to be clear. With our luck, we arrived in Iceland just as a wave of new storms were about to hit. So most days were cloudy. Out of our 8 nights in Iceland, we managed to catch a glimpse of the northern lights ONCE. So, here’s how the whole thing went down 🙂
We had been checking the aurora forecast every hour that particular Thursday. This was the 4th day into our trip, and it seemed to be the most promising (for northern lights). According to the forecast, our best chance to see them was around 8-9pm. We got to the place we were staying at pretty late, though, around 7:30ish. There was just one restaurant in the nearby area, and it closed at 9pm. We took turns keeping watch outside until about 8:15. We were all getting hungry, haha, so we drove to the restaurant with our heads out the windows the whole way to keep watch. Still nothing. When we got to the restaurant, we were lucky enough to snag a window seat so we could monitor the sky while eating. If you can’t tell by now, we REALLY wanted to see the northern lights. By the time our food finally came out, it seemed like our window of opportunity was closing. But somehow, just as we started eating, one of the waiters ran to our table: “The aurora! Do you guys want to see the aurora? It’s outside right now!” I couldn’t believe my ears! It was finally happening! I was finally going to be able to bask under a canopy of green, purple, and pink light. And hopefully get some amazing shots too with my camera. Yeahhhhh…..didn’t exactly play out that way.
We walked outside and looked up at the sky. What. What northern lights. The haze in the sky that the waiter kept insisting was the aurora…we had seen that in the sky since we got to the hotel. We had really thought those were clouds. The color was very subtle, and if you looked closely you could sometimes see tints of green. Definitely not what I expected, though. But to be fair, out of a scale of 9, the strength of the aurora that night was only forecasted to be a 3. So even though the sky was extremely clear, the aurora itself was not strong enough to be able to see clearly. Bummer. But as we stood outside for longer and our eyes began to adjust to the darkness, the color started coming through more. Still not at the level that you see in those National Geographic pictures, but it was still quite something. These lights are like ribbons of color floating across the sky. Each one is slightly different—in shape, curvature, and color. My eyes were glued to the sky for at least the next 20 minutes, trying to soak everything in.
Somewhere in those 20 minutes, I decided to try my luck with my phone camera. Nothing. The aurora was weak to begin with, and my iPhone 6S Plus definitely didn’t have to ability to pick up the subtle hint of color going across the sky. So I was like ok fine, let’s try the real camera. I played around and adjusted some settings on my DSLR. The shutter speed has to be very slow so you can let enough light in for the camera to be able to work its magic. I gave up after 5 tries…my lens wasn’t optimized for this kind of lighting. The aperture didn’t open wide enough. Thankfully, though, a couple of other friends had lenses that were up for the task. So the pictures in this post are thanks to them. It’s really quite the effort, getting these shots. I highly recommend bringing a tripod. When you’re holding the camera for 15-20 seconds, yo hands are gonna shake. And even the slightest movement will blur the shot. Bring extra batteries too. Especially in the cold, the camera battery will drain like no other.
Do these pictures resemble what we actually saw? Not at all. Well, let’s just say it amplified the color/intensity of the lights by at least 20x. Maybe if the strength of the aurora was stronger it would have been different. But most of the wonder I experience marveling at the shots above are thanks to the camera, not the actual thing. So, all in all?
- Bright, vibrant waves of color going across the sky (that look NOTHING like clouds)
- You can see them anywhere, whenever. Just walk outside when you want to see them (assuming it’s dark)
- It’s easy to get good shots of the lights with a camera
- Let’s just say that at a strength of 3, these lights look like clouds. With a slight tint of green. VERY slight.
- If you really want to see these lights, you better stalk the forecast site like no other. Sometimes the window of opportunity is like 4 hours in the middle of the night. Take turns keeping watch. But then again, it really depends on how badly you want to see the lights.
- Be prepared to stand out in the cold for a while. Each shot attempt takes at least a minute. Definitely make sure you have gloves. And invest in a good lens optimized for low-light photography. Brace yourself for a lot of blurred shots initially, but hey, practice makes perfect. And don’t even think about trying to use your phone.
Still a magical experience overall, though 🙂 Maybe our luck will be better next time!