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How to Take Northern Lights Photos (Camera Settings, Tips, and More) |

Dramatic landscapes, black beaches, geysers, ice caves, and hot springs are extraordinary experiences to prepare for while in Iceland. But there's something more exciting and almost other-worldly: Iceland's northern lights. These phenomenal lights are a beauty to watch and incredibly photogenic. So, on your next trip to Iceland, you most likely would want to take northern lights photos. Even if you're an experienced photographer, capturing the northern lights may be a new and challenging experience. 

Today's guide walks you through how to take magical northern lights photos on your professional camera or phone. Let's dive in!


  • When is the Best Time to Visit Iceland to View and Photograph the Northern Lights?
  • How to Find the Aurora Borealis Forecast and Interpret It
  • Equipment You Need to Capture Professional-looking Northern lights Photos
  • A Guide to the Aurora Borealis Photography - Aperture Width - Shutter Speed - ISO
  • Capturing Northern Lights on your Smartphone
  • Preparing for Northern Lights Photography
  • More Tips for Photographing Iceland's Aurora Borealis
  • FAQs on Taking Northern Lights Photos - Can you take pictures of the Northern Lights With your Phone? - Do Northern Lights Look better in Photos than in Person? - What are the Best Settings for Photographing the Northern Lights? - What Locations Provide a Good Background for Photographing the Northern Lights? - What is the Best Time of Day to Photograph the Northern Lights? - How Long do the Northern Lights Last?
  • Experience Taking Northern Lights Photos Your Self

When Is the Best Time to Visit Iceland to View and Photograph the Northern Lights?

The northern lights are typically visible between late August and mid-April but the best time is between mid September till end of March. During this time, the nights are longer and darker, and the skies clearer. In these months, the lights can show up even a few times during the night. 

To capture the northern Lights, be as far as possible from the city to avoid light pollution. But if you're in Reykjavik, you might still be able to capture some fantastic shots of the Aurora Borealis. If you move a little outside Reykjavik, you're presented with an excellent environment of mountains, waterfalls, and other impressive landscapes that become breathtaking when flooded by the northern lights.

Conversely, pay a visit to Thingvellir Lake at Thingvellir national park or Skógafoss waterfall to capture the northern lights and the sprinkle of stars illuminating the night. The south east, especially the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon and Mt. Vestrahorn, is also a spectacular location to capture the northern lights mirrored in the water. 

Iceland's West, specifically Kirkjufell, is another iconic location to capture the aurora.

Thingvellir national park in Iceland is an amazing place for northern lights photos Northern lights blazing over lake in Thingvellir national park in Iceland

How to Find the Aurora Borealis Forecast and Interpret It

It would be disappointing to plan a trip to Iceland on a day and time when the northern lights are difficult to view and photograph. Luckily, technology can come to the rescue once again to offer accurate predictions before or during your Icelandic trip. You can use several apps and websites to predict the occurrence of northern lights in Iceland. However, your main challenge is how to interpret these predictions. But with a bit of learning, as you'll see in a few moments, you can accurately read the aurora predictions.

You can forecast the Aurora through the Kp index number, Oval Auroral, or the Solar Rotation. Aurora forecasts are most commonly expressed using the Kp index number, which ranges between 0-9. The higher the Kp index, the greater the chances of viewing the aurora in greater detail. In essence, a higher index signifies high geomagnetic activity. And since the geomagnetic activity generates the aurora, this is excellent news when you need a clear picture of the northern lights. 

If you get a Kp of 1-3, the aurora will be pretty faint, with green as the dominant color. Kp 4-6 is the sweet spot since the aurora is clearly visible with vivid colors such as purple, blue and yellow. Kp 7-9 is more vivid and covers the entire sky. 

In addition, also check the cloud coverage at the Icelandic Met office website. If the area has dark green marks, it's cloudy and not a good location or time to photograph the northern lights. If the area is clear, you have more chances of capturing clear shots. 

The Icelandic Met Office website has some of the best Aurora predictions in Iceland. They give you cloud coverage in real-time, the Aurora Kp scale, and sunrise and sunset estimated times as well as moon phases.

Having a full moon can be tricky when taking photos of the Northern lights. It can make it more difficult to see the aurora when the moon lights up the sky especially if the northern lights are weak. However if the northern lights are moderately strong you can use the faint light from the moon to help you with incorporating the landscape and people into your photo, so it is not all bad.

Equipment You Need to Capture Professional-Looking Northern Lights Photos

You'll need a good camera and a tripod to capture the northern lights. If you don't have a professional-grade camera, you can still use your phone to capture the lights. The tripod should be sturdy and withstand even strong winds. On the other hand, choose a camera with remote shutter operation. Pressing a button while photographing the Aurora Borealis might distort your photo. 

A weather-sealed camera is your best choice to withstand the Icelandic temperature and possible winds. 

A Guide to the Aurora Borealis Photography

First, set your camera and lens to manual mode. Also, your flash should be off for northern lights photos. 

Aperture Width

Simply put, the aperture or f-stop determines how open a lens is. When photographing the aurora in Iceland, the Aperture width should be around F/ 2.8. If you don't have this option, set your camera to the widest aperture in your lens. 

A wider aperture ensures you'll capture the lights at a wider angle. A wider aperture also guarantees quality and focused pictures. 

Shutter Speed

Shutter speed defines the time a lens is open and absorbs light. For the best shorts, you need to control your shutter speed depending on the brightness of the aurora. If the northern lights are relatively dim, the shutter speed should be about 2o-30 seconds. If brighter, the shutter speed should be around 1-5 seconds. Where the northern lights are moving fast, use a shutter speed of between 1-3 seconds. This setting will freeze their movements for a clearer photograph. 


The ISO setting controls light sensitivity. Because the aurora is visible during the night, the ISO should be high, but it depends on your camera. For older cameras, an ISO of 1600 or over should work fine. But if you have a newer digital camera, the ISO should be between 3200 and 8000. Cameras with full-frame sensors can set the ISO to as high as 128000. Just make sure to test it out to reduce the chances of digital noise on your photos. 

However, if the moon is present and bright, you might even need to set the ISO as low as 800. Finally, shoot in RAW to capture as much detail as possible in your aurora composition. Carry extra batteries and storage space— you can never take too many pictures.

Capturing Northern Lights on Your Smartphone

While you can take a photo of the northern lights on your smartphone, the results may not be as incredible as those of a DSLR camera. But smartphone cameras are getting better and better so you can still get the desired results and by using a northern lights photography app you can get even better results. These photography apps come in handy as they replace the settings found in DSLR cameras.

 When the aurora is strong you don't need expensive equipment and stay out of the city lights as the photo below will show but taking the extra effort will reward you with better photos.

Northern lights photo taken on smartphone in Reykjavik Photo taken on an iPhone in Reykjavik

Preparing for Northern Lights Photography

Now that you've learned how to take amazing northern lights photos, what other preparation should you do? Essentially, you should come prepared with weatherproof clothing and camera bags. Your clothes should be waterproof, windproof, and warm. Do not forget the photography gloves. Capturing northern lights can be tiresome, especially when you want to capture the best shots. So, you'll need to dress up warm and be prepared to spend some time in the open at night. 

Moreover, you should have crampons over your boots to prevent any slips over the ice and a headlight is good to have when setting up but remember to turn it off when taking the photos both for you and in respect for others taking photo's near you. Ensure that your tripod is sturdy, Iceland is prone to intense, unpredictable winds that could knock off your camera and in the darkness you might bump into it by accident. Finally, If you are on a Self drive tour it is very important for your and other traveler safety to not park your car on the side of the road or stand on the road while taking photos, but rather find a secure place to park and stay away from the road.

More Tips for Photographing Iceland’s Aurora Borealis

While knowing which camera settings to use is a big part of photographing the northern lights, building your composition is also essential. Here are a few tips to help you out:

Focus on the Sky, but Don’t Forget What’s on the Ground When Creating Your Composition

Once you spot the northern lights, it might be tempting to forget all the other surroundings. However, incorporating awe-looking features such as mountains, water bodies, humans, and structures can show the brilliance of the lights and add more character to the composition. 

Snow, Ice, and Water Reflections of the Northern Lights Are Incredibly Magical

Another thing to capture in your composition is the reflection of the lights on snow, ice, or a water body. Again, this technique adds more depth to a composition.

Panoramas Are Great When the Northern Lights Are Active and Dancing Across the Sky

A panorama will result in a photograph capturing an extensive area covered by the northern lights. Plus, a wider view gives you more options for planning your composition and capturing the aurora in its entirety.  Photographers taking northern lights photos near Kirkjufell Mountain in Iceland. Aurora near Kirkjufell Mountain in Iceland

FAQs on Taking Northern Lights Photos

Can You Take Pictures of the Northern Lights With Your Phone?

Yes. You can take photos of the northern lights with your smartphone. That might be all you need if your phone has a superior camera. But in some cases, you'll require a northern lights photography app to capture a high-quality aurora.

Do Northern Lights Look Better in Photos Than in Person?

Northern lights are more evident on camera compared to in person. Generally, cameras do not have the limitations to see during nighttime compared to the human eyes, and hence the aurora is usually more apparent in the photo. 

What Are the Best Settings for Photographing the Northern Lights?

Start with a wide aperture(f/2.8) or wider, ISO 1600, a shutter speed of 1-5 seconds if the lights are super active, and 15-20 seconds if it's dim and not as active. 

What Locations Provide a Good Background for Photographing the Northern Lights?

There are many places that provide good background for your northern lights photo but some of the more popular background's for photographers are at: 

Grotta lighthouse - located in Seltjarnarnes neighboring town to Reykjavik
Thingvellir National park - located in South West Iceland
Skogarfoss Waterfall - located on the south cost of Iceland
Reynisfjara beach - located on the south coast of Iceland Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon - located in South East of Iceland
Vestrahorn Mountain - located in the South East of Iceland
Lake Myvatn - Located in North East Iceland
Kirkjufell Mountain - Located in the West of Iceland

What is the best time of day to photograph the northern lights?

The northern lights can only be seen when the sky is dark so sightings are between sunset and sunrise with some buffer to cover the twilight hours, however the best time to see the northern lights in Iceland seems to be between 09:30 pm to 02:00 am

How long do northern lights lasts?

Generally they appear in the sky for shorth periods of time sometimes for just few minutes up to a few hours if the solar activity is exceptionally great. Getting 15-30 minutes of northern lights activity is considered good but they can appear more than once during each night with different intensity.

Experience Taking Northern Lights Photos Your Self

Iceland's northern lights are interesting phenomena that drive a lot of adventurers to the country. Unfortunately, northern lights can be elusive, especially if you've not looked at predictions prior. Be sure to visit the Icelandic Met website for accurate details of the Aurora Kp level so you can witness the lights in full view. 

Book your trip to Iceland today to view and photograph the magical northern lights. For more information, contact us today or if you need a customized itinerary click on the green button below and our teams will be more than willing to help.

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