Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland – Ultimate Beginners Guide

Swirling northern lights over farm field

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Seeing green and purple auroras dance overhead is an incredible phenomenon – one of the highlights of my life. If you’re planning a northern lights season in Iceland trip, you’ll want to know everything about how to see the northern lights including the best tips for photographing the northern lights.

Anyone can photograph the northern lights with the right equipment (a smartphone won’t cut it) and some basic camera knowledge. So don’t worry if you are a beginner without fancy equipment or night sky photography expertise.

Before my first Iceland winter road trip, I went down the rabbit hole learning night sky photography basics. And of course I made sure I had tons of warm layers to wear so I wouldn’t freeze my ass off gawking at the sky.

Since that first Iceland trip, I’ve refined my northern lights photography settings into a simple guide that’s beginner friendly.

So if you’re looking for a cheat sheet on northern lights photography, read on! You’ll also discover the best cameras for northern lights (including two cheaper options!), recommended camera lenses to use, the camera gear I brought on my northern lights photography tour of Iceland, my best advice for first-timers and answers to FAQ about photographing the northern lights in Iceland.

Northern lights with a starry sky

Whether you are going on a northern lights photography tour or doing it yourself, you’ll have a better experience photographing the northern lights if you take the right equipment and prepare in advance. So keep reading to learn the best camera for Northern Lights photography, the best camera lens to use for northern lights, and two ways to prepare yourself in advance.

I’ll also be sharing the exact camera setup I used for my Northern Lights photography tour of Iceland.

Best Camera Equipment for Northern Lights

I’ve made two visits to Iceland for Northern Lights photography. I’ll be honest – the first time around I was making do with an old camera. It wasn’t up to the task, but I didn’t have money for a better one. I was still able to get Northern Lights photos and I learned a lot from the experience. Having a better camera and an astrophotography lens helped me get better pictures the second time around.

Green and pink northern lights over a farm field

Here are three of the best cameras for Northern Lights with a couple of affordable options for budget travelers:

Sony Alpha a7S III: I haven’t used this mirrorless camera but I’ve heard great things about it from other travel bloggers. The Sony Alpha a7S III handles low light environments really well. You can shoot at a higher ISO without getting grainy photos. The 4K video capabilities on this one are the best in the bunch. If you like to shoot videos and can swing the price tag, this is probably what I would choose.

Sony Alpha a6000 (budget pick): For around half the cost of the Sony Alpha a7S III, the a6000 gets very crisp photos with tons of detail and low noise. It’s compact and lightweight, with strong low light performance. Your photos will be better with a third party lens like the Samyang one recommended below.

Canon EOS R6: The best Canon camera for Northern Lights photos. The shutter is really fast, so there isn’t a delay between photos. This is super important given how fast the auroras move. The camera is lightweight, takes a decent low light photos without a lot of noise (camera speak for graininess) and is able to capture both the dark and light colors without getting blown out. The biggest downside is that the kit lens isn’t really suitable for astrophotography.

Nikon Z6II: This is the best Nikon you can choose for photographing the northern lights. The Z6II works well in low light environments and has a high dynamic range, so you can capture the full spectrum of aurora borealis colors. The Z6II also has a couple of nice features the others don’t, including weather sealing and above par battery life. There have been some complaints about using the viewfinder and not seeing images on the screen, but most Z6II fans feel that it’s worth the money.

Nikon Z50 (budget pick): This is the camera I use to take most of the photos in this post. I chose the Z50 over the Z6II because it cost less and delivered most of the features that I cared about. The battery life is stellar, camera handles low light levels really well, and the two kit lenses that come with it work great for most images. Not astrophotography – but with the money you save by choosing the Z50 you can afford a suitable lens!

Best lens for northern lights

The best lenses for Northern Lights tend to be wide angle lenses with a low f-stop. The wide angle allows for a wide view of the surrounding landscape. You can really capture the full expanse of the Northern Lights this way. A wide angle lens is also great in low light conditions – and it’ll be totally dark while you’re photographing northern lights!

You also want a lens with a low f-stop, sometimes called a fast prime lens. Aim for something from f/1.4 – f/2.8. The lower the number, the lower ISO you can use without getting noise. Anything above a 2.8 won’t work as well. My old Olympus went as low as a 3-point something – so you can see the difference the lower number makes.

Green northern lights over a mountain.
The best I could do with my old camera, an Olympus DSLR

Here are a few lenses recommended for astrophotography:

  • Sigma 24mm f/1.4 Art: This lens doesn’t incredible job at pulling in a lot of light even when the sky is super dark, making it a favorite for astrophotography. I’ve seen some incredible photos taken with this lens that have no retouching in post-processing. Nikon, Canon, and Sony owners can all use this lens with their cameras.
  • Canon EF 35mm f/1.4L II a: This is commonly considered one of the best lenses for astrophotography but it comes with a hefty price tag.
  • Nikkor Z 14-24mm f/2.8 S: This lens fits the Nikon Z series cameras and is appealingly lightweight, which is great when you’re looking around camera gear in the dark.
  • Rokinon/Samyang 14mm f/2.8: This budget lens option is what I use. It only has a manual focus, but that’s perfect for Northern Lights photography because you’ll set and forget the focus.
  • Tamron 15-30mm f/2.8: This is another third-party wide-angle lens is cheaper than a Nikon or Canon lenses. Built-in image stabilization features reduce movement, making images crisper. This one is a little pricier than the Rokinon/Samyang but cheaper than the first two picks.

Check your kit lens against these criteria to understand if the lens that came with your camera will allow you to get high quality photos. It’s better to find this out before the trip, when you have the time to get the right gear.

Any lens that fits these criteria is going to be expensive. So you just want to buy the best fast prime, wide-angle lens you can afford!

What Else Do I Need to Photograph the Northern Lights in Iceland?

A tripod, backup batteries and a remote shutter release.

The third one is optional but the other two definitely are NOT!

A tripod stabilizes your camera. It’s an essential anytime you’re taking photos below a certain shutter speed – definitely a must for astrophotography.

Northern lights over farm field with silhouette of tripod used for photographing the northern lights.
You can see my tripod in this shot

I’ll be honest, I don’t love my tripod and plan to replace it. It does pack down into my suitcase and comes with its own carrying case, but it’s not sturdy enough for my new camera setup.

Those Joby GorillaPod setups that are popular with travel bloggers just aren’t robust enough for something like this.

I am currently looking at the K&F Concept Travel Tripod, which weighs just over 3 pounds and packs down to fit in my suitcase. If I end up choosing that one, I’ll come back and update!

Batteries lose their charge and freezing temperatures, so you’ll go through them quicker than normally. You don’t want to have to cut a photo shoot short because you ran out of juice!

Your remote shutter release takes photos of the click of a button. This means you can take photos without having to touch the camera and potentially introduce a blur. The right so to release depends on the type of camera you have. Here is one that worked with my Z50.

I made sure I had all the gear I needed a couple weeks before my trip. This way I could practice getting everything set up while at home. I actually went out to the park near my house and took night sky photos just so I could get used to setting up in the dark.

How To Photograph Northern Lights Tips Settings for Beginners

I made myself an iPhone cheat sheet before my first Northern Lights photography tour so I wouldn’t forget how to set up a camera.

Here are the essentials:

  • ISO 400-800 ISO at the start, bump it up until you get enough right now – this is all about the sweet spot of speed and reducing noise
  • white balance of 0300-4000 Kelvin
  • set focus to infinity secure it there with tape
  • shutter speed of 3 to 5 seconds for a fast moving Aurora, shutter speed of 10 or 20 seconds if the aurora is slow or Kp is low

Dave Morrow is an amazing landscape photographer who offers a lot of information on his blog and YouTube channel. I highly recommend checking him out if you want to go deeper with astrophotography and Northern Lights.

If you’re just looking for the best settings that you can use on your Northern Lights trip to Iceland, my little cheat sheet will get you started in the right direction.

Swirly northern lights over a farm field
Nice cool tones from that white balance

How to Photograph Northern Lights

We covered the best camera for Northern Lights photography. We talked about the best lens to use and the right camera settings. How do you actually know if the auroras will be active and how do you find them assuming there’s a good chance?

Aurora forecasts are your friends. These measure geomagnetic activity on the planetary K index (Kp for short). More geomagnetic activity = more auroras!

So first check the aurora forecast to know if you have a chance.

If kP is 0-1, it’ll be very tough to see the auroras. I wouldn’t bother.

If kP is 2, the auroras will be dim but they may be visible – if you can get somewhere without light pollution you may have luck.

If kP is 3-5, the aurora will be bright and fast moving. You won’t have to go find it – it will find you. Driving back from Myvatn nature baths, we caught an incredible Aurora show.

If kP is 6-9, you have hit the jackpot. Geomagnetic activity is so strong the auroras become visible in the northern United States.

Check the cloud coverage. Clear skies gives you the best view of the northern lights display.

You can still see the Northern Lights with some clouds. That can make for some really pretty photos of northern lights breaking through the clouds. But if it’s 70% cloud cover or above, you’ll have a very obstructed view. Go out if it’s your only chance because you never know when the clouds will shift – but if you have several other nights to see the Northern Lights, you may get a better shot.

The auroras tend to be the most active on either side of midnight, but you don’t have to be a night owl to see them. It was somewhere around 8:00 p.m. when I took the photos you see here.

Head far out of the city center, ideally into nature. You will see the aurora’s more clearly with less light pollution.

Watch the sky for flashes of green. If the kP is really low it can even look more like a gray cloud. You’ll know it’s the auroras and not a cloud because it will often move.

If you’re driving while the northern lights appear, find a safe place to pull over.

Set your camera on the tripod and dial up the recommended camera settings from the cheat sheet. Try to frame the photo so you have something in the background, like the farm fields or the mountain in these photos. Other objects give perspective to the photo and make it more interesting.

Take a few photos with the test settings and look at them. Make adjustments to the shutter speed as needed.

If the photos are dim you need a longer exposure time. This lets more light pass through the lens. But if the northern lights are moving quickly, a longer exposure won’t capture them. In that case, a higher ISO is the better choice.

Turn down the white balance if the temperature needs to be a little bit cooler – this will really bring out those cool blue and green tones. Avoid the automatic setting.

Take a few more photos. Evaluate and adjust until you have the right combination. It takes some testing, but with patience, you’ll find the sweet spot 🙂

Congrats! You’ve set up your first Northern Lights photo shoot – and with luck you have some incredible photos to remember the experience.

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland – FAQ

Northern Lights in Iceland Best Time to Visit ?

Northern lights season in Iceland is from September to March.

From late April to early August, daylight lasts long into the night. Since you can only see the auroras at night, they won’t be visible at this time of year.

What’s the best place to photograph the northern lights in Iceland?

Avoid cities and head north.

Because of how the earth’s magnetic poles work, northern lights are more active near the poles. Since northern Iceland is closer to the Arctic Circle, it experiences bigger and more frequent aurora activity.

Light pollution makes it difficult to spot auroras, so remote natural areas are best.

Can I see the northern lights in Reykjavik?

You can see the Northern Lights in Reykjavik if the kP level is high – but if you can travel outside of Reykjavik, the auroras will look better.

It’s not impossible to see the northern lights in Reykjavik or other cities, but it IS more challenging.

Here’s how the northern lights looked over downtown Akureyri for an example of how light pollution changes how to photograph the northern lights.

Green northern lights over Akureyri

How do I focus my camera in the dark?

Put your camera on manual focus mode and set the lens to infinity. I like to go outside in the evening and test this out to make sure the camera is set up the way I want it before the auroras even appear.

How to take pictures of northern lights with smartphone?

I’ve never been able to get good pictures of northern lights with my smartphone. The photo comes out grainy, with dull colors. If you only have a smartphone, I’d honestly forget about taking photos of the northern lights and just look up at the sky.

You’ll probably remember it better and the photos won’t come anywhere near as close as the experience.

What is the best app for tracking the Northern Lights?

My Aurora Forecast offers real-time forecasts and notifications based on your location. There is an aurora map, best locations to see the northern lights right now, kP index and a helpful map of the cloud coverage level so you can plan ahead. It comes for iPhone and Android device

What should I wear for northern lights photography in Iceland?

Dress warmly in layers. Think long underwear, fleece-lined pants, warm wool sweaters, jackets, hat and fingerless gloves (so you can adjust your camera if need be).

If temperatures are really chilly, take disposable hand warmers.

Lastly, a thermos of tea (or something stronger) helps!

Like anything else, northern lights photography gets easier the more you practice it. Hopefully you’ll get a few high kP nights on your Iceland winter vacation to give it a go. Just don’t forget to look up from the lens now and then to appreciate – the auroras are a magical phenomenon, and I don’t think I could ever get tired of seeing them. 

I hope this post helps you prepare to go out there, find auroras and capture the moment. If there’s anything else you’d like to know about photographing the northern lights on your Iceland winter vacation, just ask in the comments!


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