There is no secret recipe for the Northern lights, it’s a natural event and you have to prepare yourself that you might not see the Aurora Borealis show during your trip, but there are a few things you can do to ensure you have the best chances. Here are my tips on booking your Northern Lights tour during your stay in Reykjavik, Iceland and how to photograph the lights.
How to book in advance?
The Northern lights are very dependant on the weather and activity forecast (more on this below). So if you are booking your trip in advance, I am guessing you probably are, there is no way to know when the best conditions are going to be. My advice is to book your Aurora borealis experience for the first night of your stay. This is really important because if you leave it till the end and the conditions are not good, you might miss it. Once you are there and you are able to check the forecast for the next 2-3 nights, you might be able to change it if the company you have booked with have availability. Also, most companies that hunt the northern lights give you the option to join the tour for one more night for free if you don’t get to see them on your first.
The longer you stay in Iceland, the better chances you have, so best to go there for at least 3-4 nights. We were there for 2 nights, which was risky and we observed the lights on the second night, but there had been no clear sky for 2 nights before that, so we were just very lucky.
Choose the right tour company
Don’t book the cheaper big group trips, I guarantee that you will not get the same dedication and attention. I read quite a few reviews on tripadvisor and finally I booked a tour with probably one of the best companies out there – Happyworld. The group was small and we were picked up with a jeep directly from our apartment. The guides were very knowledgeable and they were looking at satellite images of the clouds to try to predict where there will be an opening and a clear sky and then we drove to that location, which was of course away from the city. They genuinely care if you are going to see the lights and they stayed with us until we saw them!
We were so happy because it was our last night in Iceland and we had lost hope as the weather over our time there was very rainy and cloudy and you can’t see the lights unless there is a clear sky. Happyworld have a great success rate and they make a go or no-go decision at about 6 pm on the day you have booked so 90% of their tours observe Northern lights. Their tour costs 160£ per person, but it’s worth it if you want to have the best chances of seeing the lights. If they think the chances are too low they cancel the trip and they don’t waste your money or time, while other companies will still try to take you even if they know there are low chances of seeing the lights based on the forecast. This is what happened with us. On our first night when we had booked the tour, the weather was simply too bad so they cancelled the tour and took us the next night instead when there were better weather conditions of observing the lights! The tour also included hot chocolate and stargazing with a telescope so you are not bored while you wait. Finally, Anita from Happyworld will take a picture of you in front of the lights and send it to you after.
I have to say, I didn’t receive a discount and this post is not sponsored by them, I am just recommending them as I genuinely enjoyed the tour and the team was lovely.
Here are some pretty stars from our stargazing.
Check the Weather & Activity forecast
The Northern lights are visible between October and April. Their strength is classified with a 0 to 9 kp scale, 9 kp being the strongest. The Happyworld team were so kind to explain some interesting points based on their experience, which I would like to share with you as I was confused about some of this initially:
- The activity is very rarely over 4 and in most cases when the lights are observed it’s around 2-3 kp.
- The scale is skewed, so even if you see an activity forecast of 2, you often have an actual activity of 3 for example.
- There is a northern light activity almost every night in Iceland, however if the activity is 1 or 0, the chances are low and it’s unlikely to observe them.
Regardless of the activity, the last and most important factor is the cloud cover. If there is a complete cloud cover, you will not be able see the lights!
So if you want to try to see which day has the best forecast when you get there, you can use this site to check the activity. Don’t worry if it says “Low”, you have good chances. You can also see the Short-Term (1-hour) Forecast further below on the page. To check the cloud cover use this site. Green areas are cloudy and white areas clear skies.
The forecast for the day we saw the Aurora Borealis
So what was the forecast for the night when we observed them? Activity 2, with on and off clouds. It was quite cloudy, it even rained and hailed at one point while we were waiting, this is when we were losing hope. Despite the challenging conditions, we got some clear skies eventually and we saw the below. All these pictures are of an activity 2 forecast (although we can’t be sure what the actual activity was). There were minibuses with large groups coming and going, without being patient enough, but nobody had our dedication and eventually it paid off!
Bring your camera!
Bring a good DSLR camera and a tripod with you! There is something a lot of people will not tell you. The lights you see with your eyes are not the same as what you will see on the picture. The camera enhances the lights, because it opens up the lens and lets more light in. We were looking at the sky, hardly seeing much, but what the camera was capturing was far more impressive. I am guessing not all nights are like this and if the activity is stronger you will probably see more with your eyes. Some pictures of the Northern lights online are heavily photoshopped and unrealistic or they have managed to photograph a very unique and rare Aurora Borealis show, so you have to set your expectations right and understand that most nights the show is not as big as what you see online. It’s still something you have to see though and you never know what will show up in the sky!
Camera settings to photograph the Northern lights
If possible, try to have a wide-angle lens. I used a 16-35 mm Canon lens. Also, bring a tripod with you. You can’t take a picture with these settings without a tripod. If you have a remote control, try to use it so you don’t shake the camera. The camera settings to photograph the lights should be:
- Shutter speed: 8 – 15 seconds. If the lights are moving fast, set it to 8.
- Aperture: f/2.6-f/4 or as low as your lens can go, you want to let more light in.
- Manual focus, set to infinity (∞)
- ISO: 1600
Thanks to Anita from Happyworld for the help with the camera settings! I had read some info before the tour, but once I started setting up the camera I was a bit confused, but these settings worked perfectly.
Be prepared for the cold
Once you do go to chase the lights, wear proper mountain clothes. It gets really cold during the night and you might end up waiting out in the cold for a few hours, although you are always given the option to stay in the car if you wish. Hats, gloves, scarfs, anything you can put on really!
Planning your trip to Reykjavik, Iceland?
There is lots more to see besides the Northern lights. Check out my full itinerary here:
Want to plan your Blue Lagoon experience?
If you are visiting Iceland, you will have to visit the Blue Lagoon as well and experience proper Icelandic spa. Read this detailed post about all you need to know to plan your visit.
I hope this post was useful and if it does help you see the lights, please comment below and let me know. If you have any questions I will try to answer them. Good luck!