I’ve visited Iceland many times since 2014, and have managed to see the aurora at least once on every visit outside the summer months. This is a quick guide explaining how.
Aurora sighting requires these factors to line up:
- It has to be completely dark at night, which means it can’t be any time during the summer months. The closest to summer I’ve seen the aurora was in September.
- The moon should either be set (i.e. not visible during the night), or at least no bigger than a half moon. Eyes adjust to seeing the aurora faster without a bright moon.
- Cloud cover has to be minimal. Sometimes, large low-to-mid clouds can still allow the aurora through. High level cloud cover will block it though.
- Move away from city, town or farm lights. Iceland makes this easy, especially away from the Golden Circle and main cities.
- Solar activity must be at a level of 5 or over to be easily visible to the eye. Level 3 and 4 can also work, but you need very dark conditions. Level 7 and up can be spectacular. The level can be very hard to predict, and I’ve seen the predicted levels change over a period of hours.
Live aurora forecast, from NOAA:
If you’re determined to see the aurora, and don’t mind overspend on hotels, I would suggest booking many hotels that give route options. Costs can kept in control by booking hotels that offer same day cancellation at the cost of an increased overnight rate.
When I drive the ring road around Iceland, I book hotels in both a north-first and south-first route from Reykjavik. Then a day or two before landing, I check the weather conditions and then commit to one route and cancel the other. During my stays in Iceland, I will usually adjust my hotels at least 3 to 4 times during a 10 day period.
First, you need to find out the areas with minimal low light pollution. Best results will be in the areas with dark blue to dark grey coloring. The website Dark Site Finder helps with this. Use this to guide your hotel selection.
Use the Icelandic Met Office site to guide you a day or two in advance. The website combines cloud and aurora predictions along with moon and sunset information. They also offer five-day forecasts, but the weather in Iceland is always changing. I have never seen the predictions being accurate for more than 1 to 2 days out. If you're finding the weather move against you, consider changing your hotel plans or wait it out.
On the night, you're going to need an up-to-date understanding of the location of clouds and the current solar activity. The Met Office page helps again, as well as Space Weather Live and their twitter feed. Use this to guide you where you can find the best views of the aurora. When the skies are clear, but the activity level is below 5 I go to bed and set an alarm for 2am. I then check if the intensity has changed, and head out if worth it.
If you're out, you might find the clouds move or the intensity changes. You might have to move to get to clear skies - you will need to guage the effort versus the predicted intensity. The longest drive I’ve had was 3 hours in one direction, but the intensity was a level 8. Icelandic road conditions can change at short notice - especially during winter months - so it's a good idea to also keep an eye on current road conditions.
A final note is that the expected aurora levels might be inaccurate, and a high level does not guarantee visibility. I've had a level 7 aurora where there was nothing visible, a level 5 that was stunning.
There are better guides available on the internet, but a short summary is:
- Shoot your photos in RAW format.
- SLR or mirrorless cameras give the best results. I've had good results with the Canon 5D Mk 3 and 4, and I've seen spectacular results with the Sony a7S II.
- Auroras can fill the entire sky, so super-wide to wide angle lenses do best. Looking at my photo library, most of my photos have been between 16mm and 30mm (on a full frame camera body). Beware distortion on lower quality lenses at wider angles and lower apertures.
- Use a lens with an aperture of F4 or lower. Image stabilization isn’t necessary (and can be problematic with tripods). Set the aperture to manual, and open it up to F2.8, or the closest you can get..
- ISO will usually be in the range of 400 to 1600. Some cameras are better than others at offering high ISO with low noise. Aurora activity levels will influence this - the higher the activity level, the lower the ISO required.
- Use manual focus, and set focus to infinity. Some lenses can go 'beyond' infinity, and this will not work. It's easier to know your equipment well before using it in the pitch dark.
- Expect exposure times to be in the five to thirty second range, making a sturdy tripod necessary. This can be very challenging in the windy conditions so frequent in Iceland. Note that depending on your zoom, as you get closer to thirty seconds it is more likely that you will see the stars transform into star trails.
- If you can zoom in sufficiently with the display on the back of the camera, check the focus as you go. It's easy to bump the camera out of focus in the dark.
- Using a red torch at night can help you see the ground and your camera without giving you temporary night blindness.