The Reykjavik Edit: The Northern Lights at New Year

‘A place where I felt feelings I never knew I had’- that’s how I would describe Iceland. In the lead-up to our afternoon departure, I had planned our days as meticulously as possible, wanting to make sure that we didn’t miss any opportunity. Yet, from the minute we arrived, we were truly in an adventure that I would never have been able to imagine, let alone plan: welcome to Iceland.

"Better weight than wisdom a traveller cannot carry" The sayings of the Vikings

Background into the Aurora

Seeing the Northern Lights had been on the top of my Bucket List for years. The idea of our Earth’s magnetic field protecting us from electrically charged particles from the sun fascinates me. Although it was a long shot, with the collisions forming such a beautiful natural display we were going to give the search a good try! The Aurora can be seen between roughly October and March, so we were going at a great time of year. However, the conditions also need to be perfect. There needs to be low light pollution, no cloud cover and dark skies, as well as a high level of aurora activity… A great deal of luck is involved, but hey- natural beauty only reveals itself to those it wants to! This post is based on our experience with Reykjavik Excursions, who offered the tour for £50 each.

 

On Arrival

We were greeted to the Land of Ice and Fire with a snowstorm which, being from the lower UK, was a welcome winter rarity. Upon landing, after a rendition of Bowie’s Space Oddity in true Walter Mitty style, we boarded one of the many ready and waiting buses and made our way Reykjavik. Although we couldn’t see the landscape due to the winter hours we immediately felt as though we were on a different planet.

Reykjavik Airport

 

Grabbing Every Opportunity

All day we had been checking the aurora forecast and it seemed the conditions were in our favour. The Northern Lights tour of the evening was going ahead in 45 minutes, so we decided we just had to try to make it. After a very brisk walk to the Guesthouse (15 minutes instead of the 20 it should take!), we met the wonderful owner, grabbed our camera equipment and legged it back to the station. On the bus, we listened to beautiful Icelandic Christmas tales to welcome us to this magical country. An hour later, we parked up, set up our camera and shivered in anticipation. And cold.

 

The Search for the Northern Lights

We scoured the sky for what felt like hours, willing the cloud cover to pass, searching desperately for a clear spot. In true Icelandic nature, after another brief snowstorm, the clouds parted. Revealed was the starriest sky I have ever seen. Now, I know we were there for the Aurora, but the stars were truly magical. If you travel to Iceland (which I strongly recommend) please take the time to look up from the incredible scenery to enjoy the majesty of the universe around us.

We gazed up in awe, practicing getting the high exposure and long shutter speed balance right with the help of the wonderful tour guides. Please remember that the photos in this post are all our own, but are from our first time shooting the night sky and the Northern Lights. I would really appreciate any shooting/editing tips that you may have from your own Northern Lights experiences!

starry sky

A Glimmer of (green) Hope

There was such a feeling of complete calm, so far removed from the bustle of city life. Waiting for nature, I clearly remember looking at the sky and thinking ‘they will come’. Soon after, the clouds straight ahead of us seemed to look strangely different, so we waited for what felt like the longest 30 second picture to be taken. Sure enough, the undeniably tell-tale green light appeared on the image!

The first glimpse of the Northern Lights

 

For the next hour, the lights got stronger and more vivid, leaving us with an indescribable feeling of pure tranquillity as they danced across the sky. What a wonderful first night in Iceland.

Green glow

Watching the lights get brighter

Throughout the rest of our stay, the evening excursions were cancelled due to poor weather conditions. On the final night, a tour went ahead but the lights were invisible to the naked eye. So, although luck had been on our side on that first night, it goes to show that if an opportunity is there you have to go for it… Even if it means running around Reykjavik with no clue where you should be going! If we hadn’t put in the effort to rush around on that first night after a long day of travelling, we wouldn’t have seen the breath-taking beauty of the Northern Lights.

The "Merry Dancers"

Thank you to Reykjavik Excursions for the incredible experience!

My Top Tips:

  1. Don’t plan to see the Northern Lights. This is a natural phenomenon which is completely out of your and the guides’ control. The amount of people I saw complaining on TripAdvisor that they hadn’t had a successful search infuriated me! Don’t be that person!
  2. Check the aurora forecast throughout the day. Type it into Google and you’ll find it! It shows you the likelihood of aurora activity. If it is also a clear night you may have more of a chance of seeing the show.
  3. Be patient. Just because the lights aren’t instantly in the sky does not mean they won’t be. Wrap up warm, enjoy the company of those with you. This way, if you don’t see them it won’t feel like a ‘wasted’ night. Instead it will be that awesome night you stargazed in a lava field with your friends/family!
  4. Take a decent camera and tripod with you, and practice, practice, practice. To photograph the aurora, you need to use a long exposure- ours took a minute or so. This means a tripod is a must to keep the photo from looking blurry. Practice using the stars so that you aren’t in a panic if the lights show.
  5. Want to photograph someone with the aurora behind them? Flash your phone’s torch for a second as you click the camera shutter. You’ll be left with the person lit with the lights still vivid behind them. The only catch is that the person has to stay completely still for the time it takes the picture to be taken!

Have you ever seen the Northern Lights, or are you still searching? I’d love to hear your stories, please leave a comment below! You can also read about my experience discovering the Golden Circle and trying snowmobiling here . Check out my top tips for Reykjavik here !

UPDATE: I was kindly offered some Photoshop advice by the lovely Moyan Brenn in the comments on this post. Here is my new attempt at a couple of the photos!

Northern Lights new edit

Northern Lights 2 edit

Emilie x

19 thoughts on “The Reykjavik Edit: The Northern Lights at New Year

  1. I’ve been to Iceland and like you being from the Uk, as we don’t see that amount of snow etc I was loving it! I went beginning of Feb 2011and Iceland is now on my top 3 places to live and on my top 5 places to return too. It was the best trip I’ve had.
    Loved the post brought back alot of memories for me 🙂

    1. Hi Bethany, I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed the post- I’m going to do this as a mini-series, so I have about 5 more Iceland posts lined up! It’s such a beautiful place, I don’ know about you but I just felt like I was in a different world! What sort of things did you get up to while you were there? 🙂

  2. My dream is to see the Northern Lights there. When I went to Iceland it was summer and didnt get dark! I have however seen them in The Lakes! x
    Lola Mia // ww.lolitabonita.co.uk

    1. Sounds amazing in The Lakes! I’d love to go to Iceland in summer, that’s what is so amazing about Iceland its like a completely different place across the seasons! I’d definitely recommend winter, I’ll be adding posts soon with some of the other things we got up to 🙂 x

  3. I am looking forward to more post about Iceland from you! Really like your aurora shots and I am happy for you that you got lucky that night. Its just something you will never forget!

  4. hi friend thanks for following me!…glad you got some northern lights shots…..i’ve read you asked for some tips for your photos…..from my experience (i am a northern lights hunter too), to improve your shots open them with photoshop, press ctrl+h to open the histogram…you will find a little dot on the bottom right corner…drag it on the left until it touch the “peak” part of the histogram and press OK…you should get a nice improvement…cheers and thanks!
    ps: if you want i wrote a very long article about the northern lights on my blog with also some shooting tips, where you found my article of Tokyo…it’s in the homepage under the section of the most read articles….

      1. no problem! you are welcome..i helped dozens of guys about the northern lights..i’m really in love with it… i’m glad if i can help you too!the title of my article is “Northern Lights in Iceland: my full guide to see them”…i don’t link it here to avoid spam…just check the homepage, it’s there under most read section…cheers and thanks!

    1. Hi again! I have had a look at that technique, the colours look so much more vivid! What do you think? I wasn’t sure if I’ve gone too far/not far enough? (I’ve put them at the end of the original post) Thank you so much again!

      1. Hi again friend, they look a little bit better….basically the optimal point of the slider is the one where you see that the histogram becomes flat….i believe that maybe you can still move the slider a little bit…

    1. They are beautiful, and well worth the wait! I’m now uploading a general ‘tips’ post for Reykjavik, feel free to check it out when you do get round to planning your trip! 🙂

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