First let me put a disclaimer, although I did end up seeing the Northern Lights, it only lasted for a short period of time. My pictures are boring if anything but I wanted to blog about this anyway because I want to share my experiences so that hopefully someone can use this to help them see some kick ass Northern Lights for themselves.
So okay, what are they? Well, have you ever seen those cool postcards of the sky with all these crazy green lights? The Northern Lights at its absolute prime can amazing. Here is a picture I pulled off google images (again, not my picture)
I believe anybody looking at the Northern Lights in person can appreciate its beauty. Furthermore I believe it’s every photographer’s dream (at least landscape ones) to take a kick ass picture of it. I am no different. Not only is there a huge technical challenge of taking the picture, but you first have to be lucky enough to see it.
Chasing The Lights
So to be clear, I’m no Northern Lights expert. I went to Iceland for 8 days, tried taking photos of them on 3 nights and I did some homework on google. Nothing more, nothing less. Here’s a couple of helpful links, I used.
- Aurora Services http://www.aurora-service.eu/
- Iceland Live Feed http://www.livefromiceland.is/webcams/thingvellir/
Let me explain how to use them. You must first realize that there is no actual 100% deterministic way (to date) to say, the lights will show up <insert location here> at <insert time here>. Anything anybody says on a website, on a blog (including this one) is simply a best guess. It’s all based on luck, and all about when God decides to open his green candy box. But there are tools to increase our chances. So link #1 gives you a Aurora Level ranging from 0-8. That number is used on the map with lines, and your location must be ABOVE the line on the map. So for example, if today’s level is 2, you in Iceland are unlikely to see it unless you’re on the North West corner. In simple English, the higher the number, the better your chances. But not only that, the higher the number, the brighter it will be. When I saw the lights, the Aurora Level was 3.
So there are a bunch of factors that can affect whether you see the lights or not
- The weather (cloudy skies = no good), so rain and snow even worse
- The time of the year. Your best chances are november to february
- Where you are at that exact time. The more lights around you, the harder it will be to see (they call this light pollution)
- 11 to midnight is optimal
- According to locals (which is really in relation to point #2), the colder the better. (subzero)
The second link (and in my opinion the more important one), is just a bunch of webcam feeds in different areas of Iceland. Pretty much regardless of what any other link says, your ultimate way of finding out is to actually look at the sky. These webcam feeds help you if it’s freezing outside and you want to see if any other part of Iceland can see the lights. I’ll explain just exactly how i used both links and what I did for each day.
This day was the most pathetic. We had no idea what we were doing. I only used link 1 and with an aurora level 1. Being ignorant we went out anyway around 11pm and drove away from the city till it was pitch black. We sat in the car and prayed. Of course this was a waste of time because it was raining like hell and well we even saw the terrible clouds above of us. Fail + fail + fail.
We were a little more prepared this time. We looked up the Aurora levels, knew it was going to be around 2.64 at 11pm and so we rushed out. (We didn’t know about the live feed yet) We drove away from the city and then parked in a quiet spot. The night was beautiful and it had a full moon. We sat around for about an hour, and at the time I convinced myself the moon was so bright it would prevent us from seeing the northern lights. I’m not telling you that the full moon has anything to do with it in reality, i’m just saying that’s what I was thinking about. Being a little bored, we took fun pictures anyway.
So interestingly enough this was the night we had given up all hope. It was our light night, the moon was still out and we didn’t feel like driving out. During dinner I asked the waitress for a good spot and she recommended the beach beside Reykjavik Airport (yes reykjavik airport not keflavik). So around 9:30 I check link #1, and I see at 10:00pm the estimated aurora level is 3 (the highest all trip). So i’m like kablam that sounds good. We check link #2 and notice that near ThingViller, there were shades of green. So we hop in the car, drive down and I set up my camera. The city was so bright though, I got a little demotivated. So while waiting I took a picture of the city.
As i’m fidgeting with my tripod, Alison points to the sky and says: “Is that it?”. So i quickly reposition my camera and I get a picture of this. Now before you get too harsh on my pictures, let me say a couple of things:
- This was during October – a not so common time for the northern lights and during an aurora level of 3 (low)
- The lights don’t appear for a long time. Think of it as a shooting star and the green is just the residue. The lights were probably really bright for a maximum of 2 minutes.
- After 3 days of waiting, the picture was sort of the last thing on my mind, I was just happy to see it
So yeah, the pictures aren’t all the great, but the experience, while frustrating, was awesome at the same time. Here is a couple of summary points.
- Use the links mentioned in the post, if the estimated aurora level is under 2, your chances are pretty slim
- If you’re feeling lucky, use the live feed cams, you can see the sky from various parts of iceland and any shade of green is a good sign
- It’s going to be really fucking cold when you wait in the car. Remember, your car won’t be on, so dress warm!
- Don’t bring a book or anything like that, keep your eyes on the sky. The lights don’t last long, and IMO it’s not exactly obvious, so you have to pay attention
- Unless you’re part of some tour or you’re a pro that has seen it several times, I would say, expect not to see it at all. Even the locals say sometimes they don’t see it for the entire year and remember you’re on a trip to Iceland there’s a lot of other cool things to do. Everyone wants to see it of course but don’t let the disappointment of not seeing it bring you down.
- At the end of the day it’s luck!
Alright that’s it, haveeeeee fun