Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland

Kirkjufell with Northern Lights in Iceland

The Back Story

I try to get back to Canada at least once a year to visit my family. Iceland and Reykjavík in particular has established itself as a trans-Atlantic flight hub. This is great news for me, because I can tack on a week or so and tour around the country on either leg of the journey. Heading home for Christmas at the end of 2018, I was particularly excited, as it was my first time visiting in the winter months and would get an opportunity to see the northern lights, otherwise known as aurora borealis. I had seen the northern lights in Iceland before in August, though they were quite faint to the naked eye, I was able to pull out more detail and colour in camera. It wet my appetite and I was keen to get more.

I was traveling with a friend and we were both expecting and looking forward to a winter wonderland, so we rented a proper 4-wheel-drive vehicle with spiked tires in order to cross the arctic tundra. We should have rented a kayak, it rained almost non-stop for the entire 7 days. We would stay up or get up in the middle of the night, to see if somehow miraculously, the weather had improved. No such luck – rain, rain and more rain. The last night in Iceland there was glimmer of hope. The chances of northern lights were good and the evening was cloudy but some blue sky visible here are there. I was traveling on to Canada the next day and was spending the last night by myself on the Snæfellsnes peninsula near Kirkjufell. My hotel room had a window facing north, even though I was flying out the next day I still stayed up till 3 AM. Still no luck. I put on my PJs and brushed my teeth, just before putting out the light to go to bed I saw a green patch on the sky. I quickly got redressed and packed up the car and was only a short drive from Kirkjufell, you couldn’t ask for a better landscape. I wasn’t back in bed until 5 AM roughly, and got doubly lucky in that my flight to Canada was delayed – I showed up to the airport 45 minutes before takeoff. 


While not particularly exciting and perhaps a bit self-explanatory, proper preparation will increase the likelihood of not just getting photos of the northern lights but getting good or great photos. For starters, make sure you have all your gear and that your batteries are all charged – usually you’ve spent a day out and about and it would be a crying shame to run of steam before or during the natural spectacle. It’s also a good idea to keep an eye out for good spots during the day that you can return to after dark – keeping in mind the aurora borealis will be most visible facing north. Depending on the weather it makes sense to have a backup camera (see the next section about gear). The weather changes quite frequently in Iceland, so keeping an eye on the weather the night of is important to know, if it’s worth giving it a shot or not. If there is a forecast for clear or cloudy skies, the next thing to check is the Kp-index on the Icelandic weather service. The night in questions the probability on a scale of 0 to 9 was a 3. 

The Gear and Settings

I had broken my Fuji X-Pro2 for the second time, so I had to sacrifice a few megapixels. However, as a general rule, always bring a backup camera! Especially in cold, wet, windswept places like Iceland. I had learned my lesson and would have missed these shots if I didn’t have my X-E2 with me. If you’ve got your camera body, the next thing you will need is a wide-angle lens – the lights dance around a lot so a wide frame will increase your capture rate. Obviously a tripod is necessary as well, in a pinch however a rock or sweater will do. I was using a Samyang 12mm (18.36mm equivalent) prime lens with the aperture wide open. Stars will also be visible, so to keep star trails to a minimum, keep the shutter speed under 20 seconds. I had the ISO set to only 1,000 – this was due to the almost full moon, which was lighting up the foreground, though not washing out the northern lights. 

Marshland in front of Kirkjufell set against aurora borealis

Me giving some scale and enjoying the majesty

The view from my hotel towards Kirkjufell before heading out