There’s no guarantee of seeing the Northern Lights in Iceland, or anywhere for that matter. They appear when they want to appear, and if you happen to be there that’s excellent for you. Which is why spending quite a few hours driving around the back of beyond in Iceland on a bus tour looking for them was always going to be on the cards. I just hoped that the night I’d booked would be my lucky night.
I’d booked the tour 6 months ago and when I got to Reykjavik there was going to be high activity for the Monday night, according to the Aurora forecast. But there was also going to be clouds, wind and rain, not the best conditions for a sighting. After driving out of Reykjavik to escape the light pollution we stopped several times and got out and stood around in the freezing cold hoping something would appear in the sky…a tiny bit of light…anything, but nada. The tour guide was extremely apologetic, but it wasn’t her fault. The Aurora were just playing hard to get.
A guy I met from the Reykjavik hostel had booked the tour especially to see the lights as it was his last night in Iceland, and because the Aurora forecast had been good. He’d already seen them two nights ago, so I told him he was being greedy. Luckily for me, a non-sighting meant that I could re-book the tour.
The next day dawned bright and clear, with hardly any clouds, it looked promising. I checked the Aurora forecast and activity was high, so instead of waiting until Wednesday to recover from last night’s 1.30 am return, I decided to go again that night. I’d read earlier that if the sky was clear then you should take the chance and go. Actually I decided I might as well go every night until I saw them since I’d already paid for the tour!
Based on the guy I’d met telling me he’d gone earlier in the evening I changed the tour time from 9 pm to 7.30 pm, just in case that was a better time. Oh it was! The hotel pick-up started at 7 pm and on the way to the tour bus terminal I overheard a girl telling the group behind her she’d just seen the Northern Lights in the sky for ‘three minutes’ outside her hotel when she was waiting to be picked up. She’d taken photos and there was lots of ooohing and ahhhing. When we arrived at the terminal the group started ooohing and ahhhing again and pointing up at the sky. Sure enough there were long streaks appearing overhead. I started to get excited, this looked like it could be the night.
We were so busy peering up at the sky the hotel pick-up driver had to remind us the bus left in 5 minutes. On the bus there was a frisson of tension, our driver ‘Otto’ said that three things were needed for a good sighting: clear skies, cold and activity. According to him we had all three.
The bus took off with Otto giving us a running commentary about the Northern Lights and how to take photos of them. He actually repeated the photo information about three times, reiterating ‘no flash’, ‘manual setting’, ‘infinity’ and ‘tripod’. None of this really applied to me except the ‘no flash’ part as I had a Canon point and shoot. True it had a manual setting but only a basic one, and I didn’t have an infinity setting. I was just going to have to make do if the lights appeared.
After driving for a while out of Reykjavik’s light pollution we pulled off to the right and Otto stopped the bus. Apparently there was activity here and we were going to stay for an hour. After driving around last night from place to place an hour sounded like a long time. Everyone piled on their jackets, scarves and hats and piled off the bus into the freezing darkness.
We stood silently looking up into the sky. Was that slightly brighter glimmer the Northern Lights? Perhaps? I started walking up a scoria pathway where it was darker. Otto was ahead and telling people not to stray from the bus. We looked some more. The lights got brighter and started forming long white streaks. I decided I should try and take a photo, it came out like this:
Wow, it definitely looked better on camera, really green not white at all. I took some more. I’d set the shutter speed to the longest time possible, 15 seconds, and the exposure to the greatest +2. That was the extent of my manual settings. But they were capturing something. Then it morphed into swirls.
I saw a mossy rock and decided to perch on that, with my diary on my knees as a flat surface. I also remembered Otto saying to do a self-timer so I used that too. I started getting some ok shots, like this one:
So I just kept going until my fingers were frozen and the lights had faded. In hindsight perhaps I should have looked at them with my eyes a little more, but they did look a lot better on camera. This is probably the best one of all:
I like the way you can see the silhouettes of people taking photos underneath, as truly that’s what everyone was doing madly (and some even using ‘the flash’ despite Otto’s strict instructions).
After hanging around for a bit longer to see if they reappeared, Otto decided to go to an abandoned ski field on the way back to the city. But although there was activity he said it wasn’t anything like what we’d just seen so he drove us back to Reykjavik an hour early. To be honest that was fine with me as I couldn’t have done another 1.30am’er. Northern Lights in Iceland? Tick.
The moral of the story is, don’t stress if you don’t have a fancy camera and tripod, you can still take photos of the Northern Lights with a point and shoot. Ok they may not be the clearest but as long as you keep it reasonably steady and use the longest shutter speed and brightest exposure, you should get something to prove that you’ve seen them.