How I Got the Shot - Iceland Aurora Borealis

It was close to midnight and the weather was bitter cold in the central part of Iceland. We were watching out the back window of the farmer's guest house to see if the Aurora was going to show that night. Many farms in Iceland have added guest houses to their properties to take advantage of the tourist trade. We could see the lights of the farm house reflecting off the snow from the front door of our room.

Maybe we should just go out and check?

We put on heavy pants and boots over our pajamas and trudged out into the frosty night. We wouldn’t be out long.

The best way to check for an Aurora Borealis is to shoot a long exposure through your DSLR camera. If there is Aurora activity, you will be able to see it for sure from the photo preview on the back of your camera.

We went out and made a test shot. Sure enough, the sky was beginning to show light streaks of blue and green in the sky.

The next thing we needed to do was alert the other people who were attending our Iceland photography workshop. We knocked on everyone’s door and they all came out bleary eyed in various pajama and overcoat clad outfits to view what was going to be one of many nights of watching the Aurora Borealis in Iceland.

One of the big draws for photographers when they come with us to Iceland in the winter is to photograph the Aurora Borealis. Some people expect that they will see the lights just because they are in the right latitude or close to the Arctic Circle. There are a couple of conditions that are important for the Aurora. The sky needs to be clear and dark.

I have even heard of people ask when are the “lights going to turn on?” But you’re at Nature’s whim, and there’s no switch to turn it on! We’ve seen it many times, and every time it’s completely different, with varied shapes, sizes, colors and intensities. Well, for sure, your chances are way greater than for us here in Southern California, but there’s no guarantee that you will see it.

Also keep in mind, when viewing the images on the back of your camera, they may seem brighter than they do in daylight. Your eyes have adjusted to the dark light, and the images will tend to appear brighter.

I usually start with my ISO at about 1000 and use full manual exposure. Put your f-stop on the widest setting for your lens (which would be the lowest number). If you have a lens that shoots at an f-stop of 2.0 or lower (a fast lens), your results will be better. I then set my shutter speed at about 15-20 seconds. Anything slower than 20 seconds will start to blur the star trails.

We have been fortunate enough to see the Aurora Borealis every time we have come to Iceland in the winter, but it wasn’t always when we wanted to see it or in a good location where we could take advantage of the natural surroundings.

But this particular evening was special. We were in a beautiful rural location, and the sky started to light up and continued for a couple of hours. It’s a surreal experience to see the colors of blue and green dance in the sky.

One of the important things to keep in mind when photographing the Aurora, is to have your camera's settings right and to check your images on the back of your camera to be sure your exposures are correct. Each camera is a little different depending on the sensor size and the ability to capture the light.

Then, take a deep breath, and enjoy the scene in front of you before you start shooting. It’s an incredible experience, and it’s important to have that view in your mind’s eye as well as your camera. Hopefully, you will be as lucky as we were to have the opportunity to capture this amazing site. These images reflect a couple of hours of shooting from that evening, and one of the most exciting moments in Iceland.

We hope you can join us on one of our future Iceland workshops at

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