In March of 2017 my wife Liz and I went Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) hunting in Iceland. It’s a popular destination for chasing the Northern Lights hunting, but the results are often mixed. We were in Iceland for 8 days but only saw the lights twice, and only one of those was particularly memorable. Iceland can be cloudy for a week, and unless it’s a clear night, you just will not see them.
We caught a fabulous display on our second to last day in Iceland. We stayed at the Hótel Búðir which I highly recommend. The Hotel is just two hours drive from Reykjavik. It’s situated on a lava field next to the ocean and there are plenty of sightseeing activities in the area.
All of these shots were taken right on the hotel property.
Feature Image Details
For these images, I used a Canon 16-35MM F4 L Lens: If I had to pick one lens and one lens only, this lens would be at the top of the list. I see things from a wide angle perspective.
The exposure on most of these shots was 13 seconds at F4.5 at 16mm, ISO 2500.
In the image immediately above, you should be able to spot the constellation Orion on the lower left (it is setting). Also, see if you can find the Big Dipper in the upper right. In the feature image the bright light above the volcanic cone is the setting crescent moon.
It might not look like it but I brutally underexposed all of these images. It is very easy to do at night. The display viewfinder looks good, but it isn’t. Trust the histogram, now what your eyes see.
I could have used at least one more stop of light on these shots. Instead of 13 seconds, I should have done 20 seconds.
The longest exposure you can take without stars trailing (looking like streaks instead of pinpoints is governed by this equation.
- ET = 400/FL
- ET = seconds
- 400 is a constant by observation
- FL is the focal length used in mm
In this case, I was at 16 mm so I could have gone about 25 seconds. That would have really brought out the shadow details much better. Also, I could have bumped the ISO a bit, to say 3200. A combination of 20-25 seconds at ISO 3200 would have been about right.
Obviously, you need a tripod for this.
Underexposed images looked really blotchy but I used Topaz Labs Denoise to smooth out the colors. The tradeoff is a loss of sharpness.
Long exposures at night are typically not extremely sharp (think wind, moving lights, very dark shadows, etc). Northern Lights are also moving. If they are moving fast, and the exposure is too long you will get a blurry mess. Thus, there was merit in attempting to keep the exposure time down.
A faster lens can help, but that is at the cost of depth of field. Everything is a tradeoff.
Those interested in my equipment and recommendations can find it here: Mish’s Equipment List.
Iceland is a fabulous destination. I have an entire series called Iceland in 16 days.
Scroll through my Mish Moments Home Page until you find them. I discuss where to go, where to stay, and what to see. I also have photo tips on many of the best locations.,
Interested in visiting Iceland?
Please see my Iceland Guide. It lists our complete itinerary for a 16-day summer solstice trip.
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Mike “Mish” Shedlock