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.
The Búðakirkja Church, sometimes called the Búdir Church is just as short, even walkable, distance from the hotel.
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. There is an entrance gate that detracts from the image that I edited out in Photoshop. It is between the highest rock walls on the very far right. You can see it in the images below. If I stood a bit further to the left, that would not have been necessary.
The exposure on most of these shots was 13 seconds at F4.5 at 24mm, ISO 2500.
A Peek Inside
The church is locked. I took that image through a church window, similar to the one you see on the opposite side, after clearing off all the smudges with lens cleaning tissues. It is an HDR blend of multiple exposures blended together in Lightroom and Photoshop. To take this image, the lens of my camera was right on the window, and I do mean that literally. If you break the window attempting this, don’t blame me. That shot was at 28mm.
The sign says the first church was built there in 1703 by Bendt Laurdisen. It was later demolished and rebuilt. In 1816 the parish was abolished and the church was dismantled. One of the ladies of the parish fought strongly for a new church and eventually received a royal permission to build a new one, which stood ready in 1848. In 1987, it was reconstructed and consecrated the same year. Among the valuable possessions of the church are a bell from 1672, an altarpiece from 1750, an old silver chalice, two messing candlesticks from 1767, and a door ring from 1703.
A closeup look at the door ring image in my shot above says “1951”. Perhaps that is a replica of the 1703 door ring.
It might not look like it but I underexposed the Northern Lights 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 25 seconds.
Underexposed images looked really blotchy but I used Topaz Labs Denoise to smooth out the colors. The tradeoff was a loss of sharpness.
For these kinds of images, one needs to adjust the shadows and highlights negative. Otherwise, you will lose stars.
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.
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.
Please also see Iceland Northern Lights, Snæfellsnes Peninsula, Búðir for shots taken right on the hotel property.
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