The great disco in the sky: photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland

written by Diana Jarvis
updated 12/14/2020
fb tw mail_outline

A photography trip on every lens-lover’s bucket list, shooting the Northern Lights in Iceland really is as spectacular as it sounds. Rough Guides photographer Diana Jarvis went to chase the aurora borealis across the remote Icelandic countryside.

Don't go looking for the Northern Lights and expect to get any sleep: the weather will have final say over your itinerary and there’s nowhere Mother Nature is more firmly in charge than on an aurora-chasing trip in Iceland.

In a land of sugar-dusted volcanic peaks, electric-blue glaciers, meandering meltwater tributaries, ice lakes and wide endless skies, your choice of backdrop for those elusive Northern Lights photos is immense.

By Diana Jarvis

Aurora season is primarily between October and March, as although activity actually takes place throughout the year, the longer summer days mean that it’s never quite dark enough to see the colourful trails illuminating the sky. And boy oh boy does it need to be dark (read: late) and with clear skies. And you need to be in the right place at the right time of course.

But with settlements on the south east coast few and far between, the challenge of finding somewhere to camp out in the cold all night while awaiting the unpredictable aurora can make it a logistical conundrum.

The perfect way to access the elusive Northern Lights

The solution? Jump aboard the ‘travelling hotel’ and a mean beast of an off-road jeep-cum-minibus that can set up camp anywhere Mother Nature decrees. If she lets you sleep at all, that is.

By Diana Jarvis

This warm and cosy accommodation on wheels is run by Tatra Photography, who’ve been providing photography tours for the last five years. My team consists of trip captain Matt, Jón, a native Icelander with expert knowledge of the geography of the country and Mark Bauer, a seasoned landscape photographer whose passion and technical knowledge mean you’ll return home with shots well beyond your anticipated capabilities (and a very expensive equipment wish list).

What I saw with my eyes was darkness, but what I saw on the back of my camera after a 15-second exposure was something quite different

On my first day, after a six-hour drive heading east, we arrived at Jokulsárlón glacier lake where the travelling hotel was already set up for the night. Just as well, too, as the clouds had rolled in and rains were descending – little of the lake was discernible.

Yet as we cozied up listening to the pitter patter of rain on the canvas roof of the ‘dining room’ later that evening, Matt and Mark began to get excited: the Kp readings were reaching 6 and 7 indicating the chance of dancing lights in the skies.... at 2, maybe 3am if the clouds dispersed. It was going to be a long night.

My first few attempts were unappealing murky grey approximations of the shifting icebergs on the lake in front, but it was all good practice for when aurora put in her first appearance. It wasn’t what I’d been expecting – just as when you photograph light trails from speeding vehicles you capture something the naked eye doesn’t see, it’s the long exposure that reveals the colour and shape of the aurora.

What I saw with my eyes was darkness, clouds parting and a faint shifting whiteness in the sky that could be mistaken for clouds illuminated by stadium lights or similar.

But what I saw on the back of my camera after a 15-second exposure (coupled with ISO 3200, f/2.8 set to infinity focus for the geeks among you) was, well, something quite different.

By Diana Jarvis

The rest of the trip continued in the same vein: during the days we were taken to beautifully photogenic spots – electric blue glaciers to Atlantic waves crashing over weather-sculpted ice blocks, desolate black-sand beaches to jagged volcanic peaks.

At night we wrapped up in our merino and down layers and waited patiently for aurora to put in an appearance.

By Diana Jarvis

I raced up to the top of the hillock to revel in every moment of it with my very own, sleepy eyes, recording the twists and turns of the colourful strands in my memory for future replays

While night two was quiet, night three really was disco time in the sky. I had just about given up and was traipsing back to the truck when the dancing began.

My first reaction, however, was not to reach for the cable release and guess at an appropriately shorter exposure time but, rather, to race up to the top of the hillock and revel in every moment of it with my very own, sleepy eyes, recording the twists and turns of the colourful strands on my mind’s eye for future replays.

After three nights by the lake, the travelling hotel decamped to a flat lunar landscape surrounded by lofty peaks midway between Eystrahorn and Vestrahorn. If you looked far enough into the distance you might see shy reindeer herds trotting by.

Despite the Kp readings being a lower than previous nights, and the prospect of a 3am start for the airport the following day, we still headed out into the night. It was hard to resist one final fling with our new friend aurora...

Polar lights can be seen in many high latitude locations- including Iceland, Norway, Finland, Canada, and Alaska.

Wanting to explore other places to see the northern lights? Check out our guide to the most beautiful places in Alaska.

Travel advice for Iceland

author photo
written by Diana Jarvis
updated 12/14/2020
fb tw mail_outline

Diana is a photographer and writer based in Margate, Kent. She has shot ten guidebooks for Rough Guides and undertaken numerous commissions for Visit England, National Geographic Traveller (UK), GreenTraveller and Cool Camping, among others. She is currently the editor of Eye for the Light a subscription-only, digital publication in association with Travel Photographer of the Year and is also the Publishing and Photography Director at the British Guild of Travel Writers. Follow her @diana_jarvis on Instagram and Twitter.

Planning on your own? Prepare for your trip

Use Rough Guides' trusted partners for great rates

Find even more inspiration for Iceland here

Ready to travel and discover Iceland?
Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels