How to find and photograph Northern Lights in Iceland, Finland, Alaska or Canada. Practical tips and sample camera settings to help you capture auroras as a pro!

How to See and Photograph the Northern Lights

In Iceland, PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS by JurgaThis post may contain affiliate links, which means that we may receive a small commission, at no cost to you, if you make a purchase through a link. More info: Disclosure.

Traveling to Iceland, Norway or Alaska hoping to see Northern Lights this winter? If you are like most of us, you probably want to document your whole trip, including auroras, in pictures. After all, just telling your friends that you saw something never has quite the same effect as posting your travel pictures on Instagram or Facebook

You have probably seen some amazing Northern Lights photography before you booked your trip. If you are like me, it’s those pictures that finally convinced you to travel to the North in winter, face the elements and inhuman temperatures, hoping to catch a glimpse of this amazing nature spectacle… And now you hope to not only see the Northern Lights, but also to be able to photograph them…

But how to photograph Northern Lights if you are a beginner and don’t know much about night- or star- photography?

This short introduction to Northern Lights photography is meant for beginners who want to photograph Northern Lights. Without going info too many details and making it more complicated than it should be, I’ll tell you all the basics you should know in order to be able to take a decent picture of auroras.

One more thing before we continue. I’m not a professional photographer either and I’ve never photographed Northern Lights in my life before I visited Iceland last winter. So if I can do it, you can do it too. Find out how.

How to see and photograph Northern Lights in Iceland

f4 – 8sec – ISO 1600


How to see and photograph the Northern Lights


I. How to see Northern Lights

You basically need three factors in order to see Aurora Borealis: darkness, (partly) clear sky and high aurora activity. Don’t forget persistence and luck as well.

1. Where and when to see Northern Lights

Iceland, Finland, Norway, Alaska and North of Canada are the best countries for watching Northern Lights.

Needless to say, you won’t see any auroras in summer. Best season to see Northern Lights can very by location, but in general you have pretty good chances of seeing auroras from September to March, give or take a few weeks.

2. Dark Sky

The second thing you need in order to be able to see Northern Lights is darkness. This shouldn’t be a problem up North in winter.

3. Clear Sky

Probably one of the least predictable factors for seeing auroras, clear skies is not something you can influence. So you just have to hope that it won’t be cloudy all the time since you do need clear sky in order to be able to see Northern Lights.

4. High Aurora Activity

Aurora activity is measured on the scale from 0 to 9. Don’t despair if predicted aurora activity is only 2 or 3. You can see and photograph some really nice auroras even if the activity is quite low.

If you have never seen Northern Lights before, it might be difficult to distinguish vague auroras from the clouds. If you want to be sure, take a picture – if it colours green, you know it’s aurora. If it’s white – it’s just the clouds. When aurora is this weak, it will look better in pictures than in reality, but don’t get discouraged. Look at it this way: if you see it in pictures, it means that it’s active and it can become more active any minute. It might be worth waiting outside just a bit longer. We waited really long and it didn’t get any better one night, and then it did the next. So it’s still a bit a matter of luck.

Level 2 aurora display in Iceland.jpg

f4 – 21 sec – ISO 3200 Aurora activity level Kp2 looked more like mist or clouds and was only green in pictures


TIP: If you travel all the way to the North in order to see Northern Lights, be prepared to look for them. Go outside every night. Even if aurora activity is not very high, but the sky is clear, you might get lucky and see some beautiful auroras.

Watching and photographing Northern Lights in Iceland

f4 – 6.2 sec – ISO1600


5. Aurora forecast websites

There are many various websites where you can find predicted aurora activity for different areas worldwide.

TIP: Ask at the hotel about the aurora forecast websites they consult for the area where you are staying. Follow the weather forecast and radar information and act accordingly. It’s possible that it’s cloudy where you are, but the sky is perfectly clear just half an hour’s ride away.

For Iceland we used this website, checked it almost hourly every evening and it was very accurate. Here is a general aurora forecast website worldwide and this one is more focused on European locations.

II. Best camera equipment for Northern Lights

  • You need a camera that has manual mode functionality. Ideally a full-frame DSLR.
  • A sturdy good-quality tripod.
  • Preferably, you also need a wide angle lens with fast aperture (f2.8 or max. f4).
  • A spare battery or two (batteries tend to run low in very cold conditions, so keep the spares close to you – inside pocket is best) and memory cards that work well in cold conditions.

III. Best camera settings for Northern Lights photography

I’ll give you some general settings you can use to photograph Northern Lights and they’ll probably work in most situations. However, a lot will depend on the auroras you see. So you might need to adjust the settings depending on how bright auroras are and how fast they are moving. I’ll spare you the reasoning behind the settings and just show you what to do in order to take a good picture of auroras, even if you don’t know much about (night) photography. This is a good starting point for photographing Northern Lights for beginners.

Hiking in Iceland with amazing Northern Lights display

f4 – 16 sec – ISO 3200


1. Set your camera focus to infinity

Setting focus is probably the most challenging step of night photography, since your camera will not focus well in the dark. If you don’t do this right, you won’t get sharp pictures.

How to set your camera to focus to infinity? In human language, it’s basically making sure that your pictures are sharp at the far horizon. It’s best to do this during the day. Select manual mode on your lens, focus to infinity, adjust as needed and mark your lens at the right place. You can use permanent marker, silver sharpie or tape for it. When you’re outside at night, all you need to do is set your lens to the right position.

If you couldn’t do this during the day, try looking for a brighter point (a house or a lit road in the distance) in the area you are and focus your camera sharp on it. In the worst case, you might try using your flash light to illuminate the point as far from you as possible and focus on it. Make sure you don’t turn the lens after doing this, reframe for the Northern Lights and shoot.

2. Metering mode

Use the following metering mode for Northern Lights photography: Evaluative Metering for Canon cameras or Matrix metering for Nikon.

3. Wide aperture

Set your camera to Manual Mode for Northern Lights photography (M on most cameras) and make sure you set the aperture as wide as possible. So at 2.8 if you have a f2.8 lens or at f4 if you have a f4 lens.

4. Exposure time

If aurora moves slowly, try a 12-20 second exposure. For very vague auroras you might even need 20-25 seconds. If aurora moves fast, however, 5-10 seconds might be more than enough.

5. What ISO value to use to photograph auroras

Depending on how bright auroras are, you might need to adjust your camera’s ISO settings. Remember: the higher the ISO, the bigger chance of ‘grain’ in your picture. Try shooting at ISO 800 if auroras are very bright. You may need to increase ISO to 1,600-3,200 or even more if it’s really dark.

6. Best white balance settings for Northern Lights photography

You’re probably not shooting in RAW as a beginner (neither do I, to tell you the truth), so you want to get the colours as close to reality as possible straight from the camera. You can use Automatic white balance mode and see what it gives. I found that setting white balance to Custom mode and choosing Kelvin values of 2,800-4,000 worked best for me.

Aurora borealis in Iceland

f4 – 10 sec – ISO 3200


General camera settings for photographing Northern Lights

  • Lens focus to infinity.
  • Evaluative or matrix metering mode.
  • Aperture at 2.8 or 4 – the lowest number as your lens can go.
  • Exposure at 15 seconds for slower auroras and 10 seconds for faster ones. Adjust as needed.
  • Set ISO at 1,600 to start with and experiment.
  • Set custom white balance to Kelvin value around 3,000.

I indicated my camera settings under each picture to give you an idea on the settings that I used. They were not perfect all the time, but this was my first time watching and photographing Northern Lights. Also the first time photographing something so unpredictable and so rapidly-changing. I’m quite happy with the results and glad I have some showable pictures of this amazing experience. Hence this post – to help any novice photographer capture Northern Lights for the first time.

Star-shaped aurora display in Iceland

f4 – 8 sec – ISO 1200. I should have used lower ISO and 4-5 sec shutter speed when auroras moved so quickly, but I had no time to adjust the settings. It was this picture or none.


IV. Practical tips for photographing Northern Lights

  1. Go outside and look for auroras. Don’t stay in bed hoping that hotel personnel will wake you up in time. Sometimes auroras last several minutes, sometimes just a few seconds.
  2. Have your camera gear ready and set in advance. You don’t want to start playing with the camera settings if you only have one chance. If you are not ready, better leave your camera alone and enjoy the spectacle. If it lasts long enough, you can still find the time to set your camera and photograph the Northern Lights. Don’t miss watching them just trying to photograph.
  3. If you have a car and there is a good chance for high aurora activity at night, consider driving to a nice location. Your Northern Lights pictures will look so much nicer if there is a beautiful lake, a forest, a mountain or a waterfall in the foreground.

What to pack for watching and photographing auroras

  • Camera gear as discussed above.
  • Warm clothing. You cannot dress too warm. Think at least 4-5 layers, incluing thermal underwear and a really warm wind- and waterproof jacket.
  • Two pairs of gloves. Warm outer gloves and thin thermal gloves that you can keep on when photographing Northern Lights. Consider hand warmers as well.
  • Warm shoes. Wear warm wool socks and insulated winter boots. You will still be cold, but it will be bearable.
  • Thermos. Fill it up with some warm tea before you leave the hotel – you’ll thank me later.
  • Headlamp or a flashlight. Headlamp is probably more practical for photography as it keeps your hands free.
  • Some snacks. 
  • A little chair or a blanket might be handy if you’re planning to spend hours outdoors.

You may want to check this post about what to wear and what to pack for Iceland in winter as well. See also our other posts to help you better prepare for your trip to Iceland.

If you found this post useful, please share it. Are you on Pinterest? Pin this image!

Northern lights hunting and photography guide for beginners based on personal experience in Iceland


  1. I rarely comment on things on the internet, but your excellent, well-written article inspired me to do so.

    I think you have simplified it well enough for me to take some photos of the NL…and then to experiment a bit once I am there. I really appreciate your efforts.

    Now if I could just be sure that I am going to see them in Yellowknife in early March, then I will be all set!

    Thanks again!

    1. Author

      Thank you for taking the time to comment, Jamie. I’m glad that you found these aurora photography tips useful and fingers crossed you get to see the Northern Lights!
      Enjoy your trip!

  2. Hi Jurga,
    Thank you so much for these tips. I read them just as we were about to go outside to look for auroras and thanks to your tips I took some really nice shots. Aurora was not very strong, but we saw it and the pictures will be great memories.

    1. Author

      Hi Vita, glad to hear that! It’s an amazing experience, seeing the Northern Lights, isn’t it?!
      Happy travels!

  3. Hi Jurga! I’m a professional photographer and teacher who has never photographed the northern lights. My sister and mother are going to Norway this October, so I read your blog to find out how to photograph the lights. Your article is excellent! Well written, clear, concise, and accurate. Also, your photos are excellent, and thanks for the exposure info. Three observations: First, when a camera is set on manual exposure mode, matrix or evaluative metering does not function. Second, I recommend that flashlights and/or headlamps have a red lens or red filter to preserve night vision, if not for yourself, for others in your group! Lastly, I caution against drinking alcoholic beverages before or during cold expeditions.

    1. Author

      Thanks for your tips, John. It’s funny that you say this about the metering modes not functioning in manual mode. I honestly wouldn’t know, but this was a tip I found several times when researching Northern Lights photography, recommended by serious photographers. So, I always assumed, they know what they were saying. 🙂 Anyway, I’ll see if I can update my post one of these days and correct this.
      And yes, you are right about the lights disturbing the others, especially if you are photographing the lights when there are lots of other photographers around. Any additional light can be really disturbing.

  4. Hi,

    Wonderful article indeed! I am planning a 10 days trip to Iceland next year. I was looking to witness the greenary as well as the northern lights. From your article I think September would be the right time to choose. Can you help me choose the dates. Is it better to go in the starting of September or mid or towards the end of the month. Thanks in advance 🙂

    1. Author

      Hi Mehrain, unless you are booking last minute and can base yourself on the weather forecast, it’s really impossible to say. For better weather, beginning of the month should generally be better. For the Northern Lights – end of the month, as that will give you more hours of darkness. But you never know, so just pick the dates that suit you best, and if you can’t decide, go right in the middle:)
      If you haven’t seen it yet, please also check our article about visiting Iceland in September.

  5. Thank you!! First post I’ve read that made sense in my non techy brain!! Now all we need is some activity to photograph! Fingers crossed….!

    1. Author

      Haha, good to hear that, Debbie. That was exactly the intention of this post – to help people like myself to take some good shots of auroras. Fingers crossed you get to see them!

    2. Thanks for the great info! However I will only have my cellphone to snap photos 😅 Is that possible?

      1. If you are choosing the aperture, shutter sped and ISO then setting a metering mode is not required.

  6. Is Canon mirror less M 50 camera ok?for Northern lights?How do you take videos of Northern lights?

    1. Author

      Hi, any camera is ok as long as it has manual settings, just make sure you have a very wide lens as well.
      I have no experience with filming the Northern Lights, so can’t help you there.

  7. Hello, Juga,

    I leave for Iceland in two weeks and as a novice photographer I was browsing the internet and found your site. I am so glad I did as my camera would have been set on auto. Occasionally in the evenings I will use a higher ISO but those two things are all I know of my csmera. I will have many opportunities to be outdoors and will use your suggestions. My husband did not want me using my Nikon but to use the new IPhone. I know it takes great photos but I’m not taking a chance. After all, what did I buy my Nikon for if not to drag around the world. Thank you again and I now have hope of some good aurora photos if conditions are right.

    1. Author

      Hi Debbie, glad you found this info useful. Northern Lights photography isn’t simple indeed, so you definitely need a camera that handles manual settings and also a tripod – it’s a must!
      I know that people use aurora photoraphy apps for iPhone and get somewhat ok-ish pictures of auroras, but usually they are blur and not really useable for anything more than to share on social media to show to your friends.
      Fingers crossed you have good weather and high aurora activity! Enjoy your trip!

      PS If you haven’t yet, feel free to join our Facebook group for Iceland and Scandinavia travel. We love to see pictures and hear about people’s travel experiences!

  8. Thanks for sharing. Very useful tips that I can’t wait to try.

    1. Author

      Glad you found this useful, Shayne. Good luck with chasing the Northern Lights!

  9. Hello! For getting portraits(a person and the lights), if you have a good lens like you the one you described and all equipment, is an external flash necessary in your opinion? Thank you!

    1. Author

      Hi Oscar, in order to take a really good picture of a person with the Northern Lights (like this one – you can find it in this post), you need an external light source.
      The trick is to use it just for a split part of a second, so the person still looks ok (not overly exposed) while the shutter stays open longer to capture the Northern Lights themselves. Another trick is that the person should stand/sit completely still during the entire time when the shutter is open. Hope you understand what I mean?
      That being said, I took a few pictures of myself with auroras (e.g. this one) and didn’t use any external light source (it would have been difficult to do it for myself anyway :)). I left the shutter open quite a long time and tried to sit very still during the entire time. I think those pictures turned out quite ok as well.
      But yes, for nice portraits you need a good strong flash.

  10. Hey Jurga! this post of yours have been of great help! i have been looking for ideal settings for quite sometime as I am traveling to Lapland next week!! Thank you so much for sharing! Hope the weather stays clear and I am able to see Aurora! Fingers crossed!

    1. Author

      Glad you found this useful. Fingers crossed for the clear skies and hope you make some great pictures, Siddarth!

  11. I’m going to Iceland next month and I’m a amateur photographer seeking advice on photographing the NL. I usually don’t post comments on blogs/website but I wanted for this one because it’s by far the best information and detail I’ve seen for preparing for photographing the NL!!! Thank you!

    1. Author

      Thank you so much for this kind feedback. Northern Lights photography is no rocket science, but it requires some testing to see what works best and it depends so much on the conditions that you get. I always just start with the standard settings described in this post and then adjust the shutter speed and ISO as needed.
      Have a great trip and hope you get some nice aurora shots!

  12. Thanks for these detailed tips. Now lets hope we can see the northern lights!!!

  13. What a great post and beautiful photos. Thanks for all the practical photography tips, can’t wait to try it out!

    1. Author

      Thank you, Amber. Fingers crossed you get to see the Northern Lights!

  14. Hey!
    Do you think that getting a GoPro 6 for iceland would be a smart idea? Not only for photographing the northern lights, but for other outdoor activities as well!

    1. Author

      Hi Jackie, I really don’t know, I guess it depends on what other camera you have and also what kind of activities you’re planning. I didn’t take my GoPro to Iceland, never missed it. We use ours mainly for outdoor activities, but it’s so limited in what it can. Video quality is amazing and the size is a big advantage, but I’d never use it for pictures.
      My friend took a GoPro one to photograph the Northern Lights when we travelled in November a few years back, and while she could take some time laps shots, she wasn’t really happy with the quality.
      So it really depends on what you already have and what kind of photography/ video you are planning to shoot.

  15. Hi Jurga. We’ll be going to Iceland in March. Your post is extremely helpful as we’re very very novice photographer. We’ve never own a nice camera before. Which camera did you use or what would you recommend? It would be nice if the camera can take good pictures of the aurora, waterfall and the icecave. We do have a budget and would love to get one under $1000. Your advice is greatly appreciated. Tina

    1. Author

      Hi Tina, it’s really so difficult to advise as there are so many cameras on the market. Do you want a DSLR, mirrorless, or just simple point and shoot… If you are somewhat serious about photography, then in this budget consider DSLR, something like Canon EOS 60d or a smaller Canon EOS Rebel. And get a wide angle lens for Northern Lights and wide landscapes. For your budget you could get this Canon 10-18mm lens. And make sure to get a tripod for night photography. I love Manfrotto tripods, here is their budget model.
      If you don’t like changing lenses, then there are many options like e.g. this Panasonic camera. I have no idea how it is for night photography like auroras though, but I heard from many people that it’s a nice versatile camera.
      As I said, there are thousands of choices, but here are some suggestions that hopefully will get you started.

  16. is it possible getting pictures with an iphone

    1. Author

      Honestly – it’s really difficult to get any decent pictures of the Northern Lights on your phone. Even if you know the settings and your phone has a good camera, you still have to able to keep it very still for a few seconds. If you are lucky to see very bright auroras you will probably be able to photograph some unsharp greenish sky, but if you want good pictures you really need a good camera and a tripod. And even then it’s not easy for the first time.

      1. There are apps for phones that will work, Try “Slow Shutter” this app can be purchased for $2 U.S. You will need a tripod and a holder for the phone. This app allows the phone to be set with a time exposure and you are also able to adjust the ISO. Since the aperture is fixed you just need to get the right ISO and shutter speed combo correct for a nice photo.

        1. Author

          Thanks for sharing this Jim. I’d really be curious to see how those pictures look like. I’m just back from a wonderful winter trip in Tromso Norway and nobody who was using the phone (various apps) got any decent shots of auroras. Even with smaller simple cameras it’s really difficult, even though we got a really nice and quite strong aurora show that went on for several hours giving everyone plenty of time to practice photography.

    2. There is a 99 cents app for the iPhone (Northern Lights Photo Taker by Lazily Inspired) that take half way decent pictures. Not the great pictures you get with DSLR, but enough to document your sighting.

      1. Author

        Thanks for sharing this, Victor. Might be useful to many readers.

  17. Thanks for such a detailed post. This will be so useful when we set on a journey to see the northern lights, one day 😀 Pinned on Pinterest for future reference! 🙂

    1. Author

      Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment, Kristina. Appreciate it!

  18. Love your pictures and tips. Seeing the Northern Lights is near the top of my bucket list but I’ve never thought about the practical aspect of night photography – which is so relevant.

    1. Author

      I guess you’re right, Sara. Usually we don’t think about the practical side of photography in certain circumstances before we actually try to take a picture and realise that it won’t work with a simple push of a button. At least now you know where to start when you find yourself in such situation, right? 😉

  19. Thanks for the tips, Jurga. Your post was just in time for our trip to Iceland last week. We saw auroras! They were everything we expected them to be. Tried taking several pictures using your tips here, but with the camera equipment we had they didn’t turn out as nice as yours. Note to self: get a better camera for future trips. Anyway just wanted to let you know.

    1. Author

      Glad to hear you saw the Northern Lights, Paul. It’s the experience that counts at the end and not the pictures. But indeed good camera equipment is essential for some types of photography. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

  20. I read this with interest and I really hope one day I will get to use your advice! I never knew that about batteries and the cold!

  21. This is great! I’ve always wondered how to do this even though we haven’t been able to travel for the Northern Lights yet. The only other thing I’d recommend if possible is a remote for the camera. My husband LOVES have a remote so you don’t have to touch the camera 🙂

  22. This is so helpful – thank you! I’m still learning how to use the settings on my camera and I love having quick-reference guides without having to fluff around forever getting things ‘just right’ – half the time I miss the shot in doing so! Filing this away as I’d love to get to Iceland either this winter or next.

  23. Great article. I was lucky to see it once in my own country the netherlands during unusual high activity. So beautiful.

    1. Author

      The Netherlands? Really? Let me know next time – I might jump in the car and come over. 😉

  24. There are some awesome tips in this post, thanks! I’ve seen the Northern Lights countless times in Norway, Canada and Alaska, but I always left the photography part to someone else. I might try it next time though 🙂

    1. Author

      Lucky you! The more practice you get with photography, the easier it will be, so I’d say definitely give it a try next time!

  25. Thank you for all these tips!! I’m originally from Canada and have only been able to enjoy them, not photograph them. Now I know the right kind of camera and settings I need for my next trip back. I suppose I’ll also need a new coat…

    1. Author

      There is always a good excuse to go shopping, Leslie, whether it’s a new camera or a jacket. 😉 Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment!

  26. Great post about how to photograph the northern lights. I love that you indicated which camera functions you used under each picture and I found where you described the settings you’d need for the northern lights very useful. Got this post saved for when I (hopefully!) visit Iceland one day!

  27. I’m so glad you posted this! Myself and my friend are travelling to Tromsø in February and hope to catch the aurora. I take photos all the time during the day but was a little unsure how to shoot at night and get good results. This post has helped so much and actually makes me realise it’s not as hard to set my DSLR up for it as I thought it would be.

    1. Author

      Thanks for your feedback, Corinne. I hope you’ll see some spectacular auroras in Norway! These tips are indeed meant for complete beginners who never photographed Northern Lights before. Just set the camera to suggested settings and you have a starting point from which to adjust if needed.

  28. What a great post and beautiful photos. I have been wanting to know how to use my SLR for taking night pictures better. Thanks for the tips they were great.

    1. Author

      Glad you found it useful, Melissa. Looking forward to seeing some night photography on your blog. 😉

  29. Brilliant article Jurga! The photographs are beautiful! I need to book that trip to Iceland! Pinned for later so I will know what to do to get the shots! Thank you! Ps adding a new camera to my Xmas list!!

    1. Author

      Thank you Tracy. Any excuse is good to get a good camera, isn’t it? 😉

      1. Hi Jurga!
        So me and my partner are off to iceland in a few days. We are doing the ring road. (after a lot of research). I just wanted to ask your opinion on the tours for the northern lights.
        We have a car but are abit concerned about hunting for them at night ourselves. how does one know where to go? also since we are doing it in winter we are skeptical about driving at night ourselves. Do you think we should join a tour for the northern lights instead?
        How do you hunt for them on your own?
        Thank you Jurga! this is my dream!

        1. Author

          Hi Naina, we didn’t go anywhere special just kept an eye on the aurora forecast and spent lots of time outside waiting. When the forecast was good (aurora activity of at least 2-3) and the sky was clear at the location where we were, we went outside. All the Northern Lights we saw was just outside our hotels.
          If you have a car, you could drive to some nice place nearby if the aurora forecast is really good and you want a nice foreground for your pictures. Otherwise just go outside at your hotel. Some hotels even provide aurora wake-up service, so if they see a really strong aurora at night they can come and knock on your door if you ask for it. But sometimes auroras are quickly gone, so you have to be ready quickly :). In general, you don’t need any tour if you are already outside of the city. If the auroras are strong you will see them no matter where you are.
          Good luck and enjoy your trip!

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