Ok the time has come! You have the plane ticket ready and you are finally going to Iceland. It´s somewhere between September and April, all your camera gear is ready plus some warm clothing, the excitement is going trough the roof.
You are ready to see the Northern lights aka Aurora borealis with your own eyes.
Before we start lets answer the most common question “are the northern lights as visible with my own eyes as I see on pictures?” Quick Answer, Yes they are. But there are few things that come in play here. The aurora is not always strong (measured on a scale from 1-9) and when they are weak they are just barely visible with the naked eye. That is where the cameras can see them better, because the method used to shoot northern lights with a camera is to keep the camera still on a tripod and keep the shutter open and gather the light in (more about that in detail where I go over how to photograph the northern lights).
But when they are strong the game totally changes and they are very visible with the naked eye. I have been in a situation where the aurora was so strong that I had problem getting a rightly exposed picture because they where just to strong.
Short answer is yes, but we need to talk about light pollution and how our eyes react to it.
We can start by dividing light pollution in two categories (A) Large scale light pollution and (B) small scale light pollution .
Large scale being lights from cities, car lights, strong flashlights and even the moon.
Small scale light pollution are the headlights of your own car, the lights in the dashboard of your car, light from your phone, small flashlights etc
Your eyes adapt to the brightest light around you but with enough time, our eyes can adapt and see the low levels of light present in partial darkness. Human eyes take several hours to fully adapt to darkness and reach their optimal sensitivity to low light conditions. The quickest gains in vision sensitivity are made in the first few minutes after exposure to darkness. For this reason, many people think that after only a few minutes, their eyes have reached their peak sensitivity. But several hours into darkness exposure, the human eyes continue to adapt and make small gains in sensitivity.
Useful hack is to take with you airplane sleep mask and then trick your partner to drive the car so you can start adapting those eyes for some proper low light vision.
That being said avoid using flashlights but If you have to use any lights, use red lights as they will not harm your night vision.
Good places in Reykjavik to see aurora is the sun voyager on the coastline and Grótta lighthouse.
But hey! You are in Iceland so getting away from large scale light pollution is relatively easy. Driving 10-20 minutes out of town and you find yourself in perfect conditions to see the aurora.
The Northern lights season starts early September and is until mid April. Around 22:00 - 01:00 at night you should have good activity.
Start checking out the weather and cloud cover forecast. The Icelandic Met Office has a combination of aurora and cloud forecast available on their website.
On the right you see the Northern Lights activity on the scale of 1 - 9 and the cloud cover forecast where Green is clouds, white is clear.
If the activity is low but the sky is clear, there are many interesting things to see in the night sky other than the lights. Shooting stars are very common and always a pleasure to witness and counting satellites can be very satisfying night hobby.
The northern lights have tendency to appear out of nowhere and go bright for few seconds even if the forecast is low.
So be patient and take your time to look up and remember that not seeing anything does not predict for what will happen few minutes later. The sky can lid up really quickly and be gone just as quickly.
Layers of warm clothing and a good blanket can help you being more patient with the waiting. A cup of warm coffee or hot chocolate can warm you up on a cold night not to mention something a little bit stronger.
Here we have two options.
Guided tours have many advantages. The guides know all the details and many of them have been hunting northern lights for many years and have become very skilful aurora hunters that can read well into conditions and get the best out of it every time.
If you are so unlucky that northern lights never show up, our tours offer a free return for you to come back the next day or later and hopefully be more lucky that time.
Also you don´t have to worry about road conditions as these tours are always done on well equipped vehicles for winter driving. Plus included blankets and hot chocolate for everyone.
2) drive yourself on a rental car.
If you decide to drive yourself you should be at the chosen destination around 22:00- 22:30. Be ready and prepared to stay until at least to midnight.. and usually little longer than that.
There are many good places around Reykjavik in about 20 minutes to one hour drive like Thingvellir, Nesjavellir, Hvalfjordur, Kjós, and Krísuvík.
You don´t necessarily need a 4X4 car, but I suggest you read this information before driving in winter in Iceland.
When choosing a place the most important thing is to get away from any light pollution. The northern lights dance above the earth in 80km (50mi) up to 640km (400mi) so it does not matter if you are on a top of a mountain or down in a valley, but if you have to pick between the two it is more likely it´s better down in a valley as it could shield you from light pollution as long as it does not affect your horizon.
I wish you good luck and happy aurora hunting. There are few things as rewarding as getting a good aurora show dancing above you on a clear night. And if you get so lucky to do so pay attention to sounds.
I can confirm myself that I have heard them make sounds and there is some research to back up my story.