How to plan Aurora Borealis experience - for Indians!

20th Mar 2019
Photo of How to plan Aurora Borealis experience - for Indians! 1/1 by Jyoti Patil

I am trying to cook some ready to eat Upma after hours of driving around the ring road. I dump whatever greens and veggies I find in my grocery bag, in the pot. "If only I had some mango pickle to go with this, how tasty would that be?", umm, thinking to myself as I almost drool over the thought. I serve myself some of the Upma in the bowl, pour some bourbon mixed with water, and join the other hostel mates, dining in the kitchen area. They all had been preparing to go hunting- Aurora hunting! I overhear the conversation earlier, so out of curiosity I ask, if there is a good chance to see some today. I am trying to hide my expressions, arising from the concoction of bitter whiskey and Upma(terrible combination), when someone said, "It doesn't look great today, the forecast is only 2 KPI. But nevertheless sky is clear so we are going out anyway". Another dialogue runs in my head, so this is it, if not today, I won't have any chance to get good shots of Northern lights to take back home for family, friends and Instagram.

I finish my dinner, clean up the kitchen, fill my flask with hot-water and bourbon cocktail, to keep myself warm and pack my backpack. As soon as I get out of the hostel, a rush of excitement fills me. I drive outside the town, which takes about few minutes and come to a halt near the giant wind mills. I stop at a byway, just in case I need to change location as the Aurora's can be visible anywhere across the horizon. I set up my tripod, scramble for the camera remote, headlight, gloves and my flask in the dark. Already a little tipsy, I take some test long-exposure shots. After a bit of strolling around, I rub my eyes and squint a little, just to be sure what I am looking at, in the view finder. Is that it? Where is this green band of light coming from, I look up from the view-finder, but I see grayish clouds. I take some more long-exposures and the color and patterns intensify. I scream a little in excitement, that's when I told myself. This is the day, girl. This is it, your ultimate test, go get some good shots, and the rest is history.

Photo of Iceland by Jyoti Patil

Alone in -6°C, in a country far away from my familiar land, partly high from euphoria of witnessing Aurora Borealis and partly due to bourbon(can't stress enough how cold it was for me), I stood there in utter excitement. I wanted to tell my family and friends that I am witnessing Northern lights in their full glory but I couldn't. I had to make sure I concentrate on taking pictures, because these ribbons of green and magenta light, can disappear in a brink. It was a battle between this human's child-like dream and the photographer in me. I had to balance the experience of enjoying them with my naked eye while composing good shots at the same time. My whole life I had been dreaming of this day and it was happening.

Northern lights, Aurora borealis or Polar lights, whatever you want to call them, almost all of us dream of witnessing them at least once in our lifetime. They are one of the most beautiful natural phenomena, but equally elusive, unpredictable and rare. Northern lights can only be visible at higher latitudes of Earth(Arctic and Antarctica). They are actually the result of collisions between gaseous particles in the Earth's atmosphere with charged particles released from the sun's atmosphere. Variations in color are due to the type of gas particles that are colliding. No one can predict solar flares accurately and hence the northern lights.

Photo of Iceland by Jyoti Patil

At this point, I am sure you are wondering, then what is the point of going to Iceland if they are so difficult to see. But all good things, take time and patience, isn't it? Besides, Iceland is a beautiful country, so if you are going there you might as well learn about Northern lights. Plus, I will provide some tricks which will help your luck and may be next time we talk, you will be narrating your Northern lights experience. With some careful planning, Aurora experience can be fruitful and bring you lifetime worth of memories.

First and foremost, you might have read in my previous post that the prerequisite to have good Aurora Borealis viewing experience is a cold dark cloudless night sky, which is mostly accurate. Only Auroras with KPI 2 and above can be easily seen with naked eyes, hence it is absolutely necessary to find a spot, away from light pollution. Along with this it has to be cold and cloudless. Iceland, due to its geographical placement, is one of the countries in the world where Auroras can be viewed, although it is argued that it is not the best, but Auroras are frequent occurrence here too. Norway and Finland have much clearer skies and colder consistent weather for making them the best destinations for Aurora viewing.

I am going to contradict myself now, no matter what do's and don'ts I mention, they are only guidelines and not a mandate. Auroras happen year around and in all the weather. But will it be possible to see them if the sky is not dark enough? Will it be possible to see if there are clouds? No, it won't and hence I mention the basics above so that you all are prepared for what you are getting into.

When is the best month to see Northern Lights? There is no one best month. Northern lights can be seen frequently during winters, as the nights are dark. From mid August to mid April, nights are dark and from October to February they are the darkest. I was able to see northern lights during March end. During peak winter, you can see the northern lights as early as at 3 PM, when it is already dark in Iceland. I was able to see the lights around 10 PM during my trip.

Should you take Aurora hunting tour when in Iceland? Yes and No. Are you planning to rent a vehicle while traveling in Iceland? If you, answer 'No' to this one then unfortunately, there is likely a chance that you will need a guided tour. Perhaps, if you can find a local or co-travelers at hotel/hostel and team up with them to go Aurora hunting, that will work too. If you have your own rental vehicle, I will say, go out and have fun. It is fun to chase Auroras as long as you do a little homework of how to look and where to look for them. If you understand a little bit about KPI index and how to read the forecast I will recommend to go Aurora hunting on your own. To learn in depth about Aurora hunting you can refer these links and Another point is, guided tours are expensive. Most likely while traveling to Iceland you will be on a budget trip, because, world knows, it is one heck of an expensive country to travel to.

Photo of How to plan Aurora Borealis experience - for Indians! by Jyoti Patil

Do you need a four wheel drive to hunt for Auroras? Not really. As long as you are not driving on F-roads, you can go Aurora hunting in your two wheel drive rental vehicle just fine. I had a two wheel drive, Maruti Swift. Most of the times you won't even need to drive out too far-out-of-town(unless you are in Reykjavik) to be away from light pollution. Just drive out at a place, away from main roads where you would not obstruct the traffic. If you are a photographer, plan ahead of what composition you suits your likes when the Auroras dance around. The many waterfalls in Iceland can be good subjects for your Aurora pictures. Waterbodies to create reflections, interesting mountain in the foreground, or just stand on your car, whatever suits your taste and is feasible. Make sure you wear warm clothing and have hot beverages to get you going in the cold. Having said that, do not drink and drive. I only drove couple of KMs outside my hostel and was completely in my senses.

How to actually look for Auroras in the sky? Don't look straight up, look towards horizon and scan everywhere, simple. Yes, it is actually that simple. As long as, you are in dark place, if your view is not obstructed by mountains 'nearby' and if there aren't many clouds, all you have to do is scan the sky towards horizon or little above it, and sip your drink. If you don't see anything, try clicking some long-exposures from your camera or phone. Camera lenses are better at sensing the green luminescence light that is created as a result of Auroras. With Auroras you have to be really patient. While I was on my Ice cave tour this guide really gave me some great tips about Aurora hunting. The most important tip was to be patient. Auroras can happen anytime, just when you are tired and ready to pack-up they will most likely appear. So linger around, enjoy great conversations with friends, or just immerse yourself in some soul searching. Enjoy the silence and darkness of the night, and your patience will be paid.

Do you need a DSLR to take good pictures of Northern lights? Yes and No. If you are not a photographer, don't get overwhelmed by the need to prove the world that you saw some. I had roommates in many hostels, who just went out to see and experience. They did not have cameras or great smart phones. However, having a DSLR helps. Northern lights need long-exposure shots to be captured at night with high ISO(measure of sensitivity of image sensor). To effectively capture the patterns and the luminosity of the lights, your camera should have manual features, that can be changed accordingly. Most high end smart phones these days come with professional modes where in these settings can be adjusted. As much as it is true, that DSLR is not needed but for good pictures off-course one needs a decent digital camera and fair bit of understanding of how to capture northern lights. Do not forget to take your tripod along. May be it is time to brush your camera skills and clean up that DLSR your wife gifted at your anniversary?

In the end I will say this, I personally did not take any guided tours. I have been fascinated by Northern lights ever since I learnt about them back when I was in School. I have tried Aurora hunting in Wisconsin while I was traveling to northern most parts of USA. So nothing could bring me more joy than imagining going Aurora hunting by myself in Iceland. I usually used to head out around midnight, on most days while in Iceland when the sky was at least partially clear. On many nights I wasn't lucky, but I was, on two consecutive nights, just before leaving Iceland. It is just a matter of patience and luck. When you plan your Iceland travel go with an open mind of exploring the country and don't be disappointed if you don't see Northern lights. Remember there is always a next time and Iceland is just as beautiful without them.

For more beautiful Iceland photos follow me at oldpathnewstride on Instagram

Photo of How to plan Aurora Borealis experience - for Indians! by Jyoti Patil