what it’s like to see the northern lights

Instagram: Waves of Nickelodeon slime green dancing lights, interspersed with soft whispers of Provence lavender-colored gleams.

Reality: Freezing your snow boots off after you’ve accidentally stepped into a slope while in complete darkness, waiting for lights that may or may not appear, and then realizing that most of the photos you’ve seen online are probably heavily photo-shopped.

According to my research, the prime time to see the Northern Lights in Iceland (at least close to Reykjavik) is from September to mid-April. If you’re like most tourists, you probably only have a limited amount of time in Iceland. If so, the best option is to probably book a tour to see the lights. Of course there are pros and cons to this, versus to driving on your own. PROS: 1. Most tours guarantee a sighting. So if it’s too cloudy or for some reason you don’t see it one night, they can rebook you for another night. That being said, if you are planning to book a tour, you should plan it for the beginning of your trip, in the event you don’t see them for some reason – then you’ll have more chances to see them in the latter days of your trip. 2. You’re probably unfamiliar with the roads, especially in their wintertime, when it can be super icy. I’ve seen a few cars stuck in a ditch because the roads are just that dark there. 3. They know the spots to see the lights. CONS: 1. You’ll be with a bunch of other tourists, so it’s not exactly an intimate experience. Plus, a lot of them won’t understand the meaning of no flash photography, and LOVE using the flashlights on their phones after everybody’s eyes have adjusted to the pitch blackness.

Overall, I think the pros outweigh the cons, and I’d definitely recommend joining a tour. Here are some things you should know before you go:

  1. Since you need to be in the complete darkness to see these lights, tour companies will drive you about an hour outside of Reykjavik, far from the glow of the city lights. 
  1. You also shouldn’t be using your phone. Even in the lowest brightness setting, it will hurt your eyes (and the eyes of your fellow light chasers) since your eyes are used complete darkness at that point.
  1. The Northern Lights don’t wait for you. You wait for the Northern Lights. And it could last only a couple of minutes, or less. In the couple of minutes I saw it, it was very faint. 

While I was able to technically see the Northern Lights, it wasn’t as bright as I was expecting – so I wouldn’t say that I can cross them off my bucket list just yet. I don’t think I’ll return to Iceland to chase them, but perhaps Norway or Sweden will be my next stop (s).

Northern Lights 8
PC: Cristina Giura. My friend took this photo with her iPhone 7, after purchasing some app that our tour guide recommended. Obviously, not the greatest picture but not bad for an iPhone
Northern Lights 2
For comparison, here is a picture taken with my iPhone 6s, with no app. If you put your face two inches from the screen and stare without blinking, it almost looks like a green smiley (def need a professional camera if you want a chance to capture any good shots of the lights)

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