Aurora Hunting in the Wilds of Iceland

Iceland Photography Workshop Jansen Photo Expeditions

It was pitch dark. When I say dark, I mean I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face.  Well, if I was outside, i wouldn’t be able to see my hand in front of my face. But I was cozy and warm inside of the van along with my 6 clients. We were waiting for the show to start and it was cold and windy outside. Sitting in the van was a good option. The BEST option.

It was 10pm and we were driving around the South Iceland coast hunting for the Aurora Borealis. It was acting a bit shy because it was hiding behind a layer of clouds for every night that we were in this amazing country. “We’ll go on an Aurora hunt tonight, wait for my call,” our guide would tell us. And this was the night! We kept looking out the window of the van, waiting for the show to start. Mark, my husband and fellow photography guide was outside with our Icelandic counterpart setting up their cameras by the glow of their red headlamps. (Red lights make it easier to see at night as it doesn’t ruin your night vision.) We couldn’t really see what they were doing but the show clearly had not begun.

As we were sitting inside, trying to decide what to do, the conversation outside by Mark and our guide was “Where are they? Why won’t they get out of the van?”

When we finally decided to make our move, we were walking on what felt like sand. We had driven quite a ways and we thought we must be in the mountains somewhere, right?  We could hear the wind blowing and the sound of water but still had no clue as to where we were. All I could see were the faint red head lamps and a white light far off in the distance.

Fumbling with my camera with two sets of gloves on was next to impossible, so I stripped down to one pair of gloves and set up my camera and pointed it towards some unknown subject in the pitch dark. The instructions were to point our cameras north. We really had no idea where we were except I knew I was standing on a small sandy hill with sparse grass on it.  I could hear and feel the strong wind and maybe the sound of waves, but we were in the mountains, right? So it couldn’t possibly be waves.

My camera has a feature on it which allows you to see a long exposure develop on its live view screen. (I shoot with the Olympus mirrorless, OMD-EM5)  It’s a thrill to see something develop on the screen in the darkness.

I pointed my camera in the designated direction and my camera screen started to trace an outline of a mountain and some stars with some bright pink and green lights coming out of the clouds. I could move my camera just a little to guess at improving the composition and the next picture was even clearer, a mountain with clouds and a distinct light coming out of the clouds. Was this the Aurora? I couldn’t wait to see it on my computer.

Iceland Photography Workshop Jansen Photo Expeditions

And yes, it was clearly there. It was very faint, and only visible after taking a long exposure on my camera.  I’m not an expert, but Auroras appear as a result of solar wind and geomagnetic fields and this night, the activity was considered low. Each night in the winter, there is an Aurora Borealis forecast, with maps of the best places to view the lights. We were promised an Aurora and the weather for the week had been cloudy and this was our best chance of seeing it.

The next morning we found that the plan for the day was to return to the place where we viewed the Aurora the night before. As we drove out to the location we had been, we were stunned by the beauty of the scenery around us. We thought we were in the mountains last night, but we were actually on a beach. Last night we had no clue that we were in such an incredible place and our guide had kept it a secret.

Majestic  mountains seemed to rise out of the black sand beach with small hills of coarse sand with tufts of grass on top. It was an almost other worldly landscape that was clearly incredibly beautiful any time of day.

Iceland Photography Workshops Jansen Photo Expeditions

Later that week we saw an incredible Aurora Borealis on our last night in Reykjavik. The Aurora forecast was for a good chance of high activity. We were waiting inside of the opera center called Harpa at twilight. As we walked outside, I saw these strange green clouds. Those clouds are green! Wait those aren’t clouds! It’s the Aurora right there in the middle of the city in all its glory.

Iceland Aurora Borealis Photography Workshop Jansen Photo Expeditions

Sweeps of green and red showed on my camera after a 20 second exposure, swirling in the sky and sometimes forming a straight line, often appearing as a rainbow of colors.  Every photo was different as the screen on my camera developed each shot. We spent the rest of the evening playing with different exposures and watching the colors of the Aurora develop on our live view screens. Our Aurora dreams were fulfilled!

Next time I will experiment with a higher ISO and shorter exposure times to cut down on camera noise. (If you would like to know more about these terms, you can take one of our online or in person workshops at

It can be difficult in the cold and wind to think of all the different camera setting options that might apply to make the image pop. It’s important to be really familiar with your camera and have a plan for the type of image you would like to create. That is why landscape photographers continue to return to the same place again and again. Nature seldom presents you with the same opportunity to photograph twice.

If you are interested in traveling to Iceland in a small group and focusing on the nature and photography of this amazing country, join us for our next trip in February of 2016.

We are excited to be offering our Iceland photography expedition part 3 after a wildly successful tour last year. We will be exploring the southern region of Iceland (with 6-8 adventurous clients) photographing the amazing Aurora Borealis, ice caves, waterfalls, lava fields, geothermal sites and (don’t forget) the super cute Icelandic horses!

If you’d like to find out more, review the itinerary and sign up, here’s the link!


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Holly Higbee-Jansen

Co-Owner and Workshop Leader at Jansen Photo Expeditions
I am a passionate photographer and workshop leader, and I have been exploring my fascination with light since I was a young child. As a co-owner and guide for, I love taking our small groups of clients to beautiful places to help them explore their photographic creativity. Join us on one of our photographic workshops in the American West, Iceland and Central America: or take one of our online photography classes.  Live life creatively!  Reach me by email at:
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