My First Northern Lights Images

I'd spent hundreds of dollars and countless hours driving around at night during my trips to Iceland in hopes of photographing the northern lights. I never saw them, much less photographed them. The aurora is elusive and can only be seen in Iceland in winter on the darkest of nights. Even if you're there during optimum viewing conditions, you still only have a fifty percent chance of seeing them. Recently I moved to Edmonton, Alberta and was pleased to discover that there are northern lights viewing opportunities year-round - even in summer. That is because even though we have long days and short nights in the summer months, it's still dark enough and far enough north to see the aurora at night (assuming strong activity and clear skies). My luck changed a few nights ago when the aurora forecasters called for strong auroral activity across southern Canada and the northern parts of the U.S. 

My original plan was to head to the rockies to see the northern lights, but smoke from the raging British Columbia wild fires had been brought all the way to Edmonton on strong winds. The city was in a high air quality advisory and my throat and eyes burned when I attempted to pack the car. Jasper National Park is between most of the fires in B.C. and Edmonton, so I assumed the atmosphere was even more hostile there. I decided to head east, instead, and try Elk Island National Park. Luckily, the atmosphere was much more hospitable there. Luckily still, it was cold enough that there were no mosquitos out either (a blessing).

The skies were clear at Astotin Lake upon my arrival. At 12:15 AM I squeezed in between several other photographers by the lakeside and made a test exposure. To my surprise, barely visible to the naked eye, the aurora was already there! The sky was a pale green on my test image. I made adjustments to exposure, composition, and focus and fired away. The lake seemed like the place to be for northern lights at first, but the orange glow on the horizon from city lights to the west competed with the green glow of the aurora. I decided to abandon the crowd (as I often do) and head to darker skies facing north instead of west. I made frequent stops all over the park as the northern lights intensified and diminished over the course of 3 hours. The problems I encountered were finding a decent foreground and getting that sharp. Winds gusted around 30 MPH making long exposures of trees difficult. Despite this challenge, which was out of my control, I was blown away by my first northern lights experience. Thick bands of green and purple light danced across the sky like waves on a beach. 

Ghosts of the North Woods

Sometimes you're in the right place in the right light, but there's no subject to photograph. I was hoping to capture the Elk Island bison in golden evening light two days ago, but when I arrived at the plains the herd was in an inaccessible location. They had tucked themselves away in the spruce and birch forest and out of the sun on the opposite side of a boggy marsh. On my way out of the park, well after sunset, they appeared in the headlights. I pulled over, hopped out of the car (into the mist and swarming mosquitos) and shot away. I had very little light to work with and could barely even see the bison as they crossed the road by the dozen, so I adopted the method "don't think, just shoot." Auto-focus was useless in the dark, so I went full manual. There were, of course, a lot of misses. The shots I did come away with are a bit different from my typical style. I'm actually pleased despite the technical imperfections of shooting in the dark at very high ISOs. I am glad I was able to capture such an important and ancient species in our continent's history trying to survive in the modern world. 

The Real Iceland Experience

I was fortunate to visit Iceland for the third time last week. It’s hard to stay away with Wow Airlines making fares to the small and uniquely beautiful North Atlantic Island so cheap. What made the trip even more affordable was that my wife’s expenses were paid. She designed an alternative spring break course for 12 university students to visit Iceland and study sustainable business practices. Iceland, being one of the more sustainable and energy independent nations on earth, was the perfect place for it. I, of course, had to tag along.

My itinerary broke away from the group for a couple days as I traveled by car from Reykjavik to Stokksnes way out in east Iceland – a 6 hour drive total. I stopped along the way to photograph some places I’d been to before, as well as some new locations. I slept in the back of the rental car at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, as a cold wind roared over Iceland’s largest glacier and snow pounded the car windows. It was a frigid and restless night, but the following morning revealed some spectacular sights and excellent photo opportunities. 

Kirkjufell at Sunrise, Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Kirkjufell at Sunrise, Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Challenges: Bad Weather and Tourists

Winter in Iceland is harsh (though, ironically, it was colder and snowier back home that week). I experienced about every type of rough weather that Iceland could throw at me during my two-day south coast road trip. Day one, alone, included rain, sleet, heavy snow, light hail, high winds in excess of 40 MPH, and temperatures well below freezing. Low hanging clouds covered most of the landscape and whole mountain ranges were not visible for almost the entire day. Photography was challenging in these conditions.

While shooting the view over the Reynisfjara sea stacks from Dyrhólaey, I was perched high on a cliff where winds were strongest. I had to hold my tripod with both hands while shooting. I was using a polarizer and 6-stop neutral density filter for long exposures. I needed to blur the waves as they fanned out across the shoreline in just the right curve. It was raining very hard, and sideways. Using a cloth to wipe my lens between shots, I was finally able to capture the wave I was hoping for. Most of the shots show water spots on the lens, but I was lucky to get two or three out of a dozen that were spot free. The method was to wipe, press the shutter, pray, and review the image on the LCD with my gloved fingers crossed. That was the second shoot of day one (after a short hike around the Solheim Glacier, which produced few pictures), and I was already damp and tired with several hundred kilometers to go. If there is anywhere you will have to work extremely hard for your images in challenging conditions, it’s Iceland.

Dyrhólaey

Dyrhólaey

The long drive from Vik to Jökulsárlón provided zero photo opportunities. Rain, sleet, then snow, obscured my views of the moss-covered lava fields that I was hoping to capture. I arrived at Jökulsárlón and the glacial lagoon to find no change in the conditions. I took a walk around the lagoon, and later the famous “Diamond Beach,” in the rain without any camera gear simply to get a sense of the place I had come so far to photograph. My original plan was to shoot the icebergs at Jökulsárlón and scoot on down Route 1 to Höfn an hour east to photograph sunset at the mountains of Stokksnes. I wanted to sleep in Höfn and return to Jökulsárlón for sunrise. That didn’t happen. Nature has little empathy for a photographer’s plans. The weather was obviously not going to let up as heavy snow began to fall and the winds became dangerous. Realizing that it had taken me much longer to get to Jökulsárlón than anticipated and that the clouds were going to snuff out any possible sunset, I decided to hunker down at Jokulsarlon and get some much needed sleep (I had not slept for 3 full days…long story).

After a long, cold, and uncomfortable night in the back of a RAV4 with nothing but a 30 degree sleeping bag (thinking, “why do I do this to myself?”), and having eaten nothing the day before other than an energy bar and gas station muffin, I arose at 5AM to find the beach and lagoon already swarmed with buses, tourists, and photo workshops. It was amazing. I had seen more-than-average crowds at popular spots the day before, but why were so many people way out in east Iceland at 5AM? (See my article: Is Iceland Overcrowded?) Noticing the precipitation had stopped and the sun was peaking under the dark clouds on the far horizon, I made a split decision. I would relieve myself of the crowds and book it over to Stokksness for sunrise. It was risky. I had an hour and a half until sunrise and it was an hour and ten minutes from where I was, but I decided it was worth a try. Stokksnes was at the top of my shot list, and I was going to shoot it come hell or high water…and high water there was.

Along the gorgeous drive to Höfn in decent weather I saw reindeer, fields of grazing horses, and glacier carved mountains. The light was coming through the dark clouds, which no longer covered the snow-capped mountain peaks. It was nothing short of magical. I quickly realized in my sleepy underfed daze that the light wouldn’t last. I had to make another decision, either continue to Stokksnes and hope I don’t miss the light, or stop at one of the designated pull-offs along the way to shoot the pink alpenglow that was forming on the mountaintops. I decided to shoot what was in front of me.

Mountains in East Iceland

Mountains in East Iceland

I pulled over at the next available pull-off (one that tourists are allowed to stop at), jerked my camera out of the bag, selected a lens, popped it on my tripod and shot three or four images of the pink sunrise kissing the snowy mountains. I expected this glorious light to bathe the majority of the mountains from top to bottom, but instead, it only grazed the peaks and vanished within maybe 60 seconds. The resulting images are among my favorites from the trip, so I’m glad I stopped.

By the time I arrived at Stokksnes, parked, paid my entrance fee (unexpected), and drove out along the beach access road for the best view, clouds had formed and completely snuffed out the morning light. It became so dark and overcast that the color images I shot actually look like black and whites at first glance. The mountains at Stokksnes are made of black rock and sand. The peaks and folds were sprinkled with snow. Only the tall grass along the shores gave any color. It’s a barren and ominous place when the clouds take over. 

It All Comes Crashing Down

Despite it being just after sunrise, tourists and other photographers had already trampled the beach. Getting the classic composition of the rolling black sand dunes in the foreground was not possible due the scattered footprints. There were several vanloads of photographers on workshops and two camper vans (one camper van was stuck in the sand and some of the photographers were helping to dig it out). I counted 40 people on the beach that morning. I am still amazed at how many people were out on that beach in the middle of nowhere in Iceland in March. Luckily, about the time I found some good spots to shoot from the crowds had all but moved on entirely. I almost had the place to myself. I set up on a rocky bit of coastline, examining the height of the waves. I wanted a long exposure of the waves crashing and flowing through the rocks in my foreground, the beach in the middle, and the craggy mountains of Stokksnes in the back. I set up in what I thought was a safe and dry spot. Just before I pressed the shutter for my first shot, a large and unexpected wave crashed into me, soaking me from the chest down and drenching my camera gear! The next wave didn’t even come close. It was a strange fluke. No other wave came crashing up the rocks that high. I was wet, cold, hungry, and pissed. I clambered back up to the sandy dunes, dried my gear with a towel, and sat in the car for a few minutes, trying to gather my composure and warm up in the air conditioning.

Stokksnes

Stokksnes

After I had cooled down in temperament and warmed up in body temperature, I headed back out to the beach and pulled off a few decent exposures of Stokksnes. Then it was back to Jökulsárlón, stopping once to photograph a herd of Reindeer running along a beach (another magical moment). I arrived around 9AM to find hardly any parking. I expected more crowds around this time, but was still shocked at just how many people were there. It seemed that every automobile sized iceberg at Jökulsárlón had 10 photographers pointing lenses at it. Regular tourists flocked from iceberg to iceberg taking selfie after selfie. It was a nightmare for a working travel photographer with a shot list. Getting an image without anyone else in it was a big challenge. I joined the swarm after finding a parking spot on the beach. I knew the shot I wanted, so I set up my equipment in advance. This time I didn’t want to get wet, so I slipped on the rubber rain boots I packed. I walked up and down the beach looking for the least populated spot and settled on a big blue iceberg sitting in the black sand about the size of a small car. I wanted the waves to encircle it so I could capture the action of the sea foam swirling around the iceberg. Gaging the waves, I determined that I would probably only get my knee-high boots wet up to my ankles. I composed my image and just as I was about to press the shutter release, noticed a wave coming closer, it seemed to quadruple in height by the millisecond – crashing over the iceberg and enveloping me from the waist down. Foiled again! The following swell brought the water, which had been barely touching my toes minutes earlier, over the tops of my boots – filling them with frigid salt water. I stood in amazement. I could not believe this happened to me twice in one morning!

Jökulsárlón

Jökulsárlón

I hobbled back to the car with squishy boots to find that someone had parked so close to the driver side that I could not open the door. I was so mad the water in my boots started to boil (seemed that way anyway). I emptied my boots on the passenger side and climbed over to the driver’s seat to park elsewhere. After repeating the same drying off ritual as I had at Stokksness, I returned to the beach and to the same iceberg – this time getting my shot. I then went over the to glacier lagoon to shoot the icebergs floating in the calm water. I forgot how cold and damp I still was once I started examining the various shapes, sizes, colors, textures, and patterns of each iceberg. I got into my “zone” and forgot the crowd buzzing around me. By noon, I had a much better outlook (tons of images and much dryer clothes). The sky was clear and the light became harsh, so instead of making any stops on the way back to Reykjavik, I simply enjoyed the ride through natural scenes that were too cloudy to see the day before. I joined back up with my wife and her tour group, had some excellent Indian food (my first real meal in two days), and enjoyed the comfort of a warm bed.

Jökulsárlón

Jökulsárlón

Things Are Looking Up

The remainder of the trip went rather smoothly compared to the first few days. The weather was generally more cooperative and I enjoyed tagging along with my wife’s group of students as we toured the Golden Circle and ate amazing burgers and ice cream at Efsti Dalur – an organic dairy farm near Geysir. The next day, I got to have an experience I had never had before. I rode an Icelandic horse (rather nervously, but I got use to it) across the snowy fields of Hveragerði surrounded by mountains. This was my first horseback riding experience, and though it was a bumpy ride, it was as majestic as you might expect. The day ended with a great dinner at Icelandic Fish & Chips.

Riding Icelandic horses in Hveragerði

Riding Icelandic horses in Hveragerði

My wife built a free day into her itinerary so we could go to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula alone. Waking at 4AM, we drove to Kirkjufellsfoss on icy roads. This day, there were very few others out and about. A few photographers were already at Kirkjufell when we arrived just before sunrise, but not nearly as many as I was expecting based on my experiences earlier in the week. Sunrise was spectacular, and I made images of both Kirkjufellsfoss and Kirkjufell Mountain in the bright and colorful morning light. It was by far the most photographically productive morning of the whole week. We even saw a few seals in the bay!

Kirkjufell at Sunrise, Snaefellsnes Peninsula

Kirkjufell at Sunrise, Snaefellsnes Peninsula

We continued around the peninsula and through the national park, stopping occasionally until we had visited every spot on our list. We finished early and decided to head over to a waterfall that we had never been to, Hraunfossar. Despite it being sunny, it was the coldest day of the trip and very windy. Because we arrived at the falls in the afternoon, the light was harsh and made for less than ideal conditions for photographing waterfalls. I employed my polarizer and 6-stop neutral density filter yet again and came away with several images that I was initially happy with. Back at the apartment later, I noticed I had made a critical mistake while reviewing my images. I didn’t cover my viewfinder while taking long exposures at Hraunfossar; so light leakage from the bright sun at my back caused awful purple streaks across my images. Rookie mistake…I should know better! For some reason I didn’t notice this on the LCD while I was shooting the images. At first I was devastated, then realized if nothing else, I could edit them as black and whites and the purple streaks would probably not be an issue. The winter moss was brown and drab in the afternoon sun, so black and white ended up being best anyway. I can’t believe I made such a novice mistake…lesson learned!

Hraunfossar

Hraunfossar

Still No Northern Lights

I know better than to plan a trip around a celestial event as unpredictable as the Northern Lights, but I was still really hoping to at least see, if not photograph, the aurora this time. Alas, the storm clouds never parted at night while I was out in the boonies where I could most likely see them in the right conditions….maybe next time. I am happy with the images that I was able to get overall, despite the harsh winter conditions and crowded locations. As popular as Iceland has become it is still a challenging place to photograph well.

For my packing list including camera gear I used on this trip, click here.