Category Archives: Iceland

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland

Night photography is a passion of mine.  I don’t know if I can explain exactly why.  Possibly because the images simply amaze me, maybe because of the solitude and quiet, perhaps it is the wonders that photography reveal that my bare eye can only hint at.  Don’t know, but I do love it.

The Milky Way has long been my favorite subject for night photography…and with good reason.  It is mind-boggling, majestic and awe-inspiring.  But I have a new night-time fave:  the Northern Lights!

I photographed the Aurora Borealis for the first time five years ago during a trip to Alaska. Unfortunately, I only had two nights when I could see the lights during that visit. 

“Ribbon Highway”  A favorite shot from my trip to Alaska.  The ribbons of the Aurora above mimic the Dalton highway below (of “Ice Road Truckers” fame) 

In the intervening years since I had forgotten how breathtaking it can be when the night sky dances in swaths of colorful ribbons and the landscape is bathed in its soft green light.  During my trip to Iceland last month, I was able photograph the Northern Lights six times over a two week span.  Seeing the northern lights is truly hit or miss.  Some nights the aurora is weak or simply non-existent…other nights are overcast and it’s hidden.  I have met many folks who spent a couple weeks in Iceland and never saw the lights so I felt blessed to have had such good luck.  In this blog I will share some of those experiences and photos. 

After a day in Reyjavik, I took a two day tour up to the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.  We stopped at a small hotel (the Langaholt Guesthouse) on the peninsula’s southern coast for the night.  I woke up at 4am and saw a grey glow over the northern horizon.   I knew that until your eyes adapt to the dark, the aurora appears faint and nearly colorless so I hurriedly dressed and ran outside.  In my haste, I put on my pants backward, but I didn’t notice until hours later;)  

 To be honest, I had failed to scout the area before I had gone to bed, so I really didn’t know where I would find a decent foreground.  First I headed out to the main road. 

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland Snaefellsnes

The aurora was killer, but the rest of the view wasn’t as impressive…

As my eyes adapted, I could see the colors.  The green was magnificent and city lights glowed red on the lower clouds above the mountains.  I shot for twenty minutes but couldn’t find a  foreground that made me happy.  So I hiked back past the hotel and toward the coast.  And I’m glad I did!  Between the hotel and the coast there was a tidal flat filled with water.  Plus, there was no wind, so it was reflecting the sky almost flawlessly.

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland Snaefellsnes

“Odin’s Mirror”

Amazing, huh!  I was blessed with a red aurora as well.  The crimson color occurs only at higher altitudes and it is relatively uncommon…and uncommonly beautiful.  To top it off,  the snow-capped mountain ridge provided interest and leading lines.  It was a magnificent setting…and I knew it.  I photographed blissfully for the next couple hours until the eastern sky started to lighten.

One of my best shots was an accident.  I took a few long exposure images at low ISO just to get high quality/low noise images of the foreground that I could later merge with the higher ISO, shorter exposure sky shots.  Well, this happened:

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland Snaefellsnes

Valhalla’s Kaleidoscope

 This exposure was for a minute and a half and it did capture the high quality foreground image I intended.  But it also made the low, fast-moving clouds appear as streaks that nicely reflected the aurora’s light.  Usually you take aurora shots for about 7 to 15 seconds so you can capture the ‘grain’ and delicacy of the aurora…but I really like the way this image turned out…sometimes you just get lucky!

The next few days were overcast.  I was having dinner on the southern coast near Vesterhorn when the skies cleared again.  I bolted outside and saw that the aurora was dancing! 

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland

The restaurant didn’t have much of a foreground but the sky certainly had promise…

Our tour guide, Aron, knew of a nearby spot that featured a shallow inlet framed by a mountain ridge.  We jumped into our truck and soon were standing in front of this scene: 

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland

I was fortunate to capture a comet in this image. You can also see another happy photographer and his (her?) tripod to the far left (look for the red LED).

There was another cloudless night a couple of days later.  I set my tripod up a few inches above a small frozen pond which was reflecting the aurora’s joyful glow.

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland

The photo tour I was on (Arctic Exposures) circled the entire coast of Iceland via the ‘Ring Road.’  By the time we reached the far eastern coast, people and towns were few and far between but the landscapes were anything but scarce.  Godafoss roughly translates to “Waterfall of the Gods” and that is no hyperbole.  Magnificent as it is during the day, it is truly something sublime when illuminated under the Aurora Borealis:  

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland Godafoss

The aurora usually is concentrated toward the north, but this night it covered the sky from horizon to horizon…always shimmering and moving as it danced its magical light fantastic.

Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland Godafoss

Have I mentioned the cold? It was -22° F the night I took this shot…a personal record that I hope to never break.

By now we had reached Myvatn in northern Iceland.  One of my favorite locations there wasn’t a grand landscape.  It was this small pond that had a puny island in its center crowned by an even smaller tree. 

 Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland Myvatn

Even after the red faded the ‘normal’ green aurora was enchanting.Photographing the Northern Lights in Iceland Myvatn

You know, as I think back now, what I really love about the Aurora is its movement and unpredictability.  When you shoot the Milky Way, it doesn’t change much one minute to the next.  It is beautiful, but consistent.

The aurora is always changing.  The shape, color, intensity, texture…they are all in flux and never the same.   It’s kind of like the difference between photographing landscapes and wildlife.

Anyway, hope you enjoyed the photos.  I’m off to the Bisti Badlands and Moab for the next couple weeks.  I’ll share my images when I return!
Jeff

 

 

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Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

When I sit down to write a blog recapping a photo trip, the process is pretty simple.  I think back about what was truly amazing or unique about the location and just start there.   And that is precisely why I am having such trouble starting this blog about Iceland.  

Iceland has auroras, ice caves, waterfalls, glaciers, geysers, icebergs, sea stacks and much, much more.  Exploring and photographing any one of these treasures would have been plenty for a single trip…or blog.    Trying to condense this trip into a detailed and comprehensive article that wasn’t too lengthy was not possible, no matter how I agonized over it.

So, I am going to wuss-out and instead create a series of shorter blogs, each one dealing with a solitary topic, like auroras or ice caves.  But before that, I’m going to pop out this brief recap  and include some of my favorite images.

Any visit to Iceland starts and ends in the capital, Reykjavik.  

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

The ‘Sun Voyager’ or Sólfar is a large stainless steel sculpture on Reykjavik’s shoreline. The artist, Jón Gunnar Árnason intended it to symbolize the promise of new, undiscovered territory.  It is a truly elegant monument and I think it would sing a saga to any photographer with an ear to listen.

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

Hallgrímskirkja is the largest church in Iceland. Guðjón Samúelsson designed it to resemble the basalt columns that are such an iconic feature of many of Iceland’s waterfalls.  It is truly dramatic and visible from nearly any spot in Reykjavik.

The international airport is near Reykjavík.  The city is small, modern, clean and great for pedestrians…and photographers.  Don’t get me wrong, I certainly came to Iceland to photograph the landscapes but Reykjavik had plenty to keep my camera busy while I was in town. 

Which was a good thing, because Reykjavik isn’t cheap.  Heck, nothing in Iceland is cheap except hot water and electricity (thanks to Iceland’s abundant geothermal energy and hydro-electric resources).  So I avoided the souvenir shops and expensive restaurants while exploring the town on foot eating Cliff Bars and clicking away with my Nikon.    

Reykjavik’s concert hall, the Harpa, features an illuminated colored glass facade that changes colors and moves. I found it wonderfully reminiscent of the Northern Lights.

 After checking out Reykjavik and adapting to the 6 hour time difference, I took the next few days to visit the Snaefellsnes Peninsula and the nearby ‘Golden Circle’.  The weather was rainy and overcast but the incredible landscape still yielded dramatic black and white images.

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

Kirkjufellsfoss (the waterfall) and Kirkjufells (the mountain) are two of Iceland’s most iconic images. I had only about ten minutes to shoot here, so I was under the gun to get my shots.

The rain got worse as the trip progressed, but that only made the rugged coastline that much more alive to the camera:

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

A long exposure HDR allowed me to show the Djupalonnsanaur sea stacks with all its violent grace.

Although I hadn’t seen the sun since I arrived, things turned around that night.  I was checking the sky every couple of hours (heck, who needs sleep) and about 4 am the skies cleared and the aurora made an appearance.  I had nearly two hours of uninterrupted bliss photographing the aurora and nearby mountains reflecting in a shallow lake until the dawn washed it all away.

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

“Reflected Grace” The Aurora Borealis dancing above the mountains on the Snaefellsnes peninsula.

    

Tired, but happy, I headed down the coast a bit to check out the seals at Ytri Tunga Beach.

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

“Perfect Pinnipedia Plank” Young seal going through his morning stretching exercises at Ytri Tunga Beach.

One of the more interesting waterfalls I saw was Hraunfossar.  The water here doesn’t fall over the top of the rock cliff…it actually seeps out through the porous volcanic rock face.  Never saw that before…

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

A long exposure zoomed detail shot of Hraunfossar

I returned to Reykjavik and the next morning joined the ‘Arctic Exposure‘ photo tour that would consume the next ten days. 

My quarter million dollar ride! Other tourists would actually walk up and photograph our truck when we stopped for gas…

Although I usually prefer to explore and photograph on my own, many of Iceland’s photographic icons are simply not reachable via rental cars during the winter.  Plus, being a Floridian, my experience driving on snow and ice is sorely suspect.  I was reassured that this tour featured a $250,000 Mercedes  ‘monster-truck’ that had been especially built for the off-road winter extremes in Iceland.  Plus, our guide Aron was not only a talented photographer but also an expert winter driver who had once spent a year managing the vehicle fleet for a BBC production in the Antarctic. 

Iceland isn’t a huge country…about the size of the state of Georgia.  The ‘Ring Road’ is a two-lane asphalt highway that circles the perimeter of the island.  Our tour drove the entire road counterclockwise and we indulged in many side trips to remote spots that Aron had found over the years.  

Seljalandsfoss was one of our first stops.  Set in a huge natural amphitheater, it is one of the country’s natural treasures.  The downside is that it isn’t that far from Reykjavik and is easily accessible…which means that it is packed with tourists.  Even during the winter.  Worse, it has been photographed to death and I was frankly a bit intimidated contemplating how to find a perspective that wasn’t identical to the thousands of others on the internet.

 

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

“Perspective” My effort to create a unique image of popular Seljalandsfoss.

There are a number of sea stacks and arches around the island.  That evening we photographed Dyrhólaey, a gigantic, 400 foot black lava arch.  The western face of the arch stubbornly stayed shaded by clouds for the hour we waited for sunset.  Then, once, and for less than a minute, a glimmer of sunlight weakly illuminated up the arch.  It was just enough…

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

Atlantic Puffins nest on Dyrhólaey’s cliff sides during summer. They were far away enjoying warmer weather during my visit!

When my brother Greg, kayaked around Iceland in 2007, he had a bit of fun and paddled right through this arch. His 33 day circumnavigation is still a record… and my brother is still a beast.

The next morning, we visited the basalt sea stacks of Reynisdrangar, which are framed by one of the black sand beaches that are so characteristic of this volcanic island.  

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

Legend has it that the stacks were created when two trolls dragged a three-masted ship to the shore but when illuminated by the sunrise it was transformed into these wicked needles of rock.

The glaciers in southern Iceland conceal numerous Ice Caves, which had long been on my bucket list.  It was worth every second of the wait.  

Remember the James Bond ‘Gun Barrel’ graphics at the start of the movies?

 
Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

I think Aron has James Bond beat cold (Pun intended)!   The Anaconda Ice Cave was gargantuan….we could have driven our truck into it.  I’ll do a full blog packed with Ice Cave photos later this year.

Another famous spot for photographers is Diamond Beach.  Its claim to fame is that Europe’s largest glacier (Vatnajökul) calves into the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon and the ice is swept out to sea.  Then the Atlantic tosses them right back up on the black sands of Diamond beach.  It was an incredible sight at sunrise… 

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

I could have spent days at Diamond Beach. The blue ice on black sand with silky currents of water illuminated under an Arctic sunrise were inspiring. Another blog to follow on this dreamlike location!

Iceland can also give Patagonia a run for the money when it comes to awesome mountains.  Vestra Horn was particularly impressive. Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap Vesta Horn

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

We were lucky to capture Vestra Horn during an inspired sunrise that reflected its profile in the water running off the shallow ocean flats at its base.

 

As we continued east and then north we stopped seeing crowds of tourists.  Or towns.  Or cars.  Or much of anything other than the thin ribbon of the Ring Road and some bleakly magnificent landscapes.  Iceland has a population of only 350,000 (vs. 18 million in Florida).  And with nearly a third of the population living in Reykjavik,  people tend to be few and far between in the rest of the country. 

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

This isn’t a shot that will end up in my portfolio, but it does accurately show how bleak, desolate and uninhabited much of Iceland can be once you get away from Reykjavik and the south coast.

The weather started to change as well.  Aron had told us that it had been unusually warm and rainy but by the time we reached the little outpost of Mývatn (population 200), that started to change.  Snow began to fall and the temperature started to drop.  A lot.  Our coldest night would peg out at -22F (-30 Celsius).  As I recall, we spent a good part of that night photographing the Northern Lights at Godafoss. 

Despite numerous layers of high-tech cold weather clothing, my fingers and toes certainly felt the cold…at least until they went numb and didn’t feel anything at all.  Oh, and let me tell you about the time I was peering into my viewfinder setting up a shot.  I close one eye when I use my viewfinder..right?  Well, when I tried to open it, I found that a bit of moisture on my eyelashes had frozen and stuck it to my cheek.  Ever rip off a band-aid?  Well, eyelashes grow back and I’ll have that photo forever…but, just saying…

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

Godafoss (Waterfall of the Gods) The coldest night of my life…but one the most beautiful.

We stayed in the Mývatn area for three days.  One of my favorite locations was a pond punctured by a petite island crowned with a stunted tree that some enterprising Icelandic photo tour owner must have planted.

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

A picture perfect reflection

Our monster truck came in handy in the north, brutalizing its way to locations that would have been impossible with a regular vehicle.   One ‘normal’ passenger van tried following the path we forged to Dettifoss but ended up breaking its differential.  Those poor folks had a long, cold (and expensive ) wait for a tow truck.

One of my favorite waterfalls was Aldeygarfoss.  Surrounded by basalt columns, it is blessed with a remote and regal setting in the Icelandic highlands.  We spent a few hours there waiting for sunset.  It was truly magical and I doubt I’ll live long enough to forget its grandeur.

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap

Aldeygarfoss glows in pastels after sunset.

In addition to the landscape, I was also impressed with the native Icelandic horses.  The island is home to 80,000 of them (nearly one per every four residents).  I learned “never to call them ponies…they are real horses, just petite.”  Supposedly descended from the Mongolian warhorses ridden by the legendary hordes of Genghis Khan, the Icelandic horse has been pure-bred for a thousand years.  To maintain that legacy, horses cannot be imported into Iceland and if one is shipped off the island, it cannot ever return.  

Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap Icelandic Horse Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap Horse

One other tidbit is that the Icelandic horse is the only one in the world that has a 5th gate.  I don’t really know what that means other than it gives the rider a really smooth ride.  Iceland Winter Photo Tour Recap Beer on horseTo prove that point, one of the owners at a local stable galloped with a glass of beer in her hand. Yes, she spilled a drop or two, but the glass was practically full at the end of a full lap.  I was impressed…and relieved that no beer was wasted, especially since beer has only been legal in Iceland since 1989.

All too soon, we were back in Reykjavik.  The ten of us on the tour had certainly bonded by the end of the trip.  Tens of thousands of photos, hundreds of miles and many bottles of wine undoubtedly contributed to that camaraderieIt was sad to break up the team and head home.

But I will be returning to Iceland.  There is so much more to explore and it is all on a compact, modern island where the people are polite, punctual and speak English.  Plus they drive on the right side of the road which will come in handy when I return in a summer or two and rent a car of my own.

Hope you enjoyed this brief recap of my trip.  If you have a preference on the subject of my next Icelandic blog (Ice Caves, Auroras, Waterfalls, Diamond Beach…) pop me a note and vote on your favorite!

Take care,
Jeff

PS:  I’m heading out to Arches NP and the Bisti Badlands next month.  Hopefully I’ll be able to squeeze out another blog before then.

PSS:  I unreservedly recommend Arctic Exposure.  Yes, the tours are expensive (but like I said, everything is costly in Iceland)…but they are competitively priced when you consider other similar photo tours.  Plus, the level of expertise Aron provided was above and beyond what I have usually experienced on other photo tours.  His experience allowed him to adjust our itinerary ‘on the fly’ depending on the weather conditions.  I like to think that I’m pretty good in quickly scouting a location and figuring out the best perspectives for my shots, but the fact is I wouldn’t have come home with the number of killer shots that I did if Aron hadn’t been our guide…and that is very high praise coming from me.  Also, if such things are important to you, the food and lodging were outstanding. 

Finally, please know that I (unfortunately) get no kickbacks or discounts from Arctic Exposure…although I would be certainly willing to consider bribes in the future…

 

 

 

 

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