A year ago visiting Iceland was just a dream but here I am 12 months later and I have managed to visit 3 times. The ultimate aim was to see and photograph the aurora, the first trip in April gave me just one brief evening when the northern lights came out to play  but this gave me a huge desire to have another go and also a better idea as to how to approach them with a camera.

This was my best attempt during this trip. The location is the Jökulsárlón Lagoon.

This was taken past mid-night. There was a bright moon behind me which helped with foreground illumination. I used the moon in order attain focus and then switched my lens to manual to lock it. As the night was bright I was able to use settings with an ISO of 640. I shot with a canon 5D MKII and used my 16-35 2.8L lens at f/2.8.

The aurora wasn’t especially bright this evening but the long exposure picks up more detail of what is happening in the heavens than your eye can actually see. Or at least this was my experience from this first night.

The end of April is late in the season for aurora hunting, it doesn’t really get dark until well past 11 o’clock and the rest of the trip failed to give the conditions needed as it clouded over at night.

I therefore returned in February 2012 with the hope of some ice and snow for daylight shooting and dark nights for aurora hunting.

The first real opportunity presented itself on our third night. We had located a spot that looked promising close to where we were staying, somewhere with a wide view north and water to reflect any colour. I was expecting to be able to sleep until at least mid-night but as one of my companions, Mel, had experienced the aurora in Norway much earlier in the evening we decided to do shifts, setting our alarms an hour apart with the intention of climbing out of bed to check the conditions. I’d just got into bed at 8pm when I heard a yell. It was time to go, the lights had appeared, the sky was clear. The show was on.

Research had told me to do several things in preparation before setting out:

  1. Wear many, many layers of clothes, with fingerless gloves inside warm mittens. We didn’t actually experience extreme cold but the wind was chilling and a lot of standing around is inevitable. I had several means of warming my hands but the one that proved the most effective later in the week when it did turn colder were “hotties” that Mel had brought.
  2. Have a head torch ready but be aware when around others that this can ruin your friend’s shots if used indiscriminately.
  3. Set your lens (the widest and fastest you have) to infinity but then wind it back just a touch and put on manual. Ideally find true infinity for your lens by focusing on a far object while it is light and tape it there to avoid knocking it off focus. Last year I had a good moon to focus on but without a moon it isn’t always possible to rely on using auto focus – you want to aim to get your stars pin sharp. This is counter intuitive to how I normally shoot landscapes where I want my foreground sharp and shoot at f/14 +.
  4. Pre-set you camera ready for a test shot which is a possible starting point for your first exposure. I’d suggest f2.8. I used aperture priority. ISO settings of 800.This may get you up and running quickly and a first histogram to work with.
  5. Remember that you will be aiming to keep the shutter speed under 30 seconds – longer than this and the stars start to trail and lose their apparent sharpness and as the aurora moves the beautiful shapes just become blurry masses . Know your camera controls so you can operate your camera in the dark.
  6. Have your cable release attached.
  7. A tripod is obviously essential – wind is a big factor in spoiling shots so ensure you know how to make the most stable platform possible.Remember it will be dark and tripods can fight back unless you are their master.
  8. Be familiar with where you are heading so you can confidently navigate the terrain in the dark.
  9. Remove any filters. Those that are used to protect your lens, such as skylight filters, will ruin an aurora shot as they introduce concentric rings due to some law of physics I don’t claim to understand.
  10. Have a spare battery – keep in a pocket to keep it warm.
  11. Set your camera for mirror lock up.
  12. Set your camera to shoot RAW.

Once out in the field it helps to work fast. The aurora is unpredictable, it may last minutes or hours. It constantly changes and moves so every minute will present a different possible image. You need also to keep aware of the feedback you are getting from your camera as it is difficult to judge how much lighter or darker it is becoming. One moment you may be getting speeds of 25 seconds and a moment later 8 seconds as the aurora gives a burst of energy. You want to respond to these changes to make the most of the potential – increasing f stops or lowering ISO.

So, we headed out to the chosen location full of anticipation and relatively untried theory running through my brain. How glad I was to have this small amount of experience and large quantities of theory behind me as the next few hours were spell binding.

As we parked we could tell that the aurora was still there, nothing dramatic but to my inexperienced eyes it looked more than encouraging. We were a party of four but it was in silence that we walked down towards the lake. Eyes slowly get accustomed to the dark and more of the green lights appearing. Each of us surveyed the scene and settled down to our chosen spots. Communication between us was limited not only due to the intense concentration but also because of the wind. In a previous post I mentioned the wind I have experienced in this SE region of Iceland and I now wonder if it ever ceases. Fighting with wind when trying to take long exposures is a real challenge and this evening we were initially battered. Within minutes my camera bag, now devoid of its weight, had flown away scattering filters. My head torch was attempting to fly off my head and I cursed not having brought my waterproof cape to sit on as a very low and wide tripod was the only way to get the stable platform needed to prevent camera shake. I sacrificed a dry bottom and sat on the ground nursing my tripod into stability.

My first image showed that the suggested starting settings were not fast enough. More light was needed so I moved the ISO up and got my first image. The aurora was there, I could see it but the camera was picking up much more detail. Slowly however the intensity increased.

20 seconds. ISO 800. f/2.8

As I have said my first experience of an aurora had included a bright moon. This night it was dark and even with the water giving some reflected light the sky was considerably lighter than the land. I began to play with a technique I had seen demonstrated before in February – using your hand as a method to hold back the sky. This simply involves using an old darkroom technique of reducing the light in certain areas. As it is a long exposure your moving hand is not recorded but it effectively enables the land to receive a longer exposure. There is obviously an element of trial and error but add a touch of educated guessing and this can really work.

After about 30 minutes I felt comfortable, I was getting images that looked OK, if not really exciting. But then things started to happen. After a lull it was as if the lights we had been seeing began to organise themselves into ribbons that grew and grew

30 seconds. ISO 640. f/3.2

25 seconds. ISO 640 . f/3.2

From this point I was in total awe. The lights were directly in front and then eventually in a rainbow arch from horizon to horizon reaching directly above us. Night became a green day. Which ever direction I looked there were pulses of light or sedate, beautiful curves.

20 seconds. ISO 800. f/2.8

20 seconds. ISO 800. f/2.8

The wind had dropped. I stood up and did a 360 degree turn, The sight was so unimaginably otherworldly that for a while the camera was forgotten as I just wanted to look and remember.

Eventually the colours died. We headed home. The next morning even the locals were discussing how amazing the show had been.

I would have been very happy to have gone home after this experience without a repeat performance. I felt very happy and privileged.

However, the following evening at almost the same time there was an encore.

This time we headed to the Jökulsárlón Lagoon.

30 seconds. ISO 100  f/2.8

As with the previous evening it took a while for the main performance to start but when it did it was equally impressive. The wind featured but also died at the right moment. We could not believe our luck.

30 seconds. ISO 640. f/3.2

15 seconds. ISO 640. f/3,5

30 seconds. ISO 800. f/3.5

Things learnt.

  1. The lights can turn night to day and keeping your eye on settings and trying different combinations is worthwhile. I feel I missed a trick here and wish I had played more with settings as this helps with learning. I should have tried some higher ISOs and some shorter shutter speeds.
  2. Using your hand to control exposure on the sky works if there isn’t ambient light on the land.
  3. Photographs can never actually portray the majesty of the event. You have to experience this to believe it.
  4. It is only possible to speak in hushed whispers in cathedrals and under the aurora.
  5. Incomprehensible beauty makes me cry.
  6. Research pays dividends but never totally prepares you for the unexpected – it justs shortens the odds.
  7. Post processing these images is hard. You want to be true to the occasion but your eye has limited past experience to draw on as to what is “right”.
  8. The camera sees more of the lights and colours than your eye so be prepared for surprises when you come to process the shots.
  9. Noise reduction – some cameras have a noise reduction function to reduce sensor noise introduced when using long exposures – it doubles the exposure time for each image and the penalty isn’t worth the benefit. Get a faster lens.
  10. Proper Exposure is critical: Even though a RAW file offers latitude for exposure compensation, accurate exposure is imperative, especially when shooting high ISO. Learn to read your histogram.

Sincere thanks to Mel, Hania and Connie who were my travelling companions – sharing photos is fun but a shared event is priceless. We’ll be reminiscing about this for years to come.

See  www.carterart.co.uk for the other images taken on this trip. See here for Mel’s shots.

I have to add a link to the car rental company I used for this and a previous trip. I have a serious issue with some of the big companies as they have a limitless way of securing extra money from you whilst offering little by way of a personal service. However,  Reykjavik Rent a Car are totally unique. They went to extreme lengths to help me. I needed a very specific requirement to enable 4 of us from 3 different countries to drive on my excess insurance policy bought in the UK. I also needed Canadian Connie to pick up the vehicle on my behalf, as I was arriving a day later than her. This would be impossible in most cases but they corresponded with me with utmost patience and provided a first class vehicle that was delivered to our hotel with every bit of the paperwork in full order.

I’d also like to recommend  Bed and Breakfast Keflavik Airport if you need a very pleasant room by the airport for the night. It has many rooms and is really a hotel rather than what we call a bed and breakfast. You get a a kitchen to cook in if needed, free airport transfers and very reasonable prices. Despite looking uninspiring (it is an airport hotel – a convenient bed) it is staffed by people who really do go the extra mile to be helpful.

Claire Carter

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