‎Velkomin til Íslands ! ...or... Welcome to Iceland !

29th March 2015
Photography can effect your life in more ways than one. A willingness to appreciate the natural world? Definitely. Time to stop and reflect on your surroundings more thoughtfully and at least decelerate for a while from the modern world's relentless rush to...well nowhere ?.... Without doubt..... However, it can also seriously impact your sleep patterns!!. After numerous pre dawn starts this spring in my attempts to photograph Barn Owls, it was on a cold and slightly damp morning that yet again I found my self rising at 0230am to leave home at 0300am. But this time it was places more distant. Admittedly Luton Airport held few attractions but it was the necessary evil for me to reach...ICELAND. Here are my thoughts on the trip. I hope you enjoy it and for the photographers I have added a small addendum at the end re equipment and techniques used.

So a few facts. A country of 350/- people but 65% live near the capital. A volcanically active island no more than 3 million years old but surprisingly big at 40,000 square miles (compare that with England's 50,000 sq miles and a population of 53 million). Virtually all their energy comes from geothermal or renewable sources and they have a brilliantly tasty yoghurt/cheese dish called Skyr that it seems you can't get anywhere else as well as regularly sharing the delights of Hot Chocolate laced with Rum.:-)

So back to photography. Leaving a drizzly Luton to touch down 2-3 hours later in a sunny zero degree Keflavik. "This is the first nice day we've had this year" was the promising statement from our smiling local guide. It proved to be a good omen as the island had experienced numerous endless westerly storms for months and the reports from photographers in previous weeks had been of storms, snow and driving rain.

As I mentioned Iceland is relatively a very large island and as you get further from the capital the roads become more functional than motorway. But the joys of driving for hours in stunning scenery with hardly another vehicle in sight is one most photographers long for. We had hired a large Mercedes based 4 by 4 with massive "go anywhere" tyres that would prove invaluable as the week went on, taking us to places that your hired VW Golf wouldn't even have looked at.
The danger of these trips is trying to fit too much in and so we concentrated all our time in the unpopulated south east corner of the island in the shadow of the vast 3200 sq miles Vatnajokull (Glacier of The Lakes) Ice Cap National Park, home to numerous glaciers and active volcanoes including Grimsvotn, the most active in Iceland last erupting in 2011 with 7 mile ash plumes. To give an idea of distances, our drive back on our last morning from near Hofn to the airport took seven hours!!

The other reason (and for me joy) of this trip was our mobile hotel! Built by MAN, the german engineering company, it gave us the option of parking exactly where we wanted to be. No endless treks from distant hotels but instead maybe a 200 yard walk to watch sunrise over a glacial lagoon or ten minute drive to a stunning beach. But it was never going to be a luxury 5 star annexe with a drive in bathroom. If you think of a berth on a yacht you'll have the idea and a climb up a 6 rung ladder each time certainly concentrated the mind at 0300am after a heady combination of aurora borealis sightings and beer to celebrate!! I should add that vast portions of excellent home made food, a warm (hot) room and very comfortable bed(berth to be more precise!) kept me ticking over nicely despite averaging only about 3 hours sleep each night over the week. In the words of Warren Zevon, "I'll sleep when I'm dead!!"...

I was the small ladder to the right on the right hand white "wagon". But to give you an idea of what it gave us, this view was from the top of a nearby hill and I'd turn around 180 degrees to see this.........

My "mission" was to see and hopefully successfully photograph the Northern Lights but we had to keep the whole schedule flexible to allow for whatever the Icelandic weather threw at us. But constant observations of the aurora and weather forecasts on the Icelandic websites together with local knowledge indicated high activity on or first full night. The solar flare observed by NASA of 3-4 days previously looked to be going to increase an already active atmosphere. All we needed was clear skies. A group decision had been taken to ditch our original overnight location and instead head for the wonderful Jokulsarlon Lagoon on the basis that should we get a great display this was THE location with it's iconic icebergs, mountains and open water to give those perfect composition tools for Aurora photos.(Thanks to Mark Bauer and Matt from Tatra Photography for making some "ballsey" decisions!!).. 6pm came and we sat in our trailer sipping coffee/tea/beer with solid cloud above us. The frustration grew as we started hitting 5-6 on the KP aurora scale which runs from 1-9 and we feared the worst case scenario...stunning activity hidden by clouds !!
But as we stepped out at c 9pm we could see the cloud (as forecast locally) started to clear and already the cameras were picking up the first green tinges of activity. Unbeknown to us we were about to be part of one of the biggest global sightings of the aurora for years...!!
Here's a quote from the Spaceweather Live website..."What looked like a fairly average coronal mass ejection from only a C9 (!) solar flare that would give us a glancing blow and spark at most a minor G1 geomagnetic storm actually caused the strongest geomagnetic storm of solar cycle 24. Three periods were recorded yesterday where the severe G4 geomagnetic storm threshold was reached. The Dst or disturbance storm time index (which just like the Kp-index is a way to record the severity of a geomagnetic storm) reached -228 during the peak of the storm close to midnight UTC and means this storm was actually much stronger than the second strongest geomagnetic storm of solar cycle 24 that reached -147nT on 25 October 2011. We thus witnessed a unique event! Tech talk aside: a geomagnetic storm of this size gave many people around the world the chance to see the magical polar lights....."

We had a 200 metre walk to our chosen spot on the side of the glacial lagoon. I had run through my routine of setting up my camera in pitch darkness a dozen times in my head. Come all this way and mess it up and I'd never forgive myself !!. But there are still a lot of things that can go wrong. Remember you can't really see your composition until AFTER you've taken a picture and check it on the back of the camera, one can easily knock your focus ring and not realise, the camera can easily not be level etc etc...the list goes on and within an hour as the sky came alive one had to stay calm and just stick to the basics!!
The following photos are a selection starting on that first evening of the two nights we were lucky enough to experience wonderful Lights. I'm very glad that having read various photographers reports of their experiences I listened to one great piece of advice a few gave. Step back from the camera and enjoy the lights for what they are. Soak in the atmosphere, forget your aperture and ISO settings for a while and soak in what is undoubtedly, on nights like these, one of the wonderful sights in the Natural World.

The first few lights appear above the mountains......

The reds would start to appear creating curtains of twisting dancing light in long horizontal bands......

and then intensify........

Then there were some tremendous spikes of light shooting across the sky which simply left us aghast as they illuminated everything almost as if daytime...Mad fumbling with camera dials ensued as I was quickly having to drop the exposure to allow for the increased light

....and this from our very last night where we ventured out to a dark lagoon and whilst the aurora activity was low I experienced the most brilliant clear star filled night sky I have ever experienced.

A truly magical experience. My favourite image? Perhaps this one as we all watched spellbound as the green band stretched and grew across the sky from the left and then curled around the mountain top. I was lucky as my camera was in the middle of it's 20 second exposure as this happened.

We knew how lucky we had been when even the local Icelandic guides were getting excited !!

But Iceland is a photographer's dream location even without the Northern Lights.
Beyond the river estuary that feeds the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon is the famous Ice Beach. As the Icebergs are carved off the glacier in the lagoon behind they slowly get ground down and broken until the pieces are small enough to escape the shallower neck of the river. The tide drags them out to sea but the strong currents and crashing waves drive many back on to the dark volcanic sand beach creating a fairly unique environment. Here are just a few images from this slightly surreal place.

Gorgeous morning light falls on to a small iceberg as it starts it's journey on to the wild sea.

I was lucky as I persuaded myself to get up early and it was amongst the most atmospheric light I had all week.

While it has been done many times before you can't help experimenting with long 20-40 second exposures and they seem to cry out to be converted to black and white. This has actually grown to be one of my prefered images from the trip

A few assorted mini 'bergs! I love to experiment with the simplicity of an image if I can and these ice sculptures were the perfect subjects.

Three days after our first fantastic Aurora experience we had the expectations raised by the almost total Solar Eclipse due on the 20th March. To get a good close image of the corona I would have ideally brought my 500m lens with a convertor etc but in the interests of baggage charges (and my back !) I had left them at home but with total sunshine there were probably few better places in the world that day to watch this phenomenon.

An Icelandic vessel heads out to see an hour before the eclipse (I guessed maybe with lots of observers on it)

A group of photographers stand amongst the ice blocks on Ice Beach as the eclipse nears it's zenith.

I think the one overriding emotion after it had finished was that it hadn't gone as dark as we'd all expected but this simple shot for me was my favourite. At the end of the day any close up image of a black circle with a white ring around it won't end up on my wall and I feel this picture conveys much more the experience of the dropping light, the halo moon effect and the sun's rays exploding around the moon.

The Ice Beach also gave me one of my favourite images from the trip. A stunning sunrise, with many people still asleep after the aurora the night before but you don't feel tired after even just two hours sleep when you are sitting watching this. I felt genuinely energised as I returned for my breakfast !!


Other highlights included a visit to the Svinafellsjokull Glacier, the scene in 2010 of the disappearance of two young german climbers who despite intensive searches were undoubtedly lost in the huge constantly moving crevasses after setting out to ascent the huge mountain behind despite local advice not to. Knowing this certainly added to the sense of dark power the glacier emitted.

...some amazing colour and shapes within the ice as it heads down the valley.


The beaches of volcanic black sand and precipitous mountains provided some wonderful backdrops and here at Eystrahorn we basked in wonderful sunlight ....that's if you can "bask" in full down jacket and thermals and gloves and hats :-) When the wind blew I quickly was reminded I was remarkably close to the Arctic Circle !!

...and the sad but dramatic sight of a whale's skeleton spread by the winter storms over the the beach and parched dry by the years of sun and wind. Lucky to have our 4 wheel drive vehicle our guide suggested very few people came this far up the beach (soft deep sand etc) and the undisturbed bones could be decades old or longer.

Again with stunning light we visited the magical black beach and dunes of Vestrahorn for the late afternoon sunshine. The combination of dunes and sand and mountains made for a location it was stunning just to admire along with total of about 10 other people...damn! we caught it on a busy day !!

Another day, another bay, and more sunshine....

...and with constantly changing light and conditions there seemed a natural wonder around every corner. In fact this next image was taken from within 30 yards of where we were parked in our mobile hotel for the last two nights. Incredibly remote down a long farm track it made me realise I'd find it very hard to visit Iceland again if staying in a normal hotel. Being "in" the environment made you appreciate it just that bit more and as I sat on the porch of my cabin I watched as the peaks of Eystrahorn went from being clear to being wrapped in surging clouds within a few minutes. I almost forgot to grab my camera, stick on the 70-200mm and click off a few frames. Within five minutes more it had virtually disappeared.

....and it wasn't all landscapes. Iceland has limited wildlife in the winter but one of Europe's prettiest birds was displaying and defending his territory and this chap kept me company for a while one chilly morning...a Snow Bunting.

....and so it was farewell to Iceland, a magical, harsh, stunning beautiful place. Will I be back?..undoubtedly...for the Aurora?..maybe but I know I was incredibly lucky and I could go fifteen times and not see a better display so maybe there just lies disappointment down that route. Also, though the photos don't show it , we had snow, rain, sleet, heavy mist and chilling winds at various times but no one said it was the Caribbean !! But there are waterfalls, glaciers, the mountain highlands in summer and autumn and the beer and hot chocolate are excellent so yes...I'll be back.

Whilst alas this isn't my quote it seemed very relevant during my time in Iceland....“Wildness reminds us what it means to be human, what we are connected to rather than what we are separate from.”

Just for the photographers out there here is a guide to what equipment I travelled with and used on my trip and the techniques for the Aurora.

-Nikon D4 and D810. The latter was by go-to camera for this trip but given it was only recently purchased I felt I had to take my trusty D4 with me and in fact all my aurora images ended up being taken on the D4 as given I was using ISO's of up to 3200 I knew the D4 could handle them as well as any camera. The vast majority of other shots were taken on the D810 with either a 16-35mm f4 VR Nikon lens or the 24-70mm f2,8 Nikon. I also used my 70-200mm f2,8 Nikon lens a few times.
-Gitzo 3 series tripod held down with a bungee cord to my camera bag in the high wind. Much better than suspending the bag to the bottom of the tripod, as one often sees, where it can act as a sail !!
-Markins Ball Head
-Lowepro 400 AW bag
-Lee Filters....I used all three grads (0.3, 0.6, 0.9) at some point as well as the 0.9 ND grad and my Lee Big Stopper 10 stop filter.
-Lots of memory cards, lens cleaning clothes.
-Warm clothing. RAB down jacket (with a waterproof shell over the top) and lambswool inner soles in my Meindl walking boots and my £4.50 off ebay german army issue winter mittens were probably the key items !!
**I think I'll write another blog re the techniques I used but suffice here to say exposures were between 6secs and 42 secs, iso between 800 and 3200, apertures either f2.8 or f4. Manual focus on a bright star. Manual exposure starting at iso 3200, 25 secs at f2.8 and adjust as conditions change. No filters on the lenses. Cable release and mirror up facility used. If you would like any more details please fell free to contact me via this website.


Photo comment By Jacky Parker: Absolutely stunning pictures. I have always wanted to see the lights. They are beautiful and magical. The clarity of the photography is amazing. It makes me feel like I am there. I also love the snow bunting.
Photo comment By Nigel Morley: Thanks for your comments Jacky. If I could recommend just one trip to anybody it'd be to try and see the Aurora. Makes one truly appreciate the planet we live on. Glad you liked the images. I think though most photographers would agree that no image can do a good aurora sighting real justice. The key for all there on the best evenings was to make sure that one took time to step away from the camera and just marvel at the amazing spectacle overhead.

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