Iceland Sky At Night

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Viewing the Northern Lights is on many people’s bucket lists.  To be honest, it wasn’t really on mine.

I certainly wouldn’t have made a special trip to Iceland just to see them, that’s for sure.  But since I was there for work anyway, and had the opportunity, I thought ‘Oh well, may as well…’  So I took my tripod, and made sure to read a few articles about how best to capture them.  You know, just in case…

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The first time the opportunity raised its head was two days into the trip, and it happened to be my birthday.  I’d had a great but tiring day filming in a glacier ice cave and my lovely colleague had fed me just one G&T in the hotel as a birthday treat.  It made me incredibly sleepy.   Then the news went round the hotel: “Northern Lights!”

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I reluctantly followed the other guests across an icy car park and up a hill behind the hotel.  No coat, no camera.  Little wonder then that I only stayed for about 15 minutes before going to bed.  ‘There’ll be another chance,’ I thought.  Later, my colleague came back, breathless with excitement.  He’d seen them!  I was too tired to care.

But in the days that followed I wondered if I’d missed my only chance.  Shame to have come all this way and not seen them.  I began to hope I would.

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And as you can probably guess from the photos, I did.   I was on a tour bus heading back to Reykjavik when they appeared.  The driver pretty much pulled over by the side of a field and we all piled out.  And this is what we got.  Lucky, hey?

A lot of people are disappointed when they experience the Lights after having seen other people’s photos.  And I can see why.  They are nowhere near as bright to the naked eye as they are in a photograph with a long exposure.   All these photos were taken with between 3 and 10 second exposures. That’s up to 10 seconds worth all added together.  No wonder they look so vivid.

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But out there in the cold and dark, with a coachload of tourists going a bit nuts about ten meters from me, I was still blown away.  I’m not one for talking to myself, but even I couldn’t stop myself from breathing ‘Holy Cr*p!’ under my breath every time I took another shot!

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The next morning I saw on the news that the Lights had been visible in parts of the UK, so I guess I really did get lucky.

A few nights later, flushed with success, I thought I’d try again.  This time I booked onto a specific tour that included time in the evening to stop and view the Lights.  Of course there are no guarantees, but the skies were clear and the forecast looked good.

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As soon as it started to get dark, we pulled over into a parking area by a beautiful fjord, and while we waited I took a few photos of this gorgeous traditional wooden church, illuminated against the inky sky.

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As the evening progressed, the stars started to come out.  It was perfectly cold, crisp and still, and incredibly atmospheric.   The Lights hadn’t even arrived, and I couldn’t stop taking photos!

Iceland 2016_0925_p&pThere were two or three other photographers in the group, and we got a bit competitive, seeing who could take the best picture.  I think the other members of the group might have found us a bit annoying, but that wasn’t going to stop me!

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Impossibly stunning.  You could see all the constellations.  I even recognised one or two: you can make out Orion’s belt and sword in the bottom left of this photo.  But no Lights.

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Still I didn’t really mind.  I’d seen just about the best display they’d had all winter on my first (well, second!) go.  And it turns out no Lights is pretty stunning too.  Although we didn’t get a theatrical display like the last time, we did get a gentle green glow.  Though this was barely visible to the naked eye: this photo required a 20 second exposure.

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If you want to maximise your chances of getting great shots, here are my top tips:

  1. Familiarise yourself with your camera before you go, and read up on how to get the best shots.  I found loads of articles online to help.   But essentially the basic rules are: full manual control; widest aperture your camera will manage; manual focus set to infinity (or, if you can see the stars, focus on them); ISO about 1600; and then play with shutter speeds till you get it right.Iceland 2016_0881_p&p
  2. These photos were taken with shutter speeds of between 5 and 30 seconds.  If you don’t have a tripod, you can possibly put the camera on a bag, gatepost, or the floor, but if you’re really serious about getting good photos, you’ll need a tripod.
  3. Check the forecast.  You’ll need clear skies AND Aurora activity to be able to see the lights.  In Iceland everyone uses the Aurora forecast here: 2016_0863_p&p
  4. Be prepared!  Have your camera, coat, tripod and spare battery close to hand.  You don’t want to miss them, like I did, because you’ve left the tripod in the car and your coat in your hotel room…

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