On my recent trip to Boston I needed to make an extra leg through Munich. Initially nothing to be happy about, but it turned out that the flight took an unusual route way north of the general course. It took us above Iceland and Greenland, a course generally only followed by flights to the US west coast.
Pretty exciting for everyone having a window seat on the righthand (northern) side of the plane including me. Instead of a several hour lasting sunset we were accompanied by the spectacular aurora borealis for about four hours. Inflight entertainment deluxe.
The photo quality isn’t quite what I wanted it to be. I needed to shoot with high ISO since I had only one hand available; with the other one I held a blanket to diminish the cabin light and thus the reflections in the airplane window.
A couple of weeks ago, more precisely on January 10, iridescent clouds were clearly visible all day long north of the Alps. I have never sighted any such occurrence and had no idea about this phenomenon. After taking a few photos I couldn’t resist researching the mysterious “rainbow clouds” on the web.
I was not able to find any easy explanation but from what I understand the strong foehn was causing the cloud iridescent. Here is another blog post and video, and here is a link to a German forum where people were posting pics.
Another effect of the foehn is a very clear air which allows us to get a clear view across the landscape for up to 300km (185mi) whereas under common weather circumstances the limit is around 50km (31mi). Above is a great example; the alps are around 150km south of Linz.
The Aurora a. k. a. polar light, a primordial stunning natural phenomenon, predominantly occurs close to the magnetic poles; depending on the hemisphere they are also referred to as northern lights or aurora borealis and southern lights or aurora australis. The illumination is created by particles emitted by the sun (stellar wind) reacting with the Earth’s atmosphere.
Polar lights look and behave somewhat similar to clouds. Some hang there for several hours with very little change. But other occurrences only last for one or two minutes and rapidly change its shape during that short period like clouds in strong wind. They also vary in intensity and color. The intensity ranges from barely visible to the naked eye to easily viewable with distractions like light pollution or moonshine; we got to see it from the hotel room several times. Depending on the altitude of the reaction the aurora will appear most commonly red and green but more colors are possible.
Selecting and Preparing The Equipment
First of all: the good news is it does not take expensive photography gear to capture an aurora. You will be able to take very reasonable photos with a point-and-shoot camera. Not with you smartphone though because it will be blurry for sure. Anyway I focus on photography equipment and further on DSLR paraphernalia although also applicable for smaller cameras. If you want a more extensive list including thoughts on apparel please read up on aurora-service.eu. Many of the following is probably obvious to the experienced night photographer:
A tripod that will easily carry the weight of your camera plus lens and which is solid (or heavy) enough to bear up against wind.
A remote shutter control (many different options here from infrared, cable, third party smart phone apps…) or 10s self-timer for your camera to be close to a complete rest at the time the shutter opens.
A lens (or camera) with high aperture, f/4 or higher.
Bring a wide angle lens or even a fish eye. Polar lights span across a third or even half the firmament.
Switch off the image stabilizer! Using an image stabilizer on a tripod is counterproductive and potentially blurs your image! Plenty of other articles on this one, e.g. photonaturalist.net and antonionunes.com, also see example below.
Your auto-focus will not work in the darkness. I found the best approach to manually focus in the almost pitch black night to make a few test photos with different infinity focus positions to find the optimal one. Besides many other parameters, the infinity focus also depends on temperature so you might want to check on its accuracy after a while out in the freezing cold.
Always shoot in full manual mode; I got my best results with 30s at f/4, ISO 2000 and 30s at f/5, ISO 1600 with the moon illuminating the snow.
Also, make sure your lens is cleaned and remove any filter you might have attached; a decent protection filter that will not cause any reflections is probably ok.
Picking a Scene
I assume you generally know where an aurora can be observed (otherwise aurora-service.eu again is a good start). This is more about composition and fine-tuning for creating a stunning photo.
Ideally you have a good guess where the aurora will occur; i.e. about the orientation of the magnetic pole from your position and the intensity of solar activity (determines how far south on the firmament the aurora will go). Also, consider the moon! It is a great source of light for illuminating any landscape you would like to use in the foreground of your photo. For that scenario you want the moon behind your back but generally you won’t have much trouble here. If you don’t see it, read about the ecliptic, find out that the moon figuratively follows the sun, and then think about it ;).
I didn’t make any efforts here (unfortunately). I would recommend to pick a nice spot during daylight or do some research with google earth or any other map app. Maybe you can find a lake for some reflections, some haunting trees or uniquely shaped rocks or stones.
If you are on the northern hemisphere you would generally place yourself south of the foreground. The aurora potentially spans from west to east across the northern sky. Give yourself a little flexibility that you easily can adjust the direction and still have an eye-catching foreground. This is a great example by twanight.org photographer Stephane Vetter.
Iceland in winter! Ridiculous, right? Not at all! Iceland is very charming in winter and offers a unique scenery. And a very long night just in case you want to be a northern lights spectator! The low sun also sets the perfect canvas for every photographer: golden hour all day long!
Since we’ve only been for few days and due to the road conditions in combination with our car we stayed in the Reykjavík area. You can easily spend a day at the Blue Lagoon, especially if you care for some relaxation time. With a much tighter schedule you could still do Þingvellir (including Almannagjá), Geysir and Gullfoss (a.k.a. the golden circle) even on a short winter’s day. One easy day in Reykjavík and another one driving around Hvalfjörður completed our brief Iceland endeavor:
The Blue Lagoon is a popular destination for arriving or departing guests because of its proximity to the airport. Undoubtedly a mandatory item on your itinerary but be prepared for an exorbitant charge. Whereas the water itself, heated up by a lava stream and rich in minerals is a natural wonder, the Blue Lagoon is not–it’s manmade.
Reykjavík is a lovely little northern city with tons of bars and cafés that serve excellent freshly brewed coffee. The major landmarks are Akrafjall and Esja, two mountains north of the city that paint a wonderful panorama, especially when covered with snow. Other must-sees are the Lutheran church Hallgrimskirkja and the little bit over four year old concert hall Harpa, home of the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. Unfortunately the church was closed though otherwise announced.
Watching northern lights can be as convenient as looking out of the window or walking in front of your hotel. We were lucky two times and got an easy view! It pretty much comes down to sun activity and whether or not the sky is overcast but of course there is a more scientific approach to that as well. The good thing is you easily find out both: I’m sure you have a trusted weather site or app and concerning sun activity I point you towards aurora-service.eu. We sighted impressive northern lights every single clear night! Besides the easy view we also went for the classy experience and got out in the dark for the spectacular! Dress really warm and bring a blanket.
We only saw relatively little of the island but I still would say that the golden circle represents Iceland in a nutshell. Within a day you will easily be able to enjoy three highlights: Þingvellir national park is a place of historical, cultural and geological relevance; due to the shortness of daylight hours we focused solely on the geological aspect and walked through Almannagjá, the rift valley where Europe and North America part with a celerity of 2.5 centimeters per year.
Secondly, we went to see a few eruptions of Strokkur, a smaller geyser which is located right next to its eponym Geysir. Whereas Geysir is active only every now and then, Strokkur erupts approximately every ten minutes. Iceland is also known for its waterfalls so lastly we drove to the nearby Gullfoss. We only stayed for a few minutes because of the biting cold.
On our last day we were looking for an unhurried short trip and just decided to drive around Hvalfjörður, a fjord right north of Reykjavík. In Akranes, which we reached on scenic route 47, we wanted to hang out at a café for a while but even on the second day of Christmas everything was closed but a gas station. Going back to our hotel was a quick drive below the sea through Hvalfjörður tunnel.
If you plan a once in your lifetime trip, early October and late March are probably the best choices because you have an ample amount of dark hours for observing the aurora borealis and enough daylight to enjoy the land. Also the weather is supposed to be quite stable and it’s not that crowded. Plus driving is a lot easier on ice-free roads. Anyway, experiencing long nights and days is an experience on its own. So if you have the chance, go twice!