To photograph the northern lights, lots of things need to go right. It starts with picking the right time of year, and finding a location far from city lights—the best months and locations can be determined with research and scouting, but far more problematic are the factors beyond my control: solar activity and weather. And unfortunately, when people sign up for a January Iceland workshop, no matter how clear you make it to them the northern lights are not guaranteed, they really, really, really expect to see the northern lights.
Before Don Smith and I scheduled our 2020 Iceland photo workshop, we did our best to maximize our group’s photography opportunities in general, and northern lights chances in particular: we researched Iceland’s prime northern lights months, identified the best guiding service, and in January 2019 spent 10 days with our guide scouting the spectacular Iceland landscape. On this advance trip we even were treated to a breathtaking northern lights show that enabled us to hone our aurora photography skills, and fill our websites with images.
When we announced the 2020 trip we did all the right stuff, providing preparation and educational material that emphasized the disclaimer that we can’t guarantee the northern lights. But as the trip approached and I started receiving good natured (I think) threats (“You better get us the northern lights or I’ll…”), I couldn’t help feeling a little anxious. As early as 10 days before the workshop, I started checking the long-range forecasts, but no matter which resource I chose, and how many times I checked, things weren’t turning out the way I’d hoped. Not only did the weather look pretty bleak (rain, snow, fog), the KP forecast of solar activity was pegged in the 0-2 range (on a scale that goes all the way up to 9). Gulp.
Throughout the workshop Óli (our guide), Don, and I obsessively monitored the forecasts and tried to stay as positive as possible, but with two nights to go, we hadn’t had a hint of northern lights opportunity, and the natives were getting restless. I suspect that the only thing preventing an all-out coup was that the locations and frequent clouds and snow made the rest of the workshop’s photography pretty fantastic. (Okay, seriously, this group was tons of fun and very understanding about our impossible aurora conditions, but I really wanted to deliver for them.)
In the back of my mind was the experience Óli, Don, and I had last year, when the forecasts were bleak until an unexpected uptick in the KP index coincided with a clearing of the sky at Glacier Lagoon on the trip’s last two nights. Throughout this year’s trip, I told myself (and all who would listen) that if it happened once, it could happen again. And guess what…
By the time we wrapped up our sunset shoot at Glacier Lagoon on the workshop’s penultimate day, we all knew that tonight could be the night—the weather forecast had improved to “partly cloudy,” and the KP index had bumped up into the 2-3 range. Far from a sure thing, but definitely worth bundling up and giving it a shot. So after dinner we piled back onto our bus and returned to Glacier Lagoon.
At the lagoon I hopped from the bus to scan the dark northern sky and saw a mix of clouds and stars. There was the Big Dipper and Cassiopeia. And once my eyes adjusted, I found the faint section of the Milky Way overhead and traced its path downward until it disappeared into a mass of clouds—not ideal, but there were enough stars to know we’d be okay. Unlike the previous year’s shoot, the northern lights weren’t visible to the naked eye, so I quickly set up my tripod and camera to take a test exposure, and there it was in my LCD, a faint but distinct green glow hovering above the northern horizon, partially obscured by clouds but unquestionably the northern lights. We were in business.
The darkness made keeping track of people pretty difficult, but since we’d already photographed here, everyone had their own idea of where they wanted to be and quickly scattered. I, and many others, started along the lagoon’s shoreline, but within an hour or so almost everyone had ascended the hillside overlooking the lagoon for a much more expansive view of the horizon.
Even though the aurora had brightened and was now visible to the naked eye, it remained just a green and (occasionally) red glow that lacked definition. Nevertheless, I could sense everyone’s relief—despite maintaining a positive facade, until this night I think most of us had become silently resigned to the fact that the northern lights weren’t in our future. At least they could all now say they’d seen the beauty of the northern lights. And then something amazing happened.
As if someone had suddenly cranked the intensity knob, a visible green shaft climbed skyward from behind the mountains, and within five minutes half the sky was alive with dancing light. The display was so beautiful and unexpected that we all just couldn’t help laughing at our good fortune. This great group that had spent more than a week bouncing around the Iceland countryside, marveling, eating, sharing, shivering, and (especially) dreaming of northern lights, was having a blast photographing together above Glacier Lagoon.
I can’t begin to express the joy I felt that night. It’s always wonderful to witness nature’s marvels firsthand, but sharing a first time with an infinitely deserving group of friends is truly special. After a while I stopped shooting to just watch the show and listen to the joy and felt tears welling in my eyes.
I spent more time this shoot moving around in the dark, helping people in the group with focus and exposure, than I did taking pictures. And it turns out that at some point in these travels, my camera lost focus and more than half of my images, including those from the peak of the aurora activity, are unusably soft. This is only mildly disappointing because 1) in a workshop it really isn’t about my photography anyway, and 2) I already have plenty spectacular Glacier Lagoon northern lights images from last year’s trip.
And despite that setback, I did get enough images to confirm that my Sony a7RIV is an excellent night photography camera. Until this trip I’ve always used my Sony a7SII (or the a7S that preceded it) for my night work, but I decided to save weight by leaving the a7SII home. While the low-light vision of the a7SII makes its viewfinder second to none for night composition and focus, the a7RIV proved good enough for that, and the image quality difference isn’t discernible.
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.