I woke in my hotel room this morning to find a 6-inch snow drift (I measured) on the floor beneath my window, and still more snow frosting the curtains and wall. An expanding glacial lake stretched almost to my bed. Honestly, the risk of turning my room into an ice cave is never a consideration when opening the window at bedtime back home—but this is not home, not even close.
So why would someone choose to leave scenic, mild California for frigid Iceland in early February? Believe it or not, there are many reasons, including snowy volcanic peaks, a mind-boggling assortment of waterfalls, shimmering ice caves, all-day low-angle light (the sun in early February never ascends higher than 10 degrees), and hour-long sunrises and sunsets. (I could go on.)
But the number one motivator, the thing that most inspired Don Smith and me to consider an Iceland photo workshop in the middle of winter, and that drove a dozen people to sign up for it, is the potential to witness nature’s mesmerizing celestial dance, the northern lights.
Our planet is continuously bombarded by solar energy. When this perpetual solar wind encounters Earth’s atmosphere, a narrow range of wavelengths (infrared and visible) passes through to warm us and light our way. But other energy wavelengths in the solar wind interact with the molecules they encounter, stripping electrons and creating an atmospheric charge imbalance.
Instead of penetrating our atmosphere to create havoc on Earth’s surface, most of these ions (charged particles) are intercepted by Earth’s magnetosphere, our protective magnetic shield. Under constant bombardment from the sun, the magnetosphere forms a teardrop-shaped shield around Earth, with the battered side that faces the sun compressed, and the shielded side behind Earth stretching much farther into space.
As Earth rotates, the daylight side at any given moment faces the thinner, compressed region of the magnetosphere, while Earth’s night side looks out toward the extended region of the magnetosphere. Particles ionized by the sun are pushed by the solar wind from the daylight side of the magnetosphere to the upper regions of the polar latitudes on Earth’s leeward (night) side.
The result of these atmospheric machinations is an accumulation of ionized molecules dancing high in the night sky, creating an atmospheric oval of geomagnetic activity that increases with the intensity of the solar wind. The greater the solar activity, the greater the oval’s size and the intensity and range of the aurora display.
The aurora’s color depends on the molecules involved, as well as their altitude. The most plentiful and frequently activated molecules vibrate in the green wavelengths, but reds and blues are possible as well, depending on the intensity and altitude of the activity.
To view the northern lights, you need all of the above: the right location, activity in the magnetosphere, and clear skies. As with terrestrial weather, there’s no such thing as an aurora “sure thing”—the best we can do is put ourselves in position to be as close to the auroral oval on nights with the greatest chance for activity. Planning a winter trip to the high latitudes (the higher the better), like Iceland, is a good start—then just pray for clear skies.
Essential to aurora chasing is access to and comprehension of the Kp- (or K-) index. The Kp-index is a 0-9 scale of atmospheric electromagnetic activity, with 0 being little or no activity (get some sleep), and 9 being the most extreme activity (don’t forget the sunglasses). Many governments and scientific organizations issue regular Kp forecasts that seem about as reliable as a weather forecast—pretty good, but far from perfect. There are many websites and smartphone apps that will provide you with up-to-date Kp forecasts for your current location—some will even issue alerts.
Meanwhile, back in Iceland
This is my third trip to Iceland in winter, all with my friend and fellow pro photographer Don Smith: in 2019 to scout for our planned workshop, then in 2020 and 2022 for our workshops. On all three trips we’ve been guided, chauffeured, and entertained by our Icelandic guide, (the unforgettable) Óli Haukur.
On our previous two winter Iceland visits, it seemed the aurora was toying with us, tantalizing us each evening with clear skies (yay!) and just enough aurora potential to drive us out to wait in the cold dark night (meh), before ultimately disappointing (boo!). But on both trips, after a week of torture, the aurora finally came through with a dazzling display on the trip’s penultimate night (phew).
This year, the aurora gods played a different game. On our first night we were based near Kirkjufell (English translation: Church Mountain), arguably Iceland’s most iconic landmark—not to mention the north-facing vantage point that makes Kirkjufell a perfect foreground for photographing the northern lights. But, in a stunning plot twist, instead of the clear skies and KP-1 or 2 we’d been accustomed to, this year’s opening night’s aurora forecast was KP-6—the highest KP rating I’d had for any of my Iceland visits (even the big display nights). However…
Remember the aurora big 3: location, activity, and sky? We had location and activity, but even two out of three isn’t enough. So my ecstasy was quenched the instant I checked the Kirkjufell weather forecast: cloudy, with a chance of snow. But, because photographers will endure all kinds of abuse when a good shot is even remotely possible, our group bundled up and went out anyway. One small benefit: Though we certainly weren’t the only ones out there, the weather forecast and overall COVID-reduced tourist numbers made Kirkjufell’s crowd much more manageable than it would have been.
But crowds aren’t the only limiting factor at Kirkjufell. Night photographers there also need to deal with light leaks from the nearby village of Grundarfjörður (just as easy to pronounce at it is to spell), a couple of lights on the mountain, random headlights from the parking area, and a highway that runs along the base of the mountain and right through any composition that includes it. (Fortunately there weren’t a lot of cars, because each one lights the mountain for at least two minutes before its arrival.)
When we arrived at the Kirkjufell parking lot, there was no visible sign of the northern lights, but there were a few stars visible above the mountain, giving me a slight surge of hope. A couple of us tried test frames and our cameras picked up a slight green glow, nothing to write home about, but enough to justify making the short hike out to the prime viewing area. Though there was space for everyone in our group to set up with a good composition, it was crowded enough to make it difficult to move around a lot.
For the first hour or so we stood around waiting for the aurora to improve, clicking occasional frames to check its status. Most of this time the aurora was a benign glow, just bright enough to make out with the naked eye as a faint, colorless glow on the horizon. Our cameras, on the other hand, with their ability to accumulate light and brighten the darkness, easily pulled out some color. Nothing spectacular, but at least everyone was getting nice, albeit unspectacular, images.
Eventually a few in our group reached their chill threshold and began packing up. When I saw more clouds moving in from the west, I texted our guide that we were heading back to the bus (to call this beast a mere “bus” doesn’t really do it justice)—then joked that if that doesn’t start the light show, nothing will. (All photographers know that the best stuff doesn’t happen until at least one person packs up his or her gear.)
And sure enough, just as I collapsed my tripod and started zipping my bag, I took one last northward glance and saw actual, naked eye green. By the time I had my tripod re-extended and camera mounted, the color was really starting to kick in and stretch skyward. Soon we saw curtains of green waving in the solar wind, first a little right of the mountain, and soon directly behind it.
I can’t say that the composition I got here is much different from the composition everyone else got, but there were a few framing decisions that I was very particular about. I used my Sony a7RIV with my Sony 12-24 f/2.8 GM lens wide open, starting at ISO 1600 and 10 seconds before quickly bumping to ISO 3200.
As you may know, my goal is to photograph the world in a way that allows viewers to imagine it untouched by humans. So I took care to avoid including the footbridge that mars the left side of the scene. (I did have to clone out a small piece of bridge that snuck in under the cover of darkness to photo-bomb me.) Down the hill on the right side of the scene I had to contend with a pair of photographers (and their lights), plus the lights from Grundarfjörður, but I hid them behind the right side of the frame.
The top of the frame I set at the base of the thick clouds covering most of the sky. On the bottom, I took care to include enough of the riverbank to create a continuous white frame.
Given the clouds, it’s impossible to know the extent of the aurora’s spread, but I don’t think while we were there it ever reached the KP-6 we’d been promised. Nevertheless, it was a real treat for all of us—especially those who had never seen the northern lights. We finally left when the clouds closed in, but on the trip back we drove into clearer skies and actually stopped to photograph a little more along the side of the road. We didn’t get back to our hotel until midnight, but no one minded.
The last thing I want to mention here is my processing decisions. While everyone there that night got more or less the same version of this scene, I’ve seen several different processing approaches (from others in the group), resulting in noticeable differences in the finished products.
Because night images usually take in a lot more light than the human eye sees, there’s not really any way to say how it “really looked.” But I’m happy to share my own processing choices and why I made them, and try not to argue with anyone else’s night photography choices (within reason).
The unprocessed raw preview of this image looked very similar to this finished version, but there were a few important adjustments I wanted to add. I started in Lightroom by cooling the temperature of the entire scene to shift the yellow-ish daylight cast my camera’s auto white balance imposed, to a blue-ish, more night-like cast.
And very important to me during processing was minimizing signs of human influence on this naturally beautiful scene. In addition to cropping out that tiny section of bridge and a few rogue house lights, I cooled and subdued the town’s warm, artificial glow brightening Kirkjufell’s east (right) slope (many people liked this glow). And to bring out Kirkjufellsfoss (the waterfall), the turquoise water, and snow-cover shoreline, I brightened the foreground a little.
Several days have elapsed since I started this post. Since then we’ve had a couple more northern lights shoots—nothing spectacular, but very nice. We’ve also had lots of fun and a few adventures that I’ll share in future posts. Oh, and the snow drift in my hotel room was dealt with swiftly by the hotel staff—with no harm, financial or otherwise, on the perpetrator. (The hotel staff was very nice about the stupid American’s open window in a blizzard, and I got the distinct impression that this wasn’t their guest-room-snow-removal rodeo. And in my defense, it wasn’t snowing when I went to bed.)
Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.