Posted on March 9, 2020
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.
Posted on December 23, 2019
We’ve reached that time of year where everyone is compiling their Top 10 lists. I like retrospectives as much as the next person, but I’ve always resisted assembling these “top-whatever” end-of-year countdowns of my own images. Then last week Sony asked me to provide my favorite image of 2019 and I struggled mightily because it felt like they were asking me to pick a favorite child—which, as we all know, can vary on a daily basis. (Just kidding—I love you girls!) But seriously, I did hesitate because I wasn’t sure Sony and I aren’t defining “favorite” the same, and in fact favorite for me can mean many things that are easily skewed by mood and memory.
So instead of attempting to rate and rank my images at year’s end, I prefer using them as a catalyst for reflection. Each December I go through the images I’ve processed from the waning year and reflect on the circumstances of their capture. Rather than focus on individual images, I’ll start by reflecting more on the experience surrounding three memorable shoots that stand out from in a year filled with too many individual highlights to detail here (but feel free to go through my 2019 blog posts). And if you’re just here for the pictures, jump to the bottom to see a gallery of 2019 images that make me happy (including some new images that I’ve never shared).
I can think of no better way to start a year than the opportunity to photograph something I’ve fantasized about seeing for my entire life. When Don Smith and I traveled to Iceland last January, I had two goals in mind: scout for our upcoming photo workshop, and see the northern lights. The scouting trip was a great success, but with just a couple of days to go, and not for lack of trying, we still hadn’t seen the northern lights.
On our penultimate night we finally witnessed a nice aurora display that spread ebbing and flowing veils of green, coloring the sky above Glacier Lagoon from the horizon to about 45 degrees—I was thrilled and felt like my aurora dreams had been fulfilled. Then came our final night, when I learned what a real northern lights display is.
There really are no words to describe this experience, so I’ll just let my images speak for me. I will say that two-dimensional, still images don’t fully convey the experience of witnessing the aurora in person, but they do at least least give you an idea of the drama and magnitude: for one thing, the foreground was darker than what I captured (though it was bright enough that I walked around without a flashlight); the aurora moves, maybe at about the speed of the minute hand on a clock. And while the previous night’s display was only in the northwest and covered no more than a quarter of the sky, the display this night at times spread across the entire sky and needed to constantly spin around to make sure I wasn’t missing something.
Read more about this night of a lifetime: Chasing the Northern Lights
Don and I did two winter photo workshops on New Zealand’s South Island in 2019. The first was our regularly scheduled New Zealand winter workshop, the second was a workshop we put together to guide a group from the Sony Alpha Imaging Collective. Though night photography was a priority for both groups, the moon and clouds hindered the first group’s efforts (until our final night, but that’s another story).
The second group fared better in the night photography department in general, one day in particular stood out. We started with a 3 a.m. starlight shoot at Lake Wanaka, then made the 3-hour drive to Aoraki National Park, where we spent a day photographing spectacular fog and hoarfrost along the way, and glaciers, lakes, and mountains once we arrived. Following our beautiful sunset on the shore of Tasman Lake, we bundled up to wait for dark and were rewarded with one of the most breathtaking Milky Way shoots in my life (which has been filled with many Milky Way shoots).
All I could think about on the foggy 3-hour drive back from Aoraki was curling up in my warm bed and getting some much needed sleep. But when we pulled into our hotel a little before midnight and I looked up and saw stars, it felt like someone had flipped the switch on my reserve generator and I just had to go back out and shoot some more. So while everyone else headed to their rooms to process images or sleep, I grabbed my camera gear and raced to the lake. For the entire 10-minute walk to Wanaka’s iconic willow tree, I kept an eye on a bank of fog massing on the far shore and willed it to hold off long to allow me a few frames.
Finding the view of the tree completely devoid of people (a personal first), I photographed for nearly an hour in glorious solitude. While waiting for each exposure to complete, and with nothing in my world but me, my camera, and a sky full of stars, I reflected on the last 21 hours realize this was the perfect cap to what was no doubt one of the most memorable photography days of my life.
Read more about this day seemed to last forever: The Longest Day
Each year starting in 2013, Don and I have guided two photo workshop groups around both rims of the Grand Canyon, chasing the lightning, towering clouds, and dramatic light of the Southwest’s summer monsoon. This year’s Grand Canyon monsoon trip was filled with lots of great memories and photography that included rainbows and more lightning strikes than I can count, but one experience in particular stands out above the rest.
The best vantage point for an electrical storm on the Grand Canyon North Rim is probably the twin view decks at Grand Canyon Lodge. Not only do these open-air decks provide a beautiful, sweeping view of the canyon, they’re shielded from lightning by a network of lightning rods, and anchored by an enclosed viewing area for retreat when the action gets too close.
We’d been watching a storm build in the distant west, but unlike most storms here, this one moved toward us and didn’t veer or fade as it approached. The storm arrived so quickly, and so mesmerized were we by its power, that it was almost on top of us before we could react. The rain was just starting to pelt us when Oza Butte, about a mile away, was stabbed with multiple strokes that made everyone jump and gasp. That was our signal to grab our gear and race for cover.
Safe inside as the storm raged around us, everyone in the group buzzed about “the big one.” I moved around the room and confirmed that nearly everyone had some version of this spectacular strike, then scrolled through my own frames holding my breath until I came across this one. Many in the group only had the bolt on the right because that’s the direction the lighting had been firing. I was silently patted myself on the back for having the foresight (good luck) to have widened and shifted my composition to the left shortly before this bolt hit. First, because it seemed like the storm was moving in that direction, and also because I wanted my composition to include more canyon.
Read more about this hair raising experience: I Just Have to Share This
Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.