Worth the Sacrifice

Gary Hart Photography: Aurora Reflection, Vestrahorn, Iceland

Aurora Reflection, Vestrahorn, Iceland
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 GM
15 seconds
F/2.8
ISO 3200

Photography should, first and foremost, make you happy. But every once in a while, for some reason (I have to be really bored) I’ll surf over to an online photography forum or Facebook photography group, only to be instantly reminded why it’s been so long since I visited. The litany of online insults, one-upmanship, and destructive criticism makes me wonder whether there are any happy photographers out there.

Of course I know there are, because I meet them all the time: in my workshops, on location, or simply sharing their images online. I don’t know whether the same photographers who seem so happy when they’re taking pictures do a Jekyll to Hyde transformation as soon as their butts hit the computer chair, or whether there are two types of photographers: those who actually take pictures, and those who simply prefer their computer to Mother Nature (no wonder they’re so unhappy).

Of course getting out to take pictures does require more effort than sitting at a computer. And nature photography usually requires some level of sacrifice because the best time for photography is usually the worst time to be outside: sunrise, when we’d rather be in bed; sunset, when we’d rather be at dinner; crazy weather, when we’d rather be warm; and after dark, when we’d rather be in front of the TV. But I’ve decided that there’s something about witnessing Nature’s majesty that transcends any transient discomfort and inconvenience. And doing it with people who appreciate it as much as you do makes it even better.

Don Smith and I got another reminder in last month’s Iceland photo workshop. On this trip we dealt with all the wind, snow, and frigid temperatures you’d expect in Iceland in February. And then there were the long days and bumpy miles—not to mention a fair share of unexpected hardship. For example, less than 36 hours after clicking this image, several members of our group were nearly swept into the North Atlantic by a rogue wave. Then there were the hotel room snow drifts (note to self: Don’t sleep with the window open in Iceland in February), the lost and found camera bag, the stolen airport shuttle….

But despite all this difficultly, this trip was an absolute blast. This night is a great example. It must have been freezing, but I have no memory of that now. But I do remember standing on the beach beneath Vestrahorn with the rest of the group that night, the waves washing over (and sometimes into) our boots, waiting for the northern lights. Approaching from behind was a storm that, according to the forecast, threatened to close the roads. This scene is beautiful in any conditions, and to be able to photo Vestrahorn under the stars, with even a little bit of aurora, was truly special. Doing it with a group of like-minded, fun loving friends is something I’ll never forget.

What you see here is about as good as the aurora got—nice, but nothing spectacular. Nevertheless, we were having such a great time, we stayed out in the cold dark until the clouds swallowed the stars. Back at the bus, with a storm threatening and an hour’s drive back to the hotel, we were anxious to get on the road. So imagine our chagrin when Óli (or Icelandic guide) turned the key and got nothing but a click. If you’ve every photographed Vestrahorn from here, you know this isn’t one of those places where you can just walk out onto the road and flag down a car. Uh-oh. It would have been easy, understandable even, for people to be upset—or frightened, or angry. Instead, while Óli worked his phone trying find help (the cellular coverage in Iceland is fantastic, FYI), we just continued enjoying each other’s company.

As it turned out, we only had to wait an hour or so for a friend of Óli’s to come out and give us a jumpstart (one more reason why it pays to have a local guide). He also arranged for another friend to drive our direction with van large enough for the entire group, in case the battery charge didn’t hold. Rather than wait for the backup vehicle to arrive, we just started driving in toward the hotel—the other vehicle met us halfway and followed us from there, but we made it without need for more help.

The next morning the battery was dead again, and we were stuck at the hotel all morning while the bus was being repaired (turned out to be an alternator problem). As luck would have it, the storm was so bad that we’d have had to stay in anyway. That afternoon we were picked up for our visit to the ice cave, and the bus was good as new when we returned. So all’s well that ends well.

Worth the Sacrifice

Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.

 

 

 

Clicking the Lights Fantastic

Gary Hart Photography: Northern Lights, Kirkjufell, Iceland

Northern Lights, Kirkjufell, Iceland
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 GM
10 seconds
F/2.8
ISO 3200

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.

Let’s review

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.

Epilogue

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.)


My (Growing) Northern Lights Collection

Click an image for a closer look, and to view a slide show.

I Laughed, I Cried…

Gary Hart Photography: Heaven Sent, Aurora Above Glacier Lagoon, Iceland

Heaven Sent, Aurora Above Glacier Lagoon, Iceland
Sony a7RIV
Sony 16-35 GM
20 seconds
F/2.8
ISO 3200

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.

Epilogue

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.


My Aurora Bounty So Far (mostly from 2019)

Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.

 

 

2019 Highlights

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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).

Iceland northern lights

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

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New Zealand winter night

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

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Grand Canyon electrical storm

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

Gary Hart Photography: Lightning Explosion, Oza Butte, Grand Canyon North Rim

Lightning Explosion, Oza Butte, Grand Canyon North Rim



2019 Highlights

Click an image for a closer look and to view a slide show.

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