Blue Hour

Gary Hart Photography: Blue Hour, Vestrahorn, Iceland

Blue Hour, Vestrahorn, Iceland
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 G
8 seconds
F/16
ISO 50

“Many of us would probably be better fishermen if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect.” 
― Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

I haven’t fished in years (decades), but of course Norman Maclean’s words really aren’t about fishing anyway. Nevertheless, I’m reminded of this quote every time I find myself frozen by minutia, mired in the moment by small distractions that matter very little, or looking for excuses not to take pictures.

There are a lot of reasons not to take a picture—tell me if any of these sound familiar: “The light was better yesterday”; “The light will be better tomorrow”; “It’s too cold”; “It’s too hot”; “It’s too wet”; “I’m hungry”; “there’s dust on my sensor”; “This lens is soft,” and on, and on….

This Vestrahorn shoot came toward the end of the 10-day Iceland workshop Don Smith and I led in January of this year (was that really only 4 months ago?!). As the sun disappeared on this chilly winter evening, there were a lot of reasons not to stay out photographing: it was cold, I was wet, the clouds, it was getting dark, and there was a 90-minute drive separating us from dinner. It had been a nice shoot, but I was a little disappointed that the sky that had looked quite promising all afternoon, never really delivered the color I’d been waiting for. But before heading back to the van, I wandered up the beach a bit and found this rocky section that was different from the waves, and the reflections left in their wake, I’d been concentrating on all afternoon. As I reconsidered whether to call it a day, I came upon a lone shell embedded in the sand. With the light fading fast, I quickly dropped my tripod as low as it would go and set up with my Sony 12-24 G lens on my Sony a7RIV, and went to work.

Before I knew it, the “blue hour,” that magnificent transition from day to night (and back) that always looks better on an image than it does to the eye, had taken over. If you’ve ever stayed out to photograph after your eyes tell you it’s time to go in (or started shooting a little early while waiting for sunrise), you know what I’m talking about. What we humans perceive as darkness is really just our eyes’ relatively limited ability to gather light at any given instant. But a camera’s sensor (or a rectangle of unexposed film) can patiently accumulate all the light striking it for whatever duration we prescribe, thereby stretching its “instant” of perception indefinitely. Advantage camera.

On a clear night, you can actually watch the Earth’s shadow descend and engulf the landscape in deepening blue light. And unlike daylight (and moonlight) photography, when a discrete light source casts high-contrast shadows that test a camera’s dynamic range, and starlight photography, when the light is so faint that extremely long exposures are required to register any foreground detail at all, in the pre-sunrise/post-sunset gloaming, a camera can still “see” these diminishing vestiges of daylight. Given enough exposure, the image’s world is rendered blue, and because the entire sky is the light source, this blue hour light is spread so evenly that most shadows disappear.

When I can, I’ll stay out at least long enough for the first stars to pop out. On this evening, because I didn’t want the rest of the group to have to wait for me, I wrapped up before the stars appeared, but still stay out long enough to capture this 8-second exposure—my very last image of the evening. The perfection I’d been watching and waiting for never made it to my eyes, but fortunately my camera revealed that it was there all along.

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Blue Hour

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Inside a Glacier

Gary Hart Photography: Blue Cathedral, Vatnajokull Glacier Ice Cave, Iceland

Blue Cathedral, Vatnajokull Glacier Crystal Ice Cave, Iceland 
Sony a7RIII
Sony 12-24 G
1.3 seconds
F/8
ISO 800

When I was a kid, my family took a camping vacation to the Pacific Northwest. We packed our Ford Country Squire station wagon so full that it almost felt as if my brothers and I were an afterthought, hooked up the tent trailer, and pointed north. As with all of these Hart-family summer vacations, we covered ridiculous miles and saw a mind numbing selection of diverse natural wonders, but my strongest memory from that trip is a warm afternoon hike on Mt. Rainier that ended at an ice cave. Gazing upward inside the cave, I rotated slowly, mesmerized by the diaphanous blue ceiling and its intricate curves. Not quite believing my eyes, I did my best to lock the scene in my brain. Over the years that memory remained as vivid as ever, but the more time passed, the less I trusted it—could something really have been that beautiful? On a snowy January morning in Iceland, I found out.

One of the highlights of the winter workshop Don Smith and I do in Iceland is a trip to an ice cave. But like most things in nature, ice caves are ephemeral, never a sure thing. On last year’s scouting trip, Crystal Ice Cave on Vatnajokull Glacier was closed, so we got to tour what I’d call more of an “ice crevasse” instead—pretty cool, but nothing like my childhood ice cave memory. But this year the glacier gods smiled on us, and on a snowy morning about half-way through the trip Don and I piled our group into a large van (small bus?) with the biggest tires I’d ever seen, and headed onto Vatnajokull Glacier. There were a dozen photographers in our workshop group, plus Don, me, Óli (our Icelandic guide), and the local glacier guide/driver we’d hired for that morning. To beat the crowds, Óli had gotten us out well before sunrise (not as taxing as it sounds when you factor in the 10 a.m. Iceland January sunrise). Our adventure started on a regular highway, but soon detoured off-road across undulating snow and ice that bore very little resemblance to an actual road. After 20 or 30 minutes of jostling, our vehicle had gone as far as the terrain allowed, so we parked and tumbled into the frigid air. Our glacier guide issued helmets and crampons, delivered a brief orientation, then led us into the darkness across more snow and ice.

Following an uneventful, nearly 2-mile hike, we rounded a corner and got our first glance at a gaping opening at the base of the glacier just as the day started to brighten. From the outside, Crystal Ice Cave was an unimpressive black void beneath a massive chunk of ice, but the instant I stepped inside, my childhood ice cave memory came surging back. Only this time, I had a camera.

Not only were we the only ones in the cave (two hikers who had arrived before us had quickly moved on to less accessible parts of the glacier), an overnight snowfall had completely erased all signs of any previous visitors’ tramplings in the patchwork snow that accumulates on the floor beneath small, natural skylights in the cave’s ceiling. Though we had the cave to ourselves, sharing such a wide composition with a dozen other photographers makes taking a picture without someone in it pretty difficult, but the whole group worked well together, sticking to the perimeter, taking turns, and avoiding leaving footprints in the pristine snow.

Awaiting my turn to photograph, I craned my neck and gaped at nature’s masterwork. An ice cave forms when glacial runoff finds, or makes its own, path through the glacial ice. Flowing water is always warmer than the surrounding ice, so with time the channels the water creates expand as more ice melts. When the runoff finds a different path, or diminishes in the winter months, the channels in the ice remain and an ice cave is born (or reborn). Ice caves are blue because centuries of pressure from above compresses opaque, accumulating snow, forcing out air and leaving translucent ice crystals that light can pass through. As sunlight from the surface travels through the ice, all but the shortest visible wavelengths are absorbed, leaving only the blue wavelengths to reach fortunate eyes.

When my turn came to photograph this marvel, I was ready with my Sony a7RIII (my a7RIV and had a small mishap with the Iceland surf and was drying back in my room) and 12-24 G lens. I lowered my tripod to about 18 inches above the ground and composed this 12mm frame to emphasize the faceted ceiling. At 12mm, I was wide enough to also include some of the polished black rocks framing the nearby snow.

I know what you’re thinking: This picture needs a person “for scale.” First, let me say that, because I always try to capture the world devoid of human influence (that is, as if humans don’t exist) I don’t put people in my images. But I acknowledge that adding a person often gives a scene a focal point that a creates a more personal connection with the viewer. So even though the shot of a single person standing in an ice cave has become something of a cliché, compositions become cliché for a reason, and I won’t deny that many (most?) people would like this image better if there were a person somewhere in it. But because leading workshops means my income doesn’t depend a lot on image sales, I’m blessed to be able to photograph the world in the ways that make me happiest, without having to worry about pleasing others.

But let me get back to the scale thing for a second. Despite what others may tell you, adding a person to a scene like this rarely conveys true scale when you try to take in as much of the scene as possible with a wide angle lens. Rather than conveying scale, adding a relatively distant subject (rock, tree, person) to a wide angle scene will exaggerate the expanse of the scene, and shrink the subject. There’s nothing wrong with this—I do it all the time in my landscape images—just don’t say you’re doing it for scale. (Real estate photographers know that a wide angle lens will make even the smallest room look spacious.)

Yours Truly, for scale, in my “spacious” 10’x10′ office. (12mm, 6 feet from the camera)

But anyway… I spent a long time in the ice cave making all kind of wide compositions, but as often happens, I switched to a longer lens and started trying to isolate elements of the scene, getting progressively closer as time passed. Shortly before we left, I must have spent at least 20 minutes working on a single water drop dripping from the ceiling every 10 seconds or so. I have no idea if I got anything worth sharing, but I was sure happing a blast.

We packed up when the cave started to fill with selfie-stick toting gawkers. It wasn’t until the hike back that I fully appreciated how fortunate we were to have the ice cave virtually to ourselves for so long.  Based on the virtually uninterrupted string of people heading toward the glacier as we headed out, I’d wager that the ice cave experience for anyone arriving after we left wouldn’t be too different from Upper Antelope Canyon at midday (or the New York City subway at rush hour).

One more thing

Ice caves are one of the canaries in Earth’s climate coal mine. As our planet warms, glaciers recede and their ice caves disappear. I know now that the Rainier ice cave of my youth was part of Paradise Ice Caves. Sadly, Paradise Ice Caves disappeared in the late 20th century, so you, your kids, their kids, and so on will never be able to pile into the family car like we did, and create a memory that lasts a lifetime. Sadly, Crystal Ice Cave probably won’t survive this century, and the clock is ticking on all the world’s ice caves.


Feeling Blue?

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My Favorite Planet

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Happy Earth Day, everyone! (The irony of celebrating Earth Day cooped up at home isn’t lost on me.)

If nothing else, COVID-19 has taught all of us that, as much humankind constantly tries to test the boundaries, Mother Nature is still very much in charge. I’m so fortunate to be able to make my living photographing this wonderful planet, but isolating in my office with nothing but memories and a few images of the marvels I’ve witnessed has opened my eyes. Having experienced the northern lights in Iceland, rainbows in Yosemite, lightning at Grand Canyon, and the Milky Way above the bristlecones (among many other natural marvels), puts me in a pretty good position to say that no picture can top being there. But after a lifetime of being there, and returning year after year and seeing firsthand how much damage is done by humans’ constant push for “progress,” I’m starting to wonder how much longer we’ll have a there to be.

But there’s nothing like a crisis to crystalize priorities. The whole point of Earth Day is to remind our planet’s inhabitants to care for our home, and never has that message felt so important. Ironically, as we humans suffer through this pandemic, Earth is thriving in our absence: Air quality is up, hydrocarbons are down, sea life is recovering, and by all accounts, wildlife is partying in our shuttered national parks. One lesson here is that the less humans interact with it, the healthier our planet becomes. That doesn’t mean that saving Earth requires never venturing out into nature. But here’s an analogy to try on: Your carpet will last decades if you never walk on it, but that’s probably not practical. But if you simply take your shoes off indoors and vacuum pretty regularly, you’ll extend that carpet’s life many times. So perhaps from now, as each of us uses Earth’s resources, whether that be consuming or just experiencing, let’s make an extra effort to tread just a little more lightly, and leave things just a little better than we found them.

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Earth: These are a Few of My Favorite Scenes

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To the Pain

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Storm, Londrangar, Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Iceland

Winter Storm, Londrangar, Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Iceland
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 G
Breakthrough 6-stop polarizing ND
30 seconds
F/11
ISO 100

Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, I hope you’re safe and well.

As nice as it is to stroll up to a scene and find the image of my dreams just sitting there, waiting for you to click the shutter, the most memorable photography usually comes from the shots I have to work for. That “work” can take many forms, but the bottom line is, I prefer feeling like I earned an image. And honestly, photographers can’t afford to just sit around, waiting for a gift from heaven to land on their sensors.

Many years ago I broke down the work that consistently good photography requires into a mnemonic I call, “The 3 P’s of Nature Photography”:

Gary Hart Photography: Nightfall, Full Moon and Yosemite Valley, Yosemite

1: Preparation is your foundation, the vision and mastery of your craft that allows you to wring the most from any moment in nature. It’s the experience you’ve earned, the homework you’ve done, and the research that puts you in the right place at the right time. Preparation can take many forms, from laying the foundation of exposure and hyperfocal focus, to researching subjects to learn when the light is best or the waterfall is full. The moon’s appearance above Yosemite Valley on this snowy February evening was no fluke—while (from all appearances) most of the photography world was in Yosemite Valley with their cameras trained on Horsetail Fall, I waited with just a few other photographers at Tunnel View for the moon to appear. The Horsetail Fall crowd was disappointed this evening; we were not.

 

Gary Hart Photography: Sunrise, Lone Pine Peak and Mt. Whitney, Eastern Sierra

2: Persistence is patience—with a dash of stubbornness. It’s what keeps you going back when the first, second, or hundredth attempt has been thwarted by unexpected light, weather, or a host of other frustrations, and keeps you out there long after any sane person would have given up. Many years ago I was holed up for several days beneath a solid gray deck of low clouds in Lone Pine, waiting for the clouds to lift enough for Mt. Whitney to come out to play. Every morning I’d drive up into the Alabama Hills to wait for for a sunrise that never happened. But I kept going up, and was finally rewarded when the clouds cleared just as the sun crested the Inyo Mountains to the east.

 

3: Pain is the willingness to suffer for your craft. I’m not suggesting that you risk injury or death for the sake of a coveted capture, but you do need to be able to experience a little discomfort, and to ignore the tug of a warm fire, full stomach, sound sleep, and dry clothes, because the unfortunate truth is that the best photographs usually seem to happen when most of the world would rather be inside. Pain is definitely what I felt as I sprawled on the hard ground to get the best angle for a face-to-face with these poppies. No, my life wasn’t in danger, but have you ever tried micro-focusing on the thin edge of a poppy petal with a sharp rock jabbing your ribs?

To the pain

So which of my 3 P’s do I credit for this one?

Gary Hart Photography: Winter Storm, Londrangar, Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Iceland

Perched on a cliff above the frigid, churning Atlantic felt a little insane, especially given my less than comfortable relationship with heights. But I had found the only place I could get the angle I wanted. Adding to my discomfort was the numbing cold that made me feel like I’d lost my feet below my ankles, amplified by a piercing wind that turned tiny snowflakes into stinging projectiles. But when you schedule a photo workshop for January, as Don Smith and I now do each year, you had better be prepared to suffer a little. And while it has been said that life is pain, my life would have been far less painful had I opted to wait in the idling bus. But to consider missing the opportunity to photograph Londrangar in a snowstorm was, well, inconceivable.

This was our group’s first full day in Iceland, and so far the weather had ping-ponged between miserable and almost miserable. When we arrived at Londrangar, it wasn’t snowing and was merely almost miserable; within 30 minutes a snow-bearing squall blew in and quickly turned things miserable. When wind increased and the visibility decreased, some retreated to the bus, but when the snow started frosting the rocks, I decided to venture out onto the insane cliffs. Was I in danger? I considered the rocky terrain and decided I’d be fine if I watched my step and made no sudden moves. Once I found my composition, I experimented with motion blur and eventually went extreme, employing my Breakthrough 6-stop polarizing ND for a 30-second shutter speed.

Experiences like this remind me that no matter how miserable conditions are, when the photography is good, even when I’m very aware of the cold, I just don’t feel the pain.

Skip to the end

Most of us are probably looking for distractions as the pandemic shutdown enters its second month. The next time you find yourself with a little extra time, or even when you’re crazy-busy but just need a mental break, try picking one of your favorite images and try to identify which (or how many) of the 3 P’s you invested in its capture. Unless I am wrong (and I am never wrong), your shrinking world will feel just slightly better.

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To the Pain

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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)

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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

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Enjoying Our World on Nature’s Terms

Gary Hart Photography: Aurora Reflection, Glacier Lagoon, Iceland

Aurora Reflection, Glacier Lagoon, Iceland
Sony a7SII
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
8 seconds
F/2.8
ISO 6400

Nature photographers have a tenuous relationship with clocks and calendars. They’re useful when we need to interact with the rest of the world on its terms, but pursuing our craft requires us to defer to the fundamental laws of nature: the Earth’s rotation on its axis, the Earth’s revolution about the sun, and the moon’s motion relative to the Earth and sun.

While my years are ruled by the changing angle of the sun’s rays, and my days are tied to the sun’s and moon’s arrival and departure, I can’t help fantasize about a world where I could schedule my Grand Canyon monsoon workshop for the lightning bolt and rainbow combination that graces the canyon every August 5 at 2:40 p.m., or the ability to mark my calendar for the blizzard that blankets Yosemite in white every February 7. But nature, despite human attempts to manipulate, subvert, and (when convenient) ignore it, is its own boss. The best I can do is schedule my monsoon workshops to ensure the best odds for lightning and rainbows, or monitor the weather forecast and rush to Yosemite when a snowstorm is promised (then wait with my fingers crossed).

The insignificance of clocks and calendars is never more clear than the first morning following a time change. On the second Sunday of March (or whatever the powers-that-be have changed it to this year), when “normal” people moan about rising an hour earlier, and the first Sunday of November, as others luxuriate in their extra hour of sleep, it’s business as usual for me. Each spring, thumbing its nose at Daylight Saving Time, the sun rises a mere minute (or so) earlier than it did the day before; so do I. And each fall, on the first sunrise of Standard Time, I get to sleep an an entire minute longer. Yippee.

Honestly, I marvel at nature’s blend of precision and (apparent) randomness. I love being able to point to the horizon and say, the moon will appear right there at exactly 5:44. But I also love going out with my camera and an expectation of what might happen, then being completely surprised by what actually does happen.

The aurora in today’s image was certainly not on anyone’s calendar when Don Smith and I planned last January’s Iceland trip. We’d done our best to maximize our odds by scheduling the trip for the heart of aurora season, then performed our due diligence by monitoring the forecast and waiting in the cold and dark each night for something to happen. But nature, while maybe absolutely precise on a cosmic scale, is still largely a mystery to humans. So while it’s possible that the northern lights we witnessed that night were preordained from the Big Bang’s first peep (Heisenberg’s protests notwithstanding), all that matters to me is that I was there to witness them.

Learn about the aurora, and read the story of this night: Chasing the Northern Lights

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One Unforgettable Night

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Chasing the Northern Lights

Gary Hart Photography: Aurora on Ice, Glacier Lagoon, Iceland

Aurora on Ice, Glacier Lagoon, Iceland
Sony a7SII
Sony 12-24 f/4 G
15 seconds
F/4
ISO 16,000

After finally witnessing a total solar eclipse and declaring it the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen, I started hearing people say things like, “Wait until you see the northern lights.” So when fellow pro photographer Don Smith and I planned an Iceland photo trip to prepare for our upcoming photo workshop, we chose January because it’s right the heart of northern lights season. Could the northern lights’ beauty really rival a total solar eclipse? (Spoiler alert: Yes.)

An Aurora Primer

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 differently with the molecules they encounter, creating an charge imbalance by stripping electrons.

Instead of penetrating our atmosphere to create havoc on Earth’s surface, most of these charged particles (ions) are intercepted by the magnetosphere, our protective magnetic shield. The magnetosphere is teardrop shaped, with the battered side that faces the sun compressed, and the shielded side behind Earth stretching much farther into space.

As Earth rotates, at any given moment the side facing the sun (the daylight side) looks out through the thinner, compressed side of our magnetosphere, while the night side of Earth faces the extended region of the magnetosphere. Just as the upwind face of a wall or building breaks a wind, the sunward side of the magnetosphere sheds the charged particles and channels them to upper regions of Earth’s leeward (night) side. It’s these ionized molecules dancing high in the night sky that cause an aurora.

The result of these atmospheric machinations is an atmospheric oval of geomagnetic activity corresponding to the intensity of the solar wind—the greater the activity, the greater the oval’s area and the intensity of its aurora activity. The aurora’s color depends on the molecules involved. 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.

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 auroral activity. Planning a winter trip to the high latitudes (the higher the better), like Iceland, is a good start.

Another key to aurora chasing is understanding and monitoring 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.

Let the chase begin

Armed with more knowledge than experience, in the last week of January we set out for Iceland’s frozen hinterlands with visions of auroras dancing in our heads. Fortunate for us, our guide was an Iceland native and an excellent photographer with years of northern lights experience.

By day we photographed all the winter-accessible locations on Iceland’s Snæfellsnes Peninsula and South Coast, benefiting greatly from winter’s 2-hour sunrises and sunsets and a sun that never rose higher than 8 degrees above the horizon. And by night we bundled up and ventured into the frigid dark seeking an electric light show.

For our nightly aurora hunt we’d drive to a pretty scene that had both dark skies (not hard to find in Iceland) and a clear view of the northern sky. There we’d sit for an hour or two, fogging the windows in the guide’s spacious Suburban, regularly stepping into the cold darkness to scan the sky.

We quickly learned the uncertain, frustrating nature of aurora hunting. Nights with potential were stifled by clouds; nights with clear skies were Kp washouts. So with just two nights in Iceland remaining, I was getting a little anxious.

The final two nights would be spent near Glacier Lagoon, a magnificent ocean inlet dotted with floating icebergs and a patchwork of thin ice and reflective water that created an ideal foreground for the northern lights.

The forecasts for Wednesday, our penultimate night, were clear skies, and a 1 or 2 Kp index. Not great, but the best weather/Kp combination of the trip. And our guide assured us that even Kp 1 can deliver an aurora, and Kp 2 can be a very nice display. Pulling into the Glacier Lagoon parking lot beneath a beautiful star-studded sky, we saw no aurora. So we waited.

Soon what I swore was fog appeared above the lagoon, but the guide insisted this was the beginnings of northern lights. Dubious, we followed him down to the lagoon and I was thrilled (understatement) when a long exposure revealed not fog, but my first view of the northern lights! We spent a couple of hours photographing a low-hanging, fuzzy green haze, occasionally infused with hints of red. Except for just a few minutes at its peak, the aurora we photographed that night had no real definition, but I really didn’t care because I could check northern lights off my bucket list. Little did I know that the show that night was just a warm-up for the next night’s experience.

The Kp forecast for Thursday night was 4 or 5, which our guide told us was perfect because anything more than Kp 5 can be too bright. The weather was a different story and all we could do was watch the sky all day and hope. Despite a nearly 100 percent cloud cover at sunset, we optimistically headed back to the lagoon.

Waiting in the lagoon parking lot, the clouds parted to reveal a faint aurora ebb and flow, but stayed in the car because, “This is no better than last night.” (One success and we’re already aurora snobs.) What looked promising out my north-facing side window one minute, all but disappeared the next. Then we noticed new activity in the western sky that went from 0-to-60 so fast that we bolted down to the lagoon like Keystone Cops. By the time I was set up the sky had transformed into a green and red psychedelic extravaganza.

The next two hours were a blur as I witnessed what was quite possibly the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen in my life. Starting across the lagoon, in the western sky, the show gradually moved south (defying all my expectations), forcing me to constantly shift further up the lagoon to keep the ice and water in my foreground.

With my head on a swivel, I saw glowing tendrils stretch skyward, some touching both the east and west horizons, others pulsing, spiraling, and doubling back until felt like I was inside a giant lava lamp. At one point I tore my eyes from the show above the lagoon and saw the entire eastern sky ablaze with tangled green ribbons so intense that I turned my back on the lagoon and frantically scaled the snowy hill behind me for a better view in that direction. Over the course of maybe 20 minutes, that display rocketed heavenward, filled the entire eastern sky from horizon to zenith, shifted north, and finally back to the west and over the lagoon, forcing me race (and tumble) back down the hill.

The display was still going when we left, but at some point it just felt greedy to keep shooting (and we couldn’t wait to return to the hotel to count our riches).

Lessons learned

Getting a shot like this requires a significant amount of good fortune for sure, but all the good fortune in the world will do you no good if you don’t:

  • Bundle up: Winter nights in the high latitudes might just be the coldest temperatures you’ve ever experienced—dress accordingly because few things will shorten or distract a great shoot faster than cold. In addition to a robust, hooded down jacket, I was comfortably toasty in a wool base layer, fleece, wool hat, balaclava, thin liner and heavy gloves, wool socks, and insulated boots
  • Learn how to expose, compose, and focus in extremely low light.
  • Spend some time before dark to find a foreground to go with your aurora, and look for spots with views in multiple directions. The northern lights are so spectacular, it’s easy to just show up and forget to compose the scene. And while the northern lights tend to concentrate in the northern sky, an intense display can appear in any direction.
  • Monitor your exposure constantly: Unlike Milky Way and other night photography, aurora exposures can change by multiple stops in minutes and sometimes seconds. An exposure that worked to capture the aurora’s color and bring out foreground detail one minute, may completely blow out the aurora the next.
  • Bring extra batteries (more than you think you’ll need) and keep them warm. (In extreme cold, li-ion batteries can go from 50% charged to exhausted in minutes.) It’s best to store batteries next to your body, and/or and or close to a heat source, like a hand-warmer pouch. And when a battery runs down, it may be reusable once it’s warmed.
  • Don’t forget to set the camera aside and take a few minutes to truly appreciate what you’re witnessing.

Celestial Rewards

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Expose yourself

Gary Hart Photography: Glisten, Diamond Beach, Iceland

Glisten, Diamond Beach, Iceland
Sony a7R III
Sony 12-24 f/4 G
1/25 second
F/18
ISO 100

With advanced exposure and metering capabilities, cameras seem to be getting “smarter” every year. So smart, in fact, that for most scenes, getting the exposure right is a simple matter of pointing your camera and clicking the shutter button. That’s fine if all you care about is recording a memory, but not only is there more to your exposure decision than getting the amount of light in your picture, there are many reasons to over- or underexpose a pictures. For the creative control that elevates your images above the millions of clicks being cranked out every day, giving control of one of its most important responsibilities to your camera overlooks an undeniable truth…

Your camera is stupid

Sorry—so is mine. And while I can easily cite many examples, right now it’s just important that you understand that your camera thinks the entire world is a middle tone. Regardless of what its meter sees, without intervention your camera will do everything in its power to make your picture a middle tone. Sunlit snowman? Lump of coal at the bottom of your Christmas stocking? It doesn’t matter—if you let your camera decide the exposure, it will turn out gray.

Modern technology offers faux-intelligence to help overcome this limitation. Usually called something like “matrix” or “evaluative” metering, this solution compares a scene to a large but finite internal database of choices, returning a metering decision based on the closest match. It works pretty well for conventional, “tourist” snaps, but often struggles in the warm or dramatic light artistic photographers prefer, and knows nothing of creativity. If you want to capture more than documentary “I was here” pictures, you’re much better off taking full control of your camera’s metering and exposure. Fortunately, this isn’t nearly as difficult as most people fear.

Laying the foundation

The amount of light captured for any given scene varies with the camera’s shutter speed, f-stop, and ISO settings. Photographers measure captured light in “stops,” much as a a cook uses a cup (of sugar or flour or almonds or whatever) to measure ingredients in a recipe. Adding or subtracting “stops” of light by increasing or decreasing the shutter speed, f-stop, or ISO makes a scene brighter or darker.

The beauty of metering is that a stop of light is a stop of light is a stop of light, whether you control it with the:

  • Aperture: The opening light passes through when the shutter opens, measured in f-stops
  • Shutter speed: The time the shutter is open, allowing light to pass through the aperture to reach the sensor—slower shutter speeds mean more light; faster shutter speeds mean less light
  • ISO: The sensitivity of the sensor (or film) to light

But while an aperture stop adds/subtracts the same amount of light as a shutter speed or ISO stop, the resulting picture can vary significantly based on which exposure variable combination you choose. Your shutter speed choice determines whether motion in the frame is blurred or frozen, while the aperture choice determines the picture’s depth of field. And while an ISO stop also adds/subtracts the same amount of light as shutter speed and aperture without affecting motion and depth, image quality decreases as the ISO increases. So getting the light right is only part of the exposure objective—you also need to consider how you want to handle any motion in the scene, and how much depth of field to capture.

For example, let’s say you’re photographing autumn leaves in a light breeze. You got the exposure right, but the leaves are blurred. To freeze that blur, you halve the time the shutter is open (faster shutter speed) to freeze the motion, but also reducing the light reaching the sensor by one stop. To replace that lost light, you could open your aperture by a stop (change the f-stop), double the ISO, or make a combination of fractional f-stop and ISO adjustments that total one stop. That’s a creative choice your camera isn’t capable of.

Metering modes

Today’s cameras have the ability to measure, or “meter” the light in a scene before the shutter clicks. In fact, most cameras have many different ways of evaluating a scene’s light. Your camera’s metering mode determines the amount of the frame the meter “sees.” The larger the area your meter measures, the greater the potential for a wide range of tones. Since most scenes have a range of tones from dark shadows to bright highlights, the meter will take an average of the tones it finds in its metering zone.

Metering mode options range from “spot” metering a very small part of the scene, to “matrix” (also know as “evaluative”), which looks at the entire scene and actually tries to guess at what it sees. Each camera manufacturer offers a variety of modes and there’s no consensus on name and function (different function for the same name, same function for different names) among manufacturers, so it’s best to read your camera’s manual to familiarize yourself with its metering modes.

Since I want as much control as possible, I prefer spot metering because it’s the most precise, covering the smallest area of the frame possible, an imaginary circle in the center three (or so) percent (depending on the camera) of what’s visible in the viewfinder. Spot metering, I can target the part of the frame I deem most important and base my exposure decision on the reading there.

Spot metering isn’t available in all cameras. In some cameras, the most precise (smallest metering area) metering mode available is “partial,” which covers a little more of the scene, somewhere around ten percent.

Exposure modes

Don’t confuse the metering mode with the exposure mode. While the metering mode determines what the meter sees, the exposure mode determines the way the camera handles that information. Most DSLR (digital single lens reflex) and mirrorless cameras offer manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, and a variety of program or automatic exposure modes. Serious landscape photographers usually forego the full automatic/program modes in favor of manual (my preference) or aperture/shutter priority modes that offer more control.

If you select aperture or shutter priority mode, you specify the aperture (f-stop) or shutter speed, and the camera sets the shutter speed or aperture that delivers a middle tone based on what the meter sees. But you’re not done. Unless you really do want the middle tone result the camera desires (possible but far from certain), you then need to adjust the exposure compensation (usually a button with a +/- symbol) to specify the amount you want your subject to be above or below a middle tone.

For example, if you point your spot meter at a bright, sunlit cloud, the camera will only give your picture enough light make the cloud a middle tone—but if you’ve only given your scene enough light to make a white cloud gray, it stands to reason that the rest of your picture will be too dark. To avoid this, you would adjust exposure compensation to instruct your camera to make the cloud brighter than a middle tone by adding two stops of light (or however much light you want to give the cloud to make it whatever tone you think it should be).

Rather than aperture priority, I prefer manual mode because I never want my camera making decisions for me. And once it’s mastered (a simple task), I think manual metering is easier. In manual mode, after setting my aperture (based on the depth of field I want), I point my spot-meter zone (the center 3% of the scene in my viewfinder) at the area I want to meter on and dial in whatever shutter speed gives me the amount of light I think will make that subject (where my meter points) the tone I want. That’s it. (In manual mode you can ignore the exposure compensation button.)

Trust your histogram

I see many people people base exposure decisions on the brightness of the image on the LCD. The typical approach is some variation of: 1) Guess at the exposure settings 2) Click 3) Look at the picture on the LCD 4) Adjust 5) Repeat. Not only is this approach lazy, it’s a waste of time and woefully inaccurate.

I call it lazy because these photographers (but of course I don’t mean you) don’t care enough about their craft to apply a skill that only takes minutes to learn (see above), a skill that will serve them best in the most difficult exposure situations. But that’s not the real problem—the real problem is the inaccuracy introduced by trusting the image on your LCD.

LCDs vary in brightness because viewing conditions change. With a brightness adjustment in every camera’s menu, many photographers simply turn their brightness to maximum because it’s easier to see, especially in sunlight, and a bright picture usually looks better. Other photographers use an auto-brightness setting that adjusts with ambient light—the more light it detects, the brighter the display.

Regardless of your LCD’s brightness setting, the variation in brightness of the screen and/or the ambient light make the image on the LCD a very unreliable exposure indicator. When people tell me their images are usually too dark on their computer or in prints, the first thing I do is check the brightness of their camera’s LCD—if it’s set to maximum, they’re likely fooled into thinking the exposure was brighter than it actually was.

How do you fix this? Simple: Learn to read a histogram, and never use your camera’s LCD for exposure decisions again. The histogram is as simple as it is useful.

Day's End, Ke'e Beach, Hawaii

Day’s End, Ke’e Beach, Hawaii

Ke'e Beach histogram

A histogram is a plot of the tones in an image. I’ll save a more complex explanation for another day, but all you really need to know is that the graph starts with black on the left and brightens to white on the right. Every pixel in the image is sampled for its brightness—the brighter it is, the farther to the right it falls on the histogram. Anything in the image that’s too dark to display detail (black) is “clipped” (cut off) on the left side; anything in the image that’s too bright too display detail is clipped on the right. Ideally, nothing will be clipped on either side. If your scene contains a greater range of light (dynamic range) than will fit in the histogram, one side or the other will clip and you have exposure decisions too make—HDR (blending multiple exposures), graduated neutral density filters, or deciding that it’s okay to lose one side or the other (shadows or highlights). For example, the Ke’e Beach image above is predominantly middle tones, with just a few extremely bright and extremely dark pixels.

One more time

So let’s review. Start by selecting your metering mode (the way your meters”sees” the scene: spot, partial, matrix, and so on), then take your camera out of auto exposure mode and put it in manual (my recommendation) or aperture priority (if you prefer) mode. (Remember, I’m a landscape photographer so I never use shutter priority; if you’re shooting action, to better control the motion in your frame, you probably want to consider shutter priority if you don’t like manual exposure.)

Before metering, set your camera to whatever aperture you decide your composition calls for. Then meter, remembering that your camera isn’t telling you what the exposure should be, it’s telling you the exposure that will make what it sees a middle tone. Finally, correct the meter’s middle-tone bias by dialing in the shutter speed (in manual mode) or exposure compensation (in aperture priority) that gives the correct exposure.

After you click, check your histogram to be sure you got the exposure right.

What’s the correct exposure? That’s a creative choice that’s entirely up to you—feel free to play until you’re comfortable with your results. And the more you do it, the easier it gets.

For example

Below are some sample images and the thought process I followed to get the exposure.

Winter Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite

Winter Reflection, El Capitan, Yosemite After choosing the aperture that gave me the depth of field I wanted, I spot-metered on the sunlit portion of El Capitan’s reflect (because it was the brightest thing in my frame and dialed my shutter speed until the meter indicated +2. That setting gave me enough light to resolve details in the shadows, but not so much light that the El Capitan highlights were blown out. If I’d have followed my meter’s “suggestion” to make El Capitan’s highlights a middle tone, the entire scene would have been too dark.

Here’s one matrix/evaluative metering would have made a mess of. The dynamic range (range of light between the darkest shadows and brightest highlights) was off the charts. Rather than compromise, I exposed to hold the color in the sky and let the foreground go to silhouette. I metered on the brightest (goldish) part of the sky next to Half Dome and dialed my exposure to +.3 (1/3 stop above middle tone). The sky was brighter than what you see here, but underexposing like this allowed me to emphasize the sky’s rich blue and the very Yosemite outline of Half Dome and Sentinel Dome. The highlights in the thin lunar crescent were clipped, but I didn’t care about the moon’s detail, only it’s shape.

Who says you should never blow your highlights? Here I metered on the brightest part of the poppy (near the top), setting my exposure to .7 (2/3 stop above middle tone). Everything you see that’s white is blown blue sky (except the “star,” which is a sliver of the sun).

Now get to work

Don’t wait to apply all this for the first time until you really, really want the shot. Instead, find a time when the results don’t matter and play with your camera to find out how much control you have over exposure. In fact, you can do this right now in your backyard or even sitting right there in your recliner. Meter something nearby, set an exposure, and click. Look at the result, adjust the exposure, and click again. Watch your histogram, and watch how its shape shifts right as you increase the exposure, or left as you decrease it. Continue doing this until you’re confident in your ability to make a scene brighter or darker, and can consistently achieve the exposure you expect.

About this image

Gary Hart Photography: Glisten, Diamond Beach, Iceland

Glisten, Diamond Beach, Iceland

It not too difficult to figure out how Iceland’s Diamond Beach got its name. A black sand beach on Iceland’s south coast, just down stream from Glacier Lagoon, Diamond Beach is dotted with glistening blocks of ice ranging in size from a refrigerator ice cube, to an entire refrigerator.

As spectacular as Diamond Beach was on my first visit, it was also unlike anything I’d ever seen, so it took me a little while to figure out how I wanted to shoot it. I tried a few frames that used long shutter speeds to blur the motion of the waves around the ice, but when the sun appeared, I saw another opportunity.

With my Sony 12-24 G lens on my Sony a7RIII, I set up just a couple of feet from one of the larger icebergs, went all the way out to 12mm, and waited for the sun to peek above the ice, hoping to capture a sunstar. As I waited, I tweaked my exposure settings, dialing my aperture to f/18 to maximize my depth of field and to enhance the sunstar effect. When the sun appeared I was in business; as it rose, I dropped my camera lower to keep just a small sliver of sun visible above the ice.

Any frame that includes the sun is frame with lots of dynamic range. To get my exposure right for this image, I relied entirely on the histogram and ignored the image on the LCD, with its nearly black shadows and white sky. Despite the way  histogram told me I’d captured all the tones, and I confirmed that as soon as I started processing in Lightroom.

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Taking Control in Difficult Light

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Iceland Light Show

Gary Hart Photography: Northern Lights, Glacier Lagoon, Iceland

Green Twist, Aurora Borealis, Glacier Lagoon, Iceland
Sony a7SII
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
8 seconds
F/2.8
ISO 3200

I’ve seen comets, a meteor storm, fireballs, a total solar eclipse, lots of lunar eclipses, the Milky Way, the Andromeda Galaxy, the Magellanic Clouds, Jupiter’s moons, Saturn’s rings, and many other manifestations of celestial splendor, but I’ve never seen the aurora. So when I scheduled a trip to Iceland this January (the heart of aurora borealis season), ostensibly to scout for the new Iceland photo workshop I’ll be doing with Don Smith next winter, my personal goal was to see the northern lights.

We’d only be in Iceland for one week, long enough for our guide (the expert, energetic, and always entertaining Óli Haukur) to give us a quick view of all the locations we’d visit in next year’s 10-day Iceland workshop (which will also include a local photography guide). With 10:30 a.m. sunrises and 5:00 p.m. sunsets, I didn’t expect the schedule to be too grueling, but I hadn’t accounted for Iceland’s two-hour winter sunrises and sunsets. With many miles to cover beneath a sun that never rises higher than (an extremely photogenic) 8 degrees above the horizon, every minute between our early starts and late dinners was spent spent either driving or photographing (fortunately, the schedule will be a little less compressed during the workshop). But wait, there’s more…. Given our aurora aspirations, each night immediately after dinner, we bundled up and ventured into the frigid dark seeking an electric light show.

For our nightly aurora hunt we’d drive to a pretty scene that had both dark skies (not hard to find in Iceland) and a clear view of the northern sky. There we’d sit for an hour or two, fogging the windows in Óli’s spacious Suburban, trading stories and laughs, and periodically stepping into the cold to scan the sky, before ultimately deciding tonight wasn’t going to be the night.

With just two days in Iceland remaining, I was getting a little anxious, but things were looking up (both figuratively and literally). First, Wednesday’s forecast promised completely clear skies, a first for our visit. And Wednesday’s destination was Glacier Lagoon, a magnificent ocean inlet dotted with floating icebergs and a patchwork of thin ice and reflective water that makes an ideal foreground for the northern lights.

The aurora forecast that night was 2 on the 0-9 KP-index of magnetic activity, where 0 is “Enjoy your sleep” and 9 is “Don’t forget the sunglasses” (or something like that), bu Óli assured us that he’s “seen some great shows on ‘2’ and ‘3’ aurora nights,” though I was skeptical because we’d already struck out more than once with a similar forecast. He also told us that his favorite aurora nights are in the 4 and 5 range because with an index higher than that, the aurora can be so intense that an exposure that doesn’t blow the lights is too dark to capture the foreground.

Pulling into the parking lot Wednesday night and turning off the headlights, I immediately spotted a low fog hovering above the lagoon. Except Óli said that wasn’t fog, it was the beginning of the aurora. Dubious, we followed him down to the lagoon. I was thrilled (understatement) when my camera validated Óli’s assertion: My first view of the northern lights!

We spent a couple of hours photographing a low-hanging, fuzzy green bands, with hints of red, that for a few minutes brightened and took on a little definition. On the drive back to the hotel, Don and I could barely contain our elation, while Óli was pleased but relatively subdued. For an Iceland native, this was just another day at the office; for two photographers from California, it was a personal milestone. And then Thursday happened.

All week Óli had told us our best chance for the northern lights would be Thursday, our tour’s final night. We spent that day photographing spots near Glacier Lagoon: sunrise and sunset at Diamond Beach bookending a visit to a glacier ice cave. But as the day progressed, the wind picked up and clouds formed and thickened. We didn’t stress though, because we had our aurora pictures and it was difficult to imagine anything better than what we’d seen on Wednesday.

Nevertheless, despite a 100 percent cloud cover after sunset, we agreed to meet for dinner with camera gear in tow, ready for an optimistic venture back to Glacier Lagoon. And sure enough, emerging from the restaurant we saw the gray blanket had been replaced by ceiling of stars and we were in business. But still no aurora.

Hoping for a little different perspective, we started by scaling a hill overlooking the lagoon, sinking into thigh-high snow and fighting a 40-MPH headwind to summit. That adventure lasted about five minutes before the wind and less than ideal view (you don’t know until you try) drove us back to the site of last night’s success, in retrospect a wise choice indeed.

Back in the lagoon parking lot, we sat and watched a faint aurora ebb and flow, suddenly aurora snobs (“This is nothing like last night”). What looked promising out my north-facing side window one minute, all but disappeared the next, but then we noticed new activity in the western sky out the windshield. This ramped up so fast that we bolted down to the lagoon like Keystone Cops, and by the time I was set up the had become a green and (occasionally) red psychedelic extravaganza.

The next two hours were a blur as I witnessed what was quite possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life (rivaled only by, and impossible to compare to, the total solar eclipse in August 2017). Starting across the lagoon, in the western sky, the show gradually moved south(defying all my expectations), forcing me to constantly  shift further up the lagoon to keep the ice and water in my foreground.

With my head on a swivel, I watched glowing tendrils stretch skyward, some touching both the east and west horizons, others pulsing, spiraling, and doubling back,. It felt like I was inside a giant lava lamp. At one point I tore my eyes from the show above the lagoon and saw the entire eastern sky ablaze with tangled green ribbons. so intense that I turned my back on the lagoon and quickly scaled the snowy hill behind me for a better view in the other direction. Within ten minutes things picked up again over the lagoon and I raced (and occasionally tumbled) back down the hill.

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Lessons learned

This is the only picture from that night that I’ve processed so far. And while it definitely should give you an idea of what I saw, it’s just a fraction of night’s mesmerizing display. Though the color wasn’t nearly this vivid to the eye, thanks to the camera’s extreme light gathering capability, this is pretty much the way it looked in the viewfinder of my Sony a7SII, and on my LCD preview after capture. About the only significant processing I did was tone down the green reflecting on the snow—not because it wasn’t there, but because I feared that keeping the actual amount of green I captured would strain credibility.

Getting a shot like this requires a significant amount of good fortune for sure, but all the good fortune in the world will do you no good if you don’t bundle up and get yourself into the extreme latitudes in winter. Also helpful is a little experience with night photography, specifically the ability to control your camera, compose, and focus in extremely low light.

While I benefited from an a7SII that can virtually see in the dark (making low light composition and focus a breeze), pretty much any relatively recent DSLR will do the job. Add to that a sturdy tripod and wide (24mm or wider), relatively fast glass (f/2.8 or faster, though I was able to make my Sony 12-24 f/4 lens work when the show was at its peak), and you’ll be fine.

I can’t emphasize too much how important finding a foreground to go with your aurora is. The northern lights are so spectacular, it’s easy to just show and forget to compose the scene. An aurora show like this changes so quickly, intimate local familiarity to know where to be without hunting is a big help. Our guide got us to a location with a wealth of foreground opportunities, but it certainly didn’t hurt that this was my third visit to Glacier Lagoon in two days. And when you get there, make sure you find both horizontal and vertical compositions.

And finally (because I know you’re going to ask), a few words about exposure settings. Keep in my that this was in fact my first rodeo, so you might find better advice elsewhere. But my Thursday shoot did benefit from knowledge gained Wednesday night. Specifically, my moonless night photography had been mostly limited to star trail and Milky Way shoots, where it’s all about maximizing light. But despite the moon’s absence for both of our northern lights shoots (though I’m told the moon isn’t the aurora deal-breaker it is with a Milky Way shoot), the rules are different for an aurora shoot because the sky’s brightness changes by the minute, and it’s often much brighter than a Milky Way sky.

On Wednesday I started with exposure settings closer to my Milky Way settings, using exposure times in the 15-30 second range because it’s virtually impossible to give a Milky Way scene too much light (with 2019 or earlier camera technology). But with an aurora, there is definitely such a thing as too much light.

When my exposure blew out the aurora during the Wednesday shoot, I took the opportunity to drop my ISO and f-stop, thinking that would improve my image quality. But the fingers of color shift so quickly in an active aurora like Thursday’s, a long a shutter duration blurs the display’s definition. On Thursday I tried to keep my shutter speed at 10-seconds or faster (faster is better), which was no problem given the aurora’s brightness.

By now you’ve probably figured out that you need to check your highlight alert and histogram with every frame, and adjust accordingly. And unlike most scenes, the RGB histogram is essential—many times my luminosity histogram (the white one) looked fine, but the RGB histogram’s green channel was seriously clipped.

Oh yeah, and don’t make the rookie mistake I made. Extreme cold like this (it was probably around 20F) will suck the life from a lithium ion battery. But because I’ve grown so accustomed to the great battery life of my Sony a7RIII, I forgot to make sure I’d packed my backup battery. I had one back in the room, which made it about as useful as chocolate frying pan. My battery started at 100%, dropped to 70% in about thirty minutes, and completely died 5 five minutes later. Fortunately Don took mercy on me and loaned me one of his four batteries. On Thursday I was much smarter: not only did I bring my backup battery, I brought an Anker portable charging cube and a charger.

I’m writing this on the plane home from Iceland, about to lose the charge on my laptop, so you’ll need to wait until a future post to learn more about the fascinating science of auroras (because I think it’s important to understand what you photograph). And let me just apologize in advance for the number of aurora images I’ll be sharing over the coming months (I’ll do my best to spread them out some, and I certainly have many other Iceland delights to share).


Celestial Wonders

Click an image for a closer look and slide show. Refresh the window to reorder the display.

 

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