It’s All About the People

Gary Hart Photography: Swoosh, Northern Lights Over Kirkjufell, Iceland

Swoosh, Northern Lights Over Kirkjufell, Iceland
Sony a7R V
Sony 12-24 GM
5 seconds
ISO 6400

As I’ve made abundantly clear in earlier blog posts, 2023 started with my busiest ever workshop stretch. But I’ve finally reached enough of a lull in my schedule to start processing the fruits of all this labor—not nonstop, but maybe one or two images a day if I’m lucky. Part of me feels a little overwhelmed by how how long it could take at that rate, especially since I’m just two months into the year with many more trips ahead. But another part of me looks at the things I’ve seen and photographed and remembers how uncertain I was when I turned my stable life upside-down to start leading photo workshops. If you’d have told me that in 17 years I’d have more images than I have time to process, I’d have taken it with no questions asked, so no complaints.

To say that leading photo workshops has exceeded my expectations would be a vast understatement. I came into it with 20 years of technical communications experience (teaching a programming language, tech writing, and tech support), and thirty years as a serious amateur photographer. And as a California native who grew up camping, backpacking, and (later) photographing all of my initial workshop locations (Yosemite, Eastern Sierra, Death Valley), I was intimately familiar with my subjects. Piece of cake, right?

That said, since photo workshops weren’t really much of a thing 17 years ago, I was totally winging it when I started. Having never actually taken a photo workshop myself, I didn’t even have a template for how it should be done, so I just structured mine the way I thought I’d like a workshop to be run if I were to attend one. Since then I’ve learned so much—and of course much of what I’ve learned is stuff I didn’t even know that I didn’t know. (For example, walkie-talkies seemed like a good idea, so I invested in 15 of them and now have a box of 15 once-used walkie-talkies somewhere in my garage.)

A big unknown for me was the people part of the equation—I like people, but (perhaps you’ve noticed) people can be difficult. Would every group have a difficult person (or two, or three, or…), and how would I handle them? I mean, no longer would I be lecturing programmers and IT geeks in an air conditioned training room, delivering a canned presentation I’d offered countless times before. Leading photo workshops would mean herding a group of individuals with a broad range of fitness, skill, equipment, expectations, and needs, through remote areas in extreme, unpredictable conditions. What could possibly go wrong?

It turns out, not too much. First, I’ve always felt that my best photography memories often come in the most extreme conditions. And guess what—it turns out most other photographers feel the same way, and will gladly endure extreme conditions in exchange for great photography. They’ll also forgive difficult conditions that prevent potentially great photography: a downpour that makes photography impossible, clear skies that bathe beautiful scenery in harsh light, clouds that block a much anticipated moonrise, and so on.

But what about basic human diversity? Surely attempting to integrate a bunch of people with so many differences would be a recipe for disaster. Concerned about mixing struggling beginners with impatient experts, I originally toyed with the idea of minimum equipment and experience requirements. What a mistake that would have been. While most of my workshops include photography skills ranging from enthusiastic beginner to experienced pro or semi-pro, rather than generating tension, these differences have created a synergy, as it turns out most experts love sharing their knowledge and experience with those who need it.

Of course diversity encompasses more than photography skill. I’ve had workshop participants from nearly every continent (no penguins so far), and (I’m pretty sure) every state in the U.S. My workshop participants have been, in no particular order, musicians, computer professionals, artists, physicians, writers, lawyers, corporate executives, electricians, accountants, bond traders, active and retired military, other professional photographers, real estate agents, clergy, stay-at-home dads and moms, a classical composer, a Hollywood graphic artist, and a Hooters girl (a very sweet young lady who would completely dash any preconceived impression of what that might mean). In one workshop I had a rocket scientist and a brain surgeon. I’ve gotten to know a woman who biked across America, and a man who hiked the entire Pacific Crest trail. I’ve had (many) gay and lesbian couples, outspoken liberals and conservatives, a couple of people in a wheelchair, a man in the final stages of cancer, the patriarch of a family that endured one of America’s most public (and irrational) scandals, and a 9/11 survivor. So it’s not hyperbole to say that I’ve learned as much from my students as they’ve learned from me.

The common denominator connecting all this disparity? A passion for photography that unites strangers long enough to overcome superficial differences and appreciate deeper similarities: a love of family, friendship, nature, sharing, and laughter.

Of course it hasn’t all been a Disney movie. One question that comes up from time to time is whether I’ve ever had anyone attend a workshop who I would not allow in a future workshop. For a long time my answer was an immediate and emphatic, No, everyone’s been great. About 8 years ago one person changed that answer, but fortunately that turned out to be a one-off situation that hasn’t been repeated. (And thankfully that person has not attempted to sign up for another workshop.)

The bottom line is that a successful photo workshop is more about its people than it is about the location and conditions. My job is to create an environment that fosters connection, guide them to the best photography possible, then step back and let the participants themselves enjoy each other.

About this image

Of course great locations and conditions can certainly contribute to the happiness factor, and nothing makes a group happier than photographing the spectacular sights they signed up for in the first place.

I’ve already shared a couple of northern lights images from the first of the two Iceland workshops Don Smith and I did in January. Both of those images came from the workshop’s third night of photography, which I called the most spectacular aurora display I’ve ever witnessed. But after spending more time with my images from the previous night, I’m thinking maybe that proclamation was a little too hasty. But anyway, it’s not a competition, so who cares?

On our first night the group was completely shutout by an overcast sky. It didn’t help that later that night I got a text from an Icelandic friend congratulating me on getting the northern lights on the workshop’s first night, and I had to reply that unlike his vantage point in Reykjavik, we had wall-to-wall clouds up on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.

While the aurora forecast was also good for our second night, the clouds persisted all day. But with clearing forecast that night, we ate dinner at a restaurant just a few minutes from Kirkjufell, then kept an eye on the sky. While waiting for the clouds to part after dinner, we got to watch Iceland’s handball team compete in the handball equivalent of the World Cup. I played a little handball in high school, this is a completely different sport (something like a soccer/basketball hybrid) that is clearly a huge deal in Iceland because half the town was crowded into this little pizza place to watch it. (It’s really a lot of fun to watch and many of us in the group got into it enough that we watched Iceland’s remaining tournament games as well.) But anyway…

The sky was just starting to clear when the game ended; by the time our bus parked at Kirkjufell the lights were dancing in all directions and we raced to the view as fast as our crampons would take us. Since this was most of the group’s first northern lights experience, I spent a few minutes getting people situated with exposure and focus. It was nice that we were the only ones out there (when we started), so everyone was free to spread out and make their own compositions.

Looking up at the variety of colors and ever-shifting forms felt like standing inside a celestial lava lamp. I started with my Sony a1 and Sony 20mm f/1.8 G lens, but the lights covered so much sky that I soon switched to my Sony a7R V, which I’d pre-loaded with my Sony 12 – 24 f/2.8 GM lens.

I moved around based on where the display was best at the moment, most of the time trying to align the aurora with Kirkjufell, but at one point I dropped down to the bottom of the slope and shot in the other direction to capture fanning shafts in the sky above Kirkjufellsfoss (the waterfall). When a magnificent arcing beam stretched across the northern sky, starting in the northeast and continuing out toward the western horizon, I was extremely grateful to have a wide enough focal length to capture the entire arc with Kirkjufell.

Though the temperature was about 10 degrees, with a 20+ MPH wind (and gusts closer to 40 MPH), I hardly noticed the cold. And I suspect no one else did either, because I didn’t hear a single complaint.

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2023 So Far

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Gary Hart Photography: Aurora Ribbons, Dyrhólaey Coastline, Iceland

Aurora Ribbons, Dyrhólaey Coastline, Iceland
Sony α1
Sony 12-24 GM
10 seconds
ISO 3200

I just wrapped up what was no doubt the most intense work/travel stretch of my 17 years leading photo workshops. It started the second week of January with 3 weeks in Iceland leading 2 workshops with Don Smith (with no break in between). After the long flight home (that’s a story for different day), I had just one day to recover before driving nine hours to Death Valley (still very much jet lagged) for another workshop that started the next day. Returning from Death Valley, I actually had a few days to lick my wounds before heading off to Yosemite for my Horsetail Fall workshop (with crowds that make it pretty intense by itself).

I have no one to blame but myself for this schedule (it seemed like such a good idea at the time). And I won’t say that I’m not looking forward to a few weeks off before my next workshop. But honestly, I’d do it all again in a heartbeat. And I should also say that despite appearances to the contrary, I’m actually home far more than I’m on the road, and when I’m home, I’m really home (unless I’m at Starbucks, without a lot of places I’m expected to be. So don’t feel too sorry for me.

The people I get to share my workshops with are constant source of energy and joy that sustains me through these difficult stretches. But today I’m (selfishly) thinking about the bucket-list worthy sights and locations my frequently nomadic life has afforded me. It’s an exercise I try to go through regularly to avoid taking my many blessings for granted.

I’m thinking about this right now because I returned just a few days ago from another Horsetail Fall workshop, where I could be at serious risk of taking for granted a truly beautiful and unique spectacle that I’ve seen literally dozens of times, but that is a genuine bucket list experience for so many others.

One way I try to avoid taking my blessing for granted is to revisit my annual Highlights galleries: 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021, 2022. I love creating these galleries not only because the process reminds me of the sights I’ve seen over the past year, but also because it gets me excited for the still unknown sights in the upcoming year. And each time I revisit them, I’m reminded of how lucky I was to have been witness to such beauty. Invariably, after opening a gallery, I’ll find myself thinking, oh wow, surely this was my best year (not necessarily my best photographs—just my best year for the things I got to see), then I go on to another year and have exactly the same thought.

Another thing this exercise makes pretty clear is the things in Nature that excite me most. I’ve always believed that we each make our best pictures when we follow our heart to the subjects we love most. For me that’s locations to which I feel a personal connection, like Yosemite and Grand Canyon, and natural phenomena like weather and all things celestial. Not so coincidently, these are also the subjects I most love studying and understanding.

For the longest time I would say the most beautiful sight I’d ever witnessed was a comet—I just couldn’t imagine anything matching it. Then in 2017 I witnessed a total solar eclipse and that list became two. Then (I bet you know where I’m going here) I saw the northern lights. So now my most-beautiful list is three.Gary Hart Photography: Wings of Angels, Aurora Above Dyrhólaey, Iceland

I’ve seen the northern lights many times since that first experience, but that first one always stood out as the best. But Nature always seems to be trying to top itself, and this year it finally managed. The first Iceland workshop group got two consecutive nights with spectacular northern lights shows—the first night at least matching my previous “best,” the second night topping it.

Because I blogged about that night a few weeks ago, I won’t go into all the details. The image I shared in that earlier post was more of a spontaneous capture away from the best scene, simply because the display was so spectacular. The image I’m sharing today is the scene I spent most of the night pointing at because it had the best combination of foreground and aurora display. The dancing lights changed so much from one minute to the next that I could pluck any one of dozens of images from this scene, label it “best,” and get no argument.

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A Few of My Many Blessings

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Transcending the Trophy

Gary Hart Photography: Wonderland, Golden Circle, IcelandWonderland, Golden Circle, Iceland
Sony a7R V
Sony 12-24 GM
1/40 second
ISO 200
With Horsetail Fall season about to kick off, this week I’m thinking about “trophy shots.” (My definition of a trophy shot is a commonly shared photograph of a scene captured previously by many others.) Often these are “iconic” tourist scenes, such Delicate Arch in Arches, or Multnomah Falls in the Columbia River Gorge. And sometimes they’re photographer-driven scenes, like the moonbow beneath Lower Yosemite Fall each spring full moon, and the Mesa Arch sunrise sunstar in Canyonlands.

With the digital-fueled photography renaissance, it seems that the number of trophy destinations has grown proportionally. For example, once no more than an anonymous trickle on El Capitan’s southeast flank, Horsetail Fall now draws thousands of photographers to Yosemite at sunset each February. And long gone are the days of a peaceful midday walk in the quiet coolness of Antelope Canyon.

Because I’ve photographed all of these scenes, and no doubt will continue doing so, I completely understand the urge to bag the trophy shot. They’re trophies because they’re beautiful, and (usually) relatively easy to access. But what puzzles me is why so many photographers pursue trophies to the exclusion of  opportunities to create something uniquely their own. To me, the greatest joy of photography isn’t duplicating what others have already done, it’s the search for something new—especially at frequently photographed locations.

That said, I can’t deny that the opportunity to capture a trophy draws many photographers to my workshops. But while I do love helping my workshop students land their trophy, my job doesn’t end there—a significant part of my responsibility is challenging them to not make the trophy shot their goal, make it their starting point. Chances are, I tell them, if a shot is special enough to achieve trophy status, there are lots of other special views and subjects nearby.

Transcending the trophy is a mindset. Once you’ve bagged your trophy, see if you can identify a unique foreground or background, or approach the scene from a different angle. And if the standard view is horizontal, look for something vertical; if it’s wide, try a telephoto—and vice-versa.

And don’t forget that there might be great stuff happening behind you—you’ll never know if you don’t turn around. I try to make a point of checking behind me, but sometimes I need a reminder. For example…

Don Smith and I wrapped up the last day of this year’s back-to-back Iceland photo workshops with an afternoon in the Golden Circle. A recent storm had dumped loads of fresh snow everywhere, a great way to wrap up two fantastic workshops. After spending a couple of hours at massive Gullfoss waterfall, we took the group to Strokkur geyser for our final sunset.

Strokkur is a towering geyser in a beautiful setting. Erupting up to 125 feet every 5 to 10 minutes, Strokkur’s frequency allows many do-overs if you don’t get it right the first (or second, or…) time. This year fast-changing clouds and fresh snow added a new visual dimension I was especially excited to take advantage of.

I think the best shot here is getting the geyser backlit by the setting sun, so I positioned myself accordingly and waited, adjusting my position and composition after each eruption. As the sun set and I prepared for the next eruption, I noticed that our guide Albert Dros was on the other side of the geyser, pointing the exact opposite direction my camera pointed. Normally when I see another photographer not taking what I think is the best shot, I don’t think much of it. But since Albert is such a fantastic photographer, I glanced over my shoulder to see what I was missing. Yikes.

I instantly forgot the geyser, grabbed my gear, and “raced” toward the snow-glazed trees that were now framed by electric pink clouds, and garnished with a dollop of moon. Much to my frustration, the trail was completely coated with ice—since I’d decided to forego the crampons, to avoid falling I could only move about as fast as I do in those dreams when I’m trying to run for my life in a normal speed world, but find I can only move in slow motion (I’m not the only one who has those dreams, right?).

Fortunately, Iceland twilight is slower than any slow-motion dream, and I covered the 50 feet over to this scene with plenty of time to work the composition. I already had my Sony 12 – 24 f/2.8 GM lens mounted on my Sony a7R V, which turned out to be perfect for emphasizing the snowy scene in my immediate foreground, while still maximizing the colorful clouds. Of course this shrunk the moon to almost microscopic proportions—some may disagree, but I kind of love the small moon as a delicate accent to this already magic scene.

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Transcending the Trophy

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A River Runs Through It

Gary Hart Photography: Sapphire Cathedral, Vatnajökull GlacierIceland

Sapphire Cathedral, Vatnajökull Glacier Ice Cave, Iceland
Sony a7R V
Sony 12-24 GM
.8 seconds
ISO 50

Among the greatest joys of my photographer’s life is the opportunity to witness rare and exotic beauty I might otherwise have missed. An erupting volcano? Check. The dancing colors of the northern lights? Check. Shafting light in a Southwest slot canyon? Check. Southern Hemisphere night sky? Check. The view from the bottom of the Grand Canyon? Check.

In my California-born-and-raised world, glaciers certainly qualify as beauty both rare and exotic. Fortunately, this photography life takes me to New Zealand, where I get to walk on a glacier, and most recently, to Iceland, where I actually get to walk in a glacier. How cool is that? (Very, actually—no pun intended.)

Vatnajökull is the largest glacier in Iceland, and the second largest in Europe. As recently as the 19th Century, Vatnajökull extended all the way to the Atlantic, but thanks to our warming planet, in most places it is now a few miles inland.

As alarming as that is, a consolation prize is the beauty Vatnajökull’s shrinking has produced. Glacier Lagoon is filled with Vatnajökull’s meltwater and decked out in large chunks of calved glacial ice; nearby Diamond Beach is bejeweled with the remnants of the lagoon’s ice; and Sapphire Ice Cave (and its predecessors) was formed in the wake of Vatnajökull’s retreat.

Ice caves are dynamic phenomena that can change noticeably from week-to-week, and over a span of many weeks or months will eventually become unrecognizable. They form when glacial runoff finds, or makes its own, path through glacial ice. Since flowing water is always warmer than the surrounding ice, these voids and channels continue expanding as more ice melts. When the runoff finds a different path, or diminishes in the freezing winter months, the spaces in the ice remain and an ice cave is born (or reborn).

Perhaps the most striking feature of an ice cave is its color. Contrary to popular opinion, this blueness is not reflected color from the sky, but from an inherent quality of the ice itself. Snow is opaque, but centuries of pressure from snow accumulating above compresses the older underlying snow, forcing out air and leaving only translucent ice crystals. As sunlight passes through these ice crystals, all but the shortest visible wavelengths are absorbed, allowing only the blue wavelengths to pass through to bless our fortunate eyes.

Each year Don Smith and I take an Iceland photo workshop group to visit the current incarnation of the Vatnajökull ice cave, and each year it’s completely different. So far it has been in more or less the same location for every visit, but this time, using a bridge across a small creek near the entrance as a reference point, I noticed it had retreated at least 100 yards in the last year. The glacier guides say that within a year or two this cave could be inaccessible or completely gone, requiring them to find another ice cave to blaze a tourist path to. (They’re only open to visitors in winter, one more reason winter is my favorite time to visit Iceland.)

With two Iceland workshops this year (still playing COVID catch-up), Don and I visited the Vatnajökull ice cave twice, 9 days apart. This version is dubbed Sapphire Ice Cave by the guides (earlier versions have been Crystal and Diamond), about 9 days apart. This created a great opportunity to compare, contrast, and witness firsthand the gradual changes that accumulate with time to completely end the cave, or transform it into something brand new.

Iceland’s ice caves can be extremely crowded, making photography difficult. In previous years we’ve started well before sunrise to be the first out there, but this year the morning weather didn’t look good, so we switched to late afternoon to be the last people to leave. To lighten my load for the one-mile walk, I pared my camera bag to nothing but my (brand new) Sony a7R V body, Sony 24 – 105 f/4 G lens, Sony 12 – 24 f/2.8 GM lens, and Really Right Stuff Ascend tripod.

Upon arriving with our second group, rather than start shooting immediately, I took a couple of minutes to survey my surroundings and get a handle on what had changed in the last 9 days. The most obvious difference was the river running through the cave. Recent rain, augmented by warmer temperatures, had created mini (and not-so-mini) springs and even a couple small waterfalls that poured in from intra-glacier reservoirs and streams. And then there were the seemingly ubiquitous and aggressive ceiling drips that (given my many layers) were surprisingly adept at targeting my neck and sliding down my spine. All this water united on the cave’s floor to form the shallow but swift river splitting the length of the main chamber before exiting through the main entrance. (This new river made instantly clear the puzzling presence of a makeshift metal bridge spanning nothing but dry rock and dirt on our first visit.)

Soon other differences came into focus: in addition to the flowing water, I noticed subtly altered curves, a few missing or blunted outcrops, and a handful of overhead portals that provided new views to the sky above. At one point during our visit a small rockslide sent several dozen softball-size rocks crashing about 10 feet from an elevated ice shelf, an instant reminder of an ice cave’s perpetual dynamics (and of why visitors are required to wear helmets at all times in the cave).

Our guide, provided by our Iceland guiding service to assist both workshop groups, was fellow Sony Ambassador Albert Dros (Albert is from the Netherlands; Ambassadors in the US are called Sony Artisans), whose energy is matched only by his creativity (check him out). Albert had most of the group occupied photographing Artie, our ice cave driver/guide (yes, there were 4 guides for 12 workshop participants in the ice cave portion of the workshop: Don, Albert, Artie, and me), whom he had drafted as a model to establish scale for everyone’s images.

With a few minutes to myself, I was both ready and able to begin taking actual pictures. I warmed up by attempting to reprise compositions remembered from the earlier visit. But once I became comfortable with the ice cave’s changes, I moved on to new compositions that emphasized those differences.

I started by concentrating on the waterfalls with my 24 – 105 lens, using long-exposure motion blur to help them stand out. But when I noticed that the view beyond the cave entrance was filled with a nice mix of clouds and sky, I saw an opportunity to highlight the ephemeral river (and to test the dynamic range of the a7R V). Time for my 12 – 24 lens.

Setting up shop on the bridge, I started composing versions of the scene you see here, first horizontal, then vertical. It took a few frames, but I eventually found the combination of position on the bridge, tripod height, and left/right framing (at 12mm) that allowed me to include the new natural skylights on the left (with enough distance from the edge), all of the cave’s entrance (and the sky beyond), plus the ideal balance of river and ceiling.

I wanted to smooth the water enough to eliminate distracting (in my opinion) texture freezing the motion would create.  Lacking a neutral density filter for the 12 – 24 lens, I stopped down to f/18 and dropped to ISO 50, which allowed a nearly 1-second shutter speed—just slow enough.

The river was in shadow, but the water’s blueness really came out with the extra light my camera was able to capture. As with the ice cave’s color, the color of glacial water also is not simply reflected sky—or in this case, the ice’s blue. Rather, the water’s color is actually determined by the glacial silt it carries.

To understand this, now might be a good time to mention the counterintuitive truth that even receding glaciers move forward. Gravity carries a glacier downhill, but the glacier can still be retreating despite this downhill motion if it melts faster than it advances. As a glacier moves, embedded rock fragments at its base behave like sandpaper, grinding the rock over which it slides into finer and finer particles, the finest of which is called glacial flour. As the glacial meltwater carries all this scoured rock downhill, the heavier particles soon sink, while the finer glacial flour remains suspended in the runoff.

Most of the light striking water infused with glacial flour is absorbed by the fine suspended particles, but the green and blue wavelengths aren’t absorbed; instead they scatter back to our eyes and we are treated to blue, green, or turquoise water. The exact hue of flowing glacial meltwater is determined by the size of the suspended particles and the wavelengths (color) they scatter.

The product of these glacial machinations is the overwhelming blueness you see here.


I continue to be blown away by the dynamic range of the Sony sensors. As you may know, I never blend images, so the ability to capture with one click the entire range of tones in a scene like this is extremely important to me. On my LCD (jpeg) preview, the shadows in this image looked nearly black, while the highlights appeared hopelessly bright. But I trusted my histogram and the Sony raw file, and a couple of tugs of Lightroom’s Highlights and Shadows sliders validated that trust.

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Rare and Exotic Beauty (I Might Otherwise Have Missed)

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Lights, Camera, Action!

Gary Hart Photography: Wings of Angels, Aurora Above Dyrhólaey, Iceland

Wings of Angels, Aurora Above Dyrhólaey, Iceland
Sony α1
Sony 12-24 GM
10 seconds
ISO 3200

A couple of posts back I wrote about Nature’s gifts, natural phenomena that sometimes augment the ordinary enough to defy belief. In that post I cited reflections, relatively ubiquitous phenomena that improve nearly every scene they touch. Toward the other end of the commonness continuum are auroras, colorful lights that dance randomly in the frigid darkness high above Earth’s extreme latitudes.

While everyone has seen reflections, many live their life without ever witnessing an aurora. For most of us, viewing an aurora requires travel at the absolute worst time of year for travel, and then venturing outdoors in the darkest, coldest hours of the day. And even then, there’s no guarantee of success. Some nights the aurora simply doesn’t show up, other (many) nights auroras perform their dance behind a curtain of clouds.

So what’s the deal?

Despite all appearances to the contrary, auroras aren’t magic. Our planet is continuously bombarded by solar energy; a narrow range of these wavelengths (infrared and visible) battles all the way through Earth’s atmosphere to the surface to warm our bodies and light our way. But other wavelengths in the solar wind interact with atmospheric molecules they encounter, stripping their electrons to create ions, which causes a charge imbalance in the atmosphere.

Instead of penetrating the atmosphere to generate havoc on Earth’s surface, most of these ions are intercepted by the magnetosphere, our planet’s protective magnetic shield. The magnetosphere is a teardrop-shaped barrier surrounding Earth—battered by the relentless solar bombardment, its sun-facing side is spread out and compressed to about 6 to 10 Earth radii thick, while the shielded side behind Earth (from the Sun’s perspective) is stretched up to 60 Earth radii into space behind us (beyond the Moon’s orbit).

As Earth rotates inside the magnetosphere, the daylight side at any given moment looks through the wide, compressed region, while the night side peers out toward the extended region. 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 waxes and wanes with solar activity and the intensity of the solar wind.

The aurora’s color depends on the molecules involved, as well as their location in the magnetosphere. 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.

Known colloquially as the northern or southern lights, and more technically the aurora borealis in the Northern Hemisphere and aurora australis in the Southern Hemisphere, to see them you need all of the above: the correct location on or near Earth’s surface, activity in the magnetosphere, and dark, clear skies.

As with terrestrial weather, great effort is taken to predict the aurora, but 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 an active sun and clear skies.

Another key to successful 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. On my iPhone I find the Aurora Pro app essential for both planning and real-time aurora chasing.

Gary Hart Photography: Electric Night, Kirkjufell Aurora, Iceland

Electric Night, Kirkjufell Aurora, Iceland

Last week, armed with all this aurora knowledge, loads of preparation, and a healthy dose of hope, Don Smith and I embarked on the first of this year’s back-to-back Iceland photo workshops ready for action. We’ve had pretty good luck in all of our previous visits, but are wise enough to Nature’s fickle ways not to be too cocky.

After having (what from all reports was) a beautiful display erased by clouds the workshop’s first night, we were blessed with a truly magnificent show at Kirkjufell the next night. Not only did the sky behind the mountain light up, the colorful lights careened about the sky in all directions. On our ride back to the hotel, Don and I agreed that this show rivaled the Glacier Lagoon aurora show on our first trip to Iceland that we considered the best we’d seen so far. The group was happy and life was good.

Departing Snaefellsnes Peninsula for Vik the next morning with a tremendously successful aurora shoot already in the bank, I thought to myself that wishing for anything more would be downright greedy. And since Vik lacks the really great north-facing views that are ideal for photographing the aurora, I wasn’t counting on another northern lights shoot that night.

Nevertheless, because the sky was clear and the aurora forecast was decent, after dinner in Vik we went aurora chasing anyway. Rather than opt for the more sure but mediocre north-facing view, we instead drove to Dyrhólaey, a coastline/ocean vista with nice views in all directions except north. Our rationale was that a truly great display can be viewed in any and all directions, and since we already had our northern lights success in the books, why not just go for broke?

Smart move. An aurora was already blasting so strongly when we arrived that we started photographing the instant we rolled off the bus and didn’t make it out of the parking lot for about 15 minutes. And while the previous night’s aurora display at Kirkjufell rivaled our best ever, this one easily topped it.

Once ensconced at the vista, we spent most of our time photographing westward, where the view up the coastline was the best available, and from where a persistent series of brilliant red and green beams radiated. Very much aware that the show was great in all directions, at one point I glanced southward, out over the Atlantic, and just had to photograph what I saw.

There really wasn’t a lot happening in the foreground, but a few small islands (more like large rocks) saved the day. I took several frames facing south, but chose the one I’m sharing today because it I find its beautiful angel wing shape truly unique.

After using my brand new Sony a7R V at Kirkjufell the previous night (it performed wonderfully), for this entire shoot I used my Sony a1. For both shoots, because the aurora spanned most of the sky, I shot almost exclusively with my Sony 12 – 24 f/2.8 GM lens at 12mm—and would have gone wider if I could have. With the aurora changing continuously, I shot wide open and used ISOs between 3200 and 6400 to keep my shutter speed at 10 seconds or faster. I’m thrilled with how clean these high ISO images were from both cameras, and won’t hesitate to use either one for any future aurora shoot.

2 FAQs

Here are my answers to the two aurora questions I hear most frequently:

  • Can you see the aurora’s color?
    • For most auroras there simply isn’t enough light to see any (or much) color. But in no way does this detract from the beauty. And when the aurora really gets going, yes, you can indeed see color—at one point this night it did brighten enough that the color was clearly visible, so bright in fact that I had to drop my exposure by 4 stops to avoid blowing out the highlights. And the color you see in my (and probably most) aurora images appears right there on the LCD after capture—in other words, rather than a Photoshop manipulation, aurora color in an image is mostly a simple product of the camera’s ability to accumulate photons.
  • Can you see the aurora move?
    • Sometimes you can’t see the aurora’s actual motion, but from minute to minute you become aware that its shape is noticeably different. And the bigger and brighter the aurora’s display, the faster it moves, until its motion becomes clearly visible—I’d compare the speed to a fast moving cloud. And a better word than “move” for what an aurora does might be “change.” While clouds seem to scoot across the sky, an aurora continually shifts and moves—the more intense the display, the faster the change.

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A Gallery of Iceland Auroras

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Replacing the Missing Dimension

Gary Hart Photography: Frozen, Glacier Lagoon, Iceland

Frozen, Glacier Lagoon, Iceland
Sony a7RIV
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
13 seconds
ISO 50

I’ve said it before: Capturing our three-dimensional world in photography’s two-dimensional medium is impossible. But take heart, all is not lost—it is possible to give your images the illusion of depth.

It’s pretty easy to put a camera to your eye and frame up the flat, left/right and up/down aspect of a scene. But translating your own three-dimensional experience into your camera’s two-dimensional reality requires bit more insight and effort. I grew up in a family where my parents, and pretty much every significant relative it seemed, had at least one large and glossy David Muench book on the coffee table (remember coffee table books?). Starting as far back as I can remember, I used to love paging through Muench’s beautiful images of the Southwest, California, America’s national parks, and more, just marveling at the grand majesty. Though I wasn’t gazing with a critical eye, I can’t help but believe that some of Muench’s front-to-back framing approach must have rubbed off on me. It wasn’t until I started leading photo workshops that I realized that not everyone understands the importance of front-to-back relationships, and how to make them happen.

Achieving the illusion of depth starts with looking beyond your primary subject to find a complementary foreground or background: If your primary subject is nearby, find a background object, shape, or color that frames, balances, and/or helps the subject stand out.  Conversely, if your primary subject is in the distance, look for foreground elements that can lead your viewers’ eyes through the frame without distracting or competing for attention.

Once you have your foreground/background elements worked out, your composition isn’t complete. In your three-dimensional view, size and distance are easily interpreted, something we stereographic humans take for granted. But your scene’s depth is lost to your camera. In its two-dimensional world, aligned objects at varying distances loose the separation that makes them stand out. To overcome this, you need to visually separate merged objects by putting them on different lines of sight, setting them apart from the scene’s other elements, allowing your image’s viewer to infer the depth that you see naturally. I can’t emphasize how important this is.

In my many years of observing and assisting other photographers working to improve their images, I’ve decided that a lack of depth management could be single most significant factor holding them back. And there seems to be an invisible force that binds tripods to their first landing place. Overcoming this force (to which I’m not immune) requires vigilant attention to each visual element in your frame, then taking whatever steps (figuratively and literally) necessary to ensure that each element stands alone. If you can’t achieve separation from your current position, move! In other words, in a static image, you’re the one who to be dynamic.

Arriving at Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon in Iceland in February, it was instantly clear that the scene had everything necessary for a special image: Low-hanging clouds that softened the light, turquoise ice that colored Iceland’s typically monochrome winter landscape, and crystal clear water that reflected the ice’s color and revealed submerged pastel pebbles. I could have set up my tripod anywhere and captured something beautiful, but I walked the lagoon’s shore, searching for a foreground to go with the gorgeous background, until I was finally stopped by these ice disks that seemed to have been placed like stepping stones.

I like elements that move diagonally across my frame, so I started by positioning my tripod accordingly.  Turns out I loved the ice disks and colorful submerged pebbles so much that I decided to make them the feature of my frame. Attaching my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 lens to my Sony a7RIV, I dropped my tripod as low as it would go and scooted it into the water, getting as close as I could to the ice. I used my Breakthrough 6-stop Dark Polarizer to smooth the water, taking care I to turn the polarizer to the point where the submerged pebbles appeared, but not so far that I lost the color reflecting in the background. Shooting this at 16mm allowed me to get extremely close to the foreground ice and pebbles and fill most of the frame with the nearby ice disks, while demoting the much larger turquoise icebergs to lovely background observers.

One more thing

The first time I saw Jökulsárlón Glacier Lagoon, I was blown away by this lake that had large turquoise ice cubes bobbing in water so clear that it can look like the ice is floating on air. So, as I try (need) to do with all of my subjects, I researched.

I learned that Jökulsárlón is a relatively new lake that formed in the mid twentieth century when its upstream glacier, Breiðamerkurjökull, started receding (glaciers don’t actually defy gravity and back up, they simply start melting faster than their ice is replenished). The weight and friction of an advancing glacier carves deep gouges in the Earth as it inches forward and pushes some of the carved out rock and sediment ahead of it—when the glacier retreats (as most of the world’s glaciers seem to now be doing), this debris remains in place, forming a terminal moraine that can act like a dam for glacial meltwater.

Jökulsárlón is the lake that formed in the scar exposed by Breiðamerkurjökull’s retreat, filled by glacial meltwater. While it’s relatively new, at nearly 1,000 feet deep, Jökulsárlón is Iceland’s deepest lake. Its icebergs have calved from the still receding Breiðamerkurjökull. So now you know.

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The Illusion of Depth

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Worth the Sacrifice

Gary Hart Photography: Aurora Reflection, Vestrahorn, Iceland

Aurora Reflection, Vestrahorn, Iceland
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 GM
15 seconds
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

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Know Your Subjects

Gary Hart Photography: Alpenglow, Kirkjufell, Iceland

Alpenglow, Kirkjufell, Iceland
Sony a7RIV
Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM
3 seconds
ISO 100

One of my personal rules for photography is knowledge of my subjects—I simply get more pleasure from an image when I know something about what I’ve captured. Of the many potential subjects available to a landscape photographer, mountains have always been a particular draw for me. Living my entire life in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada has certainly influenced that connection, as have fond memories of family camping trips in the mountains throughout my childhood, and Sierra backpack trips with friends in my teens and beyond. In college I even majored in geology for several semesters (after astronomy, but before eventually earning my bachelor’s degree in, yawn, economics), and was most interested in the processes responsible for mountain building: tectonics and volcanism.

Kirkjufell, Iceland

Given all this, I guess it makes sense that after returning from last month’s Iceland trip I found myself digging a little deeper into the origins of Kirkjufell, the prominent peak that is arguably Iceland’s most recognizable landmark. Game of Thrones fans who recognize Kirkjufell (Arrowhead Mountain) will be relieved to know that, after several visits over the last few years, I can confirm that the White Walkers appear to have moved on. (But come to think of it, maybe that shouldn’t be much of a relief….)

Kirkjufell rises slightly more than 1500 feet above Breiðafjörður Bay on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Given Iceland’s volcanic origins, it would be reasonable to assume that this cone-shaped peak is just one of of the island’s many volcanos. But that assumption would be incorrect. Skeptical? The mountain’s clearly visible parallel strata layers are a giveaway that Kirkjufell is not a volcano. (And viewing from other angles would reveal that Kirkjufell isn’t really cone-shaped either.)

Though many of Kirkjufell’s layers were indeed laid down by lava or explosive debris from nearby volcanos, these igneous layers are interspersed with layers of submarine sediment deposits, each layer a product of the environment at the time of its deposition. Kirkjufell’s base layer was a large lava flow that happened sometime in the last 5 to 10 million years (relatively recently in Earth’s grand geological picture). After that came millions of years of alternating sediment and volcanic deposits, separated by thousands or millions of years for which there’s no record.

This assortment of parallel layers created a horizontal layer cake of strata bearing no resemblance to the mountain we know today (or any mountain for that matter). Because all sedimentary layers are deposited horizontally, and Kirkjufell has a slight SE-NW tilt, it would also be reasonable to assume that at some point since the last layer went down, the entire area to the southeast rose relative to the area northwest.

Once all Kirkjufell’s layers were deposited and tilted, the area was squeezed between two glaciers that carved away most of the surrounding rock, leaving the remaining peak jutting above the glaciers like an island. When the glaciers retreated, the peak we see today remained.

Twilight colors

The other striking feature in this image is the pink that spreads in the shadowless pre-sunrise/post-sunset sky of civil twilight, when the sun is around six degrees or closer to the horizon. Sometimes called the “Belt of Venus,” we get this color because the only the longest, red wavelengths are able to traverse the atmosphere once the sun drops below the horizon.

The interface between the Belt of Venus and the blue-gray Earth’s shadow directly is called the “twilight wedge,” a designation earned because you can sometimes see the earth’s curve in the shadow, with its apex at the anti-solar point (directly opposite the sun). At sunset, the gradual upward motion of the shadow gives the appearance of a wedge being driven into the darkening sky.

About this image

I won’t pretend that there’s anything especially unique about my composition here (and I have the pictures to prove it)—it’s one of those scenes that improves more with conditions than composition, especially if you haven’t been here enough to get really familiar with it.

Because this was the first evening of photography for Don Smith’s and my 2022 Iceland photo workshop, Don and I stayed especially close to the group. From past visits I knew that to align Kirkjufell and Kirkjufellsfoss (the waterfall), you’re pretty limited for places to set up, but we managed to find prime tripod real estate for everyone. I encourage my groups to move around as much as possible, but the thick snow and steep drop to the river further limited our mobility, so we just lined up along the cable barrier between the trail and the drop. And  because there were other people besides our group out there, once you landed a vantage point, you were pretty much stuck there until someone moved.

Given the mobility limitations and my desire to align the mountain and waterfall, my composition options were mostly focal length choices. Another, self imposed, compositional limitation was my desire to exclude the footbridge just out of my frame on the left. I like to believe that if I’d have been here by myself, with lots of time to explore, I’d have come up with something a little more creative. But I’m certainly not complaining—between the fresh snow and beautiful sky, the conditions for photography were off the charts and everyone was thrilled.

This image came late in the shoot, just as the twilight wedge reached peak color. By then I was pretty familiar with all my composition options and opted to go with my Sony 16-35 f/2.8 GM lens at 17mm (an my Sony a7RIV body). Turns out my resulting composition is remarkably similar to my northern lights image from later that night, and a sunrise image I captured here 3 years ago. Since I clearly have this composition nailed, I’ll need to challenge myself to find something different next year.

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More Magnificent Mountains

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The Sea Was Angry That Day, My Friends

Gary Hart Photography: Ocean and Ice, Diamond Beach, Iceland

Ocean and Ice, Diamond Beach, Iceland
Sony a7RIV
Sony 24-105 f/4 G
15 seconds
ISO 100

I returned from Iceland with a lot of memories, but none will stay with me longer than the events of this stormy February morning on Diamond Beach. I guess given how much of my life is spent chasing Nature’s most dramatic moments, every once in a while it’s good to be reminded of the suddenness with which Nature can surprise you to impose its uncompromising will. But still…

The wind was howling and sunrise was still nearly an hour away when Don Smith and I guided our workshop group out to Diamond Beach. In fact, it had been so cold and dark when we arrived that we’d hung out in the bus for about 10 minutes.

Our group had actually photographed Diamond Beach a couple of days earlier, on a sunny but chilly morning. The surf that day had been relatively benign, washing up a more-or-less predictable distance up the beach at regular intervals. On that visit we could wander among the ice chunks, advancing close enough to use a wide lens for close-ups of the waves washing around individual ice blocks.

The blocks of ice here, some as large as a small car, have calved from nearby Fjallsárlón Glacier, have drifted across Glacier Lagoon and eventually into the ocean, before being swept back onto this black sand beach to pose for our photographs. On that first visit the biggest concern was a slightly larger than average wave washing up over the top of our (nearly knee-high) waterproof boots if we somehow hadn’t paid enough attention to its approach. Wet feet might ruin your day, but they won’t kill you.

This morning, however, given the storm that had raged all night and the cold wind still blowing hard, we weren’t a bit surprised to find the surf frighteningly agitated. Each wave attacked the beach with an explosive vengeance, and no one needed to be told to give the ocean space. Making beach access even more difficult was the a very high tide that had crested less than an hour before our arrival.

The section of Diamond Beach we were trying to photograph slopes steeply, 30 diagonal feet or so down to the ocean. (Given the size and violence of the waves, it’s really impossible to say where the beach ends and the ocean begins.) Above this inclined beach stretches a broad and relatively flat plain of sand, elevated far enough above the water to provide the illusion of safety. On this morning we watched individual waves charge up the beach before petering out 10 feet or so feet from the top of the slope—some a few feet closer, some a few feet farther back, but none seemed to threaten the high ground we surveyed the scene from.

Bobbing in the surf and dotting the sand were the ice blocks we’d come to photograph. All of the best ice was down in the area under constant attack from the surf, but instead of walking down among the ice as we had on our previous visit, the group seemed content to put on longer lenses and stay in the safety of the elevated plain.

Given the day I’d spent with saturated socks following our previous Diamond Beach visit, on this visit I was very motivated to keep my feet dry. Planting my tripod several feet back from the edge, I attached my Sony 24-105 f/4 G lens to my Sony a7RIV and turned my attention to a pair of ice chunks a safe distance away. My first click came about 40 minutes before sunrise, when the sky was dark enough to stretch my exposures into the 15 to 30 second range, making it very challenging to avoid blurring the ice that shifted with almost every wave.

At one point I saw someone in our group venture down, close enough to the water to take a wave almost to his waist. Braced, with camera held high, he remained standing and came out laughing, but stayed further back after that. I went back to shooting, trying to time my exposures for the seconds between waves when my subjects were less likely to be shuffled mid-exposure. The image I share here was one of my earliest successes.

Waiting for an exposure to complete, I looked up and saw a human shape emerging from the darkness and heading my direction. It wasn’t until I heard the shape utter, “I went in,” that I squinted and realized I was looking at Don. And not until he got right up to me and repeated, “I went in,” did I register exactly what he meant.

He was dripping, head-to-toe, camera and tripod, with frigid North Atlantic seawater. Holy crap! With chattering teeth he gave me a quick summary of events. He’d seen a piece of ice he wanted to photograph, so after monitoring the waves enough to feel confident that he was safe (-ish), he’d moved down onto the sloping part of the beach to get closer. Once down there, he’d been so focused on making his shot that he hadn’t seen the large wave until it was on him. The wave came up to his waist, and just as he thought he might ride it out without going down, he was sucker-punched by a block of ice that sent him sprawling into the surf (turns out it left him a nasty bruise too, but I managed to refrain from suggesting that he ice it). Fortunately, this was our last morning there, so our suitcases were packed and loaded the bus, so it didn’t take any convincing to get him to return the bus to change into dry clothes.

My ice subjects had drifted away, so I wandered over to where a few members of the group were shooting comfortably in the “safe” zone, well back from the beach. Rather than feeling concerned about our safety, I considered Don’s mishap a one-off accident—a dedicated photographer a little too anxious to get the shot. I’ve been there, and I suspect most landscape photographers have as well at one time or another. So far, I rationalized, no wave had come close to our elevated sand platform.

About the time these thoughts were cementing in my brain, I glanced seaward and saw a massive, roiling wall of water charging my position. Usually when a wave approaches the first inclination is to backpedal, but this wave was on a completely different scale from any I’d ever encountered. Without conscious thought I turned and sprinted inland so quickly (picture George Costanza in a fire) that if my camera bag hadn’t been on my back, and my tripod in my hand, I’d have lost everything.

The wave caught up with me at least 50 feet back from the top of the sloping beach that just seconds earlier I’d believed was completely safe. By then it had lost significant momentum but still rose halfway up my calf (and just below the top of my very high boots). After retreating another 50 feet or so to dry ground, I turned and looked back toward the others and saw three people in the group down.

I planted my tripod and sloshed back through about 8 inches of water where there had been only dry sand just a few seconds ago. Fortunately, no one had been swept down onto the beach (and beyond) by the receding wave. By the time I reached them, those who were down were scrambling back to their feet. I looked around and saw that the others had managed to retreat far enough to remain upright, though all were some degree of wetter than they wanted to be.

After a few seconds to process what had just happened, pulled everyone from the beach and onto the bus. We stopped at Glacier Lagoon where there were bathrooms for people to change, but I think those who got wettest didn’t fully warm until we reached our hotel that afternoon. Once it was clear that we’d incurred no lasting personal harm, I took stock of the gear that suffered and learned that four cameras and lenses weren’t working. One of the camera/lens pairs returned to life later, but three were permanently demoted to paperweight status.

The images from this morning became an afterthought—I didn’t even think about them again until unloaded my card and saw that I had captured 10 frames before all hell broke loose. Many had too much motion in the ice, but it looks like I did manage to capture two or three worth processing—all variations on the same ice blocks with different wave action.

Born and raised in California, I’ve photographed and recreated at the beach more times than I can count. I’ve heard stories of “rogue” or “sneaker” waves, but this is the first time I’ve ever actually experienced one. Only after experiencing this wave do I realize that all those other large waves that surprised me were not the full extent of the potential risk, not even close.

Without getting too preachy (after all, you are reading advice from a guy who chases lightning), I just want to remind everyone to never take Nature for granted. Just because you feel safe, doesn’t mean you are safe. I tell my monsoon workshop students not to get too comfortable just because there’s been no lightning yet, that every lightning storm needs to strike first somewhere (and it could be here). And after this experience, I’ll certainly tell my ocean photographing students in Iceland and Hawaii that, no mater how many waves you’ve seen, the next wave could be several times bigger than anything you’ve seen so far. I know, because I’ve seen it.

Iceland Photo Workshops

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Surf’s Up

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Clicking the Lights Fantastic

Gary Hart Photography: Northern Lights, Kirkjufell, Iceland

Northern Lights, Kirkjufell, Iceland
Sony a7RIV
Sony 12-24 GM
10 seconds
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.


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.

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