Dave and I accomplished so much on our 5th day in Iceland, that I’ve had to break this post up into two parts! You can see part one here.
Photographing the Northern Lights
The hikes described in the previous post were both very satisfying, but we were definitely tired. It didn’t matter to me though, since that night was when I was hoping to catch the Northern Lights, the famed Aurora Borealis that I had scheduled this trip to photograph in March! Even before the trip I was trying to train myself not to get my heart set on seeing them. Every clear night, I reminded myself of this, but I was still disappointed not to see them. Admittedly I was also a little relieved since I had been getting so little sleep, but I would have stayed up if they were in the forecast.
It seemed like this was the night though! The skies were clear and they were predicted to appear. We were going to attempt another night in the van, so I made sure we were positioned well for popping out to photograph the Northern Lights.
We had found what seemed like a construction site right next to a bridge. It was empty of workers on that Saturday night though, so it made a pretty decent place to stay. In Iceland you are welcome to camp just about anywhere you please, as long as it isn’t on someone’s property. So we took advantage of the lax camping laws and set up for the night.
Right around 10:30, I headed outside to get some star shots as a second best alternative if I didn’t end up seeing the Northern Lights. I looked at my first shot and realized that I had captured the Aurora Borealis without even knowing they were there! My camera could see them, but I couldn’t! Then I started seeing them without my camera and I ran over to bang on the van window to tell Dave. He lamely looked out through the foggy window while I continued shooting and capturing the Aurora. Admittedly, it was -4 degrees C, which is about 25 degrees Fahrenheit, so I couldn’t blame him too much. I however, was prepared and determined!
I went back to shooting, capturing a good range of colors, which I guess is rare for the Aurora! They were subtle in the distance, not dancing across the sky above, but I was happy with the results and thrilled at my fortunate timing!
Eventually the lights faded and I was satisfied enough to go to bed, but I did wait a little longer to see if they would come back soon. I needed my sleep though, and I knew that sleeping in the van could still possibly irritate my cough even though it was better. So I climbed back in our Happy Camper, downed my medicine, and eventually fell to sleep with visions of colored lights dancing in my head.
Having only captured the Northern Lights once, I am by no means an expert, but I can tell you what I did. For capturing the Northern Lights in Iceland, I recommend using this site to get regularly updated forecasts specific to Iceland: http://en.vedur.is/weather/forecasts/aurora/ . Make sure you find a pretty location with something in the foreground, then be prepared to keep yourself warm for several hours while on the look out. Having the Happy Camper van was great, because I could just pop right outside or peak out the window.
I used the same strategy for photographing the Northern Lights as I do for shooting stars. Focus on infinity (try to get your focus before it’s dark, because infinity marks on lenses are not all that accurate!). Wide aperture (low number), high(ish) ISO, at about 30 seconds. Personally I don’t like pushing my ISO too high as it creates noise, even in high ISO capable cameras. This shot is at only 500 ISO, but I should have gone a bit longer.
There is some sort of math in figuring out the best length of time to expose for stars depending on what lens you use. I have no idea what that math is, but since I tend to shoot with wider lenses, I know that about 30 seconds works best for me. This shot was actually a little too long, but I wanted to show it as the most impressive display of lights that I captured. Hopefully the lights last a little longer for you than they did for me, so you have a chance to try different things. :)