Buying your winter-time plane ticket to Iceland is like sending up a little prayer to the northern lights. They might dance. They might not.
When I was first talking about my plans to go to Iceland, most people just said, Why? Isn't it crazy cold there? And then they'd shake off a little involuntary shiver. My standard reply was, Because aurora! Living in the Midwest, the aurora borealis rarely graces us with its presence. It peeks out in western Michigan, the U.P. and further north, on up into Canada but not so much here in Chicagoland. I had read about it, and I'd seen photographs, but never experienced it live.
On my trip, I learned that some aurora can't be seen with the naked eye but your camera sees it, and it shows up as yellow-y green streaks in your images. This sort of aurora isn't very bright, or colorful. It doesn't dance or sway, it's just a faint glow above the horizon. We saw this on one of our first nights and I thought well, if nothing else, I saw the lights.
It's ideal if you see the lights when you're staying near the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. The lagoon makes a spectacular foreground - and foreground can really make or break a photograph. Think about all the pretty pictures of sunsets you've seen... If it's just a sunset, it's pretty but you'll probably move on quickly. If it's a sunset with a horse, a field of blooming flowers and a mountain, the image goes from pretty to spectacular, and holds your attention a bit longer. That's what the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon does for aurora. Pools of green light drape over the icebergs and reflect off the water. It's unearthly. But yeah, it was pretty cloudy when we were at Jökulsárlón, so I've only seen this through other photographers' lenses. Photographing the lights at Jökulsárlón is still just a pipe dream of mine. Maybe next time.
We DID finally see the lights when we visited the Snaefellnes peninsula. This peninsula is a cold, barren place in the winter. Even the owner of the hostel where we stayed wasn't in town. She left us the keys and asked us to keep things nice (we did).
That night after dinner, we put on all of our toasty layers and hopped into the van, in pursuit of a good light show. Our guide was incredibly good at spotting aurora and pointed out those faint green streaks. I'd learned at that point that shooting in Iceland at night took some prep. Before getting out of the van, I tore open some chemical hand warmers and stuffed them in my gloves. I stashed an extra battery in my inner coat pocket to keep it warm. I put on my head lamp. I turned on my camera, attached the remote trigger, attached my Tokina 11-16 lens and made an educated guess at a few settings: ISO 2500, aperture 2.8, focus at infinity. I left the shutter speed variable. Dim aurora might need more than 60 seconds of exposure time. Bright lights might need 2 or 4. I was hoping for the latter. We got out of the van and almost blew away. The wind gusts were so strong, we could hardly stand up, much less keep our tripods and cameras still. Back into the van...
For me, this is where the story gets funny. I may have mentioned that there are almost no trees in Iceland. Really, there aren't. It's too harsh of a climate and the trees just can't survive. But on the Snaefellnes peninsula, there is a little tiny forest of pine trees, some sort of conservation effort. If there are any rules about aurora, especially if you'll only be in Iceland for a week or two, it's to take full advantage of the lights as soon as you see them. So we stopped again and used the trees as a wind break. It wasn't perfect. We just had scruffy snow as a foreground. And, of course, the trees. If you're still asking yourself why this is the funny part of the story, it's because my pictures of the aurora borealis use trees as a foreground. In the land of no trees, my aurora pictures are all of... trees. I ended up really liking the triangular silhouette of the forest and the way the aurora arched over it. It felt almost like a Yin/Yang symbol to me so I worked on that composition.
I was shooting in one direction, and adjusting my camera, and then I looked up, and up, and up. The aurora had grown, extending over our heads, so it was this massive pulsing arch-shaped path. I turned and shot from the other direction till the lights waned. That's when I shot this second, vertical composition, to show the lights stretching on up for what seemed like forever.
For those of you that know Iceland, you'll realize that Kirkjufell, the iconic Icelandic mountain shaped like a witch's hat, isn't far from where we were. We headed there next but the lights didn't reward us again, and after 2 of us were almost blown away, and our guide suffered a fall (and a broken lens), we called it a night.