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An Aurora Borealis Trip or Iceland in Extreme Light Conditions
Views: 291998.4.2013 00:07:38

Where: Iceland

When: end of March 2013

Aim: Aurora Borealis, aka Northern Lights, etc.

Equipment: Nikon D4, Nikon D800, Nikon 17-35/f2.8, Nikon 70-200/f2.8, Gitzo tripod, etc.

Participants: BN, Ondra Prosicky, Petr Pazour

"Fortune favours the brave." This saying is completely adequate for our (Bohdan, lucky Ondra, Petr) trip to Iceland to photograph in worsened light conditions.
What would you say to this: 8 a. m. Pilsen, the Czech Republic, then Frankfurt am Main, Germany around 12:30 a. m., before 5 p. m. picking up a car in Keflavík, Iceland and around midnight we are taking photos of Aurora Borealis in the east of Island near Grundarfjörður . That is how it should be, having a morning tea in Pilsen and photograph Aurora Borealis in the evening in Iceland, and I'd also have the tea there later... That is the fortune from the quotation.

And now for the preparation:
Places. I've been to Iceland once before and I have my ideas, but our ideas must comply with the time we set for this adventure (a week) and also with the ideas of individual participants. Finally our choice is several places in the west and south of Iceland.
Dates. We conform everything to sun activity forecasts (Petr) and combine those with weather forecasts (Ondra), especially about clouds. So we set two dates and after that only one: 23rd to 30th March 2013.
After that it leaves us only to book flying tickets, accommodation in Iceland's settlements of Grundarfjodur and Vík, car, and last minute order of Lee filters from Britain (Bohdan), and we are ready to go.

Aurora Borealis in moonlight. We shot more or less in the north or north-east direction. Suddenly the skies shone in west all of sudden with unusual intensity. To compare: there was full moon and cloudless sky... Aurora Borealis, Grundarfjodur, Iceland.

In shooting of the Northern Lights I'm not the most experienced - I've never done so. I saw them only once, in August 14 years ago, by coincidence in Iceland. And because the fortune favours the brave, my first photo shoot didn't work out so well. I'm not very satisfied. To be precise, I'm not satisfied with my performance. Whatever I could do wrong, I did... Sometimes it is probably better to watch and wonder, sometimes it is better to suppress emotions and shoot. Sometimes it is necessary to use longer times for photos, 10 or 15 seconds, and again sometimes it is good to shorten the exposition to one second or less. Or simply prepare oneself better.

I am content with the Aurora Borealis itself, though. Thoroughly. It came discreetly from the north-east, short time before half past eleven. It appeared, shyly at first, over the horizon, weak, more like a shred of mist than light, almost invisible by the bare eye. I wasn't even sure if it was the real thing. Petr, our expert on cosmic phenomena, didn't doubt at all: "Guys, there it is..." And we were shooting frantically. If you could call photos of 10 or 15 second exposition frantic, of course. Kirkufjell, impressive 460 metres high hill ascending from the bay waters in the background.

And the Aurora Borealis? After approximately 15 - 20 minutes it suddenly gains power and illuminates the sky in one continuous auroral belt from the east and over vertex to the west. We cannot hold back and according to our nature we express our admiration, amazement, even cries. We point it out to each other, beyond all understanding: "Look there...", "what a sight...", "beautiful...". The proficient in us nevertheless commands: don't stare idly and shoot. I shoot. The action in the sky suddenly quickens considerably, it grows lighter, the Aurora is in the east, in the north, in the west. I shoot. And I make mistakes. Partly out of excitement, partly out of inexperience. Petr and after him also Ondra call: "short times...". But I am blind and deaf. And I realize that too late: I'd be more clever next time. But there is no next time...

The Aurora weakened and we left Kirkjufell before 1 a. m. in search for another place. Petr, as I've already written, our specialist in sky phenomena, says there could be another one. We head to another fjord or bay. The Lights are not so intensive now, but still the place has an atmosphere of its own. We have grown used to the Lights a bit, so much that Ondra even says: "...guys, take a picture of me and Aurora...". In the end Ondra takes a picture of us .(Thanks, Ondra.) Some time past 2 a. m. we are back in the hostel.

The next day it is sunny, we round "our" peninsula, searching places for night photos, we shoot rocks on the coast and typically Icelandic little churches standing lonely in the landscape. At the end of a nice day I break (for luck) at least one of the Lee filters and I look forward to perfect night shooting of the Northern Lights. NOAA promised good sun activity...
In that evening we take photos of a little herd of killer whales that floated in the bay only some 100 metres from our dwelling. I find out with displeasure that Nikkor 70-200/2.8 + TC 2.0 doesn't go well together with Nikon D800. That is mildly speaking. Photos of killer whales skimming through the bay taken with this improvised equipment are "a bit soft"... something like photos which in the raising of communism I took from a want of possibilities with softening conversion lens created from a glass covered in spread glycerine. For nude photos it was an interesting touch... But the killer whale experience was nice. I haven't seen them before in the wilderness.

In the evening, Icelandic clouds fulfil their reputation and Norwegian meteorology service's forecast. The sky is overcast after the sunny day, and even though Petr and I take some photos at night (Ondra knows well when the time is to take some paracetamol), the Aurora only sometimes and just visibly shines through an opened cloud. Not even the moonlight can find a way through the clouds. We stop after an hour.

We continue in finding suitable locations. And we choose a frozen lake surrounded by hills. The cloud forecast seems quite agreeable. So we don't leave anything to chance that evening, except my forgetting to take another set of batteries for D800, and at 9 p. m. we are present by the lake. The clouds are only few degrees over the horizon, otherwise there is clear sky. An almost full moon shining in our backs. Freezing. The ice on the lake moans and groans, cracking menacingly from time to time, as if down there some ancient monster gone cold suddenly wanted to get out that moment, of course. The photo "The Czechs on the North Pole" (as in Jara Cimrman's, the Czech undervalued genius of all professions, play) is created there. Ondra and Petr are amusing themselves with half an hour or hour long expositions. We heatedly discuss the positive influence of cold on the noise of our photo chips.

Shortly before midnight, after three hour long wait the "Lights" appear. I shoot on two cameras, D4 and D800. I run about and do press-ups (I have the D4 on gorilla pod on the ground) on the frozen lake till 2 a. m. Another location, another Aurora, another, cooler atmosphere. Surely, the cameras and lenses are covered in thin ice layer, especially my D4 on the ground, and the lens manual focus of the cameras is almost locked. The battery in D800, however, lost only some 20% of power. A bonus to the Aurora Borealis is the comet PanSTARRS on the northern horizon.

And then the snow is falling. A lot. And we move to the south. And after driving to the coast sándur, the snow is nowhere to be seen. Along the way and according to the plan, we stop at waterfalls, a stop impossible not to make: Oxararfoss, Seljalandfoss, Skogafoss... Those are, however, photographically stereotype waterfall sceneries, finished off with completely metallic sky. Undoubtedly impressive waterfalls which I've already photographed many years ago, and after me (not so many before me, I'd say) uncounted millions of people. Waterfalls in a photo in which you can hardly think of anything original, so it is scarcely possible to get a Pullitzer for that...

After few hundreds of kilometres we are in south Iceland village of Vík. Local dramatic Atlantic coast with black volcanic sand and rocks protruding from the sea, hopefully in dark grim light is exactly the thing we want to take photos of besides the Aurora Borealis. Many years ago, during my last visit of Iceland, Hynek Adamek (currently National Geographic, the Czech Republic) told me that this coast is the place where most of Icelandic films end. Well, and if there accidentally was the Aurora, we would also... There wasn't (don't be afraid, my dear children). I think that would be a little too much even for jackpot hitting Ondra.

And the sky is again favourable. Instead of the usual 17% grey Icelandic blanket in the place of the sky, there are nice and almost dramatic clouds, absolutely in accordance with my intentions. There is the somehow simplified landscape which I like, landscape almost completely black and white. It is the same at Dyrholaey few kilometres away, with its famous lighthouse and the bridge arch shaped rock in the sea.

We continuously follow the cloud forecast, because we don't give up the hope to see the Lights even there. It is excellent for central and northern Iceland, but we are in the south and the clouds there are, unfortunately, numerous. So there, of course, will not be any visible Aurora. Nevertheless, like every day afternoon I prepare myself for the evening and night photography: I eat some beans with a bread toasted to the shape of coal, I wash it down with some tea, and coffee with a breakfast cookie, meanwhile I download the photos in the laptop and I set out for the night shift.

On the coast the light shows through the clouds, first golden yellow from the setting sun and then it turns to grey blue, and the wind, and the splendid waves, and the Atlantic hums. We photograph and enjoy the shooting and the atmosphere. It starts to rain and snow heavily, snowflakes in the shape and size of sheep cling to the lenses and destroy the shots completely. We give up, quite wet from all possible sides. What's more, Ondra uses the Atlantic waters to wash his shoes, because in the heat of the photographing he couldn't manage to jump away from the approaching wave, considerably higher than the previous ones, and then to amusement of others he has to tread the water. To be honest, only Petr and I are those laughing. A little. Because Ondra moved in a way like he wanted to have his legs above the water as long as possible. A good idea after all, only he couldn't stay in the air for such a long time (a possible cause could be his inadequate frequency of water-treading)... And I remembered the situation when Baron Munchausen pulled himself out of the swam, where he was stuck with his horse, by his own hair.

The last day. In the morning I eat the rest of the beans, omnipresent sausage, a coal and wash it down with tea and coffee with given breakfast cookie - we prepare to move from Vík to the lake Jokulsalron (correctly Jökulsárlón)193 kilometres away, into which the Vatnajokul (correctly Vatnajökull) glacier leads. We want to photograph the ice on the waters of the lake and also on the black sand of its banks. But if there is a clear sky, we want to stay the night because of the Lights and then head directly from the night photographing to the airport, some 500 kilometres away. The flight is at 7 a. m. The cloud forecast is... We'll see.

At Jokulsalron the sun is shining into the mist over the banks. The Atlantic is in tide. The waves are dashing on the coast and breaking up on bits of glacial blocks laying on the brown black sand. We shoot. Petr is excited and he doesn't regret that we didn't stop at a beautiful waterfall Svartifoss on our way there. I miss my mischievously broken Lee filter, though. I beg it of Petr. And I shoot, shoot, shoot. It needs long times. I pin my tripod in the sand, adjusting composition, focusing, putting the filter on (you can't see through it) and suddenly the first wave is flooding me. I think: that's for that I laughed at Ondra. I expose nevertheless. And then the same situation repeating itself over and over: pin the tripod in the sand, adjust composition, focus, put filter on, wave flooding. Several times. As tide rises, waves are bigger and longer. I start to have my waterproof boots slightly wet. At one moment, I see that one big wave is definitely going to flood me. I alertly jump on an ice block, in attempt of an escape. And the wave floods me with an appetite even there, shaking it so it is a wonder I don't fall off. The tripod with D800 and 17-35/2.8, including Petr's (!) filter flooded half way up. I hear the send carried by the wave rustling against the tripod's legs. I hear cheering - Ondra stopped photographing and he records my ice block fight. My feet squelch in my boots.

We move closer to the lake and wait for the sun set. The lake is still full of ice. We need to wait till summer for those beautifully blue icebergs dripping water.

During the sunset, even though there is no link between those two, I had a very strong transcendental experience. If only for that, it was worth it to return to the lake of Jökulsárlón!

The sky looks promising. We pour the water out of our boots (Ondra have bathed again), and wait for the Aurora Borealis.
There are clouds, but at 9:50 p. m. there is Aurora also. And ten minutes later the Aurora begins to gain on power from the east. It presents a spectacular show.

The lights of cars several kilometres away lighted the night landscape and it had suited me at the time, I was prepared. Only after seeing this photo at home I discovered that I was also prepared for a falling star... Aurora Borealis, Jokulsarlon, Iceland.

Little by little, the Lights move to the north. I run down the hill to the lake and I spent the rest of the time by shooting from the banks. Cosmic! Amazing! Splendid! Beautiful!

At 11:05 p. m. at the car park already I took my last Iceland photo. We have to go. We are hurrying through the Icelandic night. There's nobody to be seen. I drive, the guys sleep. I have time and space to myself. I have a feeling sometimes of watching myself from the height. I can see the Aurora from time to time even from the car.

Aurora Borealis. The Jokulsarlon lake, Iceland. A bonus, if there can be such thing, to the Northern Lights - approximately 50 million kilometres distant comet PanSTARRS. (See at two thirds from the left in the centre of the photo). It will come back, they

We were favoured by the fortune, and why not when we were brave. Or is it not so? Was it jackpot-hitting Ondra's doing that we saw the Northern Lights in Iceland on three days out of four? Have we slid on his luck? And after all, how much one must be brave to be favoured by fortune, to have a good chance? One man wrote that the chance doesn't exist, but you can't avoid it nonetheless.

Therefore next time I will be brave and prepared again, just in case... Or could it possibly have been the clover I took with me?

Bohdan Nemec, Iceland, 23rd to 30th March 2013, and Pilsen 13th and 14th April 2013

Comments on article 'An Aurora Borealis Trip or Iceland in Extreme Light Conditions'
Comment 1-5 / 5
15.1.2014 19:15:02
Petra V.
Přenádherný fotky a určitě super článek i pro ty, kteří by chtěli na Island vyrazit taky :) fakt super práce!
19.4.2013 09:37:11
Michal Mašík
Hezky napsané.
11.4.2013 15:32:02
Krasne krasne krasne, ma osobni favoritka je ta pata zespoda:-) a muzeme se tesit i na nejake pocteni? :-)
11.4.2013 21:19:27
Bohdan Němec
Slíbil jsem na FB trochu textu do týdne, a trochu jsem litoval, protože jsem si myslel, že to už po týdnu nikdo nebude číst. Takže už kvůli třeba ZVCCH to dopíšu...Nicméně jsem moc rád, že se někomu líbí můj uhel pohledu... Díky!
9.4.2013 20:11:33
Michal Mašík
Comment 1-5 / 5
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