I recently returned from my trip to Iceland, which was spectacular. I stayed most of my time in South Iceland and one day near Gullfoss.
I was in this area once before, but it was part of an 11-day trip around Iceland. The visits to Vik and Gullfoss were too short. It was pouring rain in both places the entire visit, which meant there was not enough time to wait out the weather. In Iceland, one needs time to be able to wait for the inevitable weather change.
As a sidebar, the 11-day trip around Iceland was wonderful for seeing the highlights of each area—an introduction to Iceland. A large chunk of every day is driving, though. It is very difficult to really enjoy any one area, especially if it happens to intersect pouring rain for the day.
For this trip I wanted to spend some quality time at the black beaches at and near Vik, Seljalandsfoss, Skógafoss, and Fjadrárgljúfur (canyon, about 2 million years old). Since I didn’t have to worry about leaving for another town every morning, I could relax, take my time and photograph a scene and explore the area, as well. I was able to find a couple, off the beaten path spots.
Of course, for any trip to Iceland, one has to have very good rain gear for yourself and your camera equipment. Having the right gear enables you to focus on the scenery and not worry about being cold or wet. Having two camera bodies is also very useful; you don’t have to change your lenses in wet weather. The new camera rain jacket I used worked well for changing settings.
While South Iceland is quite beautiful it is also very popular for tourists; so part of the time is devoted to finding spots to shoot away from the throngs of tourists. For the photo below I walked over a mile to distance myself from the people admiring the beautiful basalt rock formations. The contrast between the beach, the rocks on the beach, the foam from the waves, the clouds, the sky and rock formations make this an exciting scene to shoot. You have to be careful of sleeper waves, as well, that can knock you down and sweep you into the sea.
In addition to the beautiful landscapes and scenery I was hoping to see the Aurora Borealis, since it was October. During my trip in 2016, one of our travel guides recommended October as the best month for the Northern Lights. There is usually not a lot of snow and there is plenty of darkness.
As I documented in my previous post, before I left I studied about the Aurora Borealis and how to hunt for them. The forecasted KP index during my stay was, luckily, very high. The first night was supposed to be a 6 (out of nine), which is very high…but the forecast (at 6pm) was for rain and 100% cloud cover all night. It was a good opportunity to catch up on sleep.
A sidebar on weather forecasts for Iceland: DO NOT COUNT ON ANY WEATHER FORECAST MORE THAN 24-36 HOURS IN ADVANCE. The weather forecasted for my trip was 99% rain every day with possible clearing at night ONE night. As you will see in this and future blogs on my trip, while it did rain every day, many hours included gorgeous partly-sunny skies, stormy skies, fast-moving clouds all wonderful material for a photographer/artist.
Back to Northern Lights hunting. The rest of the time I was in Iceland the KP index was either a 5 or a 4, great solar high solar activity if you are in Iceland. Of course, you can have very high KP index, but if the sky is not clear you will not see the northern lights. I used two very good aurora apps on my iPhone: Aurora Pro and Aurora Alerts. I also used a very good weather radar app—critical for determining where the skies are clear—Weather Pro. Also, I used the Iceland weather web site: www.en.vedur.is. Both aurora apps also include cloud-cover maps.
In all of the articles I read to prepare for the Northern Lights, they said the best time to see the Northern Lights was between 10pm and 2am. But, as we all know, rules are made to be broken sometimes. After being totally washed out on my first day, my second day was perfect. I began photographing at sunrise (a reasonable 7:45) and the weather for the rest of the day was beautiful. I returned to my hotel for a late dinner and retrieve my winter boots so I could be comfortable watching for the northern lights in the cold. However, as I walked to the hotel’s dining room to eat a late dinner at 8pm there they were! Fortunately, I had all my gear packed in my car and both of my cameras ready for the northern lights. One camera had a 16-35mm f/4 lens and the other had a 20mm f/1.8 lens. The former aperture was set to f/4 the latter’s at f/2.8. Both had a shutter speed of 4 seconds and the ISO was set higher for the f/4 at 2500. I ran back to my car and drove to the closest spot near the hotel with a decent foreground and began to shoot with the fear I would miss them.
I was lucky. I read that the aurora may appear grayish to my eye. These were bright green, alive and vibrating.
The collisions between the electrons of the solar particles and oxygen atoms and molecules was intense. They then began to dissipate or fade…only to come back into another shape. Once they fizzled out where I was—again this was just after 8pm, not 10pm, I just drove to my planned spot—Skógafoss, only a five minute drive from my hotel. I had no dinner that night; just trail mix and fruit. As I got out of my car in the parking lot they returned with a vengeance
I plopped my tripod down and aimed a little too high—I didn’t want to miss any of the sky. I almost missed the waterfall. My eye could not see the purple (from the nitrogen atoms and molecules), but the yellow-green was intense and vibrating. The colors, high in the sky simply looked grey, but they were moving. The combination of the bright stars and the electric light show was incredible. If I didn’t see them the rest of my trip I would have been content! However, three of the six nights I was fortunate to see and photograph them.
More to come.
All ready for my trip. While the weather is unpredictable, it looks like there will be a lot of rain. Rain is a very good thing for black and white photography, especially if it is windy, stormy, and/or partly clearing. I am not a fan of blue skies with no clouds.
When I was at Seljalandsfoss in May of 2014 I had to constantly wipe off my lens with a microfiber cloth while it rained, but I was able to take some nice images. I used Op/Tech's 18" Rainsleeve, which protected my camera and lens, but made it a little difficult to change my settings. (I use a wireless shutter, as well, all the time.)
For this visit, I will have a rain jacket that fits over the camera and lens and allows me to make any changes to my settings with no difficulty. In addition, I built a little "umbrella" that straps onto my lens over the camera/lens rain jacket so I can shoot in pouring rain or snow and limit the rain drops or snowflakes on my lens, as long as I am not shooting against the wind.
In addition to a lot of rain, the very good news is that the KP index (algorithm for the global geomagnetic activity index) forecast for the time I will be in Iceland is good. One can only hope that the winds are blowing at night long enough to open the cloud coverage so I can shoot images of the northern lights.
During my visit in June of 2016, I met some very nice people from Iceland. They recommended coming back to Iceland in October for seeing the Northern Lights. They gave two reasons: the weather is not too bad (there is usually not much snow at that time) and there is enough darkness. In order to increase the chance of darkness I chose 6 days to be around a new moon. The sun will rise around 7:30 and set around 18:00; so if the sun does not oblige the days of my visits with a lot of activity I can shoot both sunrises and sunsets.
Of course, there is a good chance I will see a lot of rain. When I was there in May of 2014 my friend and I saw rain 8 of the 10 days we were there. But the scenery is so spectacular...and the weather changes so fast, we were still able to capture some wonderful images. I love black and white and stormy weather can create a wide gamut of tones. Of course, having very good clothes to be comfortable is critical to focusing on one's art...and not how cold or wet it is.
The reading about auroras is very interesting; there are plenty of websites with succinct information. I learned about the solar cycle, which lasts approximately 11 years. (The cycle we are in now began around 2012.) It is measured by the amount of solar activity. The cycle we are currently in is regarded as a relatively weak cycle. The bottom line is the particles produced by solar activity pass through the Earth's magnetic poles (north and south) and mix with the atmosphere's particles. Collisions with oxygen particles emit yellows and greens; with nitrogen particles red, violet and sometimes blue. One has a higher probability of seeing an aurora the closer one is to one of the two poles in darkness.
In order to simplify our search for auroras there is a KP index (see www.aurora-service.eu ). On that site there is a map showing what the minimum index needs to be in order to have a chance to see an aurora in your area. According to their map southern Iceland requires an index of KP3 (the index goes from 0 to 9). The higher the KP index the further south an aurora can be seen (in the northern hemisphere). However, you can have an extremely high KP index (>KP5) on a night, but if there is cloud cover no aurora.
I have found two very good apps to help my hunt: Aurora Pro and Aurora Forecast. My preference is Aurora Pro. In a nutshell its forecast page is divided in two: "Forecasts" gives you the Viewing probability in percent; the Cloud Coverage; the next hour's realistic KP index and upcoming days KP index. "Solar Winds" gives you wind speeds (we want high speeds); wind density (we want more density); Solar wind Bz, is the measurement of the interplanetary magnetic field, which we want to be a negative number (see www.auroranotify.com ), which means the magnetic field is tilting south. The more it tilts south the higher the probability and higher KP index.
Just in case there is not enough solar activity or clear skies I am planning to spend a lot of time at two beautiful water falls, Seljalandsfoss and Skógafoss, the black beaches of Vik, Reynisfjara basalt rocks, Dyrhólaey, and Kirkjufjara beach. Weather permitting I may try to reach the canyon of Fjadrárgljúfur, Svartifoss waterfall in Skaftafell National Park.
Since I have been to Vik (and many of the sites around that area) before I can plan a lot of my shots. I highly recommend another app, PhotoPills, to help plan your shots. Its "Planner" section allows you to drop a pin in the spot you want to shoot and see the exact position of the sun during the day and the milky way at night. The month before I went back to Kirkjufell mountain in 2016 I would have dreams of the images I wanted to take, the placement of my tripod, and the different exposure times. More on specific preparation of my images for the upcoming trip to Vik in my next blog.
After the sun set more clouds began to move in. They were spread across most of the sky. I shot a long exposure that would hopefully capture streaking beams of light behind the mountain. I enjoy shooting for black and white, which leaves more to each individual's imagination. In the case above, the streaks of light underscore the majestic quality of Kirkjufell Mountain and waterfalls.
Next post...headed for the West Fjords.
There was lots of room for photographing. (Kirkjufell mountain is to the left of this view.) I arrived at 10:30 and soon made a new friend (who was from Germany). We chatted as we prepared for the sunset. About an hour later a number of people (about 30) from a photo club arrived. Several rushed to be where my new friend and I were. One person nearly slipped off of the edge (I helped him gain his footing) just so he can be near the spot we were at. Many people in this photo group seemed only interested in taking a picture. The experience of enjoying where you are is critical to composing an image. So it is not simply a "picture" snapped with your camera. The image can be a way to share your experience with others.
Next post on the lighting change, perfect for black and white...
2nd Trip to Iceland (including West Iceland and the West Fjords: 1st Night, 18-19 June 2016, Kirkjufell Mountain and Waterfalls
Two years ago I was here (Kirkjufell Mountain and waterfall) briefly and my friend and I only encountered thick clouds and rain. I vowed I would return. Before my trip back last month I planned for this shot. Thanks to PhotoPills I was able to calculate the exact position of the sun during the 1 am sunset, the position of the mountain and the waterfall. Golden hour(s) lasted from 22:30 to 3:30 and I was there for all but the last hour. I arrived about an hour before a photo club arrived with some 20-25 photographers. (More on that next post.) Luckily the weather cooperated. (While it is worth it to look at weather forecasts, you must prepare for the worst and best of weather conditions...it was the best!) It was perfect for my long exposure technique for clouds which enables the colors of the sunset reflecting off of the clouds to appear like paint splashed on a canvas (my camera's sensor).
Next post: more from my first night. In upcoming posts, I will cover my photography from my entire trip, most of which was in the gorgeous West Fjords.
My first post is inspired by a wonderful trip to Iceland. My friend and I did the 10-day tour around the island. We did not visit the northwest peninsula. The geology is truly exciting and very unique, any photographer's dream come true.
I invested in panoramic equipment for the trip and I am very pleased with the results. While there are endless single-frame shots, the scenery is so vast stitching 3-8 single and double row shots allows for a natural view of the gorgeous scenery. I enjoy taking panos of the New York City skyline, my preference is the likes of an Iceland, hands down.
It was useful taking shots with my iPhone in the car; and many came out quite nice. Frankly, there is zero comparison to the precision of a DSLR (or if you have a good mirrorless). While some photographer-bloggers are not to pleased with the development of phone-photographers, instagrammers, etc, I think this is a huge boon for photography.
At this time my preference is a DSLR full-frame sensor. It's low-light performance and dynamic range are still not matched by most mirrorless. However, from what I have recently seen some mirrorless are clearly making headway. Certainly the light weight is a huge plus. However, choice of lenses for mirrorless is still extremely depleted.
I welcome any comments on these discussions or about any photos on my website.