Where and when?
Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland in September 2018.
The background story
Now you can’t visit Iceland and not think about the northern lights but this was our first trip and I didn’t want it to revolve around chasing the lights. We didn’t want to go in winter, when chances are best, because it would put a lot of pressure on and we knew the disappoint would be huge if we didn’t witness a show.
But we didn't want to go in summer either when there is effectively zero chance.
So we opted for September as a compromise. With roughly equal 12 hours of daylight and night at this time of year, we had sufficiently long days to see the places we wanted and just about long enough nights to give us a shot of viewing the aurora.
This is one photograph in this series that required some serious preparation. Naturally I knew I’d need my tripod so that was straightforward enough. The next decision was a sufficiently wide and fast lens: wide enough to capture the vast sky and fast enough to obtain an exposure with as low an ISO as possible. So for this I picked my 24mm f/1.8.
The My Aurora Forecast app was invaluable in helping predict if / when the lights might appear and AccuWeather was essential for forecasting cloud cover and those chilly nighttime temperatures. We had been in Iceland for a few days when we arrived at Vatnajökull National Park and the signs were good. Not great, but good enough to warrant spending a few hours standing about in the cold night air!
How it came together
The forecast wasn’t a guarantee; we didn’t have the luxury of picking the perfect, idyllic location and waiting for it to appear. Instead we drove around the park, tracking the largely cloudless skies and eventually we spotted some faint movement. We pulled off the road, so not an ideal location, but when the show begins you can’t be too picky!
I framed the scene to include a silhouette of the mountains and as much of the sky as possible. I would have loved to have more sky but 24mm had to do. I set a base exposure of 20 seconds and after a little trial and error settled on 30 seconds as the best balance of movement and colour without over-exposing the greens or causing star trails.
Why is it a favourite?
I’m not sure there’s much I need to say here! I often talk about good fortune and luck being a key ingredient with landscape photography. This was our first visit to Iceland, on the cusp of the aurora season, and we just happened to be lucky enough to pick a year when the light show came surprisingly early – even surprising the locals.
When I look at this shot I think of it falling into the category of being technically sufficient but creatively lacking. I did enough to capture the colours and used the mountain to provide some sense of scale. But with more time and opportunities I would have composed differently and injected a bit more creativity.
Nevertheless that doesn’t make it any less of a favourite. It has been said countless times but witnessing the aurora is a genuinely moving experience. To have had the pleasure of seeing it on our first attempt (and again in Reykjavik at the end of our trip) was incredibly special. That I have a half-decent photo of the occasion will always make it a favourite.