Photographing Northern Lights in Iceland

This past winter provided some excellent opportunity to get photographing northern lights in Iceland as we could have witnessed strong solar activity capable to produce fantastic performance of green dances up in the sky. We believed Landmannalaugar to be one of the best locations to shoot it. Deserted and wild, very remote and hard to visit. Actually the only way to get there, with a little bit of luck, is to hire a guide with a special truck and naval GPS as roads are invisible - covered by thick plates of snow and ice. We agreed with Stefan from Icelandic Mountain Guides to drive us there. One video is better than 1000 words, so check out below how beautifully it all looked like. And yes, many thanks to Dead Can Dance for their Frontier (Demo) that plays out there instead of our small talks, car sounds and winds.

So, it took few hours to get to the thermal water heated cabin on the edge of rhyolite hills that is so well known to anybody who travelled to Iceland in the summer. The winter mood has been different though. We met a group of 8 French guys on their skis only. Otherwise, all so empty and silent that if one does not need to eat everyday, it's just the ideal place to spend the rest of life in a perfect peace. Stefan could have brought lots of stuff in his huge truck and cooked the great dinner. Fresh fish and some typical Icelandic side dishes. Afterwards, we got out expecting some spectacular aurora borealis (northern lights) in the sky. Not much was really happening in the beginning and later. Also later than later, I could have seen just soft breaths of the sun in light greens jumping here and there, much less than what I would have expected in a deserted, totally dark place. Nevertheless, I took my Streamlight torch and waded through the deep snow couple of hundred meters so that I have (previously noted) little cottage in the foreground for my pre-visioned wide angle image of the sky full of northern lights. I had few attempts before the true dance of aurora blazes started that I do not dare to show off. But then, I only have been given one or two shots.

Capture: Northern Lights in Landmannalaugar, Camera: Hasselblad H1, Lens: 35mm, Digital Back: Phase One P30, ISO: 800, Exposure: 1'42'', Aperture: f/3.5, No Filters

The only one that really came out well was exposed for 1 minute 42 seconds at ISO 800 with my Phase One back. I know it's been little too long but if the northern lights are not strong enough, this is simply how long you need to expose to get something meaningful captured. No chance, for example, to use Fuji Velvia 50 that I long for for a long time. The chance to have a shaped aurora on my final photograph was less than slim. Just to compare, this image had been exposed for about 50 seconds while the aurora showed up significantly stronger and more 'shapy'. The problem with such long times of exposing is that you lose the form of green lights and stars are moved just too much. I personally do not like it - I love it either static as points or very long trails. The moon (not necessarily full though) would be of a great assistance here and we planned our timing accordingly but unluckily, it got hidden by clouds. So, to make the image more appealing, I thought of incorporating cottages into my composition. The sky came out quite interesting although missing a main aurora shape but colors and streaks of greens add the atmosphere. And finally, I used my extremely strong torch to make sure that I compose right as well as to illuminate the cottage in the front. I'm not talking about a headlamp...

Yes, right after this shot, the snow storm approached in its full strength and I tell you, it wasn't easy to crawl through the snow to get back to our warm and cosy sleeping place that can be seen in the background, with windows alight.