I'm in Iceland this week, a place that has the most incredible moments erupting under the night sky. I remember the first time I saw the aurora, it was November 2014, my first ever trip to Iceland and I didn't have a clue about how to actually see them. I thought that you would just look outside and offt, there they are, just like the photos. We were staying in a remote cabin and had looked out the front over the river every night and it had been pretty clear but we couldn't see anything.
This is where we made a rookie error, we were looking south....and on nights of lower activity the aurora are always hanging out in the north of the sky. It wasn't until our penultimate night that there was a huge burst of activity. Everyone had gone to bed and I'd decided to stay up and polish off the bottle of wine I'd been drinking.
Suddenly the whole of the living area went green and I could see the aurora literally dancing around across the whole of the sky, moving so fast and I could see purple. I screamed 'AURORAAAA' to everyone as I ran up the corridor and banging on all the bedroom doors, throwing them open.
Then I ran back and grabbed my camera, already on the tripod, shoved my boots on and ran down the front of the property.
They were everywhere.
I was drunk on wine and euphoria at the immensity of the universe all at the same time and was so not in a position to be trying to steady my camera.
By the time everyone had gathered themselves from drifting off to sleep and come outside, I was nowhere to be seen, I was hysterical, everyone was like 'erm, I can hear her but I can't see her' between giggles and shrieks of disbelief.
I had ended up sort of side lunging into a bush as I tried to back away to take in the whole of the sky dancing. I took some photos but they weren't in focus, because in the wine fuelled excitement I'd forgotten to check the sharp focus them after grabbing the camera as I fell into the bush. I'd then splayed the tripod above me and I was kind of lying under it and it certainly wasn't stable. But I didn't care because, my oh my, this was a life changing moment.
I was so annoyed with myself the next morning, that the one chance I had to see the aurora and my drunkenness had trashed it. It was in that moment I knew I would be coming back to Iceland one day to try and capture a better set of aurora images, my dopamine seeking ADHD brain was utterly hooked on the thrill of the aurora chase. Not that I knew I had ADHD then, or how much of my life would be dedicated to spending time in Iceland.
I look back on these photos with such fondness now, because they are a moment in time, the start of a journey, one of my biggest joys in life, being immerse in nature, somewhere north, soaking in the pure majesty of the night sky. I also love them because you can see one of my friends wrapped up in their duvet with their head peeping out.
And so, I know that it's not always easy to capture the night sky in all it's magnificence, I've certainly learned the hard way. But if you want to capture the colours of nature's magic, here are 5 tips to make it happen:
- Don't drink and photo! I am actually alcohol free now, but after this trip, I would happily be the designated driver and decided not to drink because I wanted to be fresh and ready to either drive to clear skies or be ready to chase and get epic shots.
- Travel when there is a new moon. As you can see in the photos above, everything almost looks as if it is daylight, by contrast, the image below was shot when there was a new moon, so no bright light from the moon flooding the sky and dampening the intensity of the show!
- Book accommodation in more remote areas away from towns and villages. This way you will have hardly any light pollution around you and can wait for the aurora to visit you.
- Stay for as long as possible. I know it is tempting to book a 3 night whirlwind city break to Iceland for a first trip and while things like the Blue Lagoon, geyser and waterfalls are always there, the northern lights are much more elusive. If you can wait until you can afford to go for a week, you won't be disappointed and you can visit so many more cool areas in this length of stay.
- Self-drive. Because if your remote cabin is under cloud, you might be able to drive 30-90 minutes and get to clear skies. I've never been on a northern lights tour - I mean as you have read, my first experience was a roaring success - ha! But I have seen them, buses of 50 people pouring off, people with head torches, phone screen lights, camera buttons flashing, it has never appealed because I've been drawn to seek out more solitary places to see them. But on the flip side, they can be a great introduction to get your eye in on what you're looking for so that you can then head out on your own for subsequent nights.
I have written a deeply in depth guide about how to see and shoot the aurora which you can read here but there is a lot of information to take on board and there is certainly a lot of practice needed to perfect your night sky set up.
If you're chasing the northern lights soon, let me know how you get on and hit REPLY if you'd be interested in me creating a course to help you capture this magnificent nature performance, I'm considering it.
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