Iceland Day 10: Out of the Storm

Iceland Day 10: Out of the Storm

Our outlandish luck finally abandoned us. After several days of weather that supported our photographic desires, day and night, the second storm of our trip descended on us with as much fury as the first. We had driven into its teeth returning to Hali from Vestrahorn yesterday afternoon. Hurricane winds carried heavy rain and lashed at Iceland’s southern coast. This storm was warmer, so the rain never changed to snow, but the wind kept us off the roads, vast segments of which were once again closed.

Late into last night, Thor searched for alternative locations and Nick huddled with several of us to check forecasts for any break in the clouds, but eventually a sense of relief settled over the group. Maybe it was about time for a break in the action. We had taken advantage of our great run, so when we decided to hunker down for the coming day, there was almost palpable relief. It was an opportunity to catch up on sleep, sort and clean our gear, share some processing ideas, and tell stories.

The Hali guesthouse has a central living room and this became a commons area between trips to the restaurant and museum. Nick processed a few images in real-time and guided us through his work flow and several alternatives. Soon little groups formed around laptops to share images and early processing results. The variety of compositions was impressive. Processing experience varied greatly, with some folks just getting traction, others being proficient in Lightroom, and still others rocking results out of Photoshop. I’d think I had something good, and then someone would let me look over their shoulder and I’d watch and learn as images sprang to life.

At seemingly random intervals in the evenings, a guesthouse staff person would open a small refrigerator and allow us access to the exorbitantly priced beer. Erno remarked that it was basically like paying ballpark prices while sitting in your living room. But, when in Iceland…  We were probably better off that there was limited supply. We’d have gone broke and our processing and story sessions would have gotten out of hand. Needless to say, it was a nice, long day of finally getting to know everyone.

Over the course of our conversations, while watching the forecast, we realized that a few of us had an extra day on the island after the workshop conclusion. A small group gathered and a plan developed. Nick wrangled up a rental van and we found an empty guesthouse near Grundarfjörður and Kirkjufell. The weather and aurora forecast looked promising, and the plan was set. The close of our adventure could be post-poned for one more day and night!

In the dark of the late afternoon, with the roads mostly open, Thor decided we could head west and make Dyrhólaey for dinner. That would set us up for some waterfall shots in the light of tomorrow. There was one 30-kilometer section of highway that had wind restrictions, but we all agreed it was worth the effort. Our cool sprinter van would be pushed along, but hopefully the down-mountain gusts wouldn’t be too bad. We were off into the blustery night.

The van was quiet, it seemed all could sense that the workshop was coming to a close. We were now heading toward Reykjavik and tomorrow would be the last day with the full group. Would the rain let up and clouds break for some good light? The drive wasn’t bad, a couple gusts buffeted the van, but we sliced through the squalls and climbed to the Dyrhólaey guesthouse, well-rested and ready for the falls.

No photos for Day 10 but here’s a few that didn’t make my Iceland “galleries” but bring back selected and very good memories…

Late in the night, after leaving the plane wreck location, we ventured to Skógafoss, hoping to capture another dancing sky above the falls. We hiked the short distance and started our wait. And wait. And wait. I remained optimistic while most of the crew returned to the warmth of the van. I have an aversion to headlamps while prepped for night photography and try not to use one if at all possible. The floodplain below the falls was basically pitch black with only the weakest glow of from the mist of the falls, is it reflecting starlight? I moved carefully toward the edge of the bouldery outwash in hopes of framing the falls under the aurora that was yet to come. I’d set up and was again waiting in the growing chill, thinking I was alone. A scrape of boot and the boulder next to me came to life with Nick’s voice. “I don’t think we are going to have much more luck.” It was like the talking boulder back at the writer’s museum at Hali. From the dark, he once again talked me through high ISO framing and bracketing and I captured several practice images; the aurora never returned. Even so, to have the place alone for an hour was relaxing and special. This image is from those few moments. It wasn’t until I downloaded the image that I noticed I’d been up against the trail boundary chain and never realized it would be prominent in my frame.

Watching the equestrians in the dawn at Vik made me think of home. Someday I hope Des can ride these black sand beaches.

While we often had specific locations in mind, with strategies and plans within the otherwise loose and adaptive itinerary of the workshop, Thor occasionally responded to calls from the back of the van or had an idea of his own for a quick stop. We’d veer into a pull-out or parking area and disperse for a few images. Somehow, whenever we did, two or three other cars would pull up next to the van and a load of copycat photographers would pile out. It never failed. If Thor stops, it must be good.  I shot these blue reflections at the icy edge of a partially frozen pond. We had a series of hilarious dance routines as I set up my tripod, and one after another, each team member walked to the edge of the pond and lost footing, with usually three or four whirly gymnastic moves before crashing to the snow. I avoided it for a few minutes, until I turned toward the van and took my turn getting intimate with the frozen landscape.  

Back to Day 9. Click here for Iceland Gallery. Up next: Workshops must end…

Iceland Day 9: Vestrahorn Gray

Iceland Day 9: Vestrahorn Gray

After the brilliance of Jökulsárlón, the morning seemed extra dark as clouds settled and the sky threatened rain. Our group gathered at the van; we had decided to get breakfast at the restaurant and begin the drive back to Vestrahorn. It isn’t a long drive from Hali to Vestrahorn, a couple hours at the most, but we would leave before sunrise in the hopes of catching some breaks in the clouds. I looked forward to seeing Vestrahorn in the daylight – it was certainly wonderful last night, and I could not wait to get back out there.

We drove to the end of the long road leading away from the Viking Cafe to position ourselves at the black sand dunes at the edge of the curving beach, the mountains rising on the northern skyline. There are so many options here. Vestrahorn rises above a curving coastline that connects the apron of the mountain-front to rocky outcrops that protrude into the ocean. On the leeward side of the outcrops, small dunes form grassy hummocks trailing from the rocks. Stalks of tall grass, dormant gold in winter, added to dune texture, but waved blurrily in the stiff, steady wind. A beach ridge of black sand protects a broad, shallow lagoon from the coastal breakers. The setting creates layered textures with interesting dune foreground, all ripples and golden grass, giving way to a middle-ground depth of the lagoon flats, before the mountain rises to the sky. Last night we stood on the frozen lagoon shooting at the mountainous aurora, this morning we built compositions varying from the crossbeds at the dunes to the shrouded mountain skyline, often with a leading and curving coastline in between. Vestrahorn offered plenty.

 

Gray of Vestrahorn as clouds settle in.

It was by far the most difficult day of photography I had while in Iceland. Clouds masked the sky, creating a seamless, unchanging backdrop to the abrupt mountains. Our group wandered in the coppice-piled and snow-covered dunes, trying our best to avoid getting too many footsteps in the virgin whiteness that contrasted with the black sand. A misplaced step created a definitive imprint glaring through the snow, a stark blemish that would dominate a composition more than any other well-composed leading line or foreground interest. We were mostly successful.

I could see Quinn and Randy coaxing details from the dunes, looking for rippled swales breaking toward the mountain backdrop. Ken headed to the rocky beachfront, undoubtedly breaking out his ND filters and creating moody long-exposures. Jeremy chased a red-coated “instagram-girl” onto the beach, as she ran along the beach in the arm-raised trope that the black beach requires. I don’t know what her personal photographer captured, but Jeremy’s images worked. He took advantage, also capturing some equestrians cantering in the black sand.

The Eastern Crag. This is one of my favorite photos from the trip, and I remember posting it to Instagram that day. It was difficult not to highlight this peak in every composition, and you’ll see it again and again below.

This small pair of outcrops peeks from behind Vestrahorn. I see a pair of cowled monks, treking one behind the other, into the clouds beyond the crags.

A cool light, long exposure of the eastern summit crag at Vestrahorn. This is the wide-view of the two images above.

We spent a few hours in the wind, hoping the clouds might break. In the approaching storm the break never came, but grey skies offered mountain scenes that called for black-and-white compositions highlighting crag and peak details. I kept a few aspects of color in a few images, and these become highlights rather than key elements of the composition. This is very different from the colorful landscapes I had been focused on until today.

Curving to the Crags. The black-and-white contrast works on a dark day. Although I tried to avoid the tracks in foreground dunes, these appealed to me for some reason. 

After fixating on the summits, I sought equal time for the saddles.

One more for the motion, letting color play the highlights.

At the Viking Café afterward, we huddled around coffee and some giant pieces of cake. We tried to plan our afternoon, knowing the coming storm might limit our options for the next few days. We shared tables with a few locals who seemed to be also planning around the forecast—Thor knew everyone, or so it seemed. Cindy found the local canine, snooping around the windows outside, a willing model for her images of the weather-beaten café.

A cloud-break hinting on the horizon encouraged a late afternoon excursion on the drive back toward the guesthouse at Hali. It wasn’t much, but maybe there would be some evening light at Fjallsárlón, a glacial lagoon we had scouted out previously. We gathered after lunch and traversed a bumpy two-track, the route of the old ring-road highway. Hiking along a steep-sided moraine overlooking the glacial lagoon, we could glimpse Fjallsjökul and search out some more intimate scenes along some clear drainages cutting through bouldery outwash and snow. The sky burned beyond scudding clouds and newly falling snow, the storm was here but several promising compositions presented themselves. Sadly, I didn’t pay attention to the moisture on my lens and my few attempts are hopelessly blurred. It was still a welcome excursion in the steadily increasing snow, another new experience in our last days of the Iceland journey.

Details in the older rocks in the coastal outcrops at Vestrahorn. 

The blue radiance of Fjallsjökul.

Heading back to Hali, we pulled into the Jökulsárlón parking area. Here, we finally met Eric and Mara, the awesome team who had noticed, in the dark, my misplaced battery/card bag. Rescuing the bag after we’d left the plane wreck, they kindly tracked down Thor—they’d chatted with him during our aurora experience—realizing their trip itinerary basically coincided with ours. Today, we met in the blue light of a parking lot where they passed along my bag and I could express my appreciation. Eric has a nice Iceland gallery, check it out; our trips did indeed overlap considerably—to my very good fortune. Thank you Eric! And thanks to Thor and our team for patiently waiting with me as Eric and Mara tracked us down.

Back to Day 8. Click here for Iceland Gallery. Up next: Stormed out…

Iceland Day 8: Jökulsárlón and Diamond Beach

Iceland Day 8: Jökulsárlón and Diamond Beach

It looked like we had a couple days of good weather ahead and we planned to take full advantage. Although I had no real reason to, given the late sunrise, I was still getting up early, brewing some coffee in the lobby, backing up my remaining SD card, and loading images into my traveling Lightroom catalog. I have a small, portable harddrive tied to my Surface tablet, and I am also keeping all the images on the SD card, at least until it’s full. If I keep this up, I’m not terribly concerned about losing the extra cards—they were empty.

Hali is one of a cluster of simple, nice guesthouses that sit as satellite buildings surrounding a a common dining hall, check-in, and museum; all within a working ranch above the coastline. Our building has a common area with a few amenities, coffee, tea, and plenty of nightly beer. It is here that we gather morning and evening to share processing tips, strategize for the coming days, and basically get to know each other. The group has bonded nicely, and it’s good to have a few nights in one place.

We drive up to breakfast and as we exit the van, Thor tells me a stranger left him a voicemail last night. He says that an American couple he talked with during our shoot at the Solheimasandur plane wreck had stumbled on my battery bag, remembered Thor Photography, and deduced that some silly person in Thor’s group must have left it behind. And, it turns out, they are basically paralleling our travel route and figure we can easily cross paths in the coming days. You might think this would call for the cliché of “only in Iceland”, but I’ve experienced random, yet purposeful, acts of kindness—often revolving around my losing bits of gear—from the islands of Fiji to the jungles of central Africa. People are good.

Cool light of early morning, and first shots at Diamond Beach.

Diamond Delivered. I’m reminded of Racetrack Playa in Death Valley National Park, US. 

Today we focused on Diamond Beach at the outlet of Jökulsárlón. The dawn was cloudy, cool blue and grey, but breaks in the clouds teased of goodness to come. We huddled at the van with Nick and Thor for some general tips for shooting on the beach; I think these guys knew the group would soon be scattered along the beach like children at an egg-hunt. The black beach with its lag of glacial chunks and shards is one of the icons of the South Coast. I had of course seen several videos and many images documenting the multi-faceted, crystalline remnants of wave-polished ice, in sizes from bergs to tumbler cubes. Yet, it is difficult to grasp the scale and simple beauty of the setting until you begin to wander among the diamonds. A fresh coat of snow added contrast and drama to the black shoreline and its scattered crystals. We readily and greedily dispersed.

The ebbing tide and a debouching stream pull glacial bergs from Jökulsárlón, and the slowly melting ice rolls into long-shore currents to be distributed by curling waves along the black beach. Gathering and focusing the ambient light, the little bergs of ice glow against the darkness of volcanic sand. As usual, arriving before dawn, we had the beach to ourselves; remember, in the Instagram era iconic is synonymous with crowded—we were ahead of (or behind) most of the crowd, yet again. We also had the good fortune of fantastic conditions. The fickleness of storms and currents can either pack the shore with ice, creating a mish-mash of shapes and clutter, or strip it bare, leaving a simple, curving and empty beachline. It was practically Goldilocks day, just right—actually, just perfect.

Traces and swirls as dawn arrives.

Although it is an iconic shooting location, it’s first and foremost a seascape with ice. This means, unlike many icons, it’s dynamic and every shot is different. However, there are basically three common compositions: 1) splashy waves surrounding and retreating around emerging bergs; 2) dramatic otherworldly crystals lit by the winter sun; and 3) intimate images of a lonely diamond on black sand. Or some slight variation on these. Several us dispersed far up the beach as the crowd grew near the easy walk-in spots. I shot in burst mode, capturing the interaction between various shapes of ice and incoming and outgoing waves. Even with intimate scenes of a single crystal, its interaction with a framing, foamy surf can make or break a potential keeper image. Getting up close, down low, and purposefully identifying the subject improve any of the three basic compositions significantly. Of course, these means getting familiar with the surf, occasionally getting into it, or even getting surprisingly soaked by it. We came prepared to get wet, and it was great fun.

The Wave Escape. In close with a small berg.

Classic Diamonds. Watching this unfold in-camera and in processing simply stunned me.

We took a break for lunch. Or we didn’t. Maybe. The conditions were so good we may have simply kept going. The day was so good I honestly can’t recall what we did, if it was something other than finding new compositions and taking advantage. I do know we eventually moved inland to the lagoon—basically across the highway, where we watched a practically endless, golden-hour sunset emerge from a cloudless sliver on the horizon. Um, Goldilocks had grown up and was now lording over us—it’s not just-right, it’s wonderland (or is that Alice?). Being daytime, it was the opposite of our aurora show, but I was as gobsmacked today as I was on any previous night.

Standing Above. The light continued into the afternoon, rising over Jökulsárlón.

Mist and Massif. The power of the glacier-covered mountain drew my attention from even the best-cut diamond.

All afternoon I’m overwhelmed with mountain scenes rising from Jökulsárlón—I could photograph mountains forever. But soon, I catch Nick motioning to those of us near him, he’s heading back to the beach as the sun settles into the ocean. We had spent the morning capturing the iconic compositions, getting practiced and occasionally successful at the three basics, but his instinct drove him to look for something different, something other than the popular shot. Generously, he shared a glimpse of that instinct and encouraged several of us, those of us within earshot and anyone he came across, to think about how the last light would interact with some of the snow-covered bergs higher on the beach. Maybe, by considering this, we’d get something unique to add to our successful morning. It is a common instructional tool, “look for something different”, but this was in real-time, with perfect conditions that where somehow improving, if only in the last breath of light.

Leaving Light. Finding fresh snow at day’s end amazed me.

Fire Within. Seeing and feeling the difference.

(See me in action at 5:22 and hear Nick explain the setting at 6:30 in Nick Page’s Photographing Iceland video)

Did I translate his wisdom successfully?  I think so. Is it truly unique? That’s unlikely. However, it’s definitely not the million-in-a-million images of the ice at Diamond Beach (as enjoyable and compelling as those are individually). Maybe it’s unique in a hundred-in-a-million sense. Regardless, it was about  knowing (or learning) to see something new, even if you’ve only been in the perfection of the icons and diamonds for a day. Thanks Nick.

Back to Day 7. Click here for Iceland Gallery. Up next: Vestrahorn Grey

Iceland Day 7: Vik to Vestrahorn

Iceland Day 7: Vik to Vestrahorn

It’s a drive day. Forecasts called for a good twenty-four hours or so before the next storm, so the plan was to position ourselves further east along the South Coast, setting a base to explore the region as conditions change. I was up early to pack.

I have a pretty simple system in two bags. One large duffle for personal gear —an ancient watertight Patagonia bag that’s been from Lake Baikal to Fiji to Central Africa—and my camera pack. I have a smaller pack that fits in the duffle for foul-weather outerwear and waders; I usually just stow it in the van so it’s at arms-reach when necessary. My camera bag is bit on the large side, but I’ve yet to wean myself from carrying two too many lenses, and here in Iceland I’m carrying an extra camera body, just in case. The pack is almost heavy, but it’s not too bad. I also have some filters and a bag of extra batteries for the cold…  Hold it… No, you’ve got to be kidding me…  Where is the battery bag?  The top pouch on my pack, where it typically rides, is wide-open—no bag, no batteries. That also means no back-up SD cards.

The bag and batteries are on the beach next to the plane at Soldheimasander. I can see it happening. I swapped batteries in the dark, proud of my no-headlamp maneuver, and dropped everything back in the appropriate pouch. Without the final zip—as always, so embarrassing. When, later, I grabbed the pack and flopped the top pouch in place, out dropped the battery bag. A black battery bag, in black of night, on a black beach.

I sit back on the hotel bed and consider my options. Go now, wake-up Thor to drive out in the dark before or during breakfast? He’d do it; he’s a nice guy. Maybe I will see if the group wants to go back to the plane for sunrise photos? Neither dramatic nor surreal, no way it lives up to anything like last night, just a broken plane on a barren beach some distance from actual light-catching surf. They’d do it, they’re nice people. Either option, however, puts undo burden on all of us, and we’ve a long drive planned for the day. I’ll just forget about it. I’ve still got two batteries and two SD cards plus a back-up drive. It’s my offering to the aurora, trolls, elves, and some lucky tourist who can use four Canon batteries and a few hundred gigs of storage. Spit.

At breakfast, I quietly mentioned my idiocy to Thor and a few teammates, mostly because it had now grown funny to me. But we also had a few other nights of aurora photography coming up (hopefully), therefore, lesson learned: everyone double-check your gear as we leave location. I could see Thor pondering the same recovery options I’d already dismissed, so I insisted we stick to the current plan and we loaded into the van. Actually, what was Thor pondering? He’s a Canon shooter. He’s got friends around here. He could always use more batteries. Too easy.

Sunrise panorama at Vik í Mýdar and the sea-stacks of Renisdrangar.

After the stormy drama of our first sunrise shoot, catching the calm sunrise at Vik í Mýdar was somewhat anticlimactic. The skies were crystal clear and the scene was beautiful, but I could not decide what to shoot. Overlook shots need some clouds to get some depth and interest. The volcanic outcrop above the village is striking and leads to the abrupt coastline and rocks stacks at Reynisdrangar. There’s a pretty church in the foreground, but after black church, this one isn’t compelling to me. I’m drawn to the rugged mountains rising to the east with long colluvial aprons, landslide scars, and summit crags. But now I miss the intensity of the scudding clouds and dramatic wind. Silly me.

In the cold, we watched a vanload of tourists (like us) set up their tripods on the grass (like us), frame identical compositions (like us), and capture images (like us). But they were still in their van (so not like us). Seems each one, before returning to their seats, set an interval timer, leaving their lonely cameras to continuously snap photos of the slightly changing light. It went on, I’d guess, after we’d packed up and hit the road. They may still be there.

Colluvial apron below the crags of Vik.

Remnant flows and tuffs at Vik.

For the second day in a row, we drove the ring-road through the extended golden hour. Glaciers crumbled from mountain ridges. Waterfalls debouched from every cliff. It almost didn’t matter, we were now aurora addicts, the Kp index wa good, and we wanted the Vestrahorn tonight.

The light faded as we arrived at the iconic Glacial Lagoon. This wasn’t our planned destination, but we made time for a recon, as we’d planned a full day in this area tomorrow. I’d seen many scenes—English is hard—from the lagoon but the scale was hard to take in. The glacier was far away and the jumble of icebergs and crystalline ice-shards in the tidal outlet of Jökulsárlón was chaotic. I’m glad we had this opportunity to scout the location even in the fading blue light of evening.

Blue ice of Jökulsárlón against the backdrop of Breiðamerkujökull.

 

Rippled blue.

We checked in at Hali Country guesthouse, near Glacial Lagoon, and fueled up for another night out. Beer, fish and lamb, coffee. We had developed a definitive pattern. The caffeine soon faded, however, and the next couple hours, once again in the van, passed quietly. Thor eventually left Highway 1 and steered us onto a dirt road where a small group of buildings, the Viking Café, soon appeared in the headlights. Providing the necessary fee, we passed through a simple gate, Nick following close behind. We were at the frozen tidal pool of Stokksnes, the prominence of Vestrahorn rising to the north.

Spires at Vestrahorn.

Hints of change in the clouds of Vestrahorn, a panorama at the fading aurora.

We gathered on an expanse of ice just as the glow greeted us yet again—this was three nights in a row. Not a record by any standard, but we were fretting and responding to storm warnings as our journey began a few short days ago. We could only dream of this good fortune on our first wind-driven night. The ice at our feet mirrored the distant sky, spreading the luminescence of the aurora rising above Vestrahorn. We critiqued the performance, better and worse, like the light-show connoisseurs we now were. The curtains and spires of light were subtler than the displays of previous nights, but, for me, the natural setting provided so much more. I stood heartily awed and peaceful, once again laughing aloud at the spectacle. This wasn’t a church, or a plane, it was the stage where aurora has danced forever, in the mountains where longitudes collide.

Back to Day 6. Click here for Iceland Gallery. Up next: The Iconic Beach…

Iceland Day 6: Moving to South Coast

Iceland Day 6: Moving to South Coast

We could not make Kirkjafell. The skies cleared but the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, probing proudly westward into the North Sea, could not escape the wind. Snow drifts remained and the gales kept high-profile vehicles from the mountain passes. We were on the peninsula’s southern edge and had hoped to cross over to Grundarfjörður on its north coast for some locations near the iconic wizard-hat peak of Kirkjafell. The group gathered after breakfast, still in the dark of the late morning, and agreed to the decision to drive for the South Coast region, back beyond Reykjavik. I could, however, sense some disappointment in missing the photographic icon. The workshop had only the most basic itinerary, a prerequisite when adapting to conditions of brief wintertime daylight and of chasing cloudless night skies when aurora is likely. So, given the storm pattern, even as it cleared, we had to move on. We wanted the iconic shots, of course. There may be a hundred-thousand photos of Kirkjafell (or any other iconic location), but almost every photographer wants their own. Our photography friends know the shots, and on-line image searches inundate our small screens, but put an original iconic keeper—if you are lucky enough to capture one—on your wall and no one knows there are thousands of the same scene (many probably better, too); for a moment the icon is yours. For now, we drive through almost perfect golden-hour light—the golden hour that lasts all day here. At first it was a bit frustrating, as back-lit storm clouds danced in the volcanic mountains. But we were committed to the goal of the South Coast, the good weather and aurora forecasts pulling us onward.

The islands of Vestmannaeyjar — I climbed the volcano Eldfell in 2005.

Volcanoes, glaciers, waterfalls, ponies—the beauty of the coastal ring-road unfolded before us. In the slowly setting sun, we crossed the vast braided river Markarfljót where the islands of Vestmannaeyjar loomed far offshore. This kindled the memories of a previous winter visit to the islands in 2005. An hour later, the sun and golden light barely changing, Thor finally turned us onto a set of gravelly switchbacks leading to the Dyrhólaey lighthouse. Relieved to have the drive behind us, the group eagerly dispersed along the volcanic rimrock with precarious drops to the sea, arches and seastacks among the waves below. It was a pleasure to walk along the paths and watch the sunset, but I think the long day’s drive had taken its toll. I composed a few images, but I wasn’t really feeling it. The day’s—that is, night’s—highlight came later.

A short day’s long sunset at Dyrhólaey.

We checked in at the Dyrhólaey guesthouse, met for dinner and brews, and prepped for a late night of aurora photography. We were headed to the Solheimasandur plane wreck on the black sand of glacial outwash, where the Hólsá River meets the sea. After an emergency landing in 1973, the U.S. Navy Douglas Dakota (Super DC-3) was stripped and abandoned. It’s a few kilometers from the roadside parking, sitting in a barren landscape at the end of a sandy path. It takes a while to walk to the plane and tourists often get lost in the dark or in bleak storms when guiding landmarks are absent. That is, unless you have a key to the gate—a key that Thor picked up from the landowner during a quick stop on our earlier drive. We turned into the two-track road, headlights absorbed by the dark sand and darker skies. It was a perfectly calm, clear evening, but I could see how navigating the black beach at night would be adventurous. Recent snow glistened in low spots and remnant drifts. An icy mist coated the banks of the Hólsá River. We forded the river, breaking through ice and crawling to the other side. Suddenly, out of the blackness, a stark fuselage seemingly jumped into our path. Thor swerved the headlights—I enjoyed his dramatic little maneuver—turning around to unobtrusively park the van. We were alone with the plane. In the moments before your eyes adjust, you walk in pitch black knowing a creepy hulk of an aircraft sits within arm’s reach. Although everyone limited their headlamp use to keep our night-vision, the occasional, random beam would highlight the scavenged, slumbering beast. This was going to be fun.

Prelight Checklist. Learning the possibilities with aurora building; winter milky way and evaporating clouds.

We gathered to talk about compositions and settings, Nick’s voice in the dark among the shadows of students. The plane at night only really worked as a foreground element, we weren’t here to simply document the dark historical wreck. I practiced setting the ISO super high and taking test exposures. Modern cameras soak up the dimmest light and though ultra-high-ISO images are noisy and granular, you get an idea of how the foreground elements work as a composition. Once that’s done, a low-ISO long exposure, say three or four minutes, lets the ambient light, maybe even some aurora, reveal the foreground with good clarity, but the sky isn’t very good, usually. Keeping your position and increasing ISO a bit allows one to capture a starry backdrop or aurora with a relatively quick exposure. A short duration limits star trails (unless that’s what you want) and keeps the dancing aurora from being a glutenous green blob (unless that’s what you want [um, no]). It takes some experimenting and practice, along with knowing your camera controls blindfolded. With a bit of exposure blending in photoshop, your memory and emotion of experiencing the night are revealed. A relatively typical astro-landscape photography workflow; typical but not easy. I struggle with the imaging and processing but, again, it’s just so much fun. And, damn, do I know the buttons on my camera now.

Approaching Symphony. A concert never forgotten at Solheimasandur wreckage.

So much for the technical stuff, how was the aurora? Set against the backdrop of stars and glow of some low clouds, our eyes now adjusted, it was pretty easy to draft compositions. We waited for the light, and I had little expectation that the seminal experience at the black church could be surpassed. I was so very wrong. Take away the blistering wind and cold of Snaefellsnes and add a coronal (“full overhead”), multi-colored display and you get an experience few of us will ever forget. It was—cliché alert—magical. Awesome by its original undiluted definition. Music in the sky, in-concert for an hour at least. I could not begin to capture it. From the laughter and ecstatic hoots around me, I knew that the others felt the same. Images are beautiful, and we got some keepers, but after a while I simply laid back and let the symphony sink in. I can still hear it.
Back to Day 5.5. Click here for Iceland Gallery. Up next: Vik to Vestrahorn