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: Ice and Light I…

Iceland Day 5.5: Aurora at Black Church

It had been a successful and demanding first day of shooting. With the curtain lifted, we had taken full advantage, leaning into the wind and reaping rewards. Upon returning to the guesthouse, we did not have time to relax, as the Kp-index for the evening rekindled excitement. I downloaded and backed-up my day’s images and joined the growing table for dinner. All chatter focused on the wind and atmosphere created around our recent locations, but soon our talk shifted to aurora.

Icelandic photo tours and workshops promise* aurora. There is always an asterisk, only Nick and Thor deliver aurora (read-on).

The Kp-index is an index of global geomagnetic activity derived from measurements from ground-based magnetometers at high, northern and southern latitudes. Based on real-time measurements, the NOAA Space Weather Prediction Center provides a Kp-index forecast helpful in protecting sensitive technology. This is important stuff. But, even better for photographers, the Kp-index is also a predictor of aurora. Several of us had mobile apps loaded for alarm notifications of indices, say, greater than 4.0. The scale is 0.0 to 9.0. I’d need an index greater than 7.0 or 8.0 to have any chance of seeing aurora in Nevada (it happened once), but when it’s 4.0 in Iceland, you get ready for some night photography.

Nick, walking the hallway between after-dinner recons on the snow-buried porch, said to the be at the van at 9 PM. Then he said, “8:30”. Then, “8:00… Um, no, let’s just go now!”, a green glow leaking beyond a low, receding band of clouds in the northern sky above the guesthouse. With or without the predicted index, aurora activity remains elusive. The sky can light up at any moment and with the storms of the past few days, we knew the clouds could mask everything without any warning.

A few team-members had decided by dinnertime that the day had been plenty fun. The wind and blowing snow can drain motivation—the wind had yet to let up and we were headed back into the gale, and jet-lag may still been wearing on those that just arrived. Six of us climbed back into the van, ready for a long, cold night.

The Building at Búðakirkja.

We returned to Búðakirkja. The northern lights need a foreground, awesome colors dancing over a dark, featureless horizon is awesome, once or twice, but the images really work best when they accent a subject. Of course, I was still in the “once or twice” stage and hoping for awesomeness. I didn’t care if there was a church, a cathedral, or a unicorn in the foreground, I just wanted to experience the lights. I’d seen a white veil of aurora as a kid on a canoe trip in Minnesota and again as an enigmatic red blob over our house in Reno. I’d seen some nice waves of aurora on the plane, booking a port-side window with that hope in mind—so the precedent was set.

According to plan and hope, we were the only ones at the church (others soon arrived). We talked a little bit about ISO settings and cautions of exposure times that could be too long. You can blow out highlights and green blobs can overwhelm the interesting waves. We stepped back into the wind, oh, the wind, and then stumbled to get a composition. I only stumbled because I was dumbstruck by the shaft of green light leaping from the horizon. This is what I was here for.

My fingers seemed to freeze in minutes, I didn’t care, and we kept shooting for a couple hours. I could hear myself laughing at the images on the back of my camera. I could hear coincident laughter and cheers coming from those next to me and from beyond the little cemetery in the churchyard—or was it the subterranean residents commenting on their nightly view. Only Thor said, “I’ll give it 2 out of 10. Maybe it’ll be better tomorrow.” Sometimes I just watched, this was perfect.

The Archway at Búðakirkja.

The Last Pillars of Búðakirkja.

I can’t say I nailed the images. I barely have experience getting daylit landscape images to cooperate; this is completely different, but so much fun. Buffeted by the wind, Nick crouched with me for a while and we talked about learning from our previews and setting the camera to provide good feedback. There are a few keepers in my collection, and they’ll forever be memories of this first night. As I saw in the morning, the darkness of the black church adds weight and mood to the spectral sky. My first attempts with the multi-colored waves, pillars, and streaks building above the church and the distant mountain range was worth the entire trip. How can Thor say this is a 2 out of 10?  For me, this was 11. Spoiler, tomorrow I re-calibrate my scale.

Although the Kp-index remained promising, the aurora faded. And the long day was taking its toll, our group dimmed with the lights. Time to pack it in. We pondered not sharing our images with the portion of the group that hadn’t joined us, downplaying our gobsmacked adventure. But that wasn’t at all possible. The morning’s breakfast table was alight with the tales and contagious excitement of the previous evening. From now on, it was all in—none of us would make that mistake again.

 

Back to Day 5. Click here for Iceland Gallery. Up next: Moving to South Coast