26 Nov 2015

Iceland Nov 2015 - Day 4: Jökulsárlón Again

My second full day at Jökulsárlón started pretty much as the first had - getting up at the crack of dawn and heading down to the beach to see what sunrise had to offer. The weather-forecast was similar to the previous day's - with a mix of sun and showers (which should mean good clouds), so I knew that getting up early was a good idea. In fact, as I headed out of the warm guesthouse into the pre-dawn light I noticed a spot of northern light in the clear skies.

I stood outside for a while, and took a series of shots, hoping to make some kind of star trail track or time-lapse, but it soon got lighter and didn't really work. After 45 minutes I drove on down to the beach. On arrival at the east beach I was a bit disappointed to see it already crowded with photographers, but that is just a usual morning in Jökulsárlón these days (and people like me have helped to make it popular, after all, so I shouldn't grumble).

There weren't that many icebergs on the beach, but certainly enough to make for some good pictures - they were scattered beautifully along the shore. I wandered further along the beach and got to work; it was a glorious morning - possibly even nicer than the previous day.

A small layer of cloud hugged the horizon, but above a wispy storm cloud was growing and began glowing pink. 

Eventually the sun broke above the clouds on the horizon. It was a little harsh, and the few salty spray spots on my outer filter reflected the sunlight, leading me to then concentrate on shots away from the sun.

Some of the icebergs glowed pink with the sunlight on them.

A storm cloud was moving eastwards across the horizon, so I knew that the sun wouldn't last forever, but in the meantime I decided to photograph the sun backlighting the spray and waves, ignoring the icebergs for once, climbing up on to the small sandy hill at the far end of the beach. The view was absolutely magical.

The anvil on the cloud grew, but the sun was still illuminating the diamonds of ice on the beach.

I walked back down to the beach - the glorious light wasn't ending any time soon, and I couldn't drag myself away. The sun was intense and creating wonderful shadow patterns in the black sand.

The cloud grew and grew and stretched out across the sky.

Even though it wasn't too cold, the slight wind was still a bit chilly and after just over three hours the cold had begun to be noticeable, so I headed back to the car and on to Hali for some recovery time. The cloud, like the previous day, had come over and the light was less interesting. I always feel as if I'm wasting good photography time if I'm indoors on a dry day during daylight in winter in Iceland, though, but I can't be out the whole time, and I have to remind myself that it's okay to have some time off!

After sorting through some photos, a couple of (large) cups of tea and some lunch I headed back to the beach. On the way I stopped to take a few shots of some wonderful golden hour light and reflections along the side of the road.

By the time I got to the beach it was almost sunset; this time I went to the west side of the river, which was almost devoid of icebergs. The sunset was spectacular enough, though, without the need for or distraction of any icebergs.

The sun eventually disappeared completely, the clouds above thinned out and just a small amount of pink glowed on the water receding on the beach. I managed to find a couple of lonesome bergs, sitting starkly on the blank sand, occasionally being pushed over by the surf. A few heavy clouds hung on the horizon.

A big display of northern lights was forecast (and in fact was apparently already going on), so I decided to head across to the lagoon and scope out a spot for later on (weather-permitting, of course). I drove a bit further west to a car-park about 1/2km from the one near the bridge. I walked up a small hill, over the moraine and down on to the beach. There were very few icebergs in the lagoon, but there were a couple of nice large ones, which were reflected in the water. I had a bit of a quandary - go to the car and get my gear (I'd gone down without the tripod) or head home first for something to eat and come back later. I decided to do the latter, which turned out to be a bit of a mistake. Sometimes I just make an error of judgment, especially easy to see with the benefit of hindsight....

I thought about the evening ahead and thought I'd have plenty of time ahead of me to capture any northern lights, once it was dark. I hurriedly made my usual pasta (too much) and sat and ate it in the kitchen of the guesthouse, talking to a couple of German women. Once I'd finished I thought I should do a recce outside to see if the lights were visible yet, before heading out back to the lagoon. I was quite surprised (and annoyed with myself) to see a huge green streak above me, winding its way across the sky, stretching from above the yellow house to the east across over the mountains to the west. I'm getting a little collection of photos of aurora over the yellow house, I'm pleased to say!

I grabbed my tripod from the car, took a couple of shots of the yellow house, ran to the kitchen window, knocking on it to let the others know that the lights were on, and then I ran along the track where the horses were to get away from the lights from the cabins and guesthouses. I only had my 24-70mm lens with me, but at least it got down to f/2.8 so I was able to take some shots without bumping the ISO too high. For once the auroral display was so bright that I could easily see it in all its wondrous greenness! No vague grey clouds for me tonight!

The waning moon hadn't yet risen, but I could have done with the extra light that it provided - as it was the hills were snowless and black, just silhouettes against the light display. It was challenging to focus, as apart from the lights above, the foreground was pitch-black.

I wanted to take a few vertical shots, to capture the length of some of the lines of light, but realised that I couldn't with the tripod head configured as it was. I just couldn't work out how to tilt it downwards, so couldn't control the composition in that format.

I took a few more shots before heading in to get the rest of my camera and warm-weather gear.

I did a quick Google on the type of pan-head I had, and discovered that if I turned the camera 90° clockwise (the mounting plate was square, so this was possible), then I could angle the camera downwards, even when vertically configured. This was definitely worth knowing!

I zoomed down to the lagoon, to the same spot as before, and rushed down the hillside to the beach, where an English couple and there grown-up child were chatting on the beach. Immediately they offered me a Jaffa Cake, which was much appreciated (and oh so English!). They soon moved on, after we cooed about how amazing the lights were, and how lucky we were that it wasn't windy or particularly cold. They were staying in Vík, so had a long drive home. The lagoon was mirror-like, as it had been earlier, reflecting the bergs and aurora. The aurora, unfortunately, weren't quite as picturesque as they had been back at Hali - I seem to have missed the best part at the lagoon.

They may not have been as pretty, or isolated as the streaks earlier, but they were everywhere! If only there had been a bit of snow-covering or moonlight to brighten up the foreground a bit.

After a while I got out my spare camera body and tripod and had two going, each taking slightly different shots - the 5Diii with the wide angle and the 60D with the f/2.8 24-70mm. It was just as well as I managed to get a couple of fortuitously timed shots of some vertical green and red lines with the 60D.

The light show continued, but wasn't as spectacular as earlier. The sky was getting muddled by endless distant aurora, but with no distinct lines or arcs. I could have stayed a lot longer, but the wind picked up a little destroying any decent reflections in the lagoon and I actually began to feel a little 'over' the aurora, which is totally ridiculous given how much I obsess about seeing them when I'm not seeing them! I was still annoyed with myself for not having been at the lagoon when it got dark (and even more so the following morning when I saw a fellow photographer's much-better shots from the lagoon just after dusk - grrrr!). I drove home to a couple of beers and review of the dozens of photos I'd taken, before setting the alarm for another early morning for my last sunrise at the beach. It hadn't been a bad little day's photography; Jökulsárlón and Hali still had me thoroughly enchanted.

15 Nov 2015

Iceland Nov 2015 - Day 3: Just Jökulsárlón

A whole day in my favourite place: Jökulsárlón. What more could a girl ask for?

And the day started well, with a trip to the beach, under almost clear skies, with little wind. It was still a long way before sunrise when I got there, but it gets pretty light about 45 minutes before, and often any clouds are illuminated red, pink or orange.

I was pleased to see that the sea had taken most of the larger icebergs off the beach, and now there were far fewer, although it was still pretty packed with the things. The tide was relatively high, but not all the way in, and some waves would come in further from time to time, washing over the icebergs nearest to the sea, creating the wonderful water trails that I'm so obsessed with. Occasionally the waves bring the water in right past the last iceberg, and sometimes the speed and depth of the water make it a bit dangerous, so I always try to have an "exit strategy" - ie. make sure I'm not blocked in by icebergs behind me, blocking my route should I need to suddenly scarper up the beach to safety.

I wandered up the beach, photographing icebergs alone, clusters of the things, trying to find some well-placed for water trails. Photographing icebergs can be quite challenging, and even on my fifth visit to this beach I still come up against these challenges: the icebergs move when the waves are strong enough creating blurred bergs; you never know where the wave is going to come; each wave that comes over the icebergs moves them, rearranging their positions - messing up your composition; I hate cutting off icebergs, or having stray icebergs jutting into the shot, so trying to get the whole of a group of icebergs, but nothing else, can be tricky.

One of the things I love about the icebergs it that I see so many animals in them - fish, whales, birds, faces - and I never know what I'm going to spot next. I've taken so many photographs of so many different icebergs on so many different occasions, but each one is unique.

It was a truly stunning morning. I watched the sky lighten but for the first few minutes after sunrise the sun was hidden behind a low layer of cloud on the horizon. As forecast, a few clouds began to come in, though, and the edges of these began to glow pinky-orange from the sun behind them.

For a while the sun appeared, squeezed below the low cloud and a fast-moving one above. That cloud moved on leaving the sun to shine on the ice in full glory.

Another cloud quickly moved in - in typical Icelandic style, and soon the sun was gone again. I found some collections of icebergs that gave extremely pleasing water trails, when the waves came in high enough. In spite of the brief lack of sun, the sky was on fire! The cloud was huge, and took some time to pass over.

Eventually the sun returned; another challenging condition on the beach, as if you take photographs into the sun any tiny drops of water on your lens will be magnified and strange light flares may streak across the shot. Shooting to the side, however, still worked, and I was able to capture some more beautiful trails down the beach. Although I love it when it's moody there, it was just magical with the sun illuminating the ice, sparkling like massive diamonds. In fact, it was one of my most spectacular shoots there.

Another anvil-shaped cloud swept across the horizon and the clouds became denser and denser. Eventually after a good few hours on the beach I tore myself away (which I always found very hard, but needed to do), and made a very quick visit to the lagoon, where some sun was shining on the ice and streaky clouds stretched across the sky.

I drove back to Hali. I cleaned my lenses and filters, charged my battery, and downloaded my photos to check to see that I wasn't making any dramatic errors (streaky filters, etc). The sky had become dull now the cloud was denser and seemed here to stay a while.

I hung out at Hali for a while until I noticed a burst of sun streaming through the window. It kicked me into action to get back out there. There was a huge rainbow as I left, which I just managed to capture against the moss-covered hills behind. I stopped along the road when I saw a small pond with a swan family - I was very pleased to see the whooper swans were around; in February there were only a few to be seen.

The sun was short-lived and the sky was covered in dense cloud by the time I reached the beach. The light was strange, and most of the icebergs had gone from the beach, with a few visible on a sandbank offshore and only a couple on the beach. The light diminished quickly, and more storm clouds came in, so I didn't linger too long.

I headed back home and cooked some supper. I checker the northern lights forecast and local weather forecasts manically and was excited that they both might be okay. The Kp index wasn't great (although was forecast to be the following night), but I've seen some of my most impressive lights at a Kp of less than 3 before. If it's clear, I'll go outside and at least take some star shots. I drove back to the lagoon at around 10pm and headed down to the lagoon beach near the western car-park. The waning moon was rising fast and soon was above the hill behind me, and was illuminating the icebergs in the lagoon. There were lots of stars visible and then I saw what looked like a tiny bit of streaky cloud moving, and realised that it was in fact the northern lights. I took a few long exposures and managed to capture a little green and pink in the sky, as well as the Milky Way. Soon the lights had increased a little and were visible to the naked eye - just. I took a few photos, but the lights weren't getting any better and clouds were streaking across in front of me. I drove home, cracked open a beer, reviewed my photos, and then called it a night, ready to get up early again, hoping for another nice sunrise.

Please click here for my blog from Day 2 - Vík to Jökulsárlón